Aoife Kelleher talks to Risteard Ó Domhnaill, director of The Pipe, winner of Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Fleadh.
Completed in the year which has seen the largest marine oil spill in history, The Pipe, Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s brilliantly observed and provocative documentary, is a timely examination of the experiences of a small community as it comes up against the might of the petroleum industry. The film chronicles the struggles of the inhabitants of the maritime village of Rossport, Co. Mayo, as they seek to protect themselves and their livelihoods from the dangers posed by a proposed gas pipeline. In doing so, they find themselves pitted, not only against Shell, but also against the State, An Garda Síochána and, finally, against each other.
Filmed over three years, The Pipe follows the conflict as it moves from the fields and waters around Rossport, to the Department of the Marine & Natural Resources in Dublin and, ultimately, to the European Parliament. Keenly aware of how the protesters have been portrayed by the news media, Ó Domhnaill allows the stories of these farmers, teachers and fishermen to unfold without any recourse to onscreen narration. In the process, he grants the people of this abandoned and divided community the opportunity to articulate their own plight.
Screened at the Galway Film Fleadh, where it won the award for Best Feature Documentary, and, more recently, at the Toronto Film Festival, The Pipe has consistently won over audiences with its depiction of a modern-day David vs. Goliath.
Tell me a bit about your background and the background to the documentary.
I got into filmmaking by accident. I did Theoretical Physics at Trinity and then I did a degree in Irish and History in Galway. I worked as a substitute teacher for a year in Dublin – just as a stopgap – and did a night course in Film and Television in Griffith College. Towards the end of that, I got work experience in Loopline doing assistant editing and then got a job as a production assistant on a TG4 arts programme called Soiscéal Padraig. I worked there for a year before I got the opportunity to move back to Mayo. Mayo is my second home, really – my mother is from Mayo, my uncle lives there and I would have spent all my summers there as a child. We’d go to Mayo and spend the summer on my uncle’s farm, which is very close to the gas.
So I moved back to Mayo, lived with my uncle and worked with Gillian Marsh. That was in 2006, after the Rossport 5 were released from jail. Then, in May 2006, the State sent in about 200 guards to break a blockade by the local community of the Shell refinery at Ballinaboy. Out of pure curiosity, because it was only down the road, I started filming and, because the place was very isolated and it’s hard to get a news crew up there, I was able to send footage to TG4 and RTÉ News and get a fee for it. It was just a handy little earner – I wasn’t really trying to make a documentary about the gas. This went on for a few weeks and one thing that struck me was that these people weren’t lunatics, they were just normal people who wanted to protect their community and had genuine fears for their safety. I thought the media was turning their story from one of farmers and fishermen versus an oil company into a story of ideologically damaged people who had a problem with the State and just wanted a row. A lot of the stuff that was being reported was completely overhyped – there were stories of IRA involvement and of anarchists, and it was really set up as a story of extremists versus the guards. While this went on, the refinery was being built, so Shell and the government were quite happy with this distraction from the real issues, which were health, safety and the environment.
I kept filming and, about six months later, I had a massive amount of footage. I went to Alan Maher in the Film Board and he was interested in it. I also went to TG4 – I cut a little promo myself and they were taken with it, so I had the Film Board and TG4 on board. I got a producer and had him for two years. That didn’t work out and that’s when I got Rachel [Lysaght] on board.
Did you approach the film with a particular style in mind?
The style kind of evolved. I didn’t know how to shoot a documentary really and, at the start, I was filming it like news. Gradually, I started to film more with the characters and began to just stay with them. I was shooting on a Sony Z1 HDV camera, which is very inconspicuous, so the protestors, the guards and everybody else just ignored me. I had great access because there wasn’t that barrier that goes up when you have a big news camera and crew and I just kept filming out on the boats with the fishermen and in the fields with the farmers. I’d put a little radio mic on them and follow them around for a few hours and see what fell out the other end. The material that started coming out was really incredible and I thought: ‘OK, we’ll make a half-hour doc out of this, it’ll be great.’ But the story kept evolving and things kept moving on and, from 2006, it was another three years before I got to the end of the filming.
How did you craft a film from the material?
We went into the edit with Stephen O’Connell for two months in 2009 and we basically ran out of money. I then approached Riverside TV in Galway – I’d cut a doc with Nigel O’Regan and I found him really good – so he and I started editing in November 2009 and then on and off for about eight months. I came to Nigel with a three-hour timeline and we got it down to about 83 minutes. It was just a hatchet job really, for a lot of it. I had been trying to put two documentaries into one. There was the human interest story of the people on the ground that I’d been filming but I’d also been researching into the political and historic context of Corrib right back to the mid-seventies. Justin Keating – who was then the Labour Minister for Industry & Commerce – put in place Norwegian-style oil and gas terms where the State would get a 50% stake in any oil and gas that was discovered. Subsequently, in the late eighties and early nineties, Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern tore up his legislation and basically privatised Irish offshore and handed it over to the oil companies, with very little room for any regulation. So I did a lot of research into that: I interviewed Justin Keating before he died and I interviewed a lot of people who brought me through the story up until the gas was discovered in 1996 by Enterprise Oil, who were very close to Fianna Fáil. They were a donor to the party and they got some great drilling concessions and it was in one of those drilling concessions that they found Corrib.
It took a lot of time for me to let go of that context and make it a completely human story. Eventually, we started throwing out the expert interviews and voice-over and the more we took out, the more the human story came to the fore. Whenever we took something out, we always found something in the rushes – because we had 400 hours of material – to bridge that gap. The people could always tell their story so elegantly and effectively, much better than any voice-over or expert could. It was a hugely painful process and we spent a lot of time in the edit arguing the points and cutting away, letting go of all the traditional-style doc stuff to get to the real story.
Did you seek any cooperation or contribution from Shell?
I had a good relationship with Shell and I would have known their PR people through shooting for news. I sent them material and emails and tried to get them on board for an interview but they would never agree to an open interview – there was always a lot of preconditions and we couldn’t do that because you can’t allow one particular body’s PR department to control what does and doesn’t go into the film. Eventually we had to draw a line with Shell – we gave them a deadline and they didn’t come back to us in time, so we just put a text box up at the start of the film so people would know from the start that we don’t have a contribution from Shell.
Do you think that makes the documentary unbalanced?
You can’t say it’s a balanced documentary. I don’t know if there’s any such thing as balance. It’s the story of a community. What I tried to do was concentrate on the people in the path of the pipeline and try and tell that story honestly. It’s not a PR film for these people. You see them losing it at times: you see them cursing, you see their good side but you also see their weaknesses. It’s not balanced, but it is an honest portrayal of what happened there in the community.
You mentioned that, because it was just you and a small Z1 camera, you were almost like a piece of the furniture, but there’s a difference between shooting protests for news and filming in people’s homes and boats and actually taking on their stories in a more comprehensive way. How did you negotiate the process of gaining access?
I never set out to make a documentary; it evolved. I was shooting it as news but, since I would have spent all my summers up there as a child, people knew me, so I was never seen as an outside camera crew – it was just me with a small camera, filming stuff. If I called up to somebody with the camera in their home, they just got on with it. Also, when they had community meetings or when what was happening would have been sensitive to the community, I was able to be there and they wouldn’t really notice or change their behaviour. Whereas, if there had been a bigger crew and not just one person they would have been more reserved or wouldn’t have let me in in the first place.
Was there a moment, then, when the participants signed on to a feature documentary?
Not really. I filmed it before I got release forms from them. It was a surprise to them when they came to Galway and saw the film because I was there for so long that they’d given up on me actually doing anything big or special. I don’t know did they know what to expect.
You mentioned the screening at the Galway Film Fleadh, which was the premiere of the film and also the first screening for the community. What was the response from the community and also from the general audience at the screening?
Galway was the first screening, so I was apprehensive. You don’t know how people are going to react because you’re baring the soul of a community on a big screen and there are some very uncomfortable bits for them watch. But I was blown away by their reaction, both during the screening and at the end, when we got a standing ovation. People really appreciated it – even though a lot of it was tough to watch for some of them, they appreciated the fact that, for the first time, their story was portrayed as honestly as it could be.
Not everyone was happy with it. A lot of people were uncomfortable with the fact that I showed so much of the community meetings because people don’t like to see their dirty linen aired in public but all in all they were appreciative. They were really emotional after the screening – some people were in tears. To have everything brought back to them in the space of 83 minutes was like being hit by a steam train for some people – everything from the jailing of the Rossport 5 to the baton charge and the stress on the community all came back in one chunk. It was a lot for them to take in, but it was an incredible reaction, really good.
On top of that reaction from the community you also won the award for Best Feature Documentary.
Winning the Best Feature Doc – I won’t say it was an anti-climax but I was so burned out from the screening that I didn’t quite appreciate winning the award at the time. We started to appreciate it when we began to get calls from festivals and distributors. Even though Galway is a small festival, it’s really respected around the world. It’s got a great reputation and it does feature on the radar of people in the industry, so Galway really was the springboard for getting into Toronto.
Tell me about Toronto: how was the experience of attending the festival?
When we were selected for Toronto, I didn’t know what kind of a festival it was. The more we started finding out about it, the more we realised that it’s right up there with Cannes and Sundance. It’s also the place for a doc if you want to get distribution: it’s where the deals are done and it’s where all the distributors are. We went over to Toronto for a week and it was just a rollercoaster – the amount of media coverage we got was incredible. We had a publicist over there and we got seven minutes on CBC, on a prime-time news show. We also got a great review from Variety. The reaction from the audience in Toronto was incredible and we got a standing ovation the night we premiered. We had wondered whether the film would travel – the Canadians are a bit conservative compared to us, so would they get the humour, the emotion and the concepts? Would they actually understand what people are saying? When they seemed to get all that and really engage with the film emotionally, it was a huge relief.
Off the back of Toronto, then, we got great interest worldwide. We got accepted for London, the doc festival in Amsterdam – IDFA, Palm Springs and loads of other festivals. Also, in Toronto, we signed with our North American sales agent, Cinetic, and they’re a dream to work with.
Presumably the BP oil spill in the Gulf had also raised awareness around the issues you dealt with in The Pipe?
The timing was really fortuitous. There was a lot of delay in getting the film finished but it was worth it because just when we were finishing in the edit, the Gulf oil spill happened. Now, it was a real tragedy – there were ten people killed in it and a lot of pollution – but it brought the issues that were raised in The Pipe into the mainstream media and made them very topical. There were other problems at the time: the day before our premiere in Toronto, a gas pipe blew up in California and a whole neighbourhood was burnt to a crisp, so when they were watching the film, the people in Canada were very aware of the context, more so than they would have been a year ago. In the Q&A after the screening, those issues came into the questions and really informed the debate.
Would you consider making a follow-up?
I would. As I said, the political and historical context of how Corrib came about needs to be explored. It’s a reflection on how things were done during the Celtic Tiger era, when regulation was very lax, huge amounts of control and leeway were given to private companies to the detriment of the citizens of Ireland. The politicians didn’t show leadership, they didn’t have the backbone to stand up to private companies and say ‘We have to do things properly; we have to do things sustainably for the interests of the people of Ireland and in the interests of employment, safety and the environment, all rolled into one.’ Responsible, long-term thinking didn’t happen and it was the same in a lot of other areas in Ireland – in building, in the banks, you name it. So this is just another microcosm of the direction we took during the Celtic Tiger, which was to the short-term benefit of private companies and to the detriment of private citizens, whose rights and whose future were sacrificed.
How do you feel the documentary has impacted on the community in Rossport?
Because it hasn’t been shown widely, I don’t think that the documentary has had a huge impact on the community nor do I know that it will. People’s trust in the State and their relationships with others in their community have been so damaged that it will take a long time for things to heal. Even if this Corrib fiasco is resolved in some way and a solution is found, the scars will last for generations. The fact that there’s no real effort to find a solution isn’t helping. I don’t know what my documentary can do – it may even open the wounds a little more. Hopefully it will raise awareness in Ireland and abroad about how damaging something like this can be: when the politicians turn away and the media doesn’t step up to the plate. One thing that’s worth saying is that these people were never against the gas, they just wanted it done in a sustainable way, according to industry standards, which didn’t have to railroad their rights or their health and safety. They wanted the gas and the economic prosperity it would bring, but not at that price.
What’s next for the film?
We’re still in the middle of trying to get it distributed. We’re trying to get it into cinemas in Ireland, starting from the 3rd of December, so that’s what we’re aiming for at the moment: to get it out in Irish cinemas, then getting it out on TG4, our broadcaster. We also have a sales agent in Europe and North America and we’re hoping to hear back from them soon. We hope to get some sort of theatrical release in the US and Canada and then get it broadcast in Europe and around the world.
Rachel [Lysaght] has been fantastic in terms of publicity, in pushing us to make the film as good as it can be and in how she has dealt with broadcasters and funders. She has great people skills, which has been really important because it’s a difficult production – we’re trying to make the most out of limited resources, so you have to bring in any favours you can and try to cut down on costs and Rachel has been at the centre of that, driving us forward.
Film Ireland’s screening of ‘The Pipe’ and Q&A with the filmmakers at 6.15pm Monday 13th December (Q&A 7.45pm) has being postponed until 2011, for more details click here.
The Pipe reviewed here.