Nationalism on film
Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions
Conference at the Irish Film Centre, 13-15 November
A Unionist `go-slow' was the reason behind the lack of momentum
in the Peace Process today, stated Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly at
this weekend conference in the Irish Film Centre in Dublin.
The conference, coming at a time of change and stocktaking within
Nationalism generally, was certainly timely and the format
promising. A series of guest speakers and commentators showed
chosen newsreel footage of a particular decade and then explained
and commented on their choice of footage while attempting to
place it in the wider context of the time to an audience of
politicians, academics and film-makers.
Professor Paul Bew of Queen's in Belfast looked at the 1950s. His
chosen archive footage included an Irish Government short film on
housing discrimination in Fintona, Co Tyrone in 1953; the
Republican Movement's annual Bodenstown Commemoration in 1955 and
an interview with Dublin Minister Sean McBride for American TV in
The Fintona documentary was particularly interesting. It provided
a stark illustration of life for Nationalists in what Bew called
the `Golden Age' of Unionist domination. Interestingly Bew
rubbished Austin Currie's oft declared claim that the incident in
Caledon, Co Tyrone over housing discrimination which sparked off
the Civil Rights era represented a one in a million chance. It
was instead, insisted Bew, only one example of a systematic
pattern that could be traced all over the Northern State.
Responding to questions from the floor Bew suggested that over
the next few months if not weeks the leadership of Unionism
``would have to engage in the process of dealing with the wrongs
of the past. But their dealing with it may not be exactly what
people in Dublin expect''
Bew also pointed out that it was a widely held misconception that
Republicanism was moribund in the 1950s as the footage of the
1955 Bodenstown Commemoration clearly attested. The crowd, while
difficult to determine with precision, must have easily exceeded
ten thousand marchers.
Margaret MacCurtain, leading Womens Studies academic, introduced
footage from the 1960s including students striking in UCD in 1969
with interviews of then young radicals Ruairi Quinn and Kevin
Myers. Myers' later condemnation and retraction of the ideals of
the student radicals was described by Margaret MacCurtain as
``utter rubbish'', much to the amusement and approval of the
audience. Poignant footage showed the return of Roger Casement's
``body'' in 1969. The subsequent revelation at the conference that
the coffin only contained stones, as the dead patriot's body had
been rendered after execution by quicklime, seemed to serve as an
appropriate and ironic commentary on the hypocrisy of the
assembled politicians, including a young and solemn looking
Finance Minister, Charles Haughey.
But the highlight of this section was surely that of a young
Bernadette Devlin being hounded by an almost as young Rodney Rice
about her Communist credentials. Struggling to come to terms with
an articulate, politicised and clearly more intelligent woman,
Rice asked what impression the newly elected `street agitator and
communist' would make in Westminster. Much to his obvious
discomfort Bernadette responded that the closest thing in western
Europe to a communist party was the Ulster Unionist Party!
The format of the conference inevitably became more problematic
when speakers chose footage to illustrate latter decades. Even
the youngest participants had vivid memories of the 1970s and
1980s, the period addressed by journalist Mary Holland. Footage
of the documentary At the Edge of the Union was shown. Mary
Holland pointed out that what caused the most trouble for its
makers was not Martin McGuinness's defence of Republicanism but
footage of him feeding his young child and playing football with
children. This was not the image of a bloodthirsty IRA terrorist
that the British wanted portrayed. Mary Holland spoke about the
particular pressures placed upon journalists in RTE who were
terrified of being seen to be soft on Sinn Fein. Betty Purcell of
RTE, speaking from the floor, confirmed this when she stated that
she had been taken out of current affairs and put in a less
dangerous area after presenting a report on women prisoners in
The PUP's David Ervine presented footage of this year's SF Ard
Fheis and the arrival into the RDS of the Balcombe Street four.
Stating that this was triumphalist and pathetic Ervine tried to
convince the gathering that the emotional scenes of the Ard Fheis
had in some way almost succeeded in derailing the peace process .
While Ervine was afforded a lengthy round of applause after his
delivery not everyone bought his analysis. One Derry film-maker
pointed out that for her the footage represented something much
more significant. The return of some of our longest serving
prisoners represented closure, a homecoming and an ending on one
level and a new beginning, a new sense of optimism on another.
Anyway, by now Ervine was long gone but the sycophancy of a great
number of the Dublin audience towards him far exceeded the bounds
of normal hospitality and reserve. There are surely more
substantive and less glib voices in the community Ervine
represents and in many ways an opportunity to really engage with
recent developments was lost.
The weekend was rounded off with a panel discussion chaired by
Irish Times journalist Carol Coulter who took the opportunity to
question the creation of new myths surrounding the commemoration
of Irish involvement in the First World War. Her cautionary words
were timely and appropriate because if the weekend had
highlighted anything it was surely that history or more
accurately histories are themselves a battleground of meaning and
contesting ideologies. All in all the proceedings at the Irish
Film Centre most clearly illustrated this.
By Michael Tovey
A big hand...
A rounder is a poker player who knows all the angles and makes a
living at the poker table, the direct opposite of a sucker. In
this above average big city drama, Matt Damon stars as Mike
McDermott, a rounder who is trying to kick his card playing, get
a law degree and settle down with his girlfriend.
The impetus to quit came when he lost his entire stake to KGB,
played by John Malkovich, an infamous player connected to the
Russian mafia. Damon's plan works out until the release from
prison of his school friend Worm, played by the excellent Ed
Norton. Worm is deeply in debt to the wrong sort of people, and
Damon feels honour bound to help him get out of the hole.
Unfortunately, Worm, an inveterate cheat, proves to be an
unstable and disaster-prone partner and soon McDermott finds
himself saddled with more than he can handle.
If you'll pardon the pun, Rounders is a well-rounded movie, with
a top-line cast and a good strong plot.
Veteran director John Frankenheimer returns to the big screen
after a spell in television wilderness with Ronin, a fast-paced
and gritty action thriller starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno,
and Natascha McElhone.
McElhone plays a Belfast woman who assembles a band of hired guns
in Paris to mount an ambush to snatch a mysterious suitcase. The
Russian mafia (sound familiar?) is also keen to acquire the
luggage, and the film soon erupts into violence, with the case
changing hands and the crosses more than doubled. Car chases have
become a sad and predictable part of stock thrillers, but
Frankenheimer delivers some truly spectacular action in this
regard, with protracted mad dashes through the streets of Paris
and Nice. There is a rididulous Irish angle to the whole show,
republican dissidents being almost as popular as the Russian
mafia in Hollywood nowadays, but it ultimately detracts little
from a solid and gripping film.
By Martin Spain