An attempted military coup led Donncha Ó Briain to produce the acclaimed Chavez: Inside The Coup. He’s back with a new documentary that traces the humdrum of those rare Irish social movements fighting against austerity. Rashers Tierney quizzes him on it .
Peripheral Vision is the title of the documentary. Can you tell me where that came from? It seems to suggest that the sort of movements you covered are just a little bit out of mainstream view or something?
Well, the main theme of the film, the thing I wanted to document, is the experience of those taking a stand against the bank bailouts and the austerity. Because everyone was saying, “the Irish they’re passive, etc”. I wanted to capture a sense of what’s it like to be in that space, viewed from the inside. So I suppose the title grew out of that, the sense of being a fairly isolated, marginal force and yet being driven by a sense of injustice and indignation. Obviously the title also nods to Ireland’s status as a so-called EU ‘peripheral’ country.
What’s the background to the Ballyhea protests? They are presented as rather peculiar, almost out of sorts with the rest of the country really – like people seem surprised that such constant mobilization can be sustained by a small community?
Well, they are out of the ordinary – they’ve been marching every week for 2 and half years now! When I started filming they were only at it 2-3 months, and most of them had not been involved politically before. What struck me then was the symbolic power of just walking up and down the main street of your town/village. At the time of course that only made sense as something that might inspire other communities, which is what people in Ballyhea wanted. The fact that this didn’t transpire and yet they’ve stuck at it is pretty remarkable.
You looked at The Spectacle, Occupy and Ballyhea’s bail out marches – why were these chosen? Is it fair that many other patterns of resistance are left out such as the Campaign Against the Household Tax and the even longer running battle in Rossport?
From the beginning my focus was solely on those protesting against bank bailouts and austerity. So I didn’t consider Rossport. I was interested in exploring the reality of political engagement and conscientization or ‘consciousness raising’ in the current context. I guess Ballyhea and the Spectacle seemed like places where I could observe these over time. For example, the documentary looks at the Spectacle’s “Books of Grievance” process – where people were invited to reflect on what the cuts were doing to them , express it in written form, and try and create a collective response out of so many private experiences.
While I was filming other forms of resistance did bubble up – first Occupy, and then the CAHT in early 2012. Which I decided to document via some of the Ballyhea folk who were getting involved in the campaign. Also I followed a bit the Anglo Not Our Debt campaign against the promissory note debt. So a variety of other protests are featured in the documentary
There’s another doc in the pipeline called 2Good2Resist that pokes at that old chestnut of gallant resistance in Greece and wherever, yet the Irish sit on their hole. It’s clearly a theme you set out to explore yourself. Can you shed light on how you feel about such discussions? We’ve a tiny population, much less of a recent radical tradition etc, so is the debate being fairly framed?
I think it’s only right to question why so few are protesting. Because a great injustice was done with the socialization of the bank debt and it’s still having damaging effects on society. But I don’t really agree that we in Ireland are exceptional in our passivity. Throughout Europe (with some exceptions) there has been a very weak popular response to the onslaught from the political-financial class since 2008. So, there must be some common factor in operation.
That said, this documentary doesn’t set out to analyse or explain the passivity. I was interested more in the subjective experience of the groups. The general passivity is more of a context to that.
I’d have seen you down at Occupy Dame St, camera in hand quite a bit. You must have hundreds of hours of footage from it. There was a real sense of momentum then – have you any observations on why it faltered?
My sense is that Occupy suffered from not having preexisting roots in Irish society. What I saw was people having very quickly to deal with problems of strategy and group identity which normally would get worked out over time. That put a lot of pressure on the camp. That said, I think the relevance of its core goals – reclaiming democratic space, keeping the spotlight on the financial class – remains.
What are the difficulties facing independent documentary makers like yourself?
The same facing anybody trying to do creative work: having a measure of financial security. Obviously you also need equipment and cash to cover basic expenses but the main thing you need is time. Being able to devote time to a subject. It’s hard to do this when you’re worried about where your income will come from next week, month, year – you can maybe make a few films this way, but it gets harder.
Is there any advice you’d give to folk out there who have camera and are willing, but just don’t know where to start?
I dunno, I hate giving advice, everyone is different. But I suppose: pick a subject you feel intrigued by, that you have strong reactions to, but where you haven’t worked it all out yet. You need to be exploring something, not proving a thesis. Then just stick at it. It’s an endurance test.
You’re known for a pretty famous documentary Chavez: Inside The Coup. The Revolution will not be Televised. How did you end up in the middle of it all?
I’d spent time in Venezuela during the year and half prior to the coup. Trying to get access to film an observational documentary profile of Chavez. I had managed a few months beforehand to get into the inner levels of his government – and then the coup happened.
Some of us were watching Costas Gravas Missing the other day, its known for a tense and paranoid opening 20 minutes set during a coup where the new regime initiates a cull. Presumably you were shitting it at the time?
It was very frightening but like all shocks to the system you only feel them afterwards. Things were moving very fast during the three days of the coup and I remember just being very alert and focused.
Finally, what are your plans for distribution on this one? Will it be hitting people’s screens or will you just throw it online as a contribution to movement building?
I’m not sure yet. I’m in touch with various grassroots networks. I’m hoping they might be interested in using it as a tool for popular education via small community screenings and the like. That’s where I’ll start anyway.