Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Crash and Burn

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Aoife O’Neill was in pole position at the Cork Film Festival for a screening of Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne from Dundalk, who, in the ’80s, for a moment was the world’s greatest F1 driver.

 

In the words of director Seán Ó Cualáin, Crash and Burn is one of the most “important sporting stories never told”, until now. The documentary follows the story of Tommy Byrne, a local lad from Drogheda with big ambitions and talent to match. From humble beginnings of driving a mini cooper, he wins every race that is set in front of him and finally gets the opportunity to race for Formula One.

 

However, getting to the Formula One platform was easier than staying there. This documentary is not just a sport film, this is a character portrait of a man’s struggles to come to terms with a career that has passed.

 

Born in the back of a car rushing to get to the hospital, it seems Byrne’s need for speed and cars was there since birth. According to himself, he learnt more from crashing than anything else, even though crashing for Byrne was rare. Driving each race as if it were his last, Byrne often struggled to finance his racing dream. Were it not for the support of friends and family financing his dreams from across the pond, Byrne may not have achieved what he did. His struggles to get from one race to the next adds suspense in the documentary and that audience constantly wonders how Byrne will be able to continue to race against his highly sponsored competitors.

 

Byrne’s, at times, abrasive personality rubbed many of the major names in the world of racing the wrong way. This is in conflict with the audiences appreciation of his blunt character, which makes for humorous viewing and honest critique of the sport. The documentary is comprised of interviews with Byrne’s colleagues and friends who helped with the documentary by supplying achieve footage and photographs of Byrne in his previous racing days. The mix of animation, interviews, live action and archive footage sequences enhances the documentary, with the archived footage giving a vintage, VHS charm.

 

It is through one animation sequence that we see the paths of Ayrton Senna and Tommy Byrne cross, as the once teammates didn’t have the most amorous relationship. Similarly, this film has parallels with that of Senna (2010), both films highlight the dangers and corruption that is involved in the world of racing. Unlike Senna, Byrne struggled to finance his races and didn’t have a choice between winning or not; either win or it is the last race.

 

Producer David Burke explains that the documentary humbly began with a series of emails. Although Byrne was skeptical of the documentary at first, he was told that at least it would be the “best home movie for your grandkids”. However, Crash and Burn is far better than a home movie and a must-see documentary. Byrne’s flamboyant character and good sense of humour is endearing and engaging. Having met him after the screening it is safe to say that he is the same in the real life as he is captured in screen.

 

Throughout the film we get an insight into the highs and lows of his career as he was beaten by the system despite being the “best in the world at what he did”. Byrne’s personality on screen makes for an enjoyable and captivating documentary, ironic as it is the same personality blamed for his career downfall. A documentary cleverly crafted for both an outside viewer and an avid fan of racing. Through interviews we are given a fascinating and unique insight into low-level racing. These interviews explain the sport and race system, ensuring the documentary doesn’t fall into niche markets. A truly riveting documentary, that allows for Irish viewers a look at the best racer probably in the world that came from a local town in Drogheda.

 

Crash and Burn screened on 19th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: Crash and Burn

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Seán Crosson zooms in on Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne, who, for a fleeting moment in the early ’80s, was the world’s greatest driver.

The sports documentary has become one of the most familiar and popular documentary genres in recent years. While well-established as a part of TV schedules, films such as Dogtown and Z-boys (2002), Step into Liquid (2003), Riding Giants (2004), Murderball (2005) and Senna (2010) have also had considerable success in cinemas internationally. The prominence of sport in Irish life has also been reflected in the documentary form with some of the most successful theatrically released Irish docs over the past ten years focusing on sport, including Saviours (2007) and Waveriders (2008).

Seán Ó Cualáin’s Crash and Burn, focusing on the world of motor-racing, is the latest addition to this genre. It concerns Drogheda-born Tommy Byrne who briefly drove in Formula One after a stellar career at lower levels of motor- racing. However, this is no Senna (though the Brazilian makes an appearance at several points); this is a story that challenges the familiar upward trajectory of the sports film (whether in fiction or documentary), tracing the journey of a driver who had all the talent and more of his contemporaries but lacked the background, social graces, and particularly the money required of those who control Formula One.

Nonetheless, the respect with which Byrne was held by his contemporaries is evident in the prominent interviewees featured in Crash and Burn, including former Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan (who regards Byrne as ‘the best of them all’), and former Formula One drivers and current TV commentators Martin Brundle and David Kennedy. Byrne’s story is remarkable, from his rivalry with Ayrton Senna at Formula Ford and Formula 3 level to his final years as a driver for corrupt gangsters on the Mexican Formula 3 circuit.

Director Ó Cualáin claims not to have seen Senna and his documentary provides, in important respects, a more complex depiction of the world of Formula One than Asif Kapadia’s entertaining though rather superficial documentary. Crash and Burn shares with Senna, however, a dependence on archive footage, much of it captured on VHS by friends of Byrne’s. Where footage was not available, Ó Cualáin  makes good use of animated sequences. Despite the low-quality of the original material, considerable work has been put into bringing consistency across the footage (both filmed and archival) in the final film. The archival material is intercut with interviews with Byrne who recalls his own journey from Drogheda to Formula One, offering in the process a fascinating and frank perspective on his sport.

Despite having been the fastest driver at all levels below Formula One, and proving himself the fastest when given an opportunity in the best car at that level, he was ultimately excluded from the sport, his life subsequently declining into excessive drinking and drug-taking and periods spent at the lower rungs of motor-racing in the US and Mexico. This is not, however, a tragic story despite Byrne’s failure to realise his own Formula One dreams. As he remarked in conversation at the end of the screening in Galway “life is pretty good right now. I just lost out on about $100m”. These words sum up a theme across Ó Cualáin’s film; Tommy continues to be unhappy with how he was forced out of the sport but nonetheless he has rebuilt his life and now works as a driving instructor in the United States.

Whether you have an interest in Formula One or not, Crash and Burn is an engaging, and at times moving account of an extraordinary life.

 

Crash and Burn screened on Sunday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.

 

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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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