Interview: The Story Behind the Image – Seán Ó Cualáin & Éamonn Ó Cualáín discuss ‘Men At Lunch’
‘There was no documentary made about it, no film, no books – well, maybe one or two books on the Rockefeller centre itself, but nothing else,’ says Seán Ó Cualáin, talking about his new documentary Men At Lunch. The feature-length documentary, screening theatrically in selected cinemas across Ireland this week, tells the story of one of the world’s most recognisable photos – and how ‘a chance happening’, as the filmmakers describe it, in a Galway pub led to identifying the previously-unknown subjects of it. Produced by Éamonn Ó Cualáín and in conjunction with TG4 and Sonta Films, Men At Lunch is a fascinating look at the construction of a building, an iconic landmark and, indeed, the construction of a nation.
What with ‘The Gathering’ and how emigration is, again, a huge part of Irish life, was Men At Lunch an attempt to comment on Irish diaspora? ‘Not at all, when we started this documentary, there was some crazy people talking about a bust. It wasn’t a part of a masterplan to make a documentary about emigration, it was just to investigate this claim. Since then, it’s been a huge realisation of the importance of emigrants to American. We hear the cliche, America was built emigrants – but it was and Irish were one of the first emigrants in America. And the fact that these ironworkers were first-generation, descendants of Famine Irish, is very powerful.’
Seán Ó Cualáin goes on to explain how it’s very easy to be flippant about the Irish influence, but for Irish Americans and, indeed, modern ironworkers, this image is their ‘badge of honour’. They’ve been invited to screen the film for the iron-workers of New York’s Freedom Tower. ‘It’s strange because, the photo was taken in the depths of the Depression, when the country was on its knees – and here we are, eighty years later, with an Irish photographer up there trying to recreate this (the Men At Lunch) image. We’ve come full circle.’ The image itself has now taken on a new importance, what with 9/11 and, as mentioned, the construction of the Freedom Tower. ‘We couldn’t not mention it, it wasn’t just name-checking it for the sake of it,’ explains Seán.
The response from international audiences for Men At Lunch has been overwhelming. Selected for the Toronto International Film Festival, all three screenings for the film sold out during its run there. As well as this, the film was selected for IFDA (International Documentary Film Festival) in Amsterdam and enjoyed four sold-out screenings.
Men At Lunch, according to Seán, wasn’t destined for a theatrical release. Indeed, the film was initially meant to be an Irish-language, one-hour documentary for TG4. ‘We never planned for it to be in Irish cinemas, we hoped for it – but how many Irish-language documentaries do you see being released nowadays? Or even Irish-language films, for that matter?’ When it was screened at the Galway Film Fleadh, the reaction from Irish audiences was more of horror at what the ironworkers went through. ‘It needs to be seen on a big-screen, y’know, the scale of how high up they were working.’
The image itself is shrouded in mystery; even who took the famous photograph is disputed. ‘After six months of research, we went over and back to New York. We changed the original credit of Charles Ebbetts to unknown and we’ve managed to identify – with proof – two of the workers in the image.’ The documentary plays like a detective story, as the research goes deeper and deeper and leaves them with more questions than they originally started. Already, a sequel is in the works and there’s talk of a series about the other images found within the Corbis Iron Mountain facility. ‘There’s more truths to find, explains Seán Ó Cualáin, ‘we have names now for the other workers – we need to find their story, as well.’
Men At Lunch will be screened at the IFI, Movies At Swords / Dundrum, Screen Cinema, Cineworld, Omniplex Galway and others from February 1st to February 7th.