Three Reviews from the Irish Film Festival Australia 2020
The Ballymurphy Precedent
Reviewed by Gary Hansell
Amongst many nationalist and republican communities in Ireland, the words ‘the Parachute Regiment’ receive a reaction on par with Oliver Cromwell, Charles Edward Trevelyan or The Black and Tans. The Ballymurphy Precedent, director Callum Macrae’s insightful, moving and at times harrowing detailing of the massacre perpetrated by the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment of the British Army in the Catholic, working-class residential area of Ballymurphy in West Belfast shows why.
Shifting between the use of historical footage, contemporary accounts of survivors and participants, and re-enacted scenes, the film depicts the violent deaths of 11 civilians in Ballymurphy between 9 and 11 August 1971. Although Bloody Sunday, the massacre of 14 protestors in January 1972 in Derry, has received more extensive media, institutional and popular attention, Macrae persuasively presents the Ballymurphy massacre as a foundational event in the Northern conflict – an event with catastrophic repercussions for the escalation of the conflict.
The film frames the Northern conflict within the generally accepted, progressive interpretation as a conflict rooted in discriminatory social and economic policies implemented by a sectarian state and as part of the post-war global decolonization movement. The film details, amongst other things, the original flashpoints of the conflict, the reasons for the British Army’s deployment to the North, and the initially favourable response by Catholics to the Army’s presence. The film also chronicles how quickly the situation changed when that presence was viewed unfavourably by Catholics and nationalists, as the Army was seen by many as primary implementer of the sectarian state apparatus.
An important part of the film is its centring of women’s experiences. It depicts the women of Ballymurphy leading the resistance to the British Army’s ratcheting-up of repressive measures. The embarrassment this caused British soldiers is posited as a catalyst for the ultimately fateful events of 9 to 11 August 1971. Documentary evidence that the British Army’s command characterised, disturbingly, the women’s actions as ‘oriental,’ makes a broader point as to the patriarchal foundations of British colonial projects globally.
The seminal moments of the film are the detailed re-enactments of each victim’s death during the massacre. The tactical deployments of the 1st Parachute Regiment are explained and portrayed in exacting detail, suggesting a pre-planning on the part of the soldiers. The portrayals are chilling and visceral, though never gory, and project an appropriately respectful and mournful tone.
The film makes important documentarily-based comparisons between the tactics used by British forces at Ballymurphy and the use of counter-insurgency tactics in the process of decolonization in other former British colonies. As is elucidated in interviews with leading army officers of the time, the attack in Ballymurphy was viewed similarly to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. The similarity possibly explains the extensive cover-up described by the documentary in response to the massacre with especial emphasis given to the manipulation of the massacre for propaganda purposes against the community members of Ballymurphy through the spread of knowing misinformation characterising the persons killed as paramilitary combatants.
The film’s conclusion demonstrates the strength and resilience of the community of Ballymurphy. The community members have been engaged in a sustained campaign for truth and justice, a campaign which has received near universal push-back from state institutions until the opening of an inquest into the deaths in November 2018. The results of the inquest are hotly anticipated with the film driving momentum over the inquest’s findings.
The documentary’s rescreening as part of the Irish Film Festival Australia is apt in the context of Australia’s reckoning with its own colonial actions, both past and present. This has a pronounced importance for the Irish Australian community. The recent publication of the Brereton report and its harrowing depiction of the potential war crimes committed by Australian special forces engaged in Afghanistan displays worrying parallels with the actions of the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy. Furthermore, there are parallels between the massacre and the litany of Frontier War massacres perpetrated in Australia against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is an essential viewpoint for the Irish-Australian community to appreciate as, with the development of truth-telling processes underway at the State-level in Australia, these stories and experiences will continue to emerge publicly with a (hopeful) similar reckoning with the past.
Although accounts of the Northern Ireland conflict are voluminous, this film brings novelty and urgency to these issues in the context of the Ballymurphy community’s near 50-year campaign for truth and justice. The Ballymurphy Precedent will enter the canon of documentary work on the Northern conflict. It is recommended for all who wish to understand the impact of this and similar conflicts, and how steps can be made for a peaceful future rooted in truth.
Gary Hansell is an Irish-Australian Lawyer living in Melbourne
Reviewed by Liam O’Shan
Arracht, m. (gs. ~a, pl. ~aí).1. Spectre, monster
I went into watching Arracht knowing almost nothing about the film other than it was primarily in Irish and was set during the famine, and so was unsure what to expect. Unlike 2018’s Black 47, in which the famine plays a front-seat role in the story, in Arracht the famine is an ever-present backdrop but takes a back seat to a more character-driven story.
Also in marked contrast to Black 47, Arracht is by no means an action film. The pace is steady, even slow at times, giving the audience time to connect with the characters. This gentle pace is brutally punctuated by short scenes of violence that feel both shockingly unanticipated but tragically inevitable.
The film is frugal with characters and dialogue, but this is counterbalanced by the exceptional performances of the entire cast. The barren windswept rocks and pounding ocean of the Connemara coastline are used to great effect in many scenes and while beautiful, serve to emphasise the stark and at times desperate existence of those who lived there during those fateful times.
As natural to the film as the location is the use of the Irish language throughout. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the film having the same feeling of authenticity if it were shot in English. The contrast between characters using Irish and English in the film effortlessly serves to underline their vastly different lives, backgrounds and fortunes.
The fact that such a masterful piece of cinema is the debut feature film for writer and director Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, and the outstanding performances of Dónal Ó Héalai, Dara Devaney and young Saise Ní Chuinn speaks volumes for the maturity and depth of talent present in the Irish film industry today.
Arracht takes the viewer on a journey that is at times harshly depressing. In fact, I was grateful for the online format of the 2020 Irish Film Festival, as it gave me the opportunity to hit pause and take an intermission to fortify myself with a dram of whisky before continuing the second half of the film. After reducing the audience’s emotions to their lowest ebb in the first act, the narrative arc rebuilds them in the second half, and amidst the loss, deprivation and desperation, it is ultimately a deep-seated feeling of humanity that shines through as the primary theme of the film.
Liam is a member of Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile
Sé mo Laoch
Reviewed by Dymphna Lonergan
The Irish Film Festival’s Sé mo Laoch is a documentary on the life and music of Melbourne-born Steve Cooney. I’ve never met Steve Cooney, but he has been on the periphery of much of my life. Both of us emigrated from our respective countries, Ireland and Australia, in our 20s. I’m not a musician, but I am an admirer of musicians and I have lived through the metamorphosis of Irish traditional music from afar, starting with coming back from a holiday to Dublin with a precious copy of ‘Planxty’ and sharing it with other Irish expatriates in Adelaide.
Over the years, I became aware that this Australian had found his home in Irish traditional music. This year, during the pandemic lockdown in Adelaide, I whiled away my time by improving my Irish by listening to radio na gaeltachta’s Saol Ó Dheas and hearing on one programme a unique guitar rendition of an O’Carolan tune. It was from Steve Cooney’s latest CD ’Ceol Ársa Cláirsí’, and I sent for it straight away. So it was with great delight that I found that a documentary of Cooney’s life and music would be part of the 2020 Irish Film Festival, and I would have the chance to increase my knowledge of his musical contribution to Ireland.
Sé mo Laoch is more than a biopic of Steve Cooney. It is a grand sweep of Irish folk and traditional music thanks to Cooney’s role as an interpreter and an innovator. But Cooney’s love of musical interpretation had a solid foundation before he left Australia’s shores. His musical Dad lived through depression years and brought this experience into his singing. Cooney recalls blues and gospel music and especially the song ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ as sung by his Dad as having a particular depth of meaning in the household. In time, Cooney was drawn to Australian Indigenous music in the musical instrument the didgeridoo and lived for a time with the family of the Indigenous dancer and film actor David Gulpilil. In the documentary Cooney recalls learning how to play the instrument from an Indigenous teacher ‘Leo’ in such a way that the teaching ‘travelled into his consciousness’. In a moment that is evocative of W B Yeats’ advice to John Millington Synge to go to the west of Ireland to find an Irish expression in his writing, Cooney was advised by his Indigenous teacher to go to the land of his own ancestors to learn language, music, dancing, poetry, and magic.
On coming across Planxty for the first time, Cooney was intrigued by the counterpoint achieved with the bouzouki and guitar. His hunger for opportunities to find authenticity and innovation led him to joining Stockton’s Wing. Cooney’s contribution to Irish traditional music reached its pinnacle in the recent awarding of a PhD for his own method of staff notation. The documentary shows Cooney’s notation in action in taking down a sean nós song and teaching the method to music students.
Cooney spent many years in West Kerry learning and interpreting the traditional music there. He later moved north and spent time in Rostrevor where his musical style was noted as being finely detailed, ‘both methodically and rhythmically’. The documentary captures well Cooney’s embrace of a wide range of music that has informed his work in the traditional sphere. The harpist Mary O’Hara was an early influence in how an instrument could be used to accompany a song. Folk singer Mary Black expresses her admiration in the document of Cooney’s song ‘Bless the Road’ and how his guitar accompaniment seemed like ‘crying the melody’. When Cooney moved down to West Kerry and subsequently formed a duo play with Seamus Begley, he found in the West Kerry polka a pulse that reminded him of Chuck Berry. In Kerry too he found a parallel to Indigenous Australian culture where the singer was not necessarily the best singer of a song, but had the right to sing the song.
The documentary is full of surprises and insights, one of the most remarkable being Cooney accompanying the US country and western singer Dolly Parton who chanced to turn up at a Kerry pub where Cooney was playing. Cooney boldly asks her to sing ‘Coat of Many Colours’. Parton is reluctant at first, not knowing the musician, but halfway through the song she puts her arm around Cooney’s shoulder in gratitude, which gesture emboldens the star-struck pub crowd to sing the final few lines of the song.
Despite having lived so long in Ireland now, Cooney still retains a different eye. His view that Irish traditional music’s ‘one instrument, one player’ as being incorrect is thought provoking. The Battle of Kinsale robbed Ireland of a baroque tradition.
Sé mo Laoch is narrated in parts by Martin Hayes. It is a bilingual production that allows us to appreciate Cooney’s acquisition of the Irish language. In doing so, he has fulfilled that part of the requirements of ‘Leo’ back in Australia to connect with his own culture. There are many comments about his draíocht, ‘magic’. His songs are poetry. We learn that he accompanies set dancing, but we do not see him dance.
This documentary warrants many viewings for a full appreciation of Steve Cooney, a hero of Irish traditional music. But with just one viewing, there’s eating and drinking in it.
Dymphna Lonergan, Adelaide, South Australia