Seán Crosson delves into the waters of Loic Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the Life of Man, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
The islands off the West coast of Ireland have been the subject of many books, paintings and films. The lives of those who inhabit these often neglected areas have provided the inspiration for such seminal figures as W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and documentarian Robert Flaherty. However rarely has the perspectives of islanders themselves (before the advent of TG4) been the central concern of film work, particularly work that has emerged from outside of Ireland.
French director Loic Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the life of Man, which includes TG4 among its funders, goes to considerable lengths to foreground the challenges faced by islanders off the West of Ireland (and indeed across Europe as a whole) in a work narrated by an Irish-speaking fisherman from Inishbofin (off Donegal), John O’Brien. O’Brien has been engaged in a campaign for almost ten years to save his livelihood as a fisherman against the imposition of laws by both the Irish state and the European Union hampering his efforts to do so.
Watching Jourdain’s documentary, I was reminded of a line from John Doyle in Cathal Black’s Korea (1995): “We impoverish the fishing for the tourists”. In Black’s film, based on a short story of the same name by John McGahern, Doyle is the last to fish his local lake in county Cavan for his living before his licence is taken away to preserve stocks for the increasing numbers of tourists arriving to Ireland in the late 1950s. Similarly, O’Brien finds his own livelihood as a fisherman threatened as the government places increasing limits on what salmon he can fish, in order (it is claimed) to save stocks for visiting anglers to Ireland.
However, a core focus of the film is the close connection between fishermen such as O’Brien and his local environment, a connection that is informed by generations of fishermen who have learned to fish sustainably and responsibly from their local environment. This includes rotating the fish caught each season to avoid overfishing a single species, unlike the massive factory boats that plunder the fish stocks close to Inishbofin. However, as a consequence of Irish and EU policies, O’Brien is forced to overfish single species throughout the year given the limitations placed on his work. Unsurprisingly, most coastal fishermen are forced to leave their livelihoods behind, with O’Brien (like Doyle) one of the very few left still trying to make a living from fishing on Inishbofin.
In a beautifully shot work, Jourdain follows O’Brien’s campaign for recognition of the needs of coastal communities from Inishbofin to Brussels. He also visits other European island communities, from islands off Bittanny to Corsica, as part of a campaign to build a significant lobby group to save the fishing livelihoods of coastal communities. One is struck in watching the film by O’Brien’s sincerity and humanity; his journey to Brussels and growing understanding of the political and bureaucratic systems that decide his own livelihood is also our own journey.
In this respect, the film is one of the most accessible and informative studies of the role the EU now plays in our lives – often largely ignored or misunderstood – as O’Brien grows to understand the importance of making common cause with other island communities across Europe and with a non-governmental organisation to support his lobbying efforts for recognition for the rights of coastal communities. He does eventually achieve some recognition, following meetings with the EU fisheries commissioner and an address to the European Parliament. However, the film closes on a pessimistic note; it seems further EU regulation on natural environments may make all the gains made irrelevant.
In the context of the continuing fallout from the Greek crisis, A Turning Tide in the Life of Man is a sobering reminder of the disconnect between the political and bureaucratic institutions in Brussels and the needs of communities on Europe’s periphery.
Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).
A Turning Tide in the Life of Man screened on Saturday, 11th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)