The year 2005 was a significant one for Irish documentary, marking the release of one of the most important non-fiction films ever seen on the island. Unfortunately, it was actually made in 1968. The re-release of Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublinmarked the climax of years of struggle for this disgracefully neglected film. Made in a whirlwind of camera stylo with the help of American financier Victor Herbert and acclaimed nouvelle vague cameraman Raoul Coutard, Lennon’s avowedly personal, angry assault on the stagnation of the Irish nation under the twin yokes of Church and State was both condemned and repressed on its original release.
Shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968 but only reluctantly screened at the Cork Film Festival the same year, the film received only limited distribution in Ireland until 2005. Its strident posing of the disturbing question “What do you do with your revolution once you have it?” found favour with the French in May 1968, and had the film hailed “one of the three or four most beautiful documents the cinema has given us” in Cahiers du Cinema. It was also held a revolutionary masterpiece by the striking students behind the barricades of Paris. This only further fuelled suspicion at home and the film was branded communist propaganda.
The theatrical and later DVD release of Rocky Road to Dublin in 2005 met with considerably more favourable press in an Ireland now freed of the psychic grip of the Church in the wake of scandals including that involving Fr. Michael Cleary, a Catholic Priest who appeared in Lennon’s film extolling the virtues of celibacy when, in fact, he was in a sexual relationship with his housekeeper, who later bore him a son. The film received strong notices both in Ireland and the UK and brought its maker belated, but great satisfaction that his work was finally being seen by the wide audience it had always deserved.
However, no documentary film made in Ireland in 2005 could come close to matching the sense of excitement of Rocky Road to Dublin. Of the feature documentaries produced in the year, probably the most high profile were Haughey and The Asylum, both shown over four weeks. Haughey, made by the independent Mint Productions, was a chronicle of the life and career of one of the country’s most controversial political figures, former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey. Though a major political force throughout much of his career, including the early days of Irish television when his desire to control his representation led to a clash between the national broadcaster, RTÉ, and the government led by his father-in-law Séan Lemass, Haughey went down in flames in the 1990s with a series of scandalous revelations surrounding the misuse of State resources. Though the immediate storm had long passed by 2005, the series promised an important insight into a figure whose life exemplified many of the darkest aspects of twentieth century Irish politics. In the event, though it drew the highest ever viewing figures for a documentary on Irish television, the series did little more than present a basic historical overview, never quite probing the dark heart of the subject or of the nation itself.
The Asylum, meanwhile, was a sensitive portrait of St. Ita’s Hospital in Portane, Co. Dublin, a mental health care institution whose imposing Victorian setting traditionally evokes cultural memories of bedlam asylums. Director Alan Gilsenan, one of the most prolific of Irish documentarists, successfully debunked this mythic image, while also drawing attention to the real issues in mental health in contemporary Ireland raised by the fact that the institution is slated for closure. Each episode tackled a different dimension of the operations of St. Ita’s, including the subject of off-site residential treatment for recovering patients, literally moving outside the walls of the institution to ask bigger questions. Though no Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967), The Asylum at least demonstrated a documentarist’s eye for subject.
Ironically, the most provocative non-fictions to emerge from Ireland in the past few years have been personality-based television series, including The Des Bishop Work Experience (2004) which followed an American stand-up comedian taking employment in various low-end jobs in Ireland including fast food and supermarket services. In 2005, journalist and financial advisor Eddie Hobbs’ four-part Rip Off Republic caused a major political panic. The programme, in which Hobbs presented his personal and professional opinions on examples of inequities in the Irish economy, proved enormously popular with television audiences and sparked debate throughout the country. Political figures were quick to respond, which amused the public even more, as the frenzy of accusation and refutation amounted to a trial by media of the government’s economic strategies. The less remarkable personality-based series Karl Spain Wants a Woman provided some surprise in that its risible premise, a stand-up comic goes dating, turned out to provide an observational forum for a display of real emotional need.
The Irish language series Scannal also provided some surprise by nakedly focusing exclusively on scandalous material, including an interview with the infamous son of former Bishop Dr. Eamon Casey, whose downfall on this matter was the beginning of the end of the moral authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland. In other arenas of investigation, literary profiles were popular as ever, with John McGahern: A Private World picking up plaudits for best English-language documentary at the Irish Film and Television Awards and Patrick Kavanagh: No Man’s Fool earning a similar nod at the Boston Irish Film Festival.
The most interesting new non-fictions came from young filmmaker Ken Wardop, whose sensitive and moving short filmUndressing My Mother was selected for a Critic’s Week screening at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and continued to pick up awards in Japan and the USA throughout the year. Seen along with his marvellous Useless Dog, which also received international attention at the Oberhausen Film Festival in 2005, Wardop’s work looks like the beginnings of a serious film-making career that we can only hope will continue to include documentaries.