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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Review: The Tribe

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DIR/WRI/PRO: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky • DOP/ED: Valentyn Vasyanovych • DES: Vlad Odudenko • CAST: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy

 

The Tribe, a film by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, tells the story of a teenage boy who joins a specialised boarding school for deaf youths and gets involved with some rather unsavoury characters. The film, entirely in Ukrainian sign language, is Slaboshpitsky’s first feature film, which he has written and produced himself, and made the festival circuit last year winning several prizes at Cannes, and took to Locarno, TIFF, and more recently at Palm Springs, garnering enough attention to go on theatrical release in 2015.

There are mixed feelings when it comes to this one and it’s not hard to see why. It can be gamble even when a film with dialogue banks entirely on the ability of a non-professional cast to fully express its meaning. Here, I think, the bad outweighed the good. It’s not the stereotypical representation of the eastern European villain (which is repeated in various novelty archetypes) that confuses, or the difficulty that brings in connecting to characters due to their lack of dimension. It’s not in the places where the film sacrifices credibility for sensationalism, or is it the way you have to continually prevent yourself from categorizing it because of these moments. In terms of innately expressive cinema this had great potential.

I think the trouble with The Tribe is that it leans far too heavily on the gimmick (for the want of a better word) and unfortunately, this reliance means a lot of the action seems disingenuous and overdramatised. For instance, graphic violence features heavily in the film and in a lot of cases is without ground and badly choreographed – when the film’s lead Sergey is being inducted in one of the early fight scenes, he literally kung-fu’s a group of five people, a fight which ends abruptly when the hardened gang leader and challenger gets bitten. In the same vein, some of the sex scenes look like an attempt by the actors to cover each-others private parts. The gang and the woodwork teacher (whose activities include pimping two prostitutes and robbing weaker students) suffer the death of one of their chief members who gets killed on the job, only for him to be erased from the films memory. I’ve never been to the Ukraine, but I’d like to think a teacher would look for him, or his disappearance at least be acknowledged. These scenes are incredulous and over-compensatory – for “in the end, Sergey, the softie turned rapist thief, murders each of the gang members as they sleep in their dorm by smashing their heads in with bedroom lockers. My interpretation is that this is in retaliation for their attempt to traffic the girls, one of whom he loves. Despite one scene where he pays her for sex, this love is totally unsubstantiated. He steals a pile of cash to pay her again, and when she refuses he forces himself on her. Gritty or what.

The boarding school is void of rules and adults, except for the implicit woodwork teacher and his intermittent sidekick, and quite ideal for fantasy-like conditions. There is no real conflict in this film – there are too many dramatic events and not enough circumstance. It’s just one violent event searching blindly after another, and for some kind of realism.

Decidedly, the films saving grace is cinematographer and editor, Valentyn Vasyanovych, without whom it probably wouldn’t have gotten far. The mise-en-scene lends itself to some remarkable tracking shots, opening with a bright-angled shot that follows Sergey up several flights of stairs to his new home, closed by a sudden swoop downhill behind him on his final murderous mission to the dorm. To be fair, aesthetically the film is nothing short of perfect – Slaboshpitsky, it might seem, has a good friend in Vasyanovych.

 

Grace Corry

 

132 minutes
The Tribe is released 15th May 2015

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Talking to My Father – Review of Irish Film at Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015

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Grace Corry takes a look at Sé Merry Doyle‘s Talking to My Father, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

On a blue racer, Simon Walker cycles into the opening scene of this latest release from Loopline Productions, Talking to my Father. Propping his bike up against a high stone wall, he climbs its frame and a faint, nostalgic laughter sweeps the audience as he peers over to examine the hidden house that he grew up in. As he looks, photographs from the ’60s of a walled futuristic haven in the heart of Dublin city appear on screen – narrated by Simon, we take a pictorial tour of his early youth.

Sé Merry Doyle’s documentary follows Simon on his journey back through his own life and relationship with his father, Robin Walker. Robin was a remarkably talented and prolific figure in the reformation of Ireland’s architecture in what was an emerging, modern nation. Simon, also an architect, traces his memory with his father’s architecture as his guide, travelling Ireland from building to building, conversing with each across what Robin Walker understood to be a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, recognised in his work.

The documentary is in large part about that – the relationship we have with our environment and how architecture, particularly that of Robin Walker, contributes to that relationship.

Speaking to Sé Merry Doyle, he said he wanted to make a documentary about the human story within this, about the bond between father and son and the passion they shared for their art, juxtaposed by society’s transgression of it, highlighting the omnipresent role architecture plays in our lives and how little we value its history. There are certain elements of loss – Simon at times throughout seems unfulfilled by his relationship with his father, but where the humanistic aspects of the film appear wanting, the conversation through architecture deepens and it is these moments that reveal the tenderness felt, reinforced by the past and by his father’s absence.

The scenery is spectacular. We traverse Kenmare and Kinsale to Howth, with cinematographer Patrick Jordan providing long, worshipful shots that pan in time with the imagination thus creating an ease of understanding, lured by Simon’s narration which is in turn punctuated by Patrick Bergin reading Robin’s musings and philosophies that have been lovingly curated by his son. In this rhythm, we understand the importance of the telling of this story between father and son – not just its importance in capturing a story of love, but a story that teaches us that the most powerful and perhaps permanent thing in life is our memory.

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Sé Merry Doyle

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Modern architecture in Ireland reached a high point in the early ’60s and one of its most celebrated and influential figures was Robin Walker. Robin studied under Le Corbusier in Paris and later worked alongside Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. His return to Ireland in 1958 coincided with the emergence of an aspiring modern nation. Robin Walker became a key agent in this nation-building process.

A quarter of a century after his death, his son Simon Walker explores the legacy of his father’s life’s work in Talking to My Father. Director, Sé Merry Doyle’s allows Walker’s buildings to speak for themselves, taking us with Simon in his search for Robin’s architecture of place.

Grace Corry sat down with Sé Merry Doyle to discuss his documentary, which screens at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

 

Referring to Robin and Simon’s relationship and how you wanted to represent that in the film, you said that you wanted to capture them as father and son and as architects – was it difficult deciding which relationship to focus on more, or which relationship was more relevant to the film?

Well to me the big thing was that Simon wanted to pay homage to his father, both as a son and as an architect, both being from different eras – Robin’s era was kind of the golden age of modernism in Ireland, Simon is living in a country that’s just coming out of bankruptcy and such. Really, I wanted more of the human story as a film, I didn’t want it to be solely based on architecture in that I was more interested in trying to discover Robin through Simon. So it was kind of a gentle narrative and we worked a lot on that; it was probably the biggest thing we did. It started with me trying to encourage Simon to tackle the boxes and boxes he had of Robin’s writings, and in the end suggested to him to write a letter to his father, and that letter in a way became the application to the Arts Council or at least the central part of it. So that dialogue was always a central part.

 

Your own interests seem to have been with documenting historically and culturally defining moments in Ireland. Were you aware of how prolific an architect Robin Walker was or how instrumental he was in modernising Ireland?

No, I wasn’t. It was funny that, because I had done a film for instance about James Gannon and Georgian Dublin and made Sculptor of the Empire on John Henry Foley who did the Daniel O’Connell monument in Dublin and the Prince Albert monument in London, so funnily enough this was an area I wanted to dig in to. Simon shares an office with me and I knew how highly regarded his father was but I didn’t know that he had been with Mies van der Rohe (Paris) or Corbusier (Chicago). He studied and worked with both of them and I knew then that he was an individual whose story was worthwhile.

 

Did you approach this documentary – such an intimate situation and a sensitive subject – differently to how you made Alive Alive O – A Requiem For Dublin where you’re representing several voices or a community voice, as opposed to capturing this quite private discussion between father and son?

I wanted it to be something for all of us, I didn’t want it to be the same as the film I made on Patrick Scott [Golden Boy] – in that case I wanted the individual but this one I was kind of playing with what has happened to Dublin and who looks after it. One of Robin’s great buildings was UCD, which was originally an open plan for the students and now it’s been kind of turned into a supermarket. All the space has been taken away. The new Ireland that was coming after World War II and stagnation and economic failure had new buildings going up all over the place willy-nilly, but again after the oil crash of ’74 that all went away. The film is about whether we are invited into the conversation with those buildings that remain from that time. Do we like them? Do they mean anything to us now? The film is saying no in most cases.

 

I suppose working so closely with Simon on such a personal project about Robin’s work requires a particular approach to achieve the right balance.

Yeah, well that was delicate, you know, I’m not a Sunday World type of film journalist and I wanted Simon to have a certain amount of control. Once Simon knew that I was making a creative documentary and that there would be no interviews or appraisal type stuff and that it was really just going to be his own journey, that relaxed him. He’s a great writer and we spent hours and hours talking and looking back through his father’s papers and some of that went right into his heart. It was a complicated narrative but a great journey from reading old notes to going and seeing these buildings which made for some great moments in the film, a lot of which surprised me. I invited Simon to go as far as he wanted to go and he did.

 

So, what’s next for Talking to My Father?

At the moment I’m developing a film called John Huston – The Great White Whale, which is about Moby Dick and Herman Melville and a notion that Moby Dick is God and whoever kills him is akin to the apocalypse. We’re in development with the IFB and we’re very excited.

 

 

Talking to My Father screens at the IFI on Tuesday, 24th March @ 6pm as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Book tickets here

 

 

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