More Irish Film Festival Reviews

Two more film reviews from the Online Irish Film Festival (19-29 November). Three more will be reviewed in our January issue.

Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens

Reviewed by Shauna Stanley

Everyone remembers the first time they read a Seamus Heaney poem. I was aged 10, sitting in a prefab in 4th class, I’ll never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach reading the last couplet of ‘Mid-Term Break’. Seamus Heaney had an incredible ability to put the reader in the moment.

Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate

Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens is a documentary about arguably our most well-known poet of recent years. The title references the last line of his poem Song, and a subtle nod to his roots – in archive footage Heaney explains ‘the music of what happens’ is what Fionn mac Cumhaill described as the best music in the world.

Directed by Adam Low, the film’s use of archive footage makes it almost autobiographical in nature, Heaney himself taking the viewer through his life story by explaining the context to some of his most well known poems. Heaney’s closest family, friends and peers read their favourite Heaney poems, and in the process telling the narrative of his life. The documentary traces Heaney’s life in five main parts – his rural upbringing, to his education at Queens University, the civil rights movement and the conflict in the North, his Professorship at Harvard and Nobel Laureate, and his later years in Sandymount.

The film begins with his rural upbringing on the bog in Bellaghy and Digging, and scholarship to St Columbus. Of course, this education just drew out his latent talent, demonstrated by his preference for writing about his surroundings, and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary much like his predecessor Patrick Kavanagh. The documentary is not too idealistic about this however; the tension between his status as the eldest son and passing his farming obligations to his younger brother Hugh to pursue academia is subtle, but it’s there.

Heaney’s college years and subsequent work at Queens University Belfast is then delved into, but particularly by his widow and college sweetheart, Marie Heaney. She is a constant both in his work and throughout the documentary in offering an insight to the meaning behind many poems – she was, after all, his ‘first reader’. The poem ‘Tates Avenue’ takes on a new significance when you hear about it from the point of view of the poem’s subject. It was surprising that Heaney’s vast body of translation work during this time did not get a mention however.

Heaney’s experience with the Civil Rights Movement in the late 60s and early 70s is recounted by his friend and poet Michael Longley, noting the anxiety Heaney had around writing about the North ‘without being a propagandist’, but this in no way meant he avoided the topic at the same time the need to tell the story of what it was like to visit home but be ‘stopped by strangers’.

Heaney comes across as a warm, thoughtful and sensitive character both through his own presence on screen and in the descriptions from family and friends. Indeed, Heaney seems relatively unfazed by his success with winning the Nobel Laureate and getting a professorship at Harvard. It is notable how his teachings impacted African-American students by encouraging them to seek more information about their roots.

The documentary wraps up at Heaney’s homestead in Sandymount, overlooking the sea, a source of inspiration for his later work. The contrast  from his humble beginnings in Bellaghy is quite stark.

Heaney’s impact on Ireland is evident in the minute’s silence he received at a GAA match 2 days after his death. As Longley remarked, there are not many countries in the world where sports-goers would give a minute’s silence for a poet. I think this demonstrates how of the place Heaney truly is.

Shauna Stanley

Shauna is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Collective.

When Women Won

Film Review by Enya Moore

Directed by Anna Rodgers and produced by Zlata Filipovic and Hugh Rodgers, When Women Won is a documentary that offers a behind-the-scenes look into the Together for Yes campaign. The national civil society campaign, made up of over 70 organisations, groups and communities, was launched to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Irish Constitution which recognised the equal right to life of the woman and the unborn child, effectively banning abortion in Ireland. When Women Won tells the story of the campaign and the power of grassroots activism. 

The documentary spotlights a moment of celebration for women in a long and painful history of the treatment of women in Ireland. Footage from previous campaigns, marches, speeches and debates, both historical and contemporary, is interspersed with interviews from Together for Yes campaign team, including key activists and co-directors Orla O’Connor, Grainne Griffin, Ailbhe Smyth. 

Story-telling is central to the documentary and the campaign. From the stories shared by grieving parents to traumatised mothers to young women, the campaign’s message all along is one of compassion and empathy. Instead of seeking to divide and demonise, they united, searching for common ground on which to have difficult conversations. They made space for men to stand with women. They recognised intersectionality and amplified the voices of Traveller or Mincéir women, migrant women and women of colour. This inclusiveness was essential for a campaign that began because of the death of one of those very women. Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman, living in Ireland, died after being denied an emergency termination in University Hospital Galway as she miscarried on 28 October 2012. Savita’s death stirred a collective shame in Ireland that is captured most strongly in the documentary in the words of a woman standing in protest outside the Dáil: ‘This is our shame’. It was in Savita’s death, a collective responsibility was born. 

In focusing on the success of the Together for Yes campaign, and the lead up to the referendum day, the documentary acknowledges that this was ‘a campaign that was thirty plus years in the making’ but doesn’t let that journey take too much focus. For those living in Ireland during the referendum, it may glide over some of the more challenging parts of the campaign. When Women Won is not the whole story but a token of appreciation for those who fought hard and for those who have already suffered so much. It is a moment of reflection, a point for people in Ireland who have long felt cast aside or excluded from conversations about their bodily autonomy, to pause, look around, and be proud. When Women Won is a punctuation in a long journey and no one can deny that it is worth celebrating.

Watching the documentary from my home in Sydney for the Irish Film Festival brought me back to the night the votes came rolling in. I had sought out somewhere I could be with others who were eagerly awaiting the results. At an event organised by Shauna Stanley, a member of this editorial board, fifty people gathered in Bear Bar, a small underground gay bar on Oxford Street. There a few burly bartenders welcomed us in to celebrate women on the other side of the world being afforded their rights. Their generosity of spirit speaks to the importance of global networks of solidarity. The Together for Yes campaign fought for a more compassionate Ireland, and in their success, it wasn’t only women who won: we all did.

Enya Moore

Enya is an Irish Sydney-based writer, researcher, and educator specialising in design. Her PhD research at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) focuses on transnational design events. Moore has published in Plot(s) JournalAustralasian Journal of Popular CultureDesign and Culture, and Design Issues. She has worked as an editor and contributor for FrameIcon, and Indesign. Her writing also features in What I’ve Learned: 28 Creatives Share Career-defining Insights and Durty Words: A Space for Dialogue, Solidarity, Resistance, and Creation.