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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