University College Dublin, Ireland
Waveriders (Joel Conroy, 2008)
Saviours (Liam Nolan and Ross Whitaker, 2007)
“GAA on DVD”.
The documentary Ireland — Isle of Sport (1959/60) begins with a self-consciously iconic image of a Catholic priest, bedecked in collar and cloth, cheerfully throwing a sliotar [leather ball] through the air to a young boy poised and waiting with his camán [hurling stick]. The freeze frame of wholesome sportsmanlike ecstasy which gives way to the title card is a prelude to a film promoting Ireland as an ideal site for organisers of internationally-sponsored sporting events. Ireland, it tells us, is the cradle of a heroic tradition of sporting endeavour grounded in fairness and morality, but also forward-looking and open for business. It is difficult to view this scene now without a mental image of Dermot Morgan as Father Ted using false arms to conceal the remote control he has hidden under his jacket with which he is directing the electric wheelchair in which the comatose Fr. Jack is playing a blinder in the All Priests Over 75s Five a Side football match. Ireland has changed. Irish sport has changed. Irish attitudes towards Irish sport have changed.
Several recent non-fiction releases have thrown up some new perspectives on Irish sport and sporting endeavour. Joel Conroy’s surprise hit Waveriders (2008) not only documents the unlikely image of big wave surfing in Ireland, but like The Irish Empire (1999) before it, makes a claim for a global Diasporic legacy of Irish surfing stretching back to the foundations of the sport. Meanwhile Liam Nolan and Ross Whitaker’sSaviours (2007) was, in itself, a remarkable document of the face of multicultural, multi-ethnic Ireland as seen through the boxing scene, and took on unexpected poignancy in the wake of the death of Darren Sutherland in 2009. Sutherland’s struggles with self-confidence were one of the film’s key narrative threads, and knowledge of his difficulties then took on new meaning with the tragic end of his real-life story. Finally, the catalogue of “GAA on DVD” documentary collages by Sideline Productions reached over 100 in 2009 with the release of a number shockingly bare-bones DVDs of classic football and hurling matches from the 1960s and 70s that raise interesting questions about the value of the sporting past, how we choose to present it, and how we experience or re-experience it as consumers of images.
Arguably the most culturally non-specific of the three is Waveriders, which in spite of a soundtrack prominently featuring tracks by U2, The Undertones, and Rory Gallagher, and a plethora of footage shot off the coast of Donegal, works hardest at being international in outlook. The most appealing element of the film is the collision between imagistic and cultural traditions of the two ‘Wests’ — cold and rocky Ireland and warm and rockin’ California. The film traces the story of surfing itself, highlighting the historical contribution of Derry-born pioneer George Freeth, whose championing of the sport he discovered virtually dormant in Hawaii is part of the lore of American surfing. Less so legendary is his Irish connection, and the film redeems this by inference in the manner of so many Diasporic histories. Freeth wasn’t surfing at Bundoran with Jack London, but if the beginnings of the sport lie with an Irishman, isn’t Irish surfing not so much a matter of a quaint and quixotic oddity as a key part of its culture? Certainly some of the interviews bear this out, tracing how the relative waning of the sport in the US as the Irish scene exploded makes Ireland an exciting place to surf rather than just another stop on the tour. The film also boasts interviews with international professionals including Kelly Slater (who, rather diplomatically, remarks “I’m not too fond of the cold”), and the surf clan Chris, Keith, and Dan Malloy, whose Irish roots are shown to form part of their sense of adventure and tradition (they too find it a little cold in the Old Country, though).
Waveriders features some good, if generic, images of surfing. The imagistic incongruity of the green fields and stone castles that form the backdrop, and the late introduction of the tale a ‘new wave’ (an actual wave generated by the movement of tides around certain rocky outcrops) that is linked to Celtic mythology does not ultimately amount to a great deal of significance, and the plethora of Irish voices heard speaking of how the sport brings people together and creates a sense of unity does not, in itself, amount to anything grander by way of a cultural statement than simply the fact that this phenomenon exists and is legitimate. As a sports film it lacks the intimacy and focus of the likes of Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) in terms of the immersion in culture and a sense of the contours of the sport defined by its history and the evolution of its tradition. It also lacks the narrative excitement of a competition-based sports documentary like Hoop Dreams (1994) or Murderball (2005). This is not to say the film isn’t worthwhile or interesting, but there is a sense that the pitch of a film about surfing in Ireland and the legacy of Irish surfers is ultimately more exciting than the product, as least insofar as it contributes something fresh to both Irish documentary and Irish sport.
By contrast, Saviours deals in a familiar register in sporting and documentary terms, but is a film of some distinction in its execution. There have been several films involving Irish or ethnic Irish boxers over time, not least of all the theatrically-released Southpaw (1999) profiling amateur boxer Francie Barrett. Saviours is more representative of what documentary writer Michael Rabiger terms the ‘walled city’ film in serving as a kind of microcosm of the wider society, not by some kind of tedious metaphoric overstatement, but because the subject offers it. Shot over an extended period at St. Saviours Olympic Boxing Academy in Dublin’s North inner city, the film charts the sporting highs and lows of promising fighters Dean Murphy, Abdul Hussain, and Darren Sutherland. Even the national and ethnic blend is fascinating (and incidental). Murphy is a classic inner city lad from Dominick Street fitting a classic profile of a hard working youth literally fighting his way towards a brighter future. Sutherland also fits the profile to a degree, but his West Indian roots and racial mixedness posits a combination of the new and the old again without need to exaggerate or make grand claims for significance. Hussain’s is an even more interesting case as far as profiling contemporary Ireland is concerned. A Ghanean asylum-seeker, Hussain’s struggle to remain in Ireland provide the film with its most powerful documentary moment. In the course of the film Abdul receives notification from the State regarding his status, and in an exquisitely painful scene, he initially leaps for joy believing it to be positive, only to realise upon re-reading that his application has been denied. Nolan and Whitaker shoot the scene with the impassive patience of nature photographers. Clearly involved with their subject and shooting hand-held, there is an intimacy to the scene that comes from Hussain’s clear connection with the crew. Yet his moment of triumph turned to anguish is observed by the same camera, and as he turns to the crew, re-reading,realising, the film needs to make no formal statement to present a powerful sense of the conflicts that define contemporary nationality (and ethnicity) in Ireland.
On the whole the film achieves that intimacy and focus associated with sports documentaries whose sense of the sport is strongly developed enough to allow such a ‘walled city’ level of metaphor to emerge naturally. It is easy to see the ebb and flow of familiarity with the camera among the participants, and there is a strong sense that this film is both part of what it is filming and yet involved in ‘representing’ it almost in the sense of advocacy of which Bill Nichols writes in defining the word as it pertains to documentary film. As noted, the film also takes on added significance after the fact first of all in that Darren Sutherland’s success at the 2008 Olympics (where he won a Bronze Medal for Ireland) just after the film’s production and then his subsequent tragic death merely proved an extension of what the film had seen and shown. Throughout the film, Sutherland’s waxing and waning commitment to his boxing was part of his dramatic story arc, and there was a strong sense of conflict and crisis about his decision, as if something deeper than simply time was involved in his occasional disappearance from training and seeming refusal to push forward. Yes to some degree the reading of this sense of crisis depends on our subsequent knowledge of his suicide, but again it is testament to Whitaker and Nolan’s observational eye that the threads are there to be seen. As a film providing insight into the processes and nature of the sport that also proves a powerful register of the reality of life in Ireland viewed through this prism, Saviours is a noteworthy film in a way that Waveriders is not, and its sense of legacy runs deeper than a continuum of history towards an arc of national identity.
On the face of it, Sideline Productions’ release of classic GAA matches on DVD would seem to provide the clearest inroad to a sense of both history and identity. Building on the success of their annual season summaries and several personality-based historical overviews of ‘great moments’ in GAA history, the unexpurgated release of complete Football and Hurling matches from the television age might well be reason for considerable excitement — a true documenting of the legacy of the GAA by the potential for immersion. So many summative releases are dogged by talking heads and snippet editing that they are both boring and frustrating, not least of all some of the company’s previous releases, but a solid, sustained focus on a single important match — what an opportunity. In the end though, it is an opportunity lost as far as documentary is concerned. The DVDs, retailing at €20 each, feature nothing but a menu screen, and the footage of the matches is just that — from whistle to whistle, with no sense of the crowd, no contemporary scenes of prelude or conclusion, no halftime analysis from the archives, no context, no commentary. While there is absolutely a raw ‘actuality’ value to these moments in time being available, it is disappointing to find them floating so free of their conditions of production and reception that they come to have no meaning at all, and at €20, not cheaply. That said, this writer made a gift of a set of them charting the great Dublin v. Kerry battles of the late 1970s and early 80s to his father, who was thoroughly pleased and enchanted. This does make you reflect on what we expect from our sporting past. Does the capacity to ‘relive’ the moment require input from memory and the collective conscious, or does it behoove the producers of these valuable records to help us somehow. Are the formal stylings of historical overviews (talking heads, edited sequences, intrusive soundtracks) inherently so destructive of the moment itself that there is greater value to this unedited and downright unexciting presentation of important moments in sporting history?
If Waveriders, Saviours, and the “GAA on DVD” releases tell us anything as a collective group of non-fictive engagements with Ireland the Isle of Sport, it is that the potential for reflection (both conscious and unintentional) is very great when dealing with sporting topics. They also show that sport has become a site wherein which change, progress, and evolution are visible, complete with the problems thrown up by these processes. The image of the Clergy may no longer be as broadly applicable to the documentary image of “the green and friendly isle of Ireland” as it was in 1960, but sporting endeavour still represents a significant face of Irish cultural identity on the world stage, and asWaveriders and Saviours continue in international distribution via festivals and DVD distribution, it seems unlikely that the result will always be what you expected.