Friday, August 17, 2018

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I Dolours

Christopher Owens reviews I, Dolours, which premiered at the Movie House Cinema, Dublin Road, in Belfast on 13/08/18.

It'll be a shame when this place is demolished.

Even though it's a standard multiplex, some of my most memorable cinematic moments come from this place. From seeing Batman Forever nearly 25 years ago, to sneaking off school to see The Insider and even a recent experience with Atomic Blonde, this place is an institution for me.

After taking my usual seat (wall seat in the row usually reserved for ushers in the back row, left hand side), the cinema fills up (apparently, only 20 tickets remained unsold) and the crowd are what you'd expect: people of a certain age who lived through the conflict, republicans (Richard O'Rawe and Tommy Gorman are present), GAA top wearing culchies (I heard the accents), young film connoisseurs and visitors to this country.

On a personal level, it's nice to see I'm not the youngest person in here (at the screening for No Stone Unturned a while ago, it felt like the audience had been let out from the old folk's home) and it's also cool to see that our recent history is of interest to some 18-25 year olds.

The selling point of I, Dolours is the use of an interview of Dolours Price, conducted by Ed Moloney, where "she would record her story on tape and video and it would not see daylight until she died. That way the truth could eventually be told without causing harm to herself" (owing to underhand tactics from journalists in The Irish News and Sunday Life).

Bizarrely, he seems to have already used part of the interview for his 2010 RTE programme Voices From the Grave.


As you can see, she's wearing the same clothing and the background is the same as well. So why bill this as an "exclusive" (for want of a better word) when part of it had been broadcast in 2010 (the year the interview was conducted)?

Anyway, while the idea of her voice being the sole one in this film sounds intriguing, it makes for some serious narrative problems.

Effectively, the film tries to straddle two positions (fully examining her life and activities in the IRA while only hinting at the issues that would contribute to her death) and falls flat on both points. That's, firstly, because the physical and mental health issues are dealt with in a clichéd and unnecessarily repeated manner (via re-enactments), as if to emphasise the point that these are Very Serious Issues. Although Dolours does discuss the effect that anorexia had on her, it's left to the re-enactments to depict the health struggles, the repetition of seeing someone throwing up suggests an amount of padding was needed to bulk up the running time and that the filmmakers weren't prepared to fully explore this aspect of her life.

Secondly, the IRA life is referred to in such a way that it assumes the viewer knows who people like Billy McMillen and Pat McClure are. This lack of context can be off-putting, even for someone familiar with the recent history of this country. As an example, Dolours notes that the team were set up by an informer in Ireland. If you then go to the official website for the movie, Moloney names the suspected informer as George Poyntz (who was eventually unmasked over a decade later). Why not include such information in the film? It all seems a tad "arse about face."

Re-enactments in such films/programmes are commonplace nowadays, even though they divide opinion among historians/filmgoers. However, with the much touted interview with Dolours being used in the film for a grand total of 11 minutes, it's not a surprise that the rest of the film heavily relies on these re-enactments.

American writer David Rieff has often been critical of commemorations and re-enactments of complex historical incidents, arguing that by doing so, the power of the event is reduced to mere kitsch. And it's fair to say I, Dolours is guilty of this.

Firstly, Bridie Dolan (an aunt who had a seismic impact on Dolours' life) is introduced to the audience when an idyllic family gathering with children and very clean cut looking adults is interrupted with a thumping (presumably on the ceiling), on which the father instructs a young Dolours to bring Bridie her tea. The whole scene, including an aerial shot of Dolours shaking as she brings the tray up a flight of stairs, puts the viewer in mind of Bertha Mason, the mad woman who lived in the attic in Jane Eyre.

And while I'm sure it was intended by the filmmakers to reinforce the horror of what can happen to people who dedicate their lives to such causes, the scene detailing the aftermath of the explosion that disabled Bridie Dolan is shot in such a dimly lit (almost grindhouse) way that it appears to be an outtake from one of the various Saw movies, where the aftermath of torture is very much the focus for the audience. While the camera doesn't linger on her for too long, it still feels unnecessary.

Finally, and although I'm perfectly aware they are a necessity for legal reasons, the disclaimers before the end credits (e.g. "Gerry Adams has always maintained that he has never been a member of the IRA" etc etc) unintentionally made Dolours look like a fantasist.

While I understand, from both a feminist and a historian's point of view, that someone like Dolours Price telling her story is a necessity for better understanding our recent history, realistically, this didn't need to be a film. The amount of padding through re-enactments and archive footage does not hide the fact that it's both too timid to delve into the health issues the conflict left Dolours with, and its broad assumptions about the viewers' knowledge of the conflict mean that areas are never explored enough to satisfaction.

As the credits rolled, there seemed (from where I was sitting) to be a muted response. There was no applause, nor did I hear anyone leaving saying anything about the film. In my experience, when you've seen a film that's an emotional rollercoaster, you're very quick to share your response to someone else in the audience. Here, nothing. It felt like a formality for some.

For the Q&A session, director Maurice Sweeney and Ed Moloney were quizzed by William Crawley of BBC's 'Talkback' programme. Covering the origins of the film, through to whether it "glorifies" Dolours Price and the intricacies of the Jean McConville story, it's all very pleasant and polite, although it's interesting that Crawley talked about the lack of "balance" needed for a film (whereas it would be needed for TV and radio), which Sweeney confesses was a bonus for the film as they were able to tell Dolours' story without interruptions.

When it was time for the audience to ask, we got an incredibly stupid first question ("why wasn't this shown at Feile an Phobail instead") and an interesting second question ("is this an anti-war film") which led to the curious claim from Moloney that Dolours Price had considered her life a wasted one.

Having read her writing for The Blanket, I think this is a gross distortion of the truth. Jaz Coleman once wrote that "Understanding the meaning of struggle/Giving your whole life to a single passion/Which others may or may not/Consider obsolete" may very well mean that you don't get what you are struggling for, but that doesn't mean you give up on your beliefs, the very struggle that built you. It's a line, I suspect, Moloney is using to tame criticisms of the film.

Things took a turn when Tommy Gorman took the mic and proceeded to lambast Moloney and Sweeney for (in his view) exploiting someone who wasn't well at the time for interviews, and that while others have paid a price (Dolours, the McConvilles, the Boston College interviewees) Moloney was the only one who didn't lose. He then lambasted the Boston College situation, saying that interviewees have been left in the lurch.

"Ed, in the midst of all this mayhem the only person who came out winning is yourself.
And I think you let everybody down with your, the care, the lack of care… that you gave Dolours.
Dolours from when she got out of jail, she was already really, badly mixed up in jail, when she came out, her whole thing deteriorated. And I think it wasn’t fair of you to interview her without a solicitor, without her family. I think with the family there, she’d have been more circumspect about the whole situation.
And just one thing….Myself and all those other eejits who decided to get involved in this project in America, we’re all losers too,
[Moderator: You’re talking about the Boston Tapes?]
… the Boston Tapes … we went through that.
There's people still on the run because of that, and as I say everybody’s losers, the McConvilles, and the best loser was Dolours."
- Tommy Gorman, former Boston College Belfast Project interviewee, speaking during the Q & A session of the Belfast premiere of I, Dolours

Sweeney seemed to be particularly stung by the suggestion that Dolours had been manipulated because she was unwell and proceeded to ask, theoretically, if that meant that we shouldn't interview people with mental health issues. Moloney did mock one point by Gorman, which was that maybe a member of the family or a lawyer should have been with her, asking whether he should have said that with everyone he's ever interviewed.

Interestingly, when attempting to facilitate discussion over Boston College, Crawley appeared to know very little about it, even bringing up the FBI at one point!

Before I left, an American in the audience (majoring in anthropology) asked a genuinely interesting question about whether films like I, Dolours could be the norm in the future when it comes to dealing with the legacy of the recent conflict (due to the lack of a truth and reconciliation committee). Sweeney admitted that none of that had gone through his mind when making the film (as he only wanted to tell a story), while Moloney seemed to be on the fence about the issue.

As I left, with 'Forever' by HAIM playing over the PA system as I went down the stairs, I could only think of how the evening encapsulated the situation this country finds itself in: fascinated by our past, but refusing to confront it head on.


➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212


10 comments :

Ronan said...

No different to Al Qaeda or Isis members fighting American imperialism. Won't go down well with the flag wavers in southie who provide the canon fodder for the American military murder machine.😞 Watch the Reds win the Pl and Cl, 29 years of hurt to be ended.😉

AM said...

Whether we agree with the take or not this is another piece of great writing that adds to the quality of TPQ. Thanks as always Christopher ... you have become the reviewer-in-residence for TPQ!!

Henry JoY said...

I seen this film at the Galway Film Fleadh last month. It left, what I thought to be an already empty space, even more hollowed out.

The name (Dolours) says it all ... sad, sad and then more sad.
Its a pitiful story of how we are all shaped by the milieu we are born into. Dolours and her sister, like so many other children across both communities, were almost predestined to live a life that will seem repugnant to those born of a different time and of different circumstances.
Young minds don't as a rule deal as well with complexity as those of more mature years. Youngsters enmeshed in more extreme familial traditions were most likely to behave as unconsciously programmed ... and those who committed most trenchantly to that predestined path were going to find it painful and difficult to get off it.

Christopher Owens said...

"Its a pitiful story of how we are all shaped by the milieu we are born into. Dolours and her sister, like so many other children across both communities, were almost predestined to live a life that will seem repugnant to those born of a different time and of different circumstances.

Young minds don't as a rule deal as well with complexity as those of more mature years. Youngsters enmeshed in more extreme familial traditions were most likely to behave as unconsciously programmed ... and those who committed most trenchantly to that predestined path were going to find it painful and difficult to get off it."

I'm not sure about the story itself being pitiful. It's quite a common one. Indeed, it's a similar story to Brendan Hughes': a child brought up in circumstances unfavourable to their community come of age at a pivotal moment and join the resistance, only to be left behind years later as the resistance compromise their beliefs for the pursuit of power. The difference between the two seems to be down to how Dolours was treated in jail, and her reaction to it. The film hints at the issues, but cops out of exploring it properly.

I do take your point about how the environment we grow up in has a part in shaping us. But it seemed in this case that Dolours, undoubtedly influenced by events in America and France at the time, genuinely believed that NICRA and People's Democracy could change the country for the better. It wasn't until Burntollet that the republican influences kicked in.

Henry JoY said...

Christopher,

I can only comment as to how the movie impacted on me. Each of us will view such a docudrama through the prism of our own individual experiences, learnings and understandings.

Regular readers will know from my comments over recent years that I have come full-about to a meta-view which more or less sees 20th century Irish Republicanism itself as pitiful. That's not dissimilar to AM's recent comment that Republicanism rather than the Northern State is the failed political entity. In some ways Dolours' story, as indeed Brendan's too, mirrors my own journey from youthful idealism and certainty to a painful and more pragmatic acceptance and understanding of how the world tends to work. I'm not for a moment making a comparison with the sacrifices made nor indeed with their end positionings, yet I do see parallels in the challenges of coming to terms with how situations unfold.

Coming to terms with betrayal, real and perceived, is woven through the fabric of revolutionary and political movements; Irish Republicanism can hardly claim exception in this regard. Its never going to be a painless nor effortless process. We did fight a civil war in the past over such issues.
Michael D Higgins writes of his fathers difficulties in such matters in a poem called The Betrayal - A Poem For My Father. The feelings of sorrow and compassion evoked for me on reading are not dissimilar to those I experienced after watching 'I, Dolours'.

(Your point about Dolours prison torture are well made. Hers and her sister's bodily autonomy was forcibly violated during each of the 200+ days that they were force-fed. The psychological and physical consequences of all that are almost unimaginable. They had to be determined and resilient women to cope with all that trauma as well they did. Dolours may have suffered PTSD. Her self-medication with alcohol and her unfortunate and untimely death would certainly suggest so.)

Christopher Owens said...

Henry JoY,

of course, that's completely understandable. I can certainly see why some would describe it as a pitiful tale, but I guess I'm conflating that with how Moloney talked about how she supposedly viewed her life as a wasted one.

I would agree with you to an extent. Republicanism was never going to produce a United Ireland on it's own. Circumstances had to be in its favour. Hence why the two longest campaigns (1919-1921 and 1970-1997) all lasted for such a length of time and the other campaigns were unmitigated disasters. And a long series of IRA members seemingly couldn't recognise this. Hence why there was a disconnect between republican families and nationalist ones (which Dolours talks about in the film). Instead of educating and recruiting, they retreated to their own cul de sacs and sung ballads about defeats. Us Irish are brilliant at introspectiveness. People like Patrick McCabe and Enya could not come from anywhere else but Ireland.

Certainly, traditional republicanism is now defunct in a 21st century, globalised Ireland. Paranoid Visions, for me, summed up this feeling in 2007 with a song called "40 Shades of Gangrene", where the key lines are:

"This is Ireland in the fast lane, and I just can’t get away.
I feel sadness for the heroes, who laid down their lives for this.
If they saw now what they died for, was it all just one big myth?
I feel sorrow for the children, being spat out everyday.
Into generation landslide, in the land of the betrayed.
It's the arse-hole of AmeriKKKa, the playground for the Brits.
They don't need a new 'invasion', because they've bought the fucking rich.
It's all poli-tricks and rhetoric, as they feed us dirty tricks.
And we've sold our sham neutrality, and we pay to make it fit.
I feel sorrow for the under-class, left behind and cut adrift.
As I watch the lines of junkies, as they crawl for their next fix."

However, would the North be in the position it's in now without the campaign? I'm not sure.

Anonymous said...

i think campaigning for an open border tranny abortionist state is the ultimate wasted life.

Henry JoY said...

Christopher,

"she supposedly viewed her life as a wasted one", supposedly being the operative word.

Moloney is hardly unbiased in these matters ... he has movie scripts and popular history books to write and promote. Furthermore, based on the contracts he furnished to his project workers on The Boston College Oral History Project and the nuanced differences between those and his own contract with the College as project co-ordinator, just lets say I'm skeptical of the man. His bona fides and motives are questionable where many of these related issues are concerned.

Dolours on the otherhand, I guess, just wanted to settle a score with the OC of the elite unit to which she once belonged. She needed to confirm to the world the full part Gerry Adams played in the conflict rather than the sanitised fables which he insists on promulgating.

Christopher Owens said...

Henry JoY,

who knows what thoughts enter the mind of people like Dolours and Brendan when they chose to commit their stories to tape for posterity. I've no doubt what you say about "settling a score" plays a part, but I'm sure there are manys a factor in such revelations.

Moloney certainly isn't unbiased, hence why I'm suspicious of his use of the term "wasted life" in relation to Dolours. I'm also suspicious about the use of the interview in Voices From the Grave (which no one else seems to have picked up on).

Henry JoY said...

Indeed Christoper, who can say with certainty the thoughts in the mind of those who committed their stories to tape; what and who were the influencers?

Consider though the extremely close involvement of both Dolours and Brendan with Adams and its a challenge to image that more visceral motives of retribution weren't at play. Given all that both endured, wouldn't most reasonable people allow for push-back considering Adams' blatant lying about his role? Its glaringly obvious that both were, understandably so to my mind, embittered with the outcome and with Adams given his role in that process. To acknowledge any of that does not undermine in any way the veracity of their testimonies.

The world and his wife 'knows' that Adams was actively in control of IRA, that he has blood on his hands, that he was effectively responsible for the killing of innocents, and yet it seems as if a majority of people are now conveniently overlooking his lying. Its no surprise that some former comrades find it immensely challenging to square that circle.

The French thinker Ernest Renan writing in 1882 on the essential foundations of a nation wrote

“But the essence of a nation is that all its individual members should have many things in common; and also that all of them should hold many things in oblivion . . . It is good for all to know how to forget.”

That's a hard lesson to learn. And too big an ask perhaps, of those like Brendan, Dolours and countless others who literally gave it their all.

(Having reread your article C. I see that the 'wasted life' comment was in response to a question about the movie having an anti-war theme. I can see that in that particular context it takes on a different meaning. If I remember correctly Dolours is reported somewhere as having acerbically quipped that her efforts 'weren't worth having missed one breakfast for'! In terms of outcomes in relation to her paramilitary efforts and time served she probably did, as so many others also hold, a view that those efforts were substantially wasted.
With regards to the duplication of footage in Voices and the movie its just Ed doing what he does ... maximising profits!)

Thanks for the review and the exchanges,
H.J.