Dónal Foreman in conversation with Vivien Buchhorn

Dónal Foreman’s The Image You Missed is a cinematic dialogue in which Foreman connects his own archive with that of his deceased father, filmmaker Arthur MacCaig. The result is an experimental drift of images that raises both the conflict in Northern Ireland and therefore the question of political alienation, as well as the struggle between a father and a son, who had no relationship to each other. They meet as two filmmakers, visible through images from their archives. In April, VariaVision, the Volksbühne film program curated by Giulio Bursi, invited the filmmaker to present the film in Berlin. Since its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018 the film has screened at different international festivals, including Copenhagen, Paris and Sao Paulo. New York-based director Foreman not only visited Berlin, but also travelled to Dublin to present a film series he curated at the Irish Film Institute, which looks at the Northern Ireland conflict from the perspective of non-Irish filmmakers.

I meet with Dónal Foreman for an interview after the evening at Volksbühne. The film has confused me and shaken up my own family stories, because it translates the brutality of a political conflict into the microcosm of a father-son relationship, without resolutely comparing or balancing out the two. He lets images speak where otherwise there might be only emptiness and absence. Dónal and I meet in a café, on one of those beautiful spring days in Berlin, when you remember why you live in this city. Throughout the talk I began to think about German writer Bernhard Schlink stating with a view to the divided Germany: “Home is a utopia. Home is a place not as that which it is, but as that which it is not.”

When working with archives, I always come to a certain point of hesitation, because I feel that I am entering a private space. Does it differ, if you work on an archive to which you are related?

I think for me there wasn’t that kind of hesitation, because I was sure: sooner or later I wanted to see what was in the archive. And the only way I was going to do that was if it was a project and if therefore someone was expecting me to do it. It was an overwhelming, daunting thing to do. I put it off for several years. The first threshold was going to my father’s apartment and sorting it out, which I didn’t have to do, but otherwise it would have probably been all thrown out. It was something I wanted to do for cinema as well as myself; you have to make sure that stuff is preserved. I didn’t have any scruples about having access to his material or using it, but I was concerned about the people that he had filmed and the worlds that he was engaged in.

During the discussion at the Volksbühne, you showed some alternate scenes from your rough cuts of the film. One moment that struck me is when you address your father directly through voiceover and, emphasising the fact that you are using his material, you say: “I hope you don’t mind.”

That was a little playful on my part; I can’t say it was something I was very concerned with. I didn’t really get anything else from Arthur aside from these images so in a way I felt he owed me this exploration. As a filmmaker, he wanted his work to be recognised and seen widely, so I think he would be pleased anyway. For me, the much more delicate problem was how I would represent these communities in Northern Ireland alongside my own personal story. I never wanted to trivialise the conflict. I knew that I didn’t want to have the images as a metaphor for my family relations, so I tried to keep that in mind. In my earliest rough cuts, I included very little political context or exposition, thinking that’s not the purpose of a film like this. It was going to be much more about interrogating images as images. But I realised there was a real danger of aestheticising and depoliticising the images, of undermining the gravity of what people were experiencing. I tried to be fair in my treatment of Arthur too, coming from a place of curiosity rather than from resentment or anger. It was not about staging an attack on him. The film gives him space to represent his position, while also at times giving him enough rope to hang himself with. At the same time, I didn’t want to shy away from the weaknesses in my own position.

My point of view is ultimately much more in the editing than in my actual voiceover, because I purposely held back so much on what I let myself say with that. I wanted to play our voices off each other, as characters in a way. It’s not necessarily about true statements, but more about exploration. For example, there is this moment where I say that I felt closer to the images of my mother’s uncle Sean than to my father’s images. Even though it makes me sound apolitical, as if I just want to film the flowers like my uncle did. But then I follow this up with my father’s voiceover, talking about how Dublin always preferred to ignore the troubles, which turns the situation into an attack on Sean’s images and on my own approach through his images. So it goes both ways: his voiceover can become a voice of critique in the film too.

Do you still see yourself as a critic?

As a teenager, I wrote for Film Ireland magazine and a few different things. During this time and later in college I got really interested in film collectives of the ‘60s and ‘70s and it happened that I kept on writing very polemical essays. I wouldn’t write a review, but rather raise questions like: “What’s missing from Irish Cinema?”

And you wouldn’t do it anymore?

I wouldn’t write it like that, no. It was really my youthful idealism.

You don’t have that anymore? What happened?

Lots of things. It’s a long story. It’s not that I don’t have ideals, but I don’t have the same sense of righteousness and the will to preach. I don’t like to make declarations about the way cinema should be. Today opinions are folded in with marketing: they become more about your brand identity. One of the last things I wrote before I moved away from writing was for The Brooklyn Rail in 2011. I wrote about the IFP, the Independent Film Project, and this week of panel discussions they put on. I went to these panels on DIY distribution and marketing and I wrote this quite scathing article looking at all the romantic rhetoric around it, for example, seizing the means of production, cutting out the middleman and creating this new relationship between the audience and the filmmaker. But most people on the panels were middlemen: gurus, consultants, distributors… It was clear from what they were saying that they were still all extracting profit from filmmakers, who were actually just having to do more labour than they used to. Because now there was a distributor saying they wouldn’t pick a film if the filmmaker didn’t reach a certain amount of Twitter followers, for example. A filmmaker is expected to constantly be self-promoting and creating a brand for themself, which means additional work. But it’s masked in this layer of radical language. Look at High Flying Bird, the Netflix film by Steven Soderbergh about the basketball industry. The plot centres around this idea of cutting out the middleman of the team owners: what if the players were in charge of the team? There are some interesting ideas in there around workers taking control of the means of production, but in the film, the players’ bid for “independence” is to make a deal with Netflix itself – as if they aren’t also gatekeepers. So the playing field is really muddy!

Would you speak of your images as political?

Well yes, I feel like all images are inevitably political, so the question becomes how much you consciously engage with that as a filmmaker. That kind of intentional political engagement can shift from image to image, or film to film. I was consciously trying to use my father’s images in a different way than he did. As much as possible, I went to the unedited footage, so that I could make my own interpretation and emphasise things he didn’t emphasise or notice things that he didn’t notice. Because in a lot of his films the cutting is very quick, which was sometimes very frustrating: there would be an amazing image and then a second later it’s gone. I wanted to dwell on things and pick out different details. For example, I chose to extend some of the shots of the IRA soldiers, to give space to contemplate what those images were doing and what the soldiers’ relationship with the camera was. That was something that I found lacking from his films: there is no interrogation of his own position in relation to that world and the material. I was often drawn to moments where you really felt the person behind the camera. I very much thought of it in terms of thinking through the images or the editing of the images rather than having a narrative in place that is seeking images to illustrate it. It was much more driven by this method of watching.

There are many interviews seeking to find out more about the personal story behind the film, pointing out aspects of the film which underline the healing effect of this encounter with your father on the editing table. I would disagree: to me the film is even more violent than a fight, as it doesn’t only develop a new dialogue, but still addresses the periods of absence.

I don’t think I thought about it in terms of peace or even reconciliation, though of course reconciliation was a theme throughout the work, as it applies to the political conflict as well. But in both cases I see it as something impossible and unattainable. It is an interesting idea to play around with but actually you can’t make these things whole again. There is this American anthropologist called Allen Feldman, who I quoted in some earlier versions of the film. He wrote about the idea of a united Ireland and what a kind of primal urge it was, this idea of making whole what has been split apart and how nothing is ever going to satisfy that desire, that drive.  I’m usually resistant when somebody asks: “Was it cathartic?” or if I feel that I really “know” my father now. And I’m like: No, because you have to spend time with someone to know him, so in this case there will always remain this mystery at the centre. But sometimes I try to give a more pleasing answer to people, I emphasise the idea that there was a certain satisfaction that came with making the film. I got to build a ghost of him through the film. Nothing is resolved, but I’ve made it more tangible; it has a concrete existence now.

It seems intriguing what happens with filmmakers, when they tell their own life stories. You reach a point where you can’t hide from talking about your work and emotions. A friend of mine is working with old family VHS tapes and keeps telling me: this is too brutal, I can’t go on. But I feel like this is part of the process. The same goes with The Image You Missed, where I thought you used images as a weapon to weave in your own view.

It is always a process of objectification, as it creates a paradoxical distance and intimacy with your subject. I think by making the film I kind of turned my father into an image and a character within a narrative. Therefore, a lot of the things which seem personal or revealing become narrative and formal problems. It doesn’t become a question of: “What do I want to say about myself?”, rather, “What does it mean for the film?” I experienced that even when I was making films with my friends as a kid: I’d put the camera on and start to move them around the shot; they’d become aesthetic objects in the frame! I would go: “Could you please move an inch over here!” And that works also in the editing. It gives you a very helpful distance from the material, but it also allows you to spend much more time with the subject matter, to really reflect on it in an intimate way. You take a step back, but at the same time you get closer.

The battle between the two filmmakers is perceptible through the soundtrack as there are constantly different voices, marking an ongoing dialogue.

I thought of the voices as aesthetic elements of the soundtrack as well. I hope you could still have a good time watching the film without knowing the language, and just feeling the rhythm of voices. I arranged the French subtitles myself and I found myself struggling, because I realised I didn’t want to subtitle everything as it would overwhelm the images. There are certain complex layers of voices where I just let it be. In my previous work my instinct was always towards a less verbal and less expositional approach, so the voiceover was part of the influence I was seeking to incorporate from his work, even though I used it in a different way.

Is work on an archive for you something that is necessarily related to the past? Would this film have been made, if your father were still alive?

I don’t think so because if he would be alive, I wouldn’t know anything of the material. It seems inconceivable to me, because the whole thing is predicated on his absence. I would probably be like: “I’m not going to sort out his archive – that’s his job!” But in other cases, I don’t know. I think that inevitably when working on someone’s archive you end up imagining what massive tapes and hard drives you are going to leave behind after your own death and who will make sense of that. In the beginning, I had the idea to invent two narrators from the future, having a dialogue, and neither is me. They would even speak from the future, sifting through both archives and talking about the relationship between father and son from a distance. I was trying to put myself in that position of stepping outside my own archive as well. It is interesting for me, because my archive would be such a different animal.

How does it look like?

I have so much personal material: home movie footage, journals, diaries.  And from my youth, a lot of compact VHS tapes and MiniDV tapes. I digitised a lot of my old analogue material. So now there are dozens of hard drives to contend with, too.

Do you think your father ever watched a film from you?

The last time I met him I gave him a DVD of my graduate short film, You’re Only What I See Sometimes. I found it again in his apartment. But he probably didn’t watch it; he was the kind of person who intends to get around things for a long time.

Some people make films for themselves, some can put their mind at ease as they reap the box office rewards. How important is it for you that people watch your films?

When I was a teenager I made most of my films with my friend Danny and sometimes we argued because he insisted that the only reason we made films was to impress people, and I thought there was more to it than that. From around the age of 15, I started reading more deeply about film and that had an impact on me and my work I discovered the idea that films, and art in general, could rewire your brain and change your way of seeing the world. I wanted to offer that possibility to other people as well. But then I think there are always these different layers: there is the inner compulsion to do it, which is tied to some of these feelings about changing yourself and offering that experience to others, but it’s also just a way of survival, of being in the world and expressing yourself. And then of course there is also this layer of recognition and status, the desire to be seen and appreciated. I don’t think you should go out of your way to make your film legible, or go out of your way to make yourself illegible. But in the making of this film, I was inviting friends over to watch it every couple of months – very informal test screenings. I really value that, when it’s people I know and whose sensibility I can relate to. That way, I know where they’re coming from and it’s easier to know when to listen to their advice, or when to disregard it. I don’t like the idea  that filmmaking is just my point of view, some pure uncompromised intention. I feel much closer to the notion that it’s your ideas in negotiation with reality, chance and circumstances. You need to find a way to challenge your delusions or unconscious blind spots.

Does that mean to give away control?

You have to be open. Last week I gave a talk on The Image You Missed, incorporating various clips from rough cut versions of the film, in London, alongside some of my notes on the project. It gave a little insight into how much thought and intention went into every edit in the film, every line of voiceover. There was an interesting comment from the audience: a woman who was objecting as I gave her the impression that everything I’ve done was really controlled. And she was saying: “You know, once you make a film it is out of your control and people will interpret it however they want”. And I was surprised because I take for granted that in many aspects of my work things are out of my control and I like that. I never thought that somebody could think that I’m obsessively controlling, but it is true that I’m a perfectionist in some ways and really tuned into detail. But there are also always implications that I’m not conscious of, and maybe that’s the moment when you let go. I do think of it as analogous my use of improvisation with actors. Because when you are shooting fiction like that, there is always this negotiation between how you want this scene to go and actors doing something different with it. With archival work, it is a similar process, but you are stuck with the material as it is. I’d be watching something, thinking, couldn’t you’ve panned over there or hold on to that – but he didn’t, so you have to work with it as it is. I like those elements of surprise, it’s like a collaboration. I like to invite other people’s points of view into my process, rather than sticking to romantic notions of the individual artist and their personal expression.

Did the project change your political view on the historical conflict?

I would say it deepened it. From the beginning I felt broadly aligned with my father’s point of view in terms of his analysis of class and colonialism, and I didn’t have problems in principle with the use of violence. At the same time, I feel allergic to nationalism and much of the rhetoric and imagery around that, even though I’m fascinated by it. For me, the most fascinating thing, what you don’t see in his films, was everything that went on within those movements, all the internal struggles and debates between militants with slighty differing political visions. The IRA splintered into so many groups, all with the same general goal but with so many different ideas of how to achieve it and what a united Ireland would look like politically. I’m fascinated with how people failed to come to terms with these differences. I would be interested in making a film focusing specifically on some of these historical moments of dissent. Anyway, you can see my relationship towards it is complicated! I feel a lot of solidarity with what happened and so much frustration and estrangement at the same time.

You have Ireland in your mind, but you live in New York.

It’s easier to have it on your mind when you don’t live there. I started thinking more about it because I left and it becomes a bigger part of your identity when you are not surrounded by it. There is always a fictional aspect to places and especially national identities. Leaving gives you more space to engage in the fiction.