RISTEARD Ó Domhnaill’s new documentary, Atlantic, is a wake-up call as chilling as a bucket of ice-cold seawater over the head.
Ó Domhnaill’s second feature documentary follows three coastal communities in Newfoundland, Norway and Ireland struggling to maintain their way of life amidst shrinking fishing quotas and mismanaged resources. Among those featured are Jerry Early, the Arranmore fisherman convicted of fishing with a net “with the potential to catch a salmon” as EU super-trawlers fish his waters, and a Norwegian acoustic specialist’s warnings about the effects of marine oil exploration on fish spawning grounds.
Four years ago, two crowd-funding campaigns and a struggle for official funding in the making, the documentary is narrated by Brendan Gleeson and filmed mostly by Ó Domhnaill himself.
Ó Domhnaill’s first film, The Pipe, told the story of the struggle against the Shell gas pipeline in Rossport, Co Mayo. It was a passion project for Ó Domhnaill, who began selling footage of clashes between locals and Gardaí and private security firms to news outlets.
“The story was being sensationalised because of the nature of TV news; there was no understanding of the complexity of the situation,” he says. He took matters into his own hands and the result was a dramatic documentary studded with violence and an infectious sense of injustice.
The Pipe fed Atlantic. Engrossed in the ever-expanding tale of the mismanagement of Irish resources, Ó Domhnaill decided to keep The Pipe a personal tale and the rest would become Atlantic.
Atlantic can be watched for its beauty; it is replete with lush coastal landscapes, aerial shots of Norwegian fjords and tumble-down clapperboard Newfoundland houses. But there’s no separating film from its message that our Atlantic resources of fish and oil are being criminally mismanaged for profit, and the voices of small coastal communities are being drowned in a tide of greed, big business and EU quota deals.
Brendan Gleeson agreed to narrate the documentary after O’Domhnaill saw him playing the part of a Newfoundland fisherman in the 2014 Ca comedy The Grand Seduction. “I sent a rough cut to his agent and he said yes straight away,” Ó Domhnaill says. “He really invested in it, working on his script and he even came to the Dublin screening. He’s such a down-to-earth person and so genuine. He gave up so much of his time when he really didn’t have to.”
Atlantic forms an intricately woven net heavy with nuggets of archive footage. In one of the film’s dramatic highlights, 1992 news footage shows Newfoundland fishermen battering at the locked doors of the room where their fisheries minister is nervously announcing a moratorium on cod fishery and the loss of their livelihood.
Sourcing footage from CBC, RTE, Greenpeace and Statoil archives was expensive and time-consuming, but worth it, says Ó Domhnaill.
“When you tell a retrospective story it can get very talking heads and very boring so it was great to reach back into the records and bring out the drama. In that particular moment, you really feel the dread of the fishermen that just by signing a piece of paper someone can take their livelihood away.”
Editor Nigel O’Regan was vital to the film-making process. “He did a great job of bring a narrative together so that people can follow it without their eyeballs falling out on the floor after 80 minutes,” Ó Domhnaill says. “We fight like cats and dogs, but you need that; a ruthless editor who’ll fight with you and stop you being indulgent; that’s where the narrative tightens up.”
The film purposefully juxtaposes the experiences of Norway and Newfoundland against the Irish story to deliver a salutary message to an Irish audience. There’s a real sense of impotence amongst the Irish fishermen, who feel marginalised and unrepresented.
“Fishing isn’t done at sea anymore; it’s done at tables in Brussels,” says skipper Máirtín Éanna O Conghaile with a sad smile and a shrug as he catches the last of his quota for the season. “But these Dutch super-trawlers will be out until May, and we’ll be in tied to the wall looking out at them.”
In Newfoundland and Norway, Ó Domhnaill saw very different politicians in comparison to their Irish counterparts. “They were very strong on natural resources and had stood up against big powerful interests and fought for their local communities,” Ó Domhnaill says. “I don’t know if it’s a historical thing or a cultural thing in Ireland but we seem to turn our backs on the ocean and undervalue our coastal communities.”
The waste and corporate greed revealed in the film is terrifying. A former super-trawler second mate describes how unofficial logbooks reveal that in four weeks, his ship threw 4,000 tonnes of dead herring back into the sea and landed 5,000 tonnes of larger fish, a practice known as “high-grading” that saves the processing costs of smaller fish.
This is not detached and dispassionate film-making. Ó Domhnaill believes that his film’s message needs to be heard, and yet he’s reluctant to be labelled an activist, describing his film as a kind of long-form investigative journalism. “I don’t want to be labelled an activist because I try to tell the story fairly; this is in the realm of fact, but it is about informing people so they can take action. I want this to be a movement.”
Struggling to fund his project, Ó Domhnaill tried to get a broadcaster on board to attract Irish Film Board funding.
“Everywhere I went I hit a brick wall,” he says. Yet two crowd- funding campaigns on FundIt.ie raised €56,000.
With the involvement of the North Norwegian film centre and Newfoundland and Labrador Film Board and their state broadcasters, Ó Domhnaill was able to re-approach the Irish Film Board, who agreed to match the amount he had crowd-funded and complete the project.
To honour the marginalised fishing communities his film depicts, Ó Domhnaill has been touring fishing towns for screenings in a Cinemobile, as well as holding a launch party in the IFI in Dublin on Friday. So far he’s had screenings in Union Hall and Castletownbere in Co Cork, and Cahersiveen and Dingle in Co Kerry, and he’ll continue to tour throughout May.
“By driving the cinema down onto piers and having screenings right there between the piles of fishing nets and boats, we’re giving some recognition to the fact that this story needs to be heard because these communities are often ignored by mainstream media outlets.”