University of La Laguna, Spain
Meeting Room (2010)
Dir. James Davis and Brian Gray
On Wednesday 29th September 2010 at 7.45 a.m., 41 year-old Mayo-born Joe McNamara drove a cement truck into the gates of Dáil Eireann on Kildare Street, Dublin. The mixer was emblazoned with slogans including “Toxic Bank” and “Anglo”. McNamara’s anger was understandable in the context of a State facing a Budget forewarned to be the most severe in history. With the prospect of IMF intervention to manage a rising national debt preserving the broken banking system to insulate the decision makers from liability, people had already taken to the streets in mass protest on several occasions throughout the year, and would again in November and December. It would seem in this environment that Joe McNamara would have become a significant symbol of resistance. Solicitor Cahir O’Higgins, defended his client’s actions as ‘legitimate protest’, and there was initially widespread support, certainly interest, on social media. Souring the deal though, was McNamara’s profession. Regardless of his general or particular actions, about which no comment should hereby be inferred, it was always unlikely that the disaffected populus would adopt a property developer as a mascot.
Two Irish documentaries released in 2010 dealt with the subject of social protest. Both were historical in outlook, detailing with events in both the recent and distant past. While both are primarily thematic documentaries, each detail interactions between individuals, organised groups, the State, and the media that are illustrative of the paradigm of social protest, its place in Irish society, and the importance of its representation. Bill Nichols reminds us that the word ‘representation’ has multiple meanings in documentary film, one of which is synonymous with political representation –giving a voice to the subject, outlining its point of view. Of what value, then, mightMeeting Room (James Davis and Brian Gray, 2010) and The Pipe (Risteard ó Domhnaill, 2010) be in terms of presenting a paradigm (or indeed paragon) of political resistance at a time when the need for change seemed so urgent?
Meeting Room recounts the story of the grassroots organisation ‘Concerned Parents Against Drugs’, which, with the initial support of Fr. James Smyth SJ, successfully drove drug dealers from Dublin’s Hardwicke Street Flats in 1982. CPAD then grew into a movement, supported by community leaders and independent politicians including Tony Gregory. Mass meetings, street patrols, and even forced evictions followed, including confrontations with well known and high profile inner-city criminal figures. The organisation ran into difficulty when a skeptical media began to question the legitimacy of this community policing initiative and intimated that its real power came from the tacit threat of paramilitary enforcement. CPAD fought on, defying increasing political pressure to cease its activities and return the rule of law to the organs of the State, and eventually some of its leaders were imprisoned. The movement went into decline, and by the end of the 1980s it had fizzled out from a force of social change to a memory of proletarian resistance.
Davis and Gray’s film tells the story of the movement through interviews with participants in it, including Fr. Smyth, John “Whacker’ Humphries (whose outspoken manner and wild looks made him a minor celebrity at the time), and the late Tony Gregory. In its most extraordinary scene the film has journalist Brendan O’Brien examine his own interview with Fr. Smyth from RTE in 1982 in which O’Brien attempted to get Smyth to confirm paramilitary involvement behind the scenes of CPAD. Smyth’s silence at the time is matched by his direct assertions in the present that “they treated us as the aggressors and the pushers as the victims”, and O’Brien, reflecting on the context in which he had approached this thread of the story (violence in Northern Ireland), admits there was an element of bias. The sequence edits O’Brien and Smyth as they are now speaking about their experiences then, with images from the original interview viewed on a television monitor, effectively inter-cutting the antagonists and linking spaces across person, organisation, and time. The film thus creates a powerful sense of the process of history and the means by which it is constructed (complete with its biases), simultaneously thereby bringing the subject ‘alive’ as an illustration of the nature, process, and value of advocacy.
The Pipe considers more recent events in Rossport, Co. Mayo, where protests against the landfall route of the Corrib Gas Pipeline resulted in the imprisonment of five men in 2005. The film follows the particular stories of several individuals whose lives have been impacted by the pipeline plan, most particularly fisherman Pat O’Donnell, whose efforts to protect his crab pots on the seabed by blocking the route of an enormous ship bearing a vital piece of construction equipment provide the film with its most dramatic metaphor for its thematic concern with the struggle between ‘big oil’ and ‘small village’ (vaunted on the poster advertising). Community is again at stake in this story, which is also defined by a collision between national and local priorities and the perceived necessity to advocate against the mechanisms of the State. Government approval for Shell Oil’s operations was granted in the national interest of harvesting the natural gas resource, mandating their activities. The dispute is, in many ways, more about planning regulations than the overall ethos of capitalist exploitation, but the result is the polarising of the local community where local Gardaí are required to carry out their duties as representatives of the State by arresting friends and neighbours, and, as evinced in the film, applying physical force to remove them from their site of protest. The particular and the general are conflated in the image of Pat O’Donnell standing defiant as successive soft-spoken but determined Gardaí attempt to cajole him, then finally arrest him to clear the way for the monstrous invader looming like an alien mothership over his tiny fishing boat.
Writing in 1932, John Grierson observed:
This sense of social responsibility makes our realist documentary a troubled and difficult art, and particularly in a time like ours. The job of romantic documentary is easy in comparison: easy in the sense that the noble savage is already a figure of romance and the seasons of the year have already been articulated in poetry. Their essential virtues have been declared and can more easily be declared again, and no one will deny them. But realist documentary, with its streets and cities and slums and markets and exchanges and factories, has given itself the job of making poetry where no poet has gone before it, and where no ends, sufficient for the purposes of art, are easily observed. It requires not only taste but also inspiration, which is to say a very laborious deep-seeing, deep-sympathising creative effort indeed (1998: 88).
The choice Grierson presents us with here is interesting – between romanticism and realism with the imperative of social responsibility as its grounding determinant. Again and again it strikes me these days how the writings of the 1930s seem as urgent and apropos as contemporary debate when it comes to how ‘the times’ are described, and I suppose this is no mystery given how the paradigms of recession culture are articulated with reference to the Great Depression. But here, Grierson is calling for an engagement with both social reality and the raw material of lived modernity – streets, cities, slums, markets, exchanges – with the warning that such engagement is difficult. His particular focus is actually Berlin: Symphony of a City (Ruttman, 1927), which he finds lacking in its recourse to poetry and romanticism, something he also accuses Robert Flaherty of in the same piece. Grierson is arguing that the temptation to step over the line into romantic evocation and emotion can cloud the issue and dull the force of your argument in terms of its social relevance, something, I think, that can be said of the differences betweenMeeting Room and The Pipe.
The Pipe begins with an extraordinarily beautiful sweeping image of the West Coast of Ireland that could be repurposed for any tourist documentary. The opening montage continues by juxtaposing the sweeping vista of the coast with scenes of violence as protestors are pushed back by uniformed Gardaí, then images of Pat O’Donnell on his boat discussing the heritage of his trade for his family and his community. In these few moments the film has pinned its colours to the mast as an avowedly and explicitly one-sided account of the repression of (beautiful, rugged, embedded, rural, indigenous) local culture at the behest of an unrepresented (unknowable, unspeaking) other. This documentary of social protest begins with a queasily familiar reassertion of rather clichéd paradigms of the noble savage in the wild west standing firm in the face of progress, and this happens not at the level of the reality portrayed (which must inevitably be more layered and banal as all reality ultimately is), but of the image (and sequence of images) that portray it, which are mythic, heroic, and romantic. The film thus sets its terms of engagement in terms of an ennobling (but arguably reductive) romantic story space in which the viewer is invited to empathise with the individuals, but perhaps not so much to engage with the material conditions of their struggle, which are remote, and hereby encoded as part of a familiar Irish cinematic past.
Meeting Room begins with microfiche: a scene of unknown hands accessing rolls of recorded data from an explicitly distant past archived and now accessed to be revisited. This gives way to television footage from the 1980s recounting elements of the story, reported as they were with all of the attendant difficulties around the media representation of CPAD at the time. This locates the methodological processes of the film in the dull and dusty raw material of the historical archive. But its most important image follows: of the ‘meeting room’ of the title being set up with some twenty-five chairs of varying colours. These chairs will be occupied as the film progresses by the people whose stories are being told. They enter the room, sit, and speak to the camera. The room is never filled with them, and yet by the use of this image this film also encodes for us the form it takes as a documentary. This documentary is itself the ‘meeting room’ – the representative space within which a story is being told. The events it describes are of the past, but those who participated can still speak for themselves, and as with the Smyth/O’Brien sequence, brought into direct collision in ways that elucidate the function of institutions and the context of Governance that shapes the means and levels at which grassroots social protest can operate. It also demonstrates the role documentary film plays in enabling engagement. The film invites us to consider that the space within which action can occur is a meeting room, a community venue, a public sphere, and that documentary can, in its own limited but not insignificant way, contribute to the furtherance of social memory that can feed public culture.
Both of these films are undoubtedly socially engaged. Both attempt to recount a collision between the forces of authority and the needs of the people over whom authority is wielded, supposedly in their interests. In the context of 2010, there is real significance in any film that articulates the means by which social protest can be carried out. In both films, the democratic experiment is a failure in terms of broad-based social change. CPAD dissolved, the claims of vigilantism and paramilitarism upheld by the media and the judiciary in ways that disabled the possibilities for grassroots political change. The Corrib gas pipeline was rerouted, but will still be built, and each act of civil protest results in defiance and heroic failure that merely delays what is clearly inevitable. Yet viewingMeeting Room leaves the viewer with a powerful sense of the intricacy of interconnection between the forces in play, and of the particular and grounded realities of the participants’ lives. Viewing The Pipe is emotional, certainly, and creates a sense of empathy for what appears a virtually mythic battle for respect and dignity that centres on the stoic fisherman facing real extinction. But ironically its model of advocacy fails because it is, in fact, the dedramatized action of filing a legal protest against the use of the common peat bog by Monica Muller that actually results in real delay and change in the Shell strategic plan. As cinematic vehicles for the representation of social change, theses films represent two radically different strategies that can, if we choose, be understood in terms of Grierson’s criticisms as being at odds with the needs of social documentary.
In noting the differences between these two films in this way, I am not making evaluative conclusions as to their importance. Any document of protest is valuable in the age of social media, as the increasing significance of mobile phone uploads and guerilla documentary demonstrates. But it is important to bear in mind that documentary represents a mode of thought about the nature of our reality, and it is important that films representing the possibilities for change enable the viewer not merely to romanticise social protest, but enable our participation in it by elucidating its process.
Grierson, John. 1998. “First Principles of Documentary” in Ian Aitken (ed.) The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 81-93.
Nichols, Bill. 1992. Representing Reality, Boomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.