Spotlight: Lunch atop a Skyscraper

 

Carmen Bryce delves deeper into the mysteries behind the iconic image with director Sean O’Cualáin.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Film Ireland magazinewhich is curently available.

A well-crafted film that explores the long-held secrets behind arguably the most iconic image of the 20th Century has boundless appeal. It’s no wonder then that following its sold-out screening at the Galway Film Fleadh, Sean O’Cualáin’s documentary Men at Lunch (Lón sa Spéir) went onto critical acclaim at the renowned Toronto International Film Festival. Last November the film had its American premiere at the prestigious DOC NYC, New York‘s premier documentary festival, and screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, as well as featuring at the recent Corona Cork Film Festival. The film is released in selected Irish cinema this week.

Produced by Sean’s brother Éamonn for Sónta films in Connemara, the film takes a close look at ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’, the instantly recognizable photograph taken in 1932 during the construction of the GE Building, centrepiece of New York’s Rockefeller Center. The image depicts 11 workmen taking their lunch break while casually perched along a steel girder, 800 feet above the ground. Screen Daily called it ‘a fascinating film and Ó Cualáin’s photographic detective work is both evocative and eloquently effective.’

O’Cualáin himself describes the film as ‘part homage, part investigation’ of an image that remains in many ways a mystery today, the photographer and his subjects still unknown 80 years after it first appeared in a New York newspaper. Through interviews with photographers, archivists and historians, the film explores what makes this image not only great but still hugely relevant today.

Taken during a time of bleak economic Depression, the photograph, as the film shows, immortalises the fortitude of the enduring emigrant in an alien world. The most fascinating aspect of the documentary, however, is rooted much closer to home.
Accessing the vast photography archives at Rockefeller Center and the Iron Mountain storage facility in Pennsylvania, where the original glass plate negative is kept, O’Cualáin gathers compelling evidence that suggests two of the men in the photograph hail from the small village of Shanaglish in Co. Galway.

The director explains, ‘We didn’t have a plan to make a film about the men on the beam. We were in Whelan’s pub in Shanaglish about three years ago working on another documentary when we spotted a copy of ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’ on the wall. Below it was a note from the son of a local emigrant which said both his father and uncle were in the picture. By the end of the night, we were listening to his amazing story.

‘The film came about from us wanting to prove these two men were in the photograph but when we started to dig, we realised no work records remained of the build. However, by talking to the families of the men and letting them tell their story, you believe it is them in the picture. That said, people can make their own decisions about that,’ says O’Cualáin.

Indeed, while the director explores in depth the unknowns of the picture with a catalogue of expert opinion to back him up, he does not claim to have all of the answers and respectfully avoids any attempt to demystify the image.

‘The strength of both the documentary and the picture is the questions you are forced to ask yourself rather than any answers that are given,’ says O’Cualáin. ‘On one level it was very important for us to play detective just enough to set about proving who two of the men in the picture are, but at the end of the day, the magic and appeal of the photograph are all the unknowns about it.’

He adds, ‘The documentary is representative of all the emotions the photograph evokes. The image is nostalgic, uplifting and mysterious, so I wanted the film to be inspirational in places, to be uplifting in places. It unashamedly follows the characteristics of the photograph – otherwise the connection between the two would be lost.’

Carmen Bryce

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Film Ireland magazine, which is curently available.

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Interview: The Story Behind the Image – Seán Ó Cualáin & Éamonn Ó Cualáín discuss ‘Men At Lunch’

 

‘There was no documentary made about it, no film, no books – well, maybe one or two books on the Rockefeller centre itself, but nothing else,’ says Seán Ó Cualáin, talking about his new documentary Men At Lunch. The feature-length documentary, screening theatrically in selected cinemas across Ireland this week, tells the story of one of the world’s most recognisable photos – and how ‘a chance happening’, as the filmmakers describe it, in a Galway pub led to identifying the previously-unknown subjects of it. Produced by Éamonn Ó Cualáín and in conjunction with TG4 and Sonta Films, Men At Lunch is a fascinating look at the construction of a building, an iconic landmark and, indeed, the construction of a nation.

 

What with ‘The Gathering’ and how emigration is, again, a huge part of Irish life, was Men At Lunch an attempt to comment on Irish diaspora? ‘Not at all, when we started this documentary, there was some crazy people talking about a bust. It wasn’t a part of a masterplan to make a documentary about emigration, it was just to investigate this claim. Since then, it’s been a huge realisation of the importance of emigrants to American. We hear the cliche, America was built emigrants – but it was and Irish were one of the first emigrants in America. And the fact that these ironworkers were first-generation, descendants of Famine Irish, is very powerful.’

 

Seán Ó Cualáin goes on to explain how it’s very easy to be flippant about the Irish influence, but for Irish Americans and, indeed, modern ironworkers, this image is their ‘badge of honour’. They’ve been invited to screen the film for the iron-workers of New York’s Freedom Tower. ‘It’s strange because, the photo was taken in the depths of the Depression, when the country was on its knees – and here we are, eighty years later, with an Irish photographer up there trying to recreate this (the Men At Lunch) image. We’ve come full circle.’ The image itself has now taken on a new importance, what with 9/11 and, as mentioned, the construction of the Freedom Tower. ‘We couldn’t not mention it, it wasn’t just name-checking it for the sake of it,’ explains Seán.

 

The response from international audiences for Men At Lunch has been overwhelming. Selected for the Toronto International Film Festival, all three screenings for the film sold out during its run there. As well as this, the film was selected for IFDA (International Documentary Film Festival) in Amsterdam and enjoyed four sold-out screenings.

 

Men At Lunch, according to Seán,  wasn’t destined for a theatrical release. Indeed, the film was initially meant to be an Irish-language, one-hour documentary for TG4. ‘We never planned for it to be in Irish cinemas, we hoped for it – but how many Irish-language documentaries do you see being released nowadays? Or even Irish-language films, for that matter?’ When it was screened at the Galway Film Fleadh, the reaction from Irish audiences was more of horror at what the ironworkers went through. ‘It needs to be seen on a big-screen, y’know, the scale of how high up they were working.’

 

The image itself is shrouded in mystery; even who took the famous photograph is disputed. ‘After six months of research, we went over and back to New York. We changed the original credit of Charles Ebbetts to unknown and we’ve managed to identify – with proof – two of the workers in the image.’ The documentary plays like a detective story, as the research goes deeper and deeper and leaves them with more questions than they originally started. Already, a sequel is in the works and there’s talk of a series about the other images found within the Corbis Iron Mountain facility. ‘There’s more truths to find, explains Seán Ó Cualáin, ‘we have names now for the other workers – we need to find their story, as well.’

 

Brian Lloyd
 

 

Men At Lunch will be screened at the IFI, Movies At Swords / Dundrum, Screen Cinema, Cineworld, Omniplex Galway and others from February 1st to February 7th.

 

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‘Men at Lunch’ in cinemas 1 – 7 February


 

Sónta Films present IFTA 2013 award nominated Men at Lunch, a new feature length documentary on national release which unravels the mystery behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, and links two of its elusive subjects to a remote Co. Galway village.

Taken in 1932, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper is the famous image depicting eleven steel workers perched on a girder 850ft above Manhattan during construction of the Rockefeller Centre.

The photographer and subjects have remained unknown for the past 80 years, but in 2007 a chance discovery of a special framed copy of the photograph in Whelan’s pub, Shanaglish, led brothers Eamonn and Sean Ó Cualáin to tell the remarkable story of two of the men photographed on the beam.

Enquiring why it had pride of place on the wall, they learned from publican Michael Whelan that the photograph had come from a Boston-area man named Pat Glynn, who was convinced that his father and uncle were in the photograph.

What was known for sure was that both men had emigrated from Shanaglish in the 1920’s, and that they had found construction work in New York’s burgeoning skyscraper industry.

Narrated by actress Fionnula Flanagan, Men at Lunch presents groundbreaking new research into the history of the photograph itself alongside the extraordinary story of two Irish emigrants who went to New York in search of work and became immortalised by the skyline they helped to build.

The film, which premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in July 2012, is on track to become one of the most picked-up Irish releases of 2012/13 in the international festivals market. It enjoyed further success at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival and had sold out screenings at DOC NYC, New York’s documentary festival and Amsterdam’s IDFA, the largest documentary festival in the world. Men at Lunch will be presented at a number of major film festivals in the coming year.

TG4
Leascheannasaí (Deputy Chief Executive) of TG4, Pádhraic Ó Ciardha says the channel was delighted to support the project from the outset. “All stories are local at first but a good storyteller can present it in a way that will appeal also to a much wider audience.  Irish language film-making has truly come of age, as this wonderful documentary will illustrate to those cinema audiences lucky enough to see it.”

Men at Lunch is funded by TG4, the Irish Film Board, and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

 

Both English and Irish language films will be shown at cinemas from 1st – 7th February.

Narrator: Fionnula Flanagan Produced by Éamonn Ó Cualáin, Directed by Seán Ó Cualáin Executive Producer, Mícheál Ó Meallaigh Screenplay, Niall Murphy, Director of Photography: Réamonn Mac Donnacha, Music: Mike McGoldrick, Editor: Daithi Connaughton

With: Peter Quinn, Jim Rasenberger, Padraig O Flannabhra, Ric Burns, Una Ni Bhroimeil, Joe Woolhead

Listings information:

Dates: Friday 1  – Friday 7 February

Showing at:
Irish Film Institute, Dublin
Movies @ Swords, Dublin
Movies @ Dundrum, Dublin
Omniplex, Screen Cinema, Dublin
Omniplex Wexford
Omniplex Galway
MovieWorld, Gorey, Co. Wexford
MovieWorld, Castlebar, Co. Mayo

Running time: 68 minutes

“Men At Lunch is a fascinating film and Ó Cualáin’s photographic detective work is both evocative and eloquently effective.” Screen Daily

“A textbook example of a well-crafted feel-good doc… Men at Lunch is infectiously and unabashedly uplifting as it celebrates the American immigrant experience.” Variety

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