DONAL FOREMAN with Leo Goldsmithby Leo Goldsmith
The Image You Missed positions itself as a “film between”—between its maker, the filmmaker Donal Foreman, and his late, estranged father, Arthur MacCaig, who was himself a filmmaker. Foreman is an Irishman living in New York who makes mostly narrative films, and MacCaig was “an American living in Paris making [documentary] films about Ireland”—specifically, about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) resistance against British Crown Forces. Foreman’s film stages a dialogue between distant national and historical perspectives—straddling two sides of a putatively resolved conflict, as well as the polarities of nationalist fervor and internationalist solidarity. Delivered in epistolary form, Foreman’s work assembles the fragments of the life of a man he saw infrequently: notes, tapes, and documents, including MacCaig’s films about Northern Ireland (The Patriot Game , Irish Ways , and War and Peace in Ireland ) and one about the Basque-Spanish conflict (Euskadi: A Stateless Nation ). Few of these images include both father and son: as Foreman notes, he appears in none of the photos in MacCaig’s archive, and what few images remain of them were taken by Foreman’s mother during his father’s rare visits to Dublin. But the film is nonetheless structured around a steady correspondence between MacCaig’s work and Foreman’s own, more narrative work, including his 2013 feature debut Out of Here. This elegant crosscutting between media and media in other media—MacCaig’s images appear onscreen, and then they reappear or are echoed in other footage—maps the relative distances between not only the filmmakers, but also their respective generations. As Foreman notes in voiceover, his generation arose in the wake of the failure of the revolutionary movements which his father so persistently documented in his films. There is sorrow in this recognition, but—to the film’s immense credit—nothing like nostalgia. Instead, the film poses cinema itself as the instrument that, at once, links the dispersed members of a political movement, and serves as the thin thread that connects father to son, across time, and beyond death.
Leo Goldsmith (Rail): We might as well start by talking about why you decided to make this film. Why did you want to make it, and why now?
Donal Foreman: Well, the starting point was coming into possession of Arthur’s archive after his death. I don’t think the film would have even occurred to me if that hadn’t happened. The possibility of a film started churning in the back of my head shortly after that, but it was years later before I managed to form a concept of what that could be. In 2014 I did a residency at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris, where I first started working out the structure and formal approach of the film in detail—enough detail, at least, to convince the Arts Council of Ireland to fund the project.
Rail: Had you gone through all the material in your father’s archive by that point?
Foreman: The year after he died I sorted through it all, but I actually viewed very little of it. I gave his Irish films to the Irish Film Archive, his Basque films to the Basque Film Archive, and all the rest to the archive of my mum’s attic. Most of it was on 16mm or obsolete tape formats like Hi8, BetaCam, or U-Matic, some of which even the Irish Film Archive didn’t have the equipment to play. So although I’d watched some of his completed films, a lot of my plans for the film were pretty speculative in terms of what I might discover in his unedited rushes—and that’s what I wanted to draw from as much as possible. Really, the notion of sorting through all the material was pretty daunting and if I hadn’t gotten the funding for the project, I don’t know if I would have made it, at least not anytime soon. I needed that outside pressure to convince myself to do it.
Rail: The reason I am asking is because your films are very different from his films, and I can imagine a scenario in which you’d be maybe resistant to the idea of making the film.
Foreman: For fear of casting myself in his shadow, you mean?
Rail: In a way, yes. Was this something that was in the back of your mind?
Foreman: No, I don’t think I really thought about it that way. Initially I thought of it in quite a detached, almost opportunistic way: “I have this great raw material to work with, this treasure chest of an archive that, intertwined with this story of a father and son, touches on all these generational questions about filmmaking and politics and history that I’m really fascinated with.” It seemed almost incidental that I was the son! It was only much later in the process that I started to think about being received in those terms—that it would be taken primarily as this literal exploration of the influence and relationship between myself and my father.
Rail: What’s interesting about this question, though, is that you make narrative films but have here made a documentary, whereas MacCaig made documentaries, but also wrote a few screenplays for fiction films that were never produced, which you use in the film. Can you talk a little about using those?
Foreman: Yes—in the mid eighties, after he made his first two big successful feature docs, The Patriot Game and Euskadi hors d’État, he wanted to transition into fiction filmmaking, so he wrote a script with a friend called Our Lady of Tolosa, which was based on his experience of the Basque conflict. It was a sexy political thriller starring a thinly fictionalized version of himself, an Irish-American journalist called Jim Gaffney, who has an affair with not one but two Basque revolutionaries. They spent a lot of time writing and rewriting this and trying to get it made. I heard that at one point, they had Sandrine Bonnaire attached to play the Basque revolutionary and William Hurt was interested in Jim Gaffney, and they were going to Cannes to pitch it, but the funding never came together. It actually had a pretty solid political analysis, albeit framed around some hackneyed genre tropes and thinly drawn characters.
Rail: It’s like he was trying to make a Costa-Gavras film.
Foreman: I know he was a big admirer of Ken Loach, so that’s perhaps the kind of thing he was aspiring towards. I think he saw a kind of legitimacy in fiction filmmaking that eluded him in the doc world.
Rail: This raises the question of “the personal and the political” in relation to fiction versus documentary, which I know is something you’ve thought about in your work: the tendency, especially of narrative films, to reduce political situations to interpersonal conflict and character psychology. Can you talk about this both in terms of your narrative films and this one?
Foreman: I am really interested in doing fictional, character-based drama, but I struggle a lot with what seems to be—in any character drama, even the good stuff—an innate tendency towards weighing the personal over the political, a tendency that lends itself to a kind of liberal, humanist outlook where character’s motivations are only ever personal, and if characters are militant, it tends to come off as a kind of pathology.
The film that really got me thinking about this was Kelly Reichardt’s activist movie Night Moves. I loved some of her other films, all of which have some political import to them but without actually tackling politically engaged characters. And it was disappointing to see her finally represent activists, because the film ends up implying that their actions are really determined by who they are, their personal issues and histories, not any real analysis of these wider political catastrophes. And you see this in a lot in films about the Troubles as well. Most of the dramas take a really personalized humanist approach which is nearly always focused on “ordinary people caught in the mix,” who don’t really have any political allegiance or position, or if they do it’s because their brother was killed in front of them or something like that. That’s not to say these personal emotions aren’t important factors as well—but drama tends to prioritize them in a way that’s often depoliticizing. It’s never a leader of the IRA or a committed militant who is the protagonist—someone who has really thought it through, ideologically and strategically. It’s the mother of the soldier, the father of a victim, or the impressionable teenager.
Rail: Is there something about the form of your film, or of the essay film in general, that allows you to avoid this? You obviously don’t need to create these motivations or psychologies for radical politicization—you can come at it from another direction. It makes me think about the amazing footage right at the beginning of the film: this very unusual shot from your father’s archive where we’re at a pub or a birthday party and there’s this troop of IRA guys with balaclavas and guns, and one of them reads a speech in this very gentle voice to warn children about playing near the Crown Forces vehicles. It suddenly captures this very complex intersection of the personal and political that’s not at all reducible to simple interpersonal relationships or narrative psychology.
Foreman: Yes, I think there is something about the form of this film that allows me to bounce back and forth between the personal and the political, to question and subvert them in a way that doesn’t prioritize one over the other, or doesn’t have a stable hierarchy to it. Take that opening scene you mention: you have the clear political message of the text that he’s reading, but then you have the crazy, incongruous environment surrounding it, with masked gunmen posing under disco lights, and then all the nuances of performance in the IRA guy who’s speaking—his hesitations, misread words, shaking hands (my favorite part). But there’s not a clear hierarchy to those layers—you can’t just reduce it to, “Oh, he’s a nervous kid, he doesn’t know what he is doing, it’s all bullshit,” because the message still has weight and importance for the community.
Another side of it that complicates things is how the film gets read by audiences and critics, how these issues are received and processed. Most people tend to respond to the father/son relationship in a very immediate or direct way, but the politics perhaps less so.
Rail: People tend to latch onto the more “universal” theme. And yet, one thing I really like about the film is how restrained it is on this subject. There’s that sort of autobiographical essay film about families that has been made many times where the tone is very melancholic and regretful, but your film is not this at all. You do end the film with this question of regret, but the film resists telegraphing what might seem like the obvious emotional responses. And that seems to me to be a lot about how the voiceover is written and delivered.
Foreman: I mean, I was super wary about it being this confessional, sentimental, pathos-laden father-son film, so to begin with I veered too much in the other direction. I thought, well, it just needs this framing of the father and son to tackle these larger questions I’m interested in—and does it even matter if I’m the son, or if the story is even true? I had a version where I had two narrators in dialogue, neither of whom were me, sorting through the archive and telling the story of this father and son from a remove, as if from some point in the future. It took a whole two years of working on it to get it to be as personalized and sentimental as it is! A key part of that was eventually relenting to narrating the film in the first person and addressing it directly to him. For a long time, I couldn’t think of a way to narrate in the first person without immediately cringing.
Rail: Can I ask you about casting the voiceover for your father? That’s got to be difficult.
Foreman: Originally, I was thinking that I would get an actor and try to find someone who actually sounded like him, but then he has a very quite unique voice, which has this old New York/New Jersey base to it…
Rail: It’s an accent that doesn’t really exist anymore.
Foreman: And then it’s tempered by all his time spent in Ireland, which added all these little Irish-isms in his speech, and all his time in France—if you live in France for thirty years it changes how you speak English as well . . . All these layers of subtleties were just making my head hurt. [Laughs] So then I just decided I get Ernie [filmmaker Ernest Larsen] to do it. I was already having a dialogue with him and Sherry [Millner] about the film to begin with, so it was a nice kind of collaboration. They’ve been making political films together in New York since the ’60s, but coming from a very different perspective than Arthur, inspired by anarchism, situationism, the avant-garde—all these things Arthur never seemed to have much interest in.
Rail: What were you talking with them about?
Foreman: Ernie in particular had some interesting thoughts as to how masculinity played into it: he saw Arthur’s being very typical of a certain kind of very male seventies leftist, with this adventurist swagger and adventurist posture. The moustache was the perfect icing on the cake for that. And that’s something I gradually thought more about as I was making it. Another important realization they pushed me towards, something that I had thought about but had taken for granted, is the different political moments between when he started making films and when I started making films.
Rail: This raises the question of how chronology works in the film—it’s fairly linear, but it does require you to keep the relations between the past and the present in mind.
Foreman: Well, the only linear element is really its treatment of Irish history—starting with the 1916 Easter Rising, jumping ahead to the beginning of the Troubles, and culminating in the peace process. I eventually settled on that as a kind of spine that all of my much less linear ruminations would hang off of. Really, the biggest challenge wasn't so much the chronology, but finding the right balance between these personal and historical elements. I wanted to be sure not to glorify my personal story in a way that trivialized the gravity of what's taken place in the North. The form had to set these elements in dialogue with each other, asking questions of each other, so that you end up seeing both in a totally different light than if they were told as separate stories.
LEO GOLDSMITH is one of the film editors at the Brooklyn Rail.