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London Film Festival Review: The Pipe

Xander Markham- Flixist

At its heart, the story of The Pipe is a profound and disturbing failure of democracy. It's all too easy to take for granted the numerous controversies and immoralities that we hear of governments taking part in on the news because they always seem to be behind the scenes dealing, causing little or no direct damage to the civilian population. So what if a politician is in some corporation's back pocket? It's not great, but at least I still have my house and livelihood. Risteard O'Domhnaill’s documentary shines a spotlight on an ongoing battle between Shell Oil and the Irish coastal town of Rossport, whose small but familial community found themselves thrown to the wolves by the government which should have been protecting them.

O'Domhnaill follows five citizens whose peaceful protests see them beaten by police acting as corporate enforcers, arrested and jailed for months on the word of officers without evidence or proveable charge, and have their fishing boats impounded (and as fisherman Pat O'Donnell revealed in the subsequent Q&A, later sunk by masked thugs) for protecting the waters where the fishing rights were exclusively theirs. It's impossible not to laugh at the ridiculousness of seeing the Irish government send a navy warship to break up a barricade of tiny boats, led by O'Donnell, whose sole crime is making sure Shell's enormous tanker doesn't damage their fishing equipment.

Although Rossport's struggles may appear extreme, the film shows the extent to which the democratic system has been mutilated by governments desperate to cling onto power at any cost, rather than aiding the people they are supposed to be serving. Throughout Rossport's fight to preserve their coastline, they find laws being habitually broken by those who put them in place.

Despite being represented in the media as ideologically spiteful, the locals repeat over and over again that they have no problem with Shell mining the gas and making profits, but refuse to allow their livelihoods and local ecosystem to be destroyed in the process. Should the gas line be put in place, the fishing industry on which the town thrives would be ruined and the environmental damage (especially to the nearby river, impotently 'protected' by the European Union, where salmon swim upstream to spawn) would be catastrophic. It was revealed during the Q&A that the locals were informed by Shell they would have "about thirty seconds" to evacuate if the pipeline ruptured before their homes would be destroyed. Contrast the corporation's blind tearing up of the (public) local beach to farmer Willie Corduff's knowledge of the volatile local land inherited from his father – a bog through which the pipe is projected to be laid has such unstable ground that it wobbles under the feet of anyone crossing it – and it becomes apparent how real that danger is.

Submissions to Shell for potential alternate routes go ignored and as the bullying by police and corporate pressure intensifies (according to the Q&A, Shell have reportedly begun offering large bribes to select members of the community), the once peaceful town becomes increasingly divided. One of the greatest tragedies is seeing how many of the policemen, now so vigourous in their beating of the pacifist protestors, used to be long-time family friends of those manning the picket lines. Watching the townsfolk address officers by name and make ignored pleas for clemency and respect exemplifies how false the old adage that 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' really is. In truth, all it takes for a man to turn on his oldest friends is a day-glo jacket, a baton and some official orders to act out.

Shell refused to take part in the film, which does result in a somewhat one-sided perspective, but director O'Domhnaill never descends into baseless moralising. The story is told through the eyes of the 'Rossport five' (although Pat O'Donnell takes a lead role for the film's final act) as they go about their efforts to protect what is rightfully theirs and are blocked or dismissed – often illegally – at every step. As the film's editor Nigel O'Reagan stated during the Q&A, the decision was made to exclude any footage where judgment was expressed on Shell's actions in favour of leaving it to the audience to make the moral calls for themselves. The five locals were present at the screening and Pat O'Donnell told a more recent story of when Shell overstepped their rights to lay undersea pipeline by fifty metres and were taken to court by O'Donnell's son Jonathan. Even though the judged deemed Shell's actions unlawful, he stated that it would be 'unfair' to the corporation to ask them to retract the pipeline and ruled in their favour - leaving Jonathan O'Donnell to pick up the legal costs.

At under ninety minutes (reduced, according to editor O'Reagan, from a first cut of nine hours taken from over four years' worth of footage), the film is a tightly told story that makes its points without labouring or preaching. Rossport makes a beautiful setting and is elegantly photographed, from the tall green hills and rolling ocean waves to homely charm of the town itself, making it all the more distressing when we have to watch it being dug up by an army of invading tractors. If The Cove (an outstanding 2009 documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan, which like The Pipe also exposed a wide-reaching web of political and human cruelty) horrified in its representations of animal abuse, anyone who has ever taken pleasure in a beautiful landscape will feel similarly sick at the mechanical desecration of Glengad beach.

The Pipe may be additionally topical in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - an event the locals said in the Q&A that they were morbidly thankful for, as it brought the dangers of pipeline faults into the public consciousness – but the lasting story will be one of how easily good men can be betrayed by the people they elected to protect them and the once trusted friends who sold out for the slightest whispers of power. Although the film ends with Shell in temporary retreat, the legal wranglings are still ongoing and Shell continue to lay down the pipe, apparently hoping that they can finish before the cases against them reach court and content to deal with a fine as long as their work is completed, no matter the human or communal cost.

Despite the distressing nature of the film's subject matter, it's the locals who keep the tone hopeful and uplifting. Pat O'Connell, in a moment of joy, gets the closing line and it's a perfect summation of the passion, broad humour and gutsy bravado that keeps him going. As long as there are good people willing to stand up to the higher powers that try to bully them (Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern outright condemns the townspeople for standing up for themselves in a clip near the beginning of the film), their voices will be eventually heard. Whether or not those voices can make an impact will surely be the ultimate judgment on whether we in the Western world can still call ourselves free, or even if we deserve to.

The Pipe Official Website

Score: 8.45 - Great (Movies that score between 8.00 and 8.50 are great representations of their genre that everyone should see in theatres on opening night)