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Spirit of Contradiction >>
A Review of the Film "Route Irish"
anti-war / imperialism |
Monday January 07, 2008 10:25 by Gary MacLennan Dublin, Ireland
**Accessing "Route Irish" on the net
If you have a high speed connection, I'd suggest that you ight-click (pc) or ctrl-lick (mac) on this link and download to your desktop
Or you can go to
and watch online.
A Review of "Route Irish" by Gary MacLennan
Route Irish is an important documentary. Let us be clear about that. Its importance for the Irish lies in the fact that it deals with the current struggle to protect Irish neutrality, something btw which is enshrined in the Irish constitution. The centre of this struggle is Shannon Airport historically of military importance as the furthest length a plane could fly from America. Of course these days Shannon is no longer a logistic necessity. But as the Catholic Workers activist Ciaron O'Reilly points out, the US is pissing on Ireland to mark its territory. Its recruitment of Ireland to the "Coalition of the Willing" was and is a political act. Behind the use of the airport is of course the untold story of the massive corruption of the Irish elites by their American counterparts. There is enough of Irish nationalism left in me to provoke a sense of deep shame and outrage at the betrayal of Irish neutrality by today's leaders of the Irish State. But another and more sensible part of me wants to repeat my old mother's favourite saying "What can you expect from a pig but a grunt". The elites of Ireland are like the elites everywhere that form the periphery of the US Empire. They have nothing to offer but compliance, and corruption and contrition for any acts of protest that might emerge from below. And let me say it clearly now; we should make no mistake about this: Ireland's rulers have been begging their US masters for forgiveness for not being able to crush the protest movement.
In other words they have been grunting.
Points Somewhat Technical
The film's voice over commentary is perhaps a good place to begin. In documentary terms the historical voice over became known pejoratively as the "voice of god" around the 60s- 70s. As a result film makers would go to almost any length to avoid a voice over. Thankfully however contemporary documentarists have resorted to a voice over again. However these tend to be personal, reflective, uncertain, whimsical etc in contrast with the authoratively stentorian commentary of the 1930s.
Here the voice over is delivered very professionally in the best reflective personal style- enormously engaging. Nevertheless one of my complaints about this film is that in aesthetic terms it would seem ambivalent about the status of the voice over. As it stands it seems to me that the film is poised where the commentary could become a move towards a dialog with us the viewers. It needs to recognize the wonder that is there. The commentator cares. In this the age of disengagement, he is engagé. We watch the film and that too means we care. So the commentary could have been seen as almost like a prayer which we all share in.
What we in fact needed was more of the commentary and a good deal of editing of the other material. For instance the point about the opportunism of the Green Party politicians was made long before the film maker would acknowledge that. There are other areas too where the editor should have intervened and cut heavily.
The risk of course with a commentary is that other voices will be drowned out. And the film does conscientiously try to honor a commitment to let as many voices to be heard as possible. Yet there is a political point that the voice over strives to make and that is the relationship of the protest action to the broad peace movement.
The commentary makes the point that the leadership of the movement had been taken over by the Trotskyist SWP. The danger of sectarian conflict looms here. Were the Catholic Workers justified in their assault on the war plane? To the leaders of the peace movement it would appear that the answer is "no" and that the Catholic Workers' action was at best a "distraction". However a jury of twelve good men and women eventually gave the answer that yes the attack on the plane was justified. And all honor to that jury.
I will make my position clear here. I support what the Catholic Workers(CW) did. I understand very well that many in the movement would feel that the CW had acted on their own. Yet what they did would have had repercussions for the movement. In other words they acted outside the collective discipline of the movement. However the commitment of the Catholic Workers to non-violence means that they can never occupy a position like that of the Weathermen, who constituted themselves as the armed wing of the protest movement and in so doing facilitated the state's crushing of the movement.
More about aesthetic matters – esp the need for editing
Footage however interesting and unusual in itself does not a film make. Aesthetic clarity and discipline are an indispensible part of the film making process. The film falls between two orientations. It wants to be above all a record of the struggle and so we have a great amount of footage from the protests. There is of course great political value in showing the voice of the protest and allowing the marginalised and the despised their moment of speaking out. But the film also wants to be a commentary on that struggle. It seeks to defend the particular approach that advocated by the Ploughshares movement. It is this task that the commentary at times seeks to undertake.
My own position is that the film should have been more upfront about its intentions. I cannot believe that they did not build the film more around the triumph that was the trial. Let me be absolutely clear here. The acquittal of the Ploughshares activists was a triumph above all for ordinary people, whose voice was represented by the jury. The verdict came against all the pressure that the Empire, the Irish State and the media could bring to bear. Twelve ordinary decent men and women looked into their hearts and found the truth there. That is a moment whose preciousness should never be lost sight of, and it is to the shame of the film makers that they do seem to do so. Why? For me the answer lies in the dialectics of being part of a vanguard. Within this all protest can be seen to be useless.
Thoughts on vanguardism
Really I think someone needed to sit down with the crew and work out exactly what the film is about. It is torn between wanting to put up a lot of footage and trying to make a point. Of course it should have gone for the "point" - but what is the point???? There is a real tendency in the commentary to whinge about the movement. Some of this is very legitimate as in the role of the Greens and the Pollies and of course the sectarians who want to hold onto "leadership" i.e. power. However the abiding sin of the avant garde is there also. It complains of the people. They are never militant enough etc.
Above all the film maker needs a real clip around the ear for not understanding moral politics!! I just cannot believe that he could not see the need to highlight Ciaron O'Reilly's rationale for his actions. It says it all. I shed tears when I heard him say why he did what he did. And of course the trial was a god given opportunity for the vanguard to link up with the people. If the Plough Share actions have a justification it is for me that they provide ordinary people with the opportunity to do the right thing. One of the jury said precisely this and the film maker did not put it in. What in the name of jeezuss was he thinking about?
He had there such a victory to inspire people and he could not forbear going on about betrayals etc. What is it with the Irish? We cannot stop whining about traitors! I think myself it is a part of the "primitive rebel" syndrome. But ploughshare politics should be rooted in a real belief in grace. The jury were blessed with grace -truly amazing grace- and did the right and moral thing. That is the film's story.
Underneath the commentary is a feeling of despair - despair in the face of political opportunism, left sectarianism and the vast disengagement of society. But the answer for to despair is to affirm one's enduring belief in grace and the filmaker had the bloody evidence in front of him and could not see it.
Also let me finish by saying that CW lot could well meditate on whether they have fallen into the opposite of grace and that is nihilism. This is the post modern feeling that nothing matters so everything goes. Demos become fashion statements and commitment seems to be so old fashioned and (crime of crimes) boring. It is so easy in these circumstances for the committed to become strident and to complain of those who do not do enough. But that is to make the mistake of making oneself a judge of the people. God judges. We do not.
So the answer again lies in faith and a firm belief that everything we do matters - no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. As Milton put it
"God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Or as Kierkegaard would have it in his famous entry for July 29 1835
"As I stood there, without that feeling of dejection and
despondency which makes me look upon myself as the
enclitic of the men who usually surround me, and without
that feeling of pride which makes me into the formative
principle of a small circle as I stood there alone and for-
saken, and the power of the sea and the battle of the
elements reminded me of my own nothingness, and on the
other hand the sure flight of the birds recalled the words
spoken by Christ : Not a sparrow shall fall to the ground
without your Father : then all at once I felt how great and
how small I was; then did those two mighty forces, pride
and humility, happily unite in friendship."
By way of something like a conclusion
I can recall that when I was a boy in Omagh (over half a century ago) I was taken with my school to the Old Town Hall to see a film on the life of St Vincent de Paul. It had to be Maurice Cloche's Monsieur Vincent (1947). I remember scenes of Vincent picking up babies outside the church and something of his life in the galleys. But most of all I remember at the end of the film when he says that we must ask the poor for forgiveness. I think that is something for every vanguardist to think on. We need to seek the forgiveness of those in whose name we act. We do not need to complain about them. We need to be humble and understand why they cannot or will not do what we might label "enough". Something of that humility should find its way into the commentary IMHO.
Finally another piece of poetry and this is one of my favourites. I offer it as a piece for meditation for all of those who complain of the people. It is by Yeats, who though a thorough reactionary still had his moments of grace and this was one of them. It deals with his meditation on a conversation he had with Lady Gregory – "his phoenix" about the "people".
W.B. Yeats (1865–1939). The Wild Swans at Coole. 1919.
22. The People
'WHAT have I earned for all that work,' I said,
'For all that I have done at my own charge?
The daily spite of this unmannerly town,
Where who has served the most is most defamed,
The reputation of his lifetime lost 5
Between the night and morning. I might have lived,
And you know well how great the longing has been,
Where every day my footfall should have lit
In the green shadow of Ferrara wall;
Or climbed among the images of the past— 10
The unperturbed and courtly images—
Evening and morning, the steep street of Urbino
To where the duchess and her people talked
The stately midnight through until they stood
In their great window looking at the dawn; 15
I might have had no friend that could not mix
Courtesy and passion into one like those
That saw the wicks grow yellow in the dawn;
I might have used the one substantial right
My trade allows: chosen my company, 20
And chosen what scenery had pleased me best.'
Thereon my phoenix answered in reproof,
'The drunkards, pilferers of public funds,
All the dishonest crowd I had driven away,
When my luck changed and they dared meet my face, 25
Crawled from obscurity, and set upon me
Those I had served and some that I had fed;
Yet never have I, now nor any time,
Complained of the people.'
All I could reply
Was: 'You, that have not lived in thought but deed, 30
Can have the purity of a natural force,
But I, whose virtues are the definitions
Of the analytic mind, can neither close
The eye of the mind nor keep my tongue from speech.'
And yet, because my heart leaped at her words, 35
I was abashed, and now they come to mind
After nine years, I sink my head abashed.
8th January 2008