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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Interview: David Jazay, director of ‘Bargaintown’

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In 1982 a young exchange student David Jazay came to Ireland from Germany and, after beginning his time here on a photography project, embarked upon a 10-year odyssey of annual visits photographing and filming a Dublin that has long-since passed, One of his projects was to film the Liffey Quays, capturing the buildings in the area and the characters who lived therein.

The result was Jazay’s 1988 film, co-directed with Judith Klinger, Bargaintown, a poetic record of life along the Quays in the late 1980s. This weekend, the IFI will screen a new digital restoration of Jazay’s original 16mm print as part of the IFI Documentary Festival.

Grace Corry spoke to David Jazay ahead of the film’s Dublin premiere.

 

Out of curiosity, why Bargaintown – the name?

Well it has nothing to do with the shop. It’s not even featured in the film. It’s just a cool title! We just nicked the name! Much later I found out that Alan Prendergast, the owner of the Bargaintown, loved the film. He badgered the IFI for a VHS copy of the work, which was the only thing that could have been seen; it was just an archival copy  – and he’s probably the only person in Dublin who knows the film. But the film has nothing to do with shop.

What was it that drew you to the Dublin Quays?

I was drawn to the liveliness of it. A lot of people in Dublin seem to remember the Quays as being derelict, unsafe and quite dodgy. But I really enjoyed the antique shops and the small businesses and also, despite the heavy traffic, there was always life on the street, different characters roaming the streets. I  have also always had a love of Irish craftsmanship that the buildings displayed, the traditional family business signage and the wonderful colour schemes of certain buildings. And although many of the buildings on the Quays were derelict, they had a certain beauty about them that I was drawn to.

It was a time of rapid changes, how apparent were those changes to you during your time in Ireland from 1982 – 1992?

Well, they were apparent. There was an urgency making the film. When I got started on the photography project I kind of slipped into it. It wasn’t like at the age of 16 I had a masterplan to do the whole project. I didn’t know I would still be at it 10 years later! But it did of course become apparent in 1987  when I started to go to film school and I started to go about planning the project. It was quite apparent and really urgent as well. Also in that era in Germany at that time my generation were all about preservation and squatting movements – what you have now as anti-globalisation and reclaim the street movements – at that time it was all about preserving old neighbourhoods. So for a German person, it was very much a theme that people could relate to. So when I arrived here it was interesting. I expected to see more groups fighting for the buildings. I know there were some student movements in Harcourt Street, slightly before my time, but on the Quays there was nothing. I thought it was interesting to have that as a foreigner, to have that idea of the Quays as the lifeline of the visual façade to the city that was totally underused and not appreciated enough – and was now crumbling.

In the interviews conducted there seems to be a real sense of pathos among the locals about their lost community and their homes and the buildings they grew up in.  You were somewhat objective – you saw beauty in the city centre in the buildings that were crumbling. Was it difficult to strike a balance of representation between the structure of the aesthetics you wanted to achieve for the film and for the social actors and their environment and giving them a voice in the film. 

With the buildings, what I wanted to achieve was a sense of faded glamour and beauty because they were all like fine Georgian buildings. Had the area been restored at that point as it could have been, it would have been immensely more beautiful than what it is now. The stuff they put up was really tacky. It was a wasted opportunity.

With the locals, we were quite straight forward – we just asked people how they felt about the Quays. That’s the focal point for all the interviews – to ask them what their vision would be for the future of the Quays. I think that was something that was never asked of them, not by the city council, not by other journalists. So it was just to actually go there and ask actual people who lived there what they thought of it and how they would like to see it develop.

How do you see the value of Bargaintown now – is it purely nostalgic or can we learn from it?

I’m surprised at the reaction I’m getting to photographs on the website. When you read the comments – thejournal.ie did a piece and some people seem to have this almost hateful attitude towards Dublin’s past. I think when you look at the film it’s not a bleak depressing film about urban decay as some have described it – it’s more about loveable and lively people talking about their city and their neighbourhoods. 

Talking about the value that the film might hold – I get a lot of mail, particularly from younger people, who are interested in things like the signage and the craft traditions we feature in the film. A lot of them are gone and if you want any sort of resurrection of that you need the archival material. Nobody else has it. There’s not exactly a wealth of moving or still images of this area and that time.

Bargaintown screens at 17.00 on Sunday, 27th September as part of the IFI Documentary Festival (23 – 27 September 2015)

The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director David Jazay hosted by Frank McDonald

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‘Bargaintown’ @ IFI Documentary Film Festival

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Bargaintown is set for its Dublin premiere at the IFI Documentary Film Festival. David Jazay’s film  is a poetic documentary on life along the Liffey Quays in the late 1980s. Featuring interviews with shopkeepers, antique dealers and local residents, it is a testament to the lives and opinions of a vanished Dublin, years before the celtic tiger changed the very fabric of the inner city.
 Highlights include an auction at Tormey brother’s, a night of song and dance at the old Workingmen’s club on Wellington quay, and performances by veteran bluesman Frank Quigley.
The 2015 restoration was supported by the Irish Film Institute and Goethe-Institut Dublin.

 

Bargaintown  screens at 17.00 on Sunday, 27th September 2015 as part of IFI Documentary Festival 2015 (23 – 27 September).

Director David Jazay will be in attendance.

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