A farmer aims to conquer the air

A still from “The Man Who Wanted to Fly.”

By Mike Houlihan

“Genius is eternal patience.” So said Michelangelo. He would know of course, lying on his back for ages painting for the pope. Mike’s back may have been crooked whilst doing it, but his perseverance gave us the Sistine Chapel.

Filmmaker Frank Shouldice put that into practice creating the sensational Irish film, “The Man Who Wanted to Fly,” our marquee feature documentary premiering in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 28, in our 5th Annual Irish American Movie Hooley at The Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Frank is a producer/director at RTÉ investigations unit. He and his pal, cinematographer Dave Perry, had been looking for a side project of their own, a documentary they could do at their own pace, finance it themselves, with no pressure, no deadlines, and no bosses.

Frank said, “We first worked together in current affairs with ‘Prime Time’ at RTÉ, spending a full week with the Collins family in Limerick who were under 24-hour police protection from criminal gangs. It was a strange and intense experience.”

They’d been kicking around ideas of creating a film together and it fell right into their lap, when an elderly man wearing a baseball cap knocked on Dave’s door one day in County Cavan.

That man was Bobby Coote. He’d seen Dave flying his one-man paramotor across the skies over Cavan and he wanted to know more.

Bobby Coote was “The Man Who Wanted to Fly.” In the rural town of Bailieborough, Bobby had become a bit of a joke with his dreams, and many folks thought of him as the “man who would never fly.” He was in his late 70s after all, and lived alone with his older brother Ernie. Two bachelor farmers, like oil and water, so independent of each other that they had two separate front doors.

Frank Shouldice and Dave Perry spent the next five and a half years filming the Coote brothers to make their film. Frank told me, “So we just started there, we wondered where is this going to go, where is it going to take us, and not to push it, because this was the beauty of it, there were only two of us working on it. When we started out we paid for it out of our own pockets and that gave us the freedom to let it unfurl at its own pace.”

Frank Shouldice.

“Love is patient, love is kind,” Saint Paul said, and this film recognizes the pursuit of dreams at any age as worthy and noble, as Bobby and Ernie are embraced by the community of Bailieborough, who have taken on the humor, spirit and challenges of the Coote brothers on their quixotic journey. “The Man Who Wanted to Fly” is the biggest box office success of any Irish documentary this year.

So for those who think audiences only care about youthful endeavors, think again. We’re all on the same clock, and the lucky ones play out every minute of the game. No matter the age, the human spirit is indomitable, overcoming emigration, loneliness, isolation, and even aging.

Frank said, “My dad is in his 80s and it gave me an appreciation for these two fellas. I feel for these people that are easily underestimated. And that’s a mistake. These fellas are not prepared to let obstacles get in their way. When they want to do something, they just do it.”

The film has made a huge impact with audiences through its story of the Coote brothers. “The reaction around Bailieborough and Cavan and further afield has been remarkable. There is a sense that this represents the people here, the community. It’s real, with all the humor, all the language, all the setbacks, people were able to identify with this in a really big way and taken it to heart.”

“The Man Who Wanted to Fly” is also very funny, watching the two brothers, one an optimist, the other a pessimist, each a little crazy in their own skin. You wind up loving them both.

You’re invited to Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a ride in the sky over County Cavan with Frank Shouldice in person and Bobby and Ernie Coote up on the big screen. Don’t just see the film, hang around to meet Frank afterwards, and hear all the stories that happened behind the scenes. Find out what painting this masterpiece was all about.