Monday, April 20, 2015

Eat Your Children: chasing the lost unicorn of Irish citizen protest #bff15

“We’re not Ireland, we will resist” (Greek austerity protest chant)
Has Ireland lost its protest mojo?

Flatmates Treasa O’Brien and Mary Jane O’Leary bailed out of Ireland to study in London and Barcelona. Partly motivated by the Greek chant and surprised by the contrast behind high profile citizen action in countries like Spain and the lack of news reaching them from Ireland, the friends came back to their homeland and toured around in a white Transit van to make a film as they searched for the lost unicorn of Irish citizen protest.

The crowdfunded film’s title – Eat Your Children – comes from Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay of 1729 [full text] in which he suggested that the solution to Ireland’s poverty would be for Irish people to rear their young to be sold off to the Aristocracy as food. With the debt repayments now extended from 20 to 40 years, today’s school children in Ireland will be paying off bond holders when they’re 50.

I spoke to the film’s co-directors after last night’s screening at the Belfast Film Festival.

An early scene sets the tone and trajectory of the documentary with journalist Vincent Browne furiously asking questions (and getting few answers) at a financial press conference. The film is designed to be “a provocation”.

Why are Irish people bailing out European banks? Why does “the good child of Europe” meekly accept its debt repayment punishment with only sporadic protests agreed in advance with the Garda rather than a culture of organised or popular resistance?

In the County Mayo village of Ballina we’re introduced to a typical Irish scene: a small crown standing around watching another small crowd protesting, this time about the building of a Shell oil pipeline. “It’s going to go ahead anyway, so what’s the point protesting” suggests one observer who reckons Shell is bigger and more powerful than the protesters.

At the Electric Picnic festival, Derry’s Eamonn McCann calls for revolution while the ever-eloquent Fintan O’Toole challenges the “lie” that only the “delinquent” countries on the edge of Europe are causing the problem and need to bear the punishment. O’Toole suggests that the Irish manner of resistance is to physically and physiologically avoid it, ignoring the problem by emigrating someplace else.

Sociologist Tom Boland reckons that “a mix of consumerism and capitalism makes people ill-inclined to protest”. The Catholic Church and Irish trade unions both get poor report cards from interviewees, with the former too embedded in the state to take a stand, and the latter defused by the Croke Park Agreement which sacrificed national strikes and industrial action for no further public sector pay cuts.

Watching Eat Your Children in the QFT last night, I became conscious of how poorly the Irish financial story has been reported in Northern Ireland. [Ed – or how poorly you’ve been listening?] The facts of negotiations and deals along with some commentary on emigration has been relayed, but there has been little discussion about the impact on communities, industry and little comparison with other European regions facing similar pressures. Instead there’s a simple and popular narrative explaining that Ireland swallowed its unpalatable medicine and made sharp cuts quickly allowing it to rapidly, if painfully, turn around and reach a better place.

A visit to Derry briefly investigates Ireland’s biggest civil rights movement. Nell McCafferty talks about “not marching for a United Ireland but for the rights of full British citizens”. Another interviewee suggests the movement was later “usurped by nationalists” and explains that today, anyone dissenting in the north west tends to be labelled as “anti-peace process” so people stay at home rather than stand up for their rights.

The quality of the filming and footage spliced together to make Eat Your Children varies greatly over the course of the 78 minute film. Interview sound quality improves as the pair zig zag across the island, although at times the film’s soundtrack threatens to overshadow faint snatches of dialogue.

Treasa and Mary Jane fall into the oft-ignored category of chalk activists, carrying sticks of coloured calcium sulphate wherever they go, allowing them to sketch out chapter names on pavements and walls to give the film its structure.

Being a road trip, there are many shots looking out the Transit van’s windscreen as Mary Jane and Treasa hurtle up rural roads towards their next destination. In one great sequence we listen to a description of resistance while watching a large black dog standing on the tarmacked road in the dead of night, holding its ground and blocking the van’s progress. Ireland’s dogs may offer more resistance than its people.

While anti-austerity protests are few and far between, the filmmakers find some signs of hope to challenge “Ireland’s dying culture of protest”: single issue protests around reproductive rights, La Senza, fracking and water charges. Finally, they uncover a weekly community march after Mass in Ballyhea (north Cork) with a group of ordinary residents believing that they can be “a small pebble in the shoe of the ECB”.

Eat Your Children will be a popular film with activists, students and wannabe protesters. It’s firmly in People Before Profit territory, though more grounded than the now-defunct-and-never-effective local Occupy movements.

While Ireland continues to make its “level of adjustment”, many citizens will continue to look the other way. Perhaps Treasa and Mary Jane needed to hook up with the Orange Order (with a history of protest sites at Garvaghy Road and Twaddell) or loyalist flag protesters who have a record of civil disobedience, dissension and resistance, and an ability to block roads! [Ed – Yet neither organisation use these tactics to highlight the effect of austerity on working class communities?]

The filmmakers themselves are not back living or working in Ireland full time, but it sounds like the themes and location will feature in future work.

There’s a free screening of Eat Your Children in Killarney Cinema at 8.45pm on Thursday 23 April. You can follow the film’s progress on Facebook and if you wish to set up a screening in your festival or community, email eatyourchildrenfilm AT gmail DOT com.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

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