Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Taking hold of the truth: gripping Irish documentaries from the IFI’s Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festivals

The IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival (September 25th – 28th), now in its 11th year, showcases the best documentary work from Ireland and around the globe. This year’s line-up includes new Irish works from Blood Fruit’s exploration of the Dunnes Stores workers’ stand against apartheid to Showrunners which examines the world of U.S. television’s creative teams. In this month’s blog from the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Tiernan MacBride library we look back at five gripping Irish documentaries which have been screened during the history of the festival.

The Family (1979)

Bob Quinn’s The Family was shown as part of the Alternative Communities archival strand of the 2009 IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival. It examines the Atlantis Commune which was based in Donegal in the 1970s, whose members were labelled ‘The Screamers’ because of the confrontational primal therapy they practised. [1] Quinn has described how one shocking therapy scene in the film still has the power to upset him over 30 years later and he called it “the most intimidating project of my career.” [2] The Family was commissioned by the fledgling RTE 2 but was not broadcast as intended in 1978 because it was “too disturbing.” [3] The film was finally shown on RTE over ten years later as part of Lelia Doolan’s First View series. [4] 

Jenny James, founder of the Atlantis Commune in The Family
Copyright 1979 Cinegael.

Chavez: Inside the Coup (2003)
This documentary focuses on the events in Venezuela in 2002 leading up to an attempted revolutionary coup, which saw President Hugo Chavez deposed for 48 hours. Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain’s footage of the events contradicted the false story circulated internationally by Venezuela’s privately owned media channels; that shots fired into the crowd originated from the pro-Chavez supporters when in fact his supporters were the victims of the sniper attacks. Later, they film the removal of Chavez in handcuffs from the presidential palace and finally, following dramatic protests by his supporters and the backing of the army, his triumphant return. While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with Chavez and his government, the material is allowed to speak for itself and the result is a thrilling examination of political machination and the manipulation of the media. The documentary won multiple international awards, with one Canadian jury declaring it, “the best television programme in the world this year.” [5]

Hugo Chavez addresses the crowd in Chavez: Inside the Coup
Copyright 2003 Power Pictures.

The Asylum (2005)
In this documentary series, set in St. Ita’s Hospital, Portrane, acclaimed filmmaker Alan Gilsenan explores the subject of mental health in Ireland. The films are moving and frightening in turns as we meet the hospital’s residents and get a sense of the disenfranchisement they have suffered because of mental illness. At the time, Gilsenan addressed criticisms that his series had the potential to be exploitative in a live debate with Mannix Flynn on RTE’s Liveline programme. [6] He outlined the years taken to film the series, the sensitivity shown to its subjects and the involvement of the patients’ doctors and family members in every step of the process. [7] Watching the series, the humanity of both the staff and residents is powerfully conveyed throughout and it remains an important examination of a taboo subject, “a place which we dreaded to look at before, in any shape or form.” [8]

Caroline Smith, a patient interviewed in The Asylum, who had spent over 
50 years of her life in institutions. Copyright 2005 RTE.

Saviours (2007)
Saviours follows the lives of three young fighters training in St. Saviour’s Olympic Boxing Academy on Dublin’s Dorset Street. Over two years we experience the personal struggles and triumphs of Abdul Hussein, an asylum seeker, Dean Murphy, a local fighter and Darren Sutherland, whose bronze medal win in the 2008 Olympics secured a cinematic release for the film. [9] Filmmakers Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan convey the humour, vulnerability and “spit and spirit” [10] of the boxers as well as the source of hope and sense of community boxing gives to them and to their trainers. Sadly, Darren Sutherland took his own life in 2009 and Saviours stands as a fitting testament to the talent, courage and humility of an outstanding young man.

Darren Sutherland is declared the winner of a boxing match in Saviours
Copyright 2007 Nolan Whitaker Street Films.

The Liberties (2009)
The Liberties captures the fascination filmmakers Tom Burke and Shane Hogan feel for this inner-city enclave, sometimes referred to as “the real Dublin.” [11] Residents including craftsmen, newspaper sellers and actress Brenda Fricker are profiled in a series of vignettes which create a vivid snapshot of the area and its community. The film avoids easy platitudes and the different characters speak with humour and startling honesty about subjects including drug addiction, poverty and immigration. The various portraits celebrate the ordinary lives decently lived in the Liberties and in the words of one reviewer, “hang in the memory long after the film has finished.” [12]

Newspaper seller Sarah leans against a kiosk in The Liberties. 
Copyright 2009 Areaman Productions.

By Eilís Ní Raghallaigh

The IFI Irish Film Archive’s clippings, image 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] Corbett, G. (2006, December 3). Keeping hope afloat in a harrowing world. The Sunday Tribune, p. 19.
[2] Quinn, B. (2013, January). A note from the director on the making of the Family. Irish Film Institute. Retrieved September 16th, 2014 from
[3] Quinn, B. (2006). The Family. Cinegael. Retrieved September 16th, 2014 from
[4] Rockett, K. (2006, November). The Family. Irish film & TV research online. Retrieved September 16th, 2014 from
[5] O’Mahony, C. (2003, June 15). Chavez film labelled ‘best in the world.’ The Sunday Business Post, p. 17.
[6] Kehoe, E. (2005, September 18). Poignant and painful in Portrane. The Sunday Business Post, Agenda, p. 10.
[7] Lavery, B. (2005, September 11). Television. The Sunday Times, pp. 20-21.
[8] Lynch, D. (2005, September 25). A look at what we tried not to see. The Sunday Independent, p. 2.
[9] Whitington, P. (2008, September 6). Darren Sutherland’s road to knockout success. The Irish Independent, Review, p. 21.
[10] Lynch, P. (2008, October 5). Sucker Punch. The Sunday Tribune, Arts, p. 5.
[11] Kehoe, E. (2009, September 20). Liberties taken in the heart of old Dublin. The Sunday Business Post, Agenda, p. 40.
[12] Fannin, H. (2009, September 19). Rich Pageant. The Irish Times, Weekend Review, p. 18.

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