Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: The Personal and the Political
Patrick Gamble unravels two connected films playing at our 2018 festival, a pair of films by father and son that move seamlessly between the private and public realm.
An ideal cinematic image of The Troubles is almost impossible to create. From James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer and Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday to Yann Demange’s ’71, cinematic representations of the conflict in Northern Ireland have always struggled to balance audience expectations with a drive towards historical re-enactment. Perhaps, because conventional war narratives built on binaries of good versus evil fail to articulate the complexities of a conflict based on the inequality between national groupings; often resulting in films trying to find a resolution within a canvas where no such resolution exists.
However, two films in this year’s programme underscore the complex relationships at the heart of The Troubles. The first is Arthur MacCaig’s 1979 documentary The Patriot Game. During the 1970s, and throughout most of the 80s and 90s, the worsening situation in Northern Ireland was represented in the British media as a terrorist campaign fought between Republican extremists and the British Army. MacCaig subverts this approach by taking the point of view of the Provisional IRA and tracing the politics of the conflict back for centuries; raising questions about truth, distortion and the use of propaganda.
The Patriot Game screens alongside The Image You Missed, an essay film by MacCaig’s son, Donal Foreman. An attempt to evoke the spirit of MacCaig, who died almost a decade ago, Foreman uses archived photographs and footage discovered in the director’s Parisian apartment to construct a fictionalised image of his estranged father. Entwining the personal and the political, Foreman’s interrogation of his complicated relationship with his father is a fascinating portrait of a paternal dynamic that, like The Troubles, refuses to be reduced to a conflict of binary oppositions.
Although described as a film between father and son, The Image You Missed arguably functions most effectively as an impressionistic induction to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Unlike dramatic representations of The Troubles, where the political situation is often reduced to communicate interpersonal conflicts, Foreman allows his feelings of abandonment to provide a window into a period of British history whose violent repercussions continue to reverberate to this day.
Despite their shared genealogy, Foreman and MacCaig have very different political outlooks and approaches to filmmaking. MacCaig was a passionate left-wing documentarian, whose camera peered into other people’s worlds, whereas Foreman predominantly uses fiction to search for answers to society’s big questions. Yet curiously, the conclusions they reach are remarkably analogous, with MacCaig’s critical observations and Foreman’s slippery investigation both predicated on the unreliability of images.
John Berger claimed In ‘Ways of Seeing’ that for an image to make sense it requires a narrative, and although both filmmakers tell radically different stories, they’re both fascinated by the role imagery plays in unifying and distorting public opinion of political events. Exploring contrasting experiences of nationalism, personal and political responsibility, and the role of the media in social struggles, both these films oscillate seamlessly between the private and public realm to create a nuanced and deeply felt investigation into the contentious issues surrounding Northern Irish politics.