VAN March/April 2015: ‘Roads of Least Resistance: Irish Attitudes to Protest and Civil Disobedience’ by Treasa O’Brien


French new wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot Rocky Road to Dublin (directed by Peter Lennon, 1968) while he was in between shooting with Godard and Truffaut. A mix of journalistic essay film, visual anthropology and new wave expressionism, it asked the question ‘what do you do with your revolution once you have it?’ The answer for the Republic of Ireland, it seemed, was to sit in the seats of your former oppressors and become them yourselves. Ireland’s parochial and conservative attitude was put under attack and the Catholic Church more than implicated as the reason for its failure to imagine itself differently.

According to Peter Lennon, the Irish censor at the time said he couldn’t ban the film because there wasn’t any sex in it, but it was prevented from being shown by the government and through official channels in public places including on RTE, who said it was backed by ‘communist money’. According to Lennon, it was funded by an American friend of his.

It was selected for Cannes in 1968 but not screened – for that was the year that Godard and co. shut down Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with the students’ revolution. As a result Rocky Road to Dublin did get screened informally in the Paris student communes in 1968 as a warning about what not to do with your revolution. Soon after it was shown at Cork Film Festival and secured a seven-week run in a Dublin cinema. After that, apart from occasional screenings by the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, it was not shown in Ireland publicly until 2005 when, following restoration and production of a ‘making of’ complementary short by Loopline Films, it was finally broadcast by RTÉ.

As we approach the centenary of Ireland’s revolution, Rocky Road to Dublin marks a mid point between then and now. A new film, Eat Your Children, which I made in collaboration with Mary Jane O’Leary, considers revolution, or the lack thereof, in Ireland in our current times of austerity. The title, Eat Your Children, also refers to another historical provocation: Jonathan Swift’s satire essay of 1729, A Modest Proposal, in which he proposed that Ireland should eat its young as a solution to poverty. It suggests recipes for fricassee and ragout for the Irish aristocracy to dine on, so that the working class can be rid of its burden. Its subheading is: ‘For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public’. Sounds familiar, hmmm? Emigration Once Again.

Eat Your Children follows two friends who left Ireland in 2008 during the crash as they return home on a road trip to find out why the Irish are not resisting and are content to be the obedient poster child of Europe. It is divided in chapters: ‘The Good Child’ details the boom to bust story of the Celtic Tiger and austerity; ‘Too Good to Resist’ asks if the Catholic Church is still the major moral force in Irish society; ‘Dead and Gone’ and ‘Troublemakers’ look back at the history of Irish resistance and ask how they affect us now.

Paul Krugman, the American economist, made this comparison in 2010 between Ireland’s debt agreements being the equivalent of eating the next generation in an article in the New York Times called ‘Eating the Irish’. However it was when Mary Jane O’Leary showed me a protest on the streets of Athens with Greeks chanting ‘We are not Irish; we will resist’ that it provoked us into making a film.

Eat Your Children is an inside out activist film. It begins by asking why people do not resist, and goes about trying to film something that is not happening.

Of course, there are those in Ireland who do resist and we don’t want to alienate or insult the good work that they do against the odds, especially now that the anti water charges movement is growing. We mean it in the spirit of the bad taste of A Modest Proposal, or the condemnation of a nation in Rocky Road to Dublin – a dystopian vision employed to critique current times and a call to its audience to change the course of the future so that it does not happen. The cynic is the most idealistic of us all – she believes that by focusing on the negative, change must come.

The film is as much about an identity crisis as it is about an economic one; it asks questions about what our society wants and values. The film begins with an indictment of Irish apathy and focuses on the disempowerment of modern democracy in our late capitalist times, but it weaves into its tapestry the fledgling movements that are the exceptions to the rule: Shell to Sea, Ballyhea Bondholder Bailout Protest and the movement against water charges: a tax to pay off dead banks.

Now that Greece has risen with the election of the Syriza party to a place of empowerment, while Ireland’s leaders continue to swallow EU sleeping pills and pay the debt with the doublespeak of exit and recovery, a wake-up call is needed more than ever. I am often asked, ‘can film or art really change the world?’
I answer, no. Only people can.

Treasa O’Brien, Director / Writer of Eat Your Children, premiered on Sunday 22 March in the IFI as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

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