Thursday, May 22, 2014

To coincide with the presentation of States of Fear to mark its 15th anniversary, the Tiernan MacBride Library looks at other documentaries which caused controversy in Ireland

Shocking Documentaries: Four Films that Sparked Outrage in Ireland

This month the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund, in association with the IFI and RTÉ, marks the 15th anniversary of the broadcast of the States of Fear documentaries with screenings and discussions examining the impact of the series on Saturday, May 24th. Mary Raftery’s exposure of the abuse and neglect practised in Ireland’s industrial schools caused a public outcry, pressuring the Irish Government to apologise for its role in perpetuating the system.

We in the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Tiernan MacBride library look at other documentaries which, for varying reasons, caused outrage in Ireland.

1. Ireland: The Tear and the Smile (1961)
This CBS documentary, examining contemporary Ireland, was broadcast to American audiences in 1961. Initially the Irish Government collaborated with the filmmakers, recognising the potential of the programme to transmit images of a thriving modern Ireland to potential investors in the U.S. The finished programme angered the State who believed it reinforced offensive stereotypes of Ireland as a poverty-stricken, primitive country decimated by unemployment and emigration. Sean Lemass maintained that his government had been grossly deceived by CBS but his letter of protest was sharply dismissed by the programme’s producer, “for us to pretend these situations did not exist would be journalistically dishonest.”  [1]

Walter Cronkite in Ireland: The Tear and the Smile observes the Irish in “two of their favourite occupations, ‘talking and drinking'.” [2] Copyright 1961 Robert Monks

2. Open Port (1968) 
The Radharc team of priests produced programmes that examined moral and social issues within a religious context. In Open Port their documentation of alleged prostitution along the quays in Cork City drew censure because of their use of a hidden camera to film young girls boarding ships with sailors. The documentary sparked a media debate that ran for months; critics accused the team of infringing upon the subjects’ human rights to produce a sensationalist story, while supporters commended Radharc’s high journalistic standards and its unflinching exposure of a “social evil.” [3]

Fr. Leo Lennon, port Chaplain, calls for the closure of Cork’s quayside in Open Port.
Copyright 1968 The Radharc Trust

3. Fairytale of Kathmandu (2007)
Nessa Ní Chaináin’s second documentary about the poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh began as a tribute to his work establishing education projects in Nepal. Her unease about the poet’s sexual relationships with several of the Nepalese youths he supported changed the focus of the film, however. Ó Searcaigh asserted that these were consensual relationships conducted with men above the Nepalese age of consent and accused Ní Chianáin of betraying his trust. She was concerned with the “disparity of power” [4] involved in the relationships between a 50-year-old wealthy westerner and poor 16- to 17-year-old Nepalese boys. The divisive film brewed up a media storm in Ireland but a subsequent Garda investigation resulted in no official charges being made against Ó Searcaigh. 

Cathal Ó Searcaigh is welcomed to Nepal in Ní Chianáin’s first documentary about his work in The Poet, The Shopkeeper and Babu. Copyright 2006 Vinegar Hill Productions

4. The Pipe (2008)
This film chronicled the resistance of a local Mayo community to Shell Oil’s government-backed plans to lay a gas pipeline through Rossport. Risteárd Ó Domhnaill was concerned that Shell was manipulating the news to criminalise protestors and wished to give a voice to “respectable people being treated as if they were thugs.” [5] Though criticised in some quarters for its perceived lack of objectivity, the documentary captured shocking scenes of violence used by Gardaí in clashes with protestors, which bolstered support for the community’s struggle.

Gardai baton-charge protestors in The Pipe. Copyright 2010 Underground Films

By Eilís Ní Raghallaigh

The IFI Irish Film Archive’s clippings and document collections contain thousands of files and images relating to all aspects of Irish and Irish-interest film and television production. They are available to view in the Tiernan MacBride library within library opening hours, or by appointment with the librarian. Please contact the IFI librarian, Fiona Rigney, for more information. 

[1] Savage, R. J. (2003) Ireland in the New Century. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
[2] Savage, R.J. (1999) Ireland: The Tear and the Smile. In L. Dodd (Ed.), Nationalism Visions and Revisions (pp. 60-63). Dublin: FII Publishing, 1999. 60-63.
[3] Realist. (1969, January 1). Cork Quays. Cork Evening Echo.
[4] Sheridan, K. (1996, February 2). Sex, power and videotape. The Irish Times, pp.3.

[5] Clarke, D. (2010) Almost by accident, he was making a documentary… The Irish Times, pp. 9.

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