Director Charles O Brien tells Film Ireland about his film A Captain Unafraid, which follows the ‘strange adventures’ of Dynamite Johnny, seafarer, filibuster and hero of the Cuban War of Independence.

A Captain Unafraid is “Dynamite” Johnny O’ Brien’s ghost-written memoir, it was last published in 1912 by Harper and Sons in New York. A Captain Unafraid, the film, was shot in New York, Cuba and Ireland over the past three years and tells the story of a rebel without a cause who finally found his cause in the 19th century Cuban War of Independence.

The first time I came across the name “Dynamite” Johnny O’ Brien was in an article “John Dynamite Marine Mambí” by Cuban historian, José Antonio Quintana. Though the tale told was colourful and cinematic, making a film was far from my mind, my trade being that of singer and musician I wrote a song “Marine Mambí” inspired by José’s lively piece.

The jump from telling story in song to doing so on film is not as great a leap as you’d think. The technology available to us is immense and with dedication and then delegation of some of the more technical aspects of filmmaking almost any conceivable story can be translated into image and sound. Saying that, I did have some experience in seeing a film get made first hand, when I presented and narrated the TG4 documentary Saol Riley in Mexico in 2009. I remember the director, Kieran Concannon, telling me that I could strike out on my own after; that if I felt there was a story to be told, I should tell it, and on film. I was surprised with his words but they stuck in my mind, a seed was planted in my brain. Plus, I’d seen first-hand how to film a documentary on a limited budget in Latin-America!

People tend to either pillory or place characters on pedestals. The real virtue of Dynamite Johnny as a character is that he is hard to tie down. One minute he seems to be a hell-raising thrill seeker; the next he’s the brave hero of the downtrodden. I wanted to approach the film as much as a character study as a historical documentary and I used various tools – such as exploring the emotion of fear with our interviewees – to try and come close to who the man really was, to try find out what really made “dynamite” Johnny tick.

The skeleton crew of A Captain Unafraid was myself and Billy Kemp. Billy was the soundman in both Cuba and New York; we also composed the soundtrack together. When I was sick of editing the film it was a welcome relief to turn to music. As regards graphic design, John O’ Leary contributed the hand-drawn graphics, Aodhagan O’ Riordan did the motion-graphic design and animated John’s pictures. Paddy Lane was our cameraman in New York; Patrick Harnett was cameraman in Cuba. I edited, produced and directed and even threw my hand at filming B roll. Aerial Filming Ireland were employed for the aerial footage of the lakes of Cavan. Marcela Acevedo translated the film into Un Capitán Sin Miedo for Cuban audiences. The production of the film in Cuba was done with the cooperation and help of “The Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba.”

Why I came to make the film, I’m not quite sure.  For sure I was drawn to the incredible colour and brashness of the story, but I have to say I think there was an element of fate about it too. Though I’m neither religious nor credulous, things fell into place in a very strange way throughout the making of the film and I felt an almost gravitational urge to see the documentary through to fruition. Without consciously intending it to be, A Captain Unafraid was completed and first screened in Havana 100 years after Johnny’s death. The filming was begun on the 1000th anniversary of the beginning of the O’ Brien clan, and I even petitioned the head of the clan, not very successfully, to help fund the thing. As Johnny said himself – when talking of the call of Cuba libre – “the summons came and was responded to in the way that distinguishes that which is preordained.”

In June 2014, after two weeks in Cuba, with the last filming completed, it was a wonderful thing to be sitting in the backyard of Jose Antonia’s home. On this last day, we had been brought on an excursion to Lazaro Lopez. Lazaro Lopez is where the leaders of the revolutionary forces gathered and mapped out their plan of attack just before the war of ‘95 – the last and decisive Cuban War Of Independence. Drowned in sweat, in the middle of a field holding a Glidecam, I listened to a veritable torrent of information flow out of both José Quintana and historian Sixto Espinosa concerning the war of ’95 and Captain O’ Brien’s participation in it. On our way back to José’s home, thunderclouds gathered, and soon the rain poured down. After the storm had passed, sitting in Jose’s backyard, that’s when it really hit- the movement from notion to motion, to motion picture, and back to sedentary position. Our filming had taken us up the San Juan River to the site of the only naval battle of the war of ’95 – hacking through overgrowth deep in the Cuban countryside to get a glimpse of the water. San Juan, Cienfuegos is where Johnny captained the tug The Three Friends to a narrow victory in a run-in with three Spanish gunboats. We even sent drones up over Cavan’s lakes and careered through Hell Gate, New York in a little tug called The Bronx in pursuit of the bright trail of Dynamite Johnny’s ghost.

Twenty-six people were interviewed in the course of the documentary, eleven other interviews didn’t make the cut. In New York, we interviewed three sea captains, historians, authors, maritime experts, and an alleged gunrunning Irish priest who, for the last fifty years, has lived a stone’s throw from Dynamite Johnny’s childhood home. The subtitle of Johnny’s ghost-written autobiography “A Captain Unafraid” is “The Strange Adventures of ‘Dynamite’ Johnny O’ Brien,” and following in Johnny’s wake has certainly proved strange, and wonderful!

A Captain Unafraid screens at the Kerry Film Festival on Sunday, 22nd October 2017 at Cinema Killarney.

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Kerry Film Festival runs from 19 – 22 October 2017

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