Interview with Cathal Black

Cathal Black is one of the most significant film artists from Ireland’s “First Wave” of independent filmmaking during the 1970s and 1980s. 

In 2018 his newest documentary, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name, was screened at the 63rd Annual Cork International Film Festival. The documentary explores Máirín de Burca, a prominent feminist and Irish republican activist, whose divisive yet gripping story is portrayed by Black in a poetic yet analytical way.

Gabrielle Ulubay had the opportunity to interview Black about the film and about his career more generally.

 

To start off, I attended the Cork Film Festival screening of Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name, and I found it such an interesting documentary on both an informational and audiovisual level. Máirín de Burca, the subject of the film, is such a fascinating figure in Irish history. Would you mind speaking about how you came to make a documentary about her?

I was kind of called into something many years ago, when I was offered the chance to interview a woman who had set up Attic Press, and who was very badly ill at the time, and later died. But I interviewed her and put together a small trailer that we could not, unfortunately, get off the ground. From then, it developed into something more than that. To be honest, there were a few times when I wanted to abandon the project, but we tried to make it a bigger, broader documentary about people like Máirín, Nell McCafferty, and that kind of period. That didn’t take flight either, because of whatever the atmosphere in Ireland was like at the time – some people said that they’d covered it before, or they weren’t sure what the point of view was, or they wanted to sex it up or have a specific, named person walk us through the period. We tried to do that, and used a female comedian, but that got turned down. Then we tried another person, and it wasn’t going to work with her, either. I finally said that it was either going to work with Máirín or it wasn’t going to work at all. Now, someone else could have tried those things and make a different film, but I decided that I didn’t want to have a narrator who appears on screen every once in a while, because that could get a bit boring.

That’s what I like about your documentary. I told you at the end of the film’s screening that I feel documentaries don’t have to be confined to a succession of interviews or voiceover narration. So while you certainly did a few interviews, I found your audio-visual choices very gripping. For instance, it really stood out to me when you had the audio of an interview in the background while we looked at a house with its lights gradually going out. Could you talk about what drove you to make some of those choices?

Well, I didn’t really know what Máirín’s house was like. As a matter of fact, a lot of us thought that the house where she was brought up, in County Kildare, had been pulled down. We thought it was no longer there, and Máirín didn’t seem too keen on filming there. Then, a cousin of hers, named Tomás, who was at the screening in Cork, let us have a look at it, and it was still there. That was very interesting because in my imagination, I had a clear idea of what the house was like: I thought it would be two-storied with old-fashioned staircases, and that wasn’t so.

Now, once we arrived there, the problem was that we didn’t have much time to work with or to mull over what it was about the place that was so interesting. We found some old photographs that we put away in a trunk, and I thought that this house where she was brought up would be instrumental in discovering more about Máirín. She didn’t originally want to reveal much about her father and mother, but she did after a while, when she became comfortable with us. I thought that was a layer which, once brought out, would reveal more about the whole history.

There also aren’t many archives in Ireland about that period in history. There are certainly photographs, and there have been books or bits and pieces written about it, but I wondered how we could visualize all of this. I thought, How do we get to the essence of all of this? Then, when Máirín talked about how she left school at the age of 12 or 13, then joined Sinn Fein at the age of 16 and would come home late on her bike, I found all of that quite captivating. So I took the notion of the house as, one one hand, quite romantic, but on the other hand as having a lot of unrest and a certain amount of sadness. So that was a great way to convey all of that.

Could you talk about the process of finding actors to play Máirín at different ages? Did you have them speak directly with Máirín, or did she have a say in the casting? I imagine that it must have been challenging, because she’s a very complex person.

No, it wasn’t a very difficult process. If you look at the two women who play her, they don’t even look like her at times. I paid more attention to Máirín when she was older, so the woman who is in her twenties was more important to me, whereas the girl on the bicycle was just a one-day shoot. I was trying to match the photograph that Máirín has of herself in her hallway, from her school days. So I thought that if I got someone who looked like that, then I could pull that off. But because of the way this film was made, it was only two or three people trying to piece it together. We didn’t have the luxury of a casting director, so a lot of it we just did ourselves. People did us a load of favors. In fact, there was a woman in Kildare who dressed the girl and found the bike for us, and then we went up to the house and shot what we could. Then we waited for it to get a bit darker, and shot that sequence with her walking with the bike. Nearby, there was actually a school with a little theatre attached to it, so we took footage of the Irish flag on the top of the stage, which is part of Máirín’s story as well. So, in a way, these were all visual metaphors that would probably take us through the story.

The problem is that we had to cut what Máirín said down to its very bone, because there just isn’t enough time to include all of it. It was a question of being visually poetic, as opposed to moving the story along and making good use of time.

I like that you brought up the necessity to bring the film down to its very bones, not only because of time constraints but because of budget constraints. Now, because I am writing for a population that will include aspiring filmmakers working with little or no budget, I was wondering if you could talk about what qualities a filmmaker needs in order to make films under such constraints.

Just speaking from my experience with this film in particular, I found it useful to speak with just two or three people who would be in it for the long haul. I also avoided shooting nonstop for a full week and then getting maybe two days that are very good, while the rest of the week is very bad. That’s just the way I work. I think that you should try to keep it very tight and avoid letting the shooting go on forever, because if it does then all sorts of little mistakes can begin to creep in. Because we were flitting all over the place, picking up shots here and there, it might have been difficult for a large crew to keep up, so I tried to contain it and then find people to help locally.

Now, sometimes we needed more people in scenes, like the Mansion House, which involved about 40 extras. That was probably our most expensive day, because we had to go in, pre-rig it, shoot all day, feed people, and pay them. That was a much bigger operation, so we brought in 2 or 3 extra people for the crew, but in general we kept it pretty tight. It’s almost like some guerilla warfare: You go out, shoot for day or two, come back and assess what you have, and the prepare for the next time you go out. It’s exhausting and not a great way to work, because you have to refuel yourself every time, but in my experience it was the only way we could do it. You also need time to ask yourself, ‘What would be the best image for that?’ or ‘How can I best express that?’ I would think about things that Máirín had told me and wonder if that was a strand I wanted to go on.

But one of the difficult things about doing documentaries is that you have to decide what the narrative is without just listing the things that the person has done. That is alright on paper, and even then looks a bit dull, so you have to consider how to bring some life into the material and what devices you should use to do that. An obvious way is to try to have enough photographs and archival material, and to have people talking, and to cross-cut between them. If you’re interested in this kind of material you would find that interesting, but if not then you might find that boring.

That’s something that came up in the Q&A – the question of how relatable this material is for people who don’t know anything about it, or have nothing to do with the historical material. When you were filming, did you have it in mind that you wanted to make the topic universally interesting?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, one could get into the entrails of the conflict in Northern Ireland, but that’s a very complicated, difficult area. And there are a lot of things Máirín said that people would find very offensive, even though that’s her point of view. You know, when recording this I tried to do justice to what she said, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m for her or against her, because I should be invisible in a certain kind of way. It’s not really my job to come down left or right of her. The aim was to make it so that ordinary people could follow this, without oversimplifying the conflict. There were times that I wondered whether I was skipping over things, but sometimes those are decisions that you have to make.

And it’s very difficult to make those editorial decisions because, like you said, when making a documentary like this you have to remain relatively invisible. I want to bring that back to what you said earlier about a documentary taking on a life of its own, and how Máirín would say certain things that would make you consider going down a different strand. In terms of making this documentary or even making documentaries in general, could you expand on this tension between making editorial, narrative decisions and letting the material take on a life of its own?

I’ve made both documentaries and dramas, and I find that making documentaries is much more fretful. It’s much scarier, because it can take a huge amount of time to find the sort of story you want to do. Also, you have to discover where the documentary leads you and when it begins to find its own energy. It’s a very difficult thing to describe, because the more you work on it the more you pare it back.

It can be quite scary to take things away, but I find that the more information you take, the more the mind expands.

That’s very interesting.

Because the other solution is to just force-feed people information and the audience becomes passive, whereas I wanted people to be riding the journey with her. I wanted them to have a certain amount of feeling for her. You know, I wouldn’t be the best sort of person to make a documentary with just talking heads. I don’t think I could do it.

That’s one of the qualities I appreciated most about the documentary: you captured what a gripping figure she could be, while of course acknowledging what a polarizing figure she could be. The way you depicted her made it so that, whether you agreed with her views or not, she was undeniably fascinating.

If that’s the way it’s working then I’m glad, because from my perspective it’s hard to know whether I’ve hit the right marks. After a certain point, you get thrown out of your editing room because you need space from it. You find yourself making strange decisions in a short space of time, and our editing went over a longer time. I gave myself a certain number of weeks, and it went another 3 or 4 weeks beyond that. I just found it very difficult to get the thing to fit, and I felt that I needed to be fascinated myself or I would get frustrated with it. I had to try to fit the scene with the televisions in, and to take those interviews and use them in an interesting, different sort of way. It didn’t all need to be from A to B to C to D. It could be small pieces of memory, and to me that was more interesting than creating a historical document of her life.

Right, and it is working in the way you intend for it to work. To tie this in with your larger body of work, I know you’ve addressed a number of thought-provoking, often contentious subjects in other films of yours, such as Our Boys (1981), Korea (1995), and Love and Rage (1998). What sparks your interest in these issues, and how do you determine whether you’re going to address them in a documentary or a narrative film?

Well, to go back to Our Boys, that film was made in anger. It was something I felt I needed to do, and I wanted to set the record straight on certain things that were happening in Ireland that are still coming to light. It wasn’t shown on Irish TV for at least 11 years, and it was quite a short piece. The idea was to be subversive in that we used both drama elements and documentary elements, such as archival footage. We want to be subversive and to make a film that said ‘Sorry, but this happened and it was wrong, and we’re going to be living with this for centuries to come.’ I was schooled in the way depicted in the film as well, so I was familiar with the material.

Korea, on the other hand, was made out of love for John McGahern’s short story. There’s an essential sort of dislocation in some of the work, which I find interesting. Anyway, Korea deals with America. It also deals with the notion of going to war, with policy, with legacy, where a father encourages his son to go to America, knowing that he might be enlisted. The father would get paid if his son was enlisted, and if his son passed away.

In a way, the films are about living in a world that I’m not completely comfortable with. I mean, I’m living in a country that I’m not completely comfortable with, but it’s always been like that. It was like that with Máirín de Burca in a way: I didn’t really understand her. I could appreciate what she did, and I was kind of fascinated by her single-mindedness, and yet on another level I wanted to see if there was a way of making this have its own truth, you know? So that you could transcend the historical material and turn it into something else. All my films are sort of like that: They seek to turn something sort of historical and uncomfortable into some energy, as though through some kind of alchemy, so that you can hit audiences in the back of their minds rather than necessarily in the front lobe.

That’s very interesting, and that’s exactly what I was thinking about: how to find the common thread in a diverse range of material. Because the material itself is all very interesting.

Right. For instance, I made a film about Thomas Lynch, who is a poet and undertaker who lives in Michigan. He found out he had some ancestors in Ireland, so he came back to County Clare and met this woman, Maura Lynch, who lived in a small cottage. He absolutely fell in love with the place and comes back every year, and he talks about journeys, the notion of being in Ireland, and the journey he then takes. I was fascinated by that. To put those two things together and to see what his point of view of Ireland was. I accused him once of being far too romantic about Ireland, but at the same time, that cottage in Clare is the same place where I once asked him, ‘Are we going to talk about the fact that you’re an alcoholic?’ You know, it was beautiful down there and I thought that would be the best place to talk about this.

It’s that sort of strange brood that interests me. I think I would be very bored if I didn’t find images and sounds to mix things up and make something interesting. Because without that, you’re just lashing the stuff together.

I agree, and you certainly avoid that pitfall. I really enjoy your work, and I look forward to seeing more of it.

Thank you.

On that note, you said a while ago that you were working on some new things before we started talking. Would you be open to talking about those projects that are in the works, or what you might be considering for the future?

Sure. I have a script for a period drama that I’m hoping will work out. It involves the Second World War and certain royalty coming to Ireland, and what happened to them. That’s one thing.

Another thing is a project about a woman who is with the Irish army in Lebanon, and she comes home because her daughter is shot dead. The drama is about us following her, and seeing where her journey takes us. In a way, it’s about modern Ireland, and the idea of coming back to a landscape that you don’t really recognize anymore. There are so many new people, and everything has changed, and the meaning of being Irish is up in the air… and that’s a good thing, in many ways. Those are the two projects. I’m staying away from documentaries at the moment.

Yes, because you said it took you 8 years to do this last one!

Right. Eight years from the time of trying to get people in it, getting it off the ground and then putting it down for a while, and then picking it back up and trying to get some heat in it, and then being told no. We were bringing the budget down, and it’s vile but that was in part because we were thinking ‘Will it get passed if we bring down the budget?’ Then, of course, you get the money and you’re delighted, but the reality of having to make the film with that amount of money is difficult.

Now, when I say ‘that amount of money’ I don’t mean a couple of Euros. It was certainly enough, but when you’re bringing in scenes like the one with the televisions, and moving locations for different shots, you’re sort of asking for trouble with that budget. But we did it. In many ways, it was a miracle that we were able to do what we did.

Yes, and it’s very impressive, and certainly something we can be inspired by.

Thank you.

To close out, I wanted to mention that I saw a screening of Pat Murphy’s Maeve at the Cork Film Festival, and she mentioned Our Boys as a landmark film that was made around the same time as Maeve. I thought to myself how exciting and interesting that was, because I had just met you at that point and we had decided to do this interview. It’s great to see the filmmaking community and Irish film history come together like that.

Very good, yes. In some ways, I think that Pat is not being given the recognition she deserves. I know that her path has been quite difficult, but the problem about working in Ireland is that even when you make a film, and it’s well received, you feel a sort of pressure to reinvent yourself every time.

Yes, I think that’s a pressure that a lot of artists face.

Yes. There was no guarantee that just because you made something and it was good, you would get permission to do another one.

That’s something many of us artists certainly find ourselves hyper-conscious of. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Thank you.

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Podcast: Interview with Cathal Black

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In February, the IFI hosted a comprehensive retrospective of the work of Cathal Black.

Sunniva O’Flynn Head of Irish Film Programming at the IFI writes “Part of Ireland’s ‘First Wave’ of independent filmmakers in the 1970s and ‘80s, Black began to explore the contradictions, problems and preoccupations within Irish society in a way which hadn’t before been attempted in film. He wanted to “make Irish films for Irish audiences, pictures that are recognisably Irish but stand up to European notions of style . . .  to be truthful to our own visual interpretation of this country and reach Irish audiences our way.”

Black’s narratives of distinctly drawn and wholly sympathetic individuals are often bleak but leavened by dark humour, or historical and enlivened by ingrained and powerful passions. He burrows into the national psyche to find unsettling tales of unease – of alienation, homosexuality, prostitution, emigration, poverty and despair. His characters fight to escape the shibboleths of Ireland’s heroic past and the injustices of its present.

His early films are wrought in a stark, social-realist tone. His later, more generously budgeted 35mm features employ more traditional narrative modes to tell powerful, character-driven period tales. His feature documentaries explore the lives of determinedly off-beat individuals in features that are handsome and revealing. His latest film, Butterfly (in its theatrical premiere), returns to fictional form in a finely acted psychological drama about a young woman avoiding demons from her past.

Cathal Black, activist, Aosdána member and filmmaker, has sustained a visionary cinematic practise for almost 40 years – long may he continue to unsettle and engage.”

Grace Corry talked to Cathal for Film Ireland.
 
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The IFI will present the a complete programme of films directed by Cathal Black (Feb 6th-14th) and an in-depth career-spanning interview hosted by Dr Tony Tracy (NUIG) on February 13th (which includes a screening of his latest film, Butterfly). 

Sunniva O’Flynn, Head of Irish Film Programming says “We are pleased to present Cathal Black’s catalogue in its entirety and to expose audiences to these compelling stories and to the full force of his uncompromising vision which he has sustained for over forty years.”

Black’s narratives of distinctly drawn and wholly sympathetic individuals are often bleak but leavened by dark humour, or historical and enlivened by ingrained and powerful passions. He burrows into the national psyche to find unsettling tales of unease – of alienation, homosexuality, prostitution, emigration, poverty and despair. His characters fight to escape the shibboleths of Ireland’s heroic past and the injustices of its present.

Black has sustained a visionary cinematic practice for almost 40 years, since his directorial debut, Wheels in 1976. This adaptation of John McGahern’s story tells of a young man’s return home to fraught relations with his father on the family farm. Our Boys (1981), though suppressed for many years, is one his best known works. A politically and technically bold film, it exposes the culture of fear and brutality which reigned in Christian Brothers’ institutions for much of the 20th century.

Made during the 1980s recession, Pigs is infused with fury and despair. Jimmy (Jimmy Brennan), a gay man separated from his wife, moves into a crumbling Henrietta Street mansion alongside a host of other misfits. Though relieved by moments of dark comedy, a bleaker vision of urban life had not been seen before in Irish film. Korea, released in 1994, was Black’s second John McGahern adaptation. In Cavan in the 1950s,teenager Eamon (Andrew Scott) has emigration on his mind as he spends his last summer with his father; John Doyle (Donal Donnelly) before leaving home. The film revisits themes of generational conflict and examines the inextricable hold of history on the present.

Love and Rage, released in 1998, was Black’s most stylistically ambitious work to date, with outstanding cinematography of stunning island locations by the Polish master Slawomir Idziak (Three Colours Blue), a big-name cast and a tale that builds to a full-blown Gothic climax. Set at the end of the 19th century on a large estate on Achill Island, Agnes MacDonnell (Greta Scacchi) a tough pipe-smoking, gun-toting English landowner meets her match in the dark, mysterious James Lynchehaun (Daniel Craig). Despite their obvious class and age differences, a passionate and dangerous affair ensues.

Invisible World, released in 1999 is a film which explores the invisible world of healing. It follows Tony Hogan as a child on his journey through illness into health and then later his first tentative steps to become a healer. In 2007, Black created a film that is sensitive, beautiful and, in its own right, a finely crafted piece of poetry: Learning Gravity/The Undertaking  is a film about Thomas Lynch, a Detroit-based mortician who is also an Irishman and when not in the US, Lynch lives in Co. Clare and is a poet and essayist of immense repute. The film is neither morose nor melancholic, but is rich in Lynch’s passion and humour.

As part of the retrospective, the IFI will present the Dublin premiere of Black’s new drama  Butterfly (2015), a taut character study in which Leonard (Denis Conway), a lonely probation officer, estranged from his wife, is faced with the difficult task of writing a report on Teri (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), a mercurial young graphic designer with convictions for minor theft.

SCHEDULE

FEB 6TH (14.00) WHEELS + OUR BOYS

FEB 6TH (15.40) PIGS

FEB 7TH (14.00) KOREA

FEB 10TH (18.30)  BUTTERFLY + INVISIBLE WORLD

FEB 13TH (14.00) IN CONVERSATION – Cathal Black with Dr Tony Tracy followed by screening of BUTTERFLY

FEB 13TH (18.30)  LEARNING GRAVITY / THE UNDERTAKING

FEB 14TH (16.00)  LOVE & RAGE

Tickets for these screenings + Cathal Black in conversation on Feb 13th are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie.

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Cathal Black’s ‘Butterfly’ in Production

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Butterfly is an independent, Irish short film from Cathal Black, director of Pigs, Korea and Learning Gravity, and producer of Sundance 2013 winning animated short Irish Folk Furniture. The script was written by Irish playwright Neil Donnelly, adapted from his own stage play. Denis Conway (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Quirke, Alexander, Garage) and Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Kelly + Victor, 3096, The Canal, The Other Side of Sleep) star in the lead roles.

Butterfly is about Leonard, a lonely probation officer, estranged from his wife, who is faced with the difficult task of writing a report on Teri, a young, hot-tempered illustrator who has convictions for minor theft. A clash of personalities in their first meeting sets the tone for what’s to come, and, over the course of their series of meetings, Leonard’s need to help her brings about more conflict as Teri stubbornly rejects his methods and uses his personal failings to keep him at arms length. As Leonard’s patience runs out he steps beyond the boundaries of his role in hope of reaching Teri and making a breakthrough. Teri’s acceptance or rejection of his helping hand will ultimately see her released from the dark past she has lived with for years, or condemn her to continue in her downward spiral.

Butterfly will take the form of a ‘long-short’ and will have an expected run time of thirty minutes. The production team aim to create an engaging and immersive experience for the audience, and deliver a final product with very high production values which will compete at festivals around the world over the coming year, with the hope of ultimately screening on national and international television.

Butterfly is currently in production, and to date has been financed by Black with shooting taking place in Dublin. However, in order to cover post-production expenses, and build upon the excellent work of the stellar cast and crew, the creative team are currently in the process of raising a budget of €10,000 via a crowd-funding campaign on FundIt.ie. At the time of writing 36% of the budget sought has been raised with 15 days remaining to raise the outstanding ­­64% – €6,390.

The pitch video for the campaign, which features the stars and creative team, and gives a glimpse of the production, can be found on the funding homepage ­­­­­­­­­http://fundit.ie/project/butterfly.

 

 

 

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