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Director Risteard Ó Domhnaill talks 'Atlantic'; in cinemas April 29th

Seán Brosnan - IFTN
With ‘Atlantic’ hitting cinemas on Friday, April 29th, we talk to filmmaker Risteard Ó Domhnaill.

After previously taking a behind the scenes look at Ireland’s Corrib Gas controversy with his IFTA-winning ‘The Pipe’, O’Domhnaill realised that a wider story of resource mismanagement was emerging — one that needed to be told for the sake of coastal communities everywhere. ‘Atlantic’, which started as an ambitious crowdfunding project and is now backed by the Irish Film Board, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation and Nordnorsk Filmsenter (the North Norwegian Film Centre), is that story. Emmy Award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson narrates the film shot across Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland (Canada) by Scannáin Inbhear (Inver Films).

IFTN: First off, the actual funding behind this film is interesting starting off as a Fundit campaign before bigger powers that be came on board…

Risteard Ó Domhnaill: ‘I couldn’t get support anywhere in Ireland. I hit a brick wall. There was no real appetite for this kind of a story. So, I put it out there on Fundit and people stood up to the plate and put their hand in their pocket. We raised an incredible €56,000. It allowed me to travel to Newfoundland and Norway but it also allowed me to argue my case with the Irish Film Board who matched what we raised with crowdfunding. The overall budget was €235,000 with national broadcasters in Canada and Norway.

It’s obviously a completely different story but it’s in the same arena; was the foundations for ‘Atlantic’ laid with your debut feature documentary ‘The Pipe’?

‘When we were editing ‘The Pipe’, I had a lot of the political material; the perceived give-away of oil and gas under Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern. It didn’t quite work in ‘The Pipe’ as it was a very local story. Trying to shoe-horn in a wider political story would have taken away from it. We had to park the oil and gas stuff and I think that made ‘The Pipe’ all the more powerful and allowed it to travel more. But I felt I had unfinished business with the wider oil and gas story.’

‘I also had a really good interview with former Minister for Industry and Commerce Justin Keating who died a year later. So, I started following up on this more to see what was going on off our coasts. It soon became clear that the fishing industry also had a parallel story to oil and gas in that it was given away too. It showed me that this was bigger than just one resource – this was a cultural thing. As a state, as a government, as a people – we turned our back on the sea. We put our focus on land rather than this vast ocean which is 90% of our territorial area.’

The story doesn’t stop in Ireland though – you also travelled to Newfoundland and Norway…

‘I suppose I did that to get some context – to see how they did things. Their communities were very, very similar to ours. What was different though was that their politics were different. Their states had looked after them and their ocean. That was the eye opener for me. In Newfoundland, they had made their fair share of mistakes but they had learned from their mistakes. In Norway, they focused on fishing, oil and gas for the betterment of their economy.’

In all three locations though you managed to find very powerful contributors, as was the case with ‘The Pipe’. Is it a case of focusing in on these people when you find them or is it just luck?

‘You just come across them. You meet these people in day to day life and you are drawn to them. A lot of them are so normal and they are just telling us their story and that is why we gravitate towards them. They are not trying to be clever with words or trying too hard. They have no baggage or agenda and it is easy for us to follow these people.’

And another voice we are following in ‘Atlantic’ is that of the narrator Brendan Gleeson; blessed with the Morgan Freeman quality of having a very distinctive voice. How did Brendan come on board?

‘Well, I was aware that Brendan had liked ‘The Pipe’ but I was also friendly with his son Domhnall as we were both doing the film festival circuit together. When I was promoting ‘The Pipe’, he had ‘Sensations’ on the circuit. I was also very aware that Brendan has recently filmed ‘The Grand Seduction’ where he played a Newfoundland fisherman. So, that got me thinking [laughs]. I sent him the rough cut of the film and he luckily jumped at it. He liked the fact that it was layered and complex and not preaching. We were really lucky to get him. His voice is somehow representative of the ocean and it bears such gravity. He put his heart and soul into it without trying to over-do it. You have all these communities thousands of miles apart and he kind of pulls them together and we slowly realise that these communities are not that different. He also has such a distinctive voice that I think puts people at ease. People would follow Gleeson off a cliff I think [laughs].’

With something like ‘Atlantic’ with such a consistently enthralling story – how do you know when to stop filming and just get this story out there?

‘You don’t really [laughs]. With ‘The Pipe’, I was still filming a year after it was released. Often it’s not until the edit that you are able to craft a narrative and I am lucky to have Nigel O’Regan with me to edit. I basically came up to his house and dumped these six or seven stories on top of him and asked if we could make this work. Once he stopped crying, he did a great job on it [laughs]. What’s great about Nigel is that he has no problem arguing with me and telling me to f**k off. I would be very eager to show the beauty of the ocean and Nigel would tell me to stop f**king about and move on with the story! There was one sequence with a whale that we argued over for hours – we nicknamed him Shamu because we had argued over him so long. But, it’s great to have an editor who will stand up to you like that.’

How do you hope people will react when they watch this documentary?

‘The reaction so far to the documentary has been good but unfortunately, the reaction has also been anger in most cases. That is not necessarily what I wanted here. This documentary is informed. I am not making any bold statements – it is not massively controversial. The only controversial thing about it was that this story has not been told before. I hope people make up their own minds based on this documentary. I think it may make people angry but I think it will also empower them with information so that they can build a platform to start a debate.’

Between ‘The Pipe’ and ‘Atlantic’, it seems this story of the small man’s struggle against big sea-faring corporations has captivated you. Is there another documentary in the pipeline that will follow this similar vein?

‘Yeah, I kind of got sucked into it. But I will see. It is very hard to spend two years on just two documentaries. It’s punishing really. It can wear you out going cap in hand to meetings and begging for money. I am looking forward to this summer where I can show this film around the place in festivals such as the Schull Film Festival and just enjoy it. In saying that, a massive issue is the global view on fishing. I am trying not to think about it but it’s kind of calling me.’

Posted Date: 
30 April 2016