IFI Documentary Festival Review: Bargaintown

Grace Corry hurries on down to Bargaintown, David Jazay’s film about Dublin’s Liffey quays and its inhabitants, which screened at the IFI Documentary Festival.

 

David Jazay once referred to himself as a “memory maintenance worker”, a reviver of lost or forgotten social and cultural histories, his work revolving around the documentation of changing urban and rural spaces and indeed spaces that had already been relegated to the past. Bargaintown – shown at the recent IFI Documentary Festival for the first time ever in Dublin – is case in point.

This feature-length documentary presents rarely seen footage of the Liffey quays and its inhabitants as a new wave of modernism swept through, photographed by Jazay from 1982 to 1992 and throughout 1988/9 when the film was made, detailing all the beloved characteristics that made it both a city community and an alluring, strange landscape. Captivated, David spent a decade documenting the architectural heritage of the docks as it evolved and even disappeared, replaced in the absence of imagination by radical office blocks, a decision seemingly made without any orientation toward the cultural and aesthetic future of the city, or indeed its history. The auction rooms that were once dotted all along the quays, side by side with family antique and furniture businesses, exist now only in the archives which, here, Jazay has so lovingly and comprehensively contributed to.

The opening moments of Bargaintown are set in total darkness – we sit in front of a blank screen nostalgically listening to the familiar voices of inner city traders selling fruit, as they air out into the theatre. Unaccompanied by the image a recognizable, almost inherent sound can afford an opportunity to engage in and enhance a filmic experience viscerally, and in this instance, did so from the outset. Buildings appear, the man and his camera first fixated on those which had fallen along the Liffey, the buildings that were just short of falling and the buildings that had fallen foul of fire, dilapidation and vandalism.

The city conditions were bad, and possibly some of the worst in that era of European capital history. Although this is reflected in many of the stories shared, the interviewee’s generally seem as light-hearted as you’d expect. We meet ‘The Mad Barber Ellis’, whose longing for the return of “civic pride” is subverted by his humorous (and somewhat foretelling) opinions about pollution and obesity. Mick Hoban of ‘The Workingman’s Club’ (now the ‘Workman’s’) muses with Jazay over possible reasons why the preservation laws put in place to protect Georgian Dublin were “knocked away”, or why the newly erected central bank was mistakenly built thirty feet higher than was permitted, stories told with a grin and a healthy measure of sarcasm. He returns at the end of the documentary to sing us out with ‘Ireland Mother Ireland’ from a bingo hall, preceded by singer Frank Quigley, who performs with his blues band mid-way through the film to a lively pub crowd, recorded with affection. Earlier on, Dick Tynan (who was present at the screening) also performed jazz drums from a corner of his furniture shop, music which Jazay plays over the ensuing lengthy shots from the street, thus merging the exotic and the ordinary.

Filmed in black and white on 16mm, this exhibition is a remarkable departure from cinematic depictions of Ireland up to that point. Shots of the shop fronts – whilst indulging Jazay’s fascination with signage and iconography – give emphasis to what would otherwise be considered mundane and unworthy of focus, shots which are now precious, demonstrating the meaning that can be exacted from a film that has no intention other than to observe, and perhaps eventually remind. At its purest, nostalgia compels a sense of truth in us, and Jazay’s greatest achievement in this sense was the significance he placed with the voices from within the environment, not forgetting the buildings themselves, or in fact Bargaintown, which is the only remaining furniture business from that time.

For an unobstructed, barely pre-Celtic Tiger depiction of life in 80s Dublin, catch this documentary anytime you can.

 

 

Bargaintown screened at the IFI on 27th September 2015 as part of the IFI Documentary Festival (23 – 27 September 2015)

 

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