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Articles and Reviews: FILM

Nationalisms: Visors and Revisors

The ‘Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions’ conference, which was organised by the Film Institute of Ireland in association with RTE, and took place over a November weekend recently in the Irish Film Centre, was a resounding success, despite the fact that it opened on Friday 13th.
The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, got the ball rolling on Friday evening, with an opening address, presumably courtesy of Michael Mannseragh, which threw out more questions about Irish history and politics than could ever hope to be answered, concluding with, “Is a sane nationalism possible in today’s world?” If you know the meaning of life, be sure to let Bertie know, preferably on a postcard before next Tuesday. His speech was followed by a screening of Mise Eire.




The rest of the conference took the form of six sessions, chronologically covering twentieth century Irish history, which were introduced by a chairperson, followed by film clips of the time, followed by a guest speaker. There were knowledgeable contributions from Margaret McCurtain on the 1960s, Mary Holland on the 1970s and 80s, but it was generally agreed that David Ervine on the 1980s and 90s was the highlight of the weekend. He spoke with honesty, sadness and humour about his own experience, and received a standing ovation from some sections of the audience, perhaps as much for the bridge-building gesture of his attending in the first place, as for anything he actually said, although the tenor of his contribution was definitely more one of looking forward to the future than of holding grudges about the past. ‘My heart is full,” FII director and chief organiser Shelia Pratschke was moved to comment in the aftermath of Ervine’s speech, as she introduced Luke Gibbons to give the closing address. The conference ended with a lively panel discussion on Sunday afternoon, chaired by Carol Coulter, and featuring Anne Crilly, Mary Cullen, Joe Lee and Kevin Whelan, with many questions and observations from the floor.
Debate aside, probably the most engaging aspect of the conference, for anyone interested in film or television, was the selected film clips which prefaced each speaker’s contribution. This writer was particularly struck by ‘Housing Discrimination in Fintona’, a pictorial record made in Tyrone in 1953, by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The candour with which it named people who were allotted houses is remarkable, especially from today’s perspective. While the documentary is undoubtedly prescient of the troubles that were to come in the North, it would also have made wonderful propaganda material for Noraid, or whatever was the forerunner of that organisation in the United States. Insofar as RTE had yet to come into existence then, America is presumably where it was broadcast. Indeed, more information about who exactly made these films, and who saw them, would have been welcome.
Luke Gibbons gave a stimulating talk on the recurrent narrative device in Irish Cinema of inserting actuality/documentary footage in fictional settings, and the implications of this mixing of fact and fiction for the understanding of Irish history. Gibbons pointed out that this blurring of divisions reached its apogee in JFK, where Oliver Stone filmed certain sections to look like documentary footage, and then used them alongside the ‘real’ stuff. Thankfully we did not get embroiled in an historical accuracy argument, of the kind that grew up around Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. There are two main attitudes that can be adopted in these debates. One is that if you are dealing with things that really happened, you should represent them as faithfully as possible. The other is that once something is on a screen, it is fiction anyway, so no holds are barred. Perhaps there is a third, more compromising (!) way of approaching this problem, which is to realise firstly that not only is history is matter of interpretation, but deciding what actually happened is often a matter of controversy and conjecture, so there can never be any thoroughgoing historical accuracy; and secondly, conversely, most imaginative fiction is sparked off by an artist’s mind mulling over something that actually happened, or what they know about it, and coming at it from a radically different perspective, so stuff your historical accuracy.
Gibbons also suggested, quoting Paul Durcan’s poem ‘Aughawall Graveyard’ from the 1975 collection O Westport in the Light of Asia Minor, ‘Lonely lonely lonely lonely: / The story with a middle only’, that there is a feeling now among Irish people of the sense of an ending in Irish history. People want a happy ending. But, of course, history is not a story, it is supposed to be what happens, and so cannot have any ending. Stories are what people make up, and it is only there that any kind of closure can take place. ‘We make art so as not to die of truth’, as Nietzsche wrote. In the interplay between history and imagination, between fact and fiction, lies the fecundity we need to make art.
If there are any criticisms of the proceedings, they are that, as was probably inevitable given the title of the conference, things did tend to get bogged down in the hoary old chestnut of trying to define Irish identity; and also, relatedly, Anne Crilly and Pat Murphy aside, there were disproportionately too many delegates who are academics and journalists, at the expense of creative writers and film makers. This may have satisfied the historical remit of the conference, but not the history through film angle. There were also significantly few people present under thirty, although it was pointed out by FII’s education officer that younger people were more visually literate than their elders, and learned most of their history from film and television rather than books. It was also hinted that they were far less interested in notions of Irish identity than many of those in attendance. This led to a lamenting of the lack of media studies courses.
For my part, having so few writers and filmmakers present was a serious omission, particularly when it comes to the Irish identity question. I have little doubt that very few of our leading creative artists (rather like ‘people under thirty’) set out with an agenda of attempting to define Irish identity when they start to write a novel, make a film or paint a picture. Where is Waiting for Godot set, for example? If, as was argued by Gerry McCarthy in his review of The Truman Show in the last issue of this magazine - citing Kafka, Pynchon, Hitchcock and Cronenberg - paranoia is the defining condition of the twentieth century, then it would have been worth looking at why the paranoid narrative is so seductive to the modern mind, whether it is an Irish one or not, and then referring to the Irish context. This would have placed the discussion in an international context, in a way that is far more interesting than the bogus ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ internationalism that is coming out of Brussels. There is always someone trying to make us think certain things. There is always someone who knows more than we do. To think so is part of what it is to be alive at this moment in time. Two of the best Irish novels/films of the decade neatly illustrate this: Resurrection Man is all about them being out to get us, them ruling us through fear. Part of the greatness of The Butcher Boy is that we don’t know how much is actually happening, and how much is going on inside Francie’s head. Yet these are hardly specifically Irish conditions. “It’ll be a sad day for this town if the world comes to an end,” as one of the women in the shop says, in Pat McCabe’s satire of small-minded parochialism. To quote our greatest dead white male writer:

-A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same
-By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m
living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck
out of it:
-Or also living in different places.
-That covers my case, says Joe.

or again:

-We cannot change the country. Let us change the subject.

First published in Film Ireland













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