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Of bogs and brothels: ‘The Pipe’ and ‘Sensation’ at the BFI London Film Festival 2010

Garin Dowd - Film Ireland

Dr. Garin Dowd of Thames Valley University, London, reports from the BFI London Film Festival where Risteard O Domhnaill’s ‘The Pipe’ and Tom Hall’s ‘Sensation’ were screened recently.

In reflecting on the Irish presence at this year’s London Film Festival one cannot help but be struck by how both in content and in context it offers up compelling symbolism both for the present state of film funding and the larger geopolitical and economic determinants which have impinged on the recent past and chaotic present of contemporary Ireland.

While the UK Film Council has been axed under the coalition government in Westminster, one of the two Irish features on show at this year’s festival (the other being Tom Hall’s ‘Sensation’), ‘The Pipe’, is funded by the Irish Film Board, its equivalent on this side of the Irish Sea. Risteard O Domhnaill’s documentary was therefore screened in a programme which included what will be one of the last films to be funded by the Film Council, John Akomfrah’s ‘The Nine Muses’. The films are linked by more than funding. ‘The Pipe’ features a maritime location (the Mayo coast) while ‘The Nine Muses’ alternates between Alaska and archive footage of immigration from the West Indies to Britain is a film largely set in maritime space (the coasts of Mayo and Alaska respectively).

One of the astonishing effects of ‘The Pipe’ was to make the work in progress off the shores of Mayo (the titular conduit) of the giant petro-chemical company Shell almost already a ruin. ‘The Pipe’ concerns the 10 year (to date) resistance of the local community in the area surrounding the village of Rossport, Co. Mayo, to the laying of a high pressure gas pipe intended, in a departure from standard practice worldwide which sees the gas treated and refined at sea, to bring untreated gas from the Corrib gas field to a refinery on the mainland.

At the time of the premiere of ‘The Pipe’ at the Galway Film Fleadh this summer one of its main subjects had just been released from seven months in prison for the very infringements of public safety laws filmed by O Domhnaill in the making of his film. His hand never far from the unmistakable classic packet of 20 Major, Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell’s canniness, clarity of thought and purpose, and powers of articulation are extraordinary in the face of police intimidation as his small fishing boat floats in the imposing shadow of “the celebrated Solitaire” (the world’s largest pipe-laying vessel) as the local retired schoolteacher turned activist, Maura Harrington, puts it.

Despite the Chief’s main argument being based on the safeguarding of his livelihood and his defiance on a sense of his individual rights as a fisherman licensed to fish the waters, he is not without comprehension of the larger geo-political context. Thus when his boat is impounded he removes, he says with great reluctance, its tricolour because in this act the Gardaí are not acting for the state but for Shell – or, as the director puts it, the state-Shell conglomerate.

The Chief’s courage on the seas is quietly mirrored on land as the main ideologue of the local Shell to Sea group, Maura Harrington, goes on hunger strike. Meanwhile the exclusively legal battle pursued by the third main subject of the documentary, Monica Muller, makes significant gains for the local community, while the farmer Willie Corduff is the film’s voice of the householders who feel a direct threat in the face of a high-pressure pipe which is at that stage to be laid in a bog. “Bogs have their own technology” he comments with arresting sagacity.

The film dispassionately observes the contending forces within the community, and in some sense, while showing the unity of purpose and in particular a unity in anger and defiance, is also able to show how unavoidably post-political this struggle is. Setting aside any triumph the local community or activist groups may have had and may yet have in this particular case, the image of long lines of security guards drawn from private firms working together with the Gardaí on the beach to safeguard the illegal operations of the invisible and monolithic Shell, offers a disquieting summing up of Ireland, in particular, but in general of the supplanting of state regulatory functions by corporate interest groups over the last two decades.

In this respect the film entered into a dialogue with another more experimental documentary showing at the festival - and soon at the IFI - Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson in Ruins’. Keiller’s Robinson sets off on the third of his idiosyncratic tours often using defunct or existing infrastructures from military and petrochemical industries as his guides. Interesting too is the fact that both films address the question of common land. Robinson visits Newbury and nearby Greenham Common, making links between riots against the enclosures of 16th century and the post-war history of the common. ‘The Pipe’ considers the ‘commonage’ bogland jointly owned by 22 members of the community of Rossport which are threatened by the proposed laying of the pipe. Both films ask to whom a landscape belongs in an era wherein strategic public sector assets are taken over by the private sector and often by consortia in part or entirely outside the state.

The back-story of The Pipe is the highly controversial and short-sighted legislation established in 1987 and 1992 by the corrupt and thoroughly discredited Haughey regime which handed over all potential future profits from gas and oil exploration to the multinational petrochemical giants (a longer narrative which the director decided it would not be possible to contain in the film). In this sense the longer narrative predates the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. Historically Ireland has looked to the western island as a symbol of mythic unity before the chaos of conquest. With the recent publication of Lorna Siggins’ book on the same topic, this documentary serves to remind us that the neo-liberal ceding of sovereignty by the state, abetted by the state’s commitment to corporations rather than its citizens, is at the root of the ongoing struggle in a remote outpost of Ireland.

If, insofar as it addresses a story with its real beginnings in the late 1980s, ‘The Pipe’ is a film which is concerned in part with the pre-Celtic tiger economy, Tom Hall’s latest film ‘Sensation’ is located very firmly in post-Tiger Ireland, where the developers are sitting on land which is falling in price and where apartment projects lie abandoned. The film attempts to forge an unfamiliar path.

The opening scene may initially look at home in the world of ‘The Riordans’ or ‘Bracken’, but only until we catch up with the protagonist and his masturbation aids in the midst of the sheep droppings. Into the symbolic desolation, both economic and emotional, of this Ireland walks the New Zealand prostitute, Courtney/Kim (Luanne Gordon) with whom the recently-bereaved 26 year old Donal (played by Domhnall Gleeson), is inheriting his father’s farm and savings, forms a bond first as paying-customer, then as lover, then as business partner, and of course given that the business is a brothel as partner in crime. One of the director’s avowed intentions is to highlight how sexuality, mediated via the sex industry in the broad sense, has so rapidly displaced other forms of cultural exchange in the Ireland of the last two decades. The film attempts to present a blackly comic portrait of a society which has leapt eagerly into this along the myriad routes opened by broadband. Hall seeks to display his characters not as innocent dupes of ‘pornification’ but as knowingly complicit and parastic upon it.

Donal’s apology at one point, ‘I’m sorry I called you a whore’, is intended to suggest he is developing an awareness of Courtney not entirely filtered through pornography and commodification, as earlier in the film the utterance which announces his first non-self administered orgasm suggests. Yet at this point he is providing the local male farmers with the services of sex workers, including her. In a telling gesture towards the rise of racism in contemporary Ireland, one punter, a farmer who has earlier conned Donal into selling his sheep for too little, chooses the white Irish girl over the black economic migrant from England, but asks that the one dons the fetish attire of the other.

In short everyone in ‘Sensation’ is exploitative in a network without any centre. Dublin is as far away or as near as Hong Kong. Significantly it is only Courtney who makes the trip to the capital. The raison d’être for her trip – cosmetic surgery – however serves little purpose in the film other than to facilitate the gratuitously sordid scene between Courtney and Carl, played by newcomer Patrick Ryan, which follows her return; indeed it jars in an unconvincing manner with the apparent embrace of a plot of mutual strength through improbable romance which the film pursues. This, like most of the second half, steers a determined course, to the detriment of the film, along certain genre coordinates, including some the film would have one believe it avoids, ‘this is not “Pretty Woman”’ Kim declares during one of her first encounters with Donal. While ‘Sensation’ is keen to interrogate an Ireland in which liberalisation and neo-liberalism marched perhaps too eagerly to the rapid tempo of the market, the film makes more frequent recourse to the clichés of provincial backwardness than its makers would perhaps acknowledge.