If you want to start a festival, remember that the first one should be a success, otherwise there will never be a second! It should have a good programme, full cinemas, good press coverage and a nice, appealing atmosphere.
Doclands is the first documentary film festival and market to take place in Ireland and it was a success. Therefore there is no reason why it should not be repeated. It had an interesting three-day programme of new Irish documentaries, some international films and meetings, and a big name like Albert Maysles to draw professional attention and remind everyone what it means to take a warm and humble approach to the documentary profession. It all took place in Dublin’s Temple Bar area with headquarters at the excellent Irish Film Centre.
The main programme focused on Irish documentaries, and I managed to watch ten of them. They lived up to all my positive prejudices about Ireland and the Irish: they were warm, sometimes moving; they dealt with history and social issues; and they were good-hearted with a fine portion of patriotism and humour mixed in. None of the films were stylistically innovative. Some were actually a bit clumsy in their storytelling techniques. Almost all stuck to traditional narrative lines. The message was clear – these films are meant for broad television audiences. The appearance of TG4, the Irish-language public broadcaster, emphasised the call for Irish stories told to Irish audiences. Quite like when the National Film Board of Canada used to showed Canada to the Canadians, the Irish Film Board and the television channels seem to have a policy of making films on the Irish for the Irish. Unlike the Canadian films a couple of decades ago, the Irish documentaries lack an artistic level that could widen their appeal to other countries.
The opening night film was May the Road Rise Up, a feature length documentary connecting the sixties with today. Alen MacWeeney, who photographed the travellers in Ireland back then, returns from the US to search for the persons in the pictures he took back then. The search is done by himself and well-known director and cameraman John T. Davis. In a slow paced film they visit remote places with the wonderful black & white photos. They track down the persons in the photos and get them to comment on what has happened to them and their next of kin in the meantime. It is obviously a story about a vanishing culture, but the quality of MacWeeney’s photographs from the sixties turn the photos into portraits that not only provide unique social documentation but also universal testimony of poverty and of being excluded from a society they actually do not want to be part of.
Another world premiere was An Bothár Fadá/The Long Road by Barrie Dowdall, who has made a one-hour film filled with strong witnesses who convey their personal stories as Irish who had to leave their poor nation to go to England to earn a living. Some stayed, some experienced the hostility at the height of Irish-British political tensions, some returned to find they no longer had any roots and some even travelled abroad twice. It is a touching story that Dowdall unfolds through almost exclusively male characters (why were so few women interviewed?), a story that had to be told while the characters were still alive.
The Hard Road to Klondike by Desmond Bell tells a classic story of an Irish emigrant who travels to America in the early 1890’s. It is done in an elegant style that combines documentary and fictional material to communicate the director’s sense of the era when MacGowan left to seek his fortune – a case study, so to speak, for the Irish nation.
Apart from these three historical documents, I want to mention two short documentaries that warmly impressed me. The Nook is first of all a portrait of a man and his shop (the title), one of those homely neighbourhood shops where life passes slowly by and there is always time for a chat about the meaning of life. Dennis Macardie followed the shopkeeper over a period of ten years, even after he decided to close the shop to be free as a bird. He keeps the shop and transforms it into his own small sanctuary, a place of the free spirit where he can do things like read books in the room that used to be his fridge!
Every nation has its own documentaries about homeless people, which goes for Ireland as well. One is Patrick Hodgins’ Home made in Dublin. In a film with brilliant camerawork, he calls upon three men to speak. Three different individuals tell us why they ended up in the street. The filmmaker treats them with respect and dignity, two words that fittingly and precisely describe what I discovered in Irish documentaries in Dublin at the very first Doclands in October 2000.