"This is one of the most important stories of it's kind in Europe."
• The Pipe, a documentary about a handful of fisherman and locals from the remote village of Rossport, North Co Mayo, and their attempts to prevent Shell from running a potentially lethal high-pressure gas pipeline through their backyards
A SMALL, rusting fishing boat chugs out into a spectacular bay manned by a lone desperate skipper who sails straight into the path of a massive ship that has entered the waters he has worked since his youth. Dwarfed by the vessel's towering bows, the fisherman circles the ocean-going juggernaut like a minnow harrying a leviathan, trying to block its path in a last-ditch attempt to save his beloved bay from environmental disaster.
It could be a David and Goliath scenario from some preposterous Hollywood blockbuster. But this is stark reality; one of the heart-stopping moments from The Pipe, a wrenchingly topical documentary about how a handful of West Ireland villagers stood up to the oil giant Shell.
The defiant fisherman is from the village of Rossport, situated at the end of long lonely roads, three hours drive north of Galway, on the rugged coastline of North County Mayo. The ship he challenges in the clear blue waters of Broadhaven Bay, once awash with fish and crabs, is The Solitaire, the world's largest pipe-laying vessel, which travels the globe for the oil industry.
Filmed over five years, Richard O'Donnell's alarming yet lyrical documentary chronicles the bitter battle between Shell Oil and the people of Rossport, who refused to let the company run a potentially lethal high-pressure gas pipeline through their backyards.
O'Donnell, 30, a freelance news cameraman, grew up in Tipperary and studied theoretical physics at Trinity College in Dublin. The Pipe grew out of his coverage of the Rossport protests for Irish TV news. "I didn't set out to make a full-length film. It happened almost organically," he says. "I was working as news cameraman in the West of Ireland, living on my uncle's farm which overlooks Broadhaven Bay and Rossport, shooting reports for the national news. I ended up filming for over five years. And for most of the time it was like covering a war."
O'Donnell's debut feature won Best Documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh last year and went on to win at the Irish Film and Television Awards. But the film about a remote community on the edge of Europe is proving to have a global reach. A surprise sensation at last September's Toronto Film Festival, The Pipe received standing ovations, national television coverage and a rare rave review in the American showbiz bible Variety.
Dubbed the "real life Local Hero" by US critics – recalling Bill Forsyth's 1983 hit comedy about an American oil company invading a Scottish village – The Pipe has been embraced in an America still reeling from last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A string of international awards followed acclaimed screenings in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and Boston.
In Rossport, people's lives are inextricably linked to the landscape and the film focuses on four central activists, including farmer Willie Corduff and fisherman Pat O'Donnell (no relation), as they fight the construction of the Shell pipeline on land and sea.
Shell discovered a large gas field off the wild unspoiled coast of Mayo in 1996. The company announced long-term plans to funnel the raw gas through a high-pressure pipeline to a refinery nine kilometres inland near the village of Rossport. The Corrib Gas development would be the largest energy project in Irish history, bringing the promise of economic prosperity to the area.
"For the locals, the pipe wasn't a sign of prosperity, but a threat to their way of life," says O'Donnell, "They weren't against Shell as such. They weren't eco-warriors, but ordinary people with serious concerns about the pipeline. It was a question of protecting their right to live safely."
The pipeline would cross the lands of farmers and fisherman, tunnelling under the EU protected beach and a highly unstable peat bog dangerously close to their houses. If the high-pressure pipeline failed in the treacherous, shifting ground the consequences could be catastrophic.
For years, the Rossport residents argued the gas should be processed offshore – which is standard practice, although much more expensive. But in 2005, without any public consultation, Shell began construction of the refinery and controversial pipeline with, evidently, the blessing of the Irish government.
"In Ireland, land is very emotive issue because of the historic struggles for independence," says O'Donnell. "Land is something very precious,
very dear. So when a big multinational came in with permission signed by the government saying they could put a pipeline through their land it was like going back 200 years."
Ignored by Shell and feeling abandoned by the state, the increasingly desperate Rossport villagers began dawn protests at the gates of the proposed refinery. Filming the events for TV news, O'Donnell realised he was at the heart of a community under siege when hundreds of police and Shell's private security personnel were drafted into a tranquil rural area previously patrolled by one local policeman, or Garda.
"What unfolded over the next few months amazed me," says O'Donnell. "Three hundred Gardai were brought into the area around the refinery and baton charged everyone at the gates. And the more aggressive the police got, the more determined the locals were."
But the price of resistance was high. Protesters were injured and imprisoned and the community almost torn apart.
O'Donnell inter-cuts the daily routine of farmers and fishermen in a breathtaking landscape with graphic images of villagers battered by police batons. The "Battle of the Bog," which was waged on the quiet roads of north Mayo, became national news. "It was hard to believe, I was filming ordinary farmers, fishermen and teachers being beaten and thrown into ditches by police," says O'Donnell, "It was obvious the people had very
serious concerns which were not being addressed. And the story got bigger."
In the summer of 2005, five Rossport men – three farmers and two retired teachers with no previous convictions – were jailed indefinitely for refusing Shell access to their land. There was a national outcry, sparking protest marches across Ireland.
The wave of negative publicity encompassed the Irish government and the then Irish prime minister, taoiseach Bertie Ahern. After frantic political manoeuvring and three months in jail, the "Rossport Five" were released to jubilant scenes outside Dublin's Cloverhill prison.
But the following year Shell's pipeline development was exempted from all planning restrictions; something, according to O'Donnell, "unprecedented in Irish law". In October 2006 Shell got the go-ahead to restart work on the Rossport refinery and pipeline.
The protests escalated, with round-the-clock vigils at the refinery and roadside demonstrations joined by groups from across the country, culminating in late 2009 with a local teacher going on hunger strike in protest at the arrival of the Solitaire in Broadhaven Bay.
"It was a new cycle of violence. People from all over the parish and beyond got involved in the protest," says O'Donnell, "There was a lot confrontation, a lot of ugly scenes, it got very nasty at times."
O'Donnell amassed 400 hours of footage which, in an epic eight-month edit, he moulded into an elegiac portrait of public protest and unwavering resistance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.
He completed the edit, ironically, just as the BP oil spill spread like a dark cloud across the Gulf Of Mexico, taking local livelihoods and the environment with it.
The film ends on an unexpectedly high note; work on the Corrib Gas pipeline was suspended in 2010 after new planning objections were upheld by Ireland's courts. Shell, which refused to participate in the film, is now considering its options.
"It's the strength of the people that shines through the film," says O'Donnell, "their humour and eloquence make the story. I wanted to let them speak for themselves, and it was time someone listened."
The Pipe screens at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, tonight until 30 May, with a director Q&A after the evening screening tomorrow. It is also screening at the Belmont Theatre, Aberdeen, tonight, DCA, Dundee, 29 May until 1 June (with a director Q&A on 29 May) and Eden Court, Inverness, on 30 May. It is then broadcast on More4, 14 June.