Guest post by Tony McKibbin
Donal Foreman’s fine film, The Image You Missed, is an Oedipal struggle between a father and son, but also between analogue and digital, between found footage and editing software that can give to the celluloid footage he has at his disposal all the tentativeness missing from its original assertive intention. The celluloid footage of the IRA in the film burns. This isn’t to offer an absolutist argument about digital versus analogue, with the idea that celluloid can capture the real, and the best digital can do is make life easier in the edit as it works with the many hours of footage it finds – Foreman’s film works chiefly from material that his father shot, mainly concerning the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Probably best known for the 1979 film The Patriot Game, Arthur MacCaig examines the struggle for an Irish free state within the context of the conflict in the north. But his fascination with the fighting in Northern Ireland went far beyond the making of one film, and he subordinated in many ways his life to filming that struggle. MacCaig was a man whom Foreman hardly knew, an American in Paris, making films about the north while his estranged son was growing up in the south with his mother, in Dublin. If MacCaig is the father he hardly knew who was partly responsible for bringing Foreman into existence, Foreman is the son who now decides to investigate his father’s life all the better to give him a posthumous purpose.
The film may bring to mind two Borges short stories, ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ (made into The Spider’s Stratagem), and also, as we will explore later, The Circular Ruins. Set however precariously in Ireland (an “oppressed, tenacious country”), the first story addresses the idea of the political usefulness of turning a traitor into a hero. “On 2 August 1824, the conspirators gathered. The country was ripe for revolt; something, however, always failed: there was a traitor in the group.” The traitor is discovered and feeling that more revealed duplicity would hamper the progress of the cause, the traitor Kilpatrick is turned into a hero: instead of an honest execution he will die a mythological death at the hands of an assassin. In Foreman’s film the errant father is turned into the ‘heroic’ filmmaker, someone whom Foreman asks at the end of the film (and not long before MacCaig’s death), if he had any regrets. His father says no and the film manages to turn the statement into more than appalling irony. How could he not regret slack fathering that left Donal’s mother entirely responsible for his upbringing?
But this is where Foreman brings together his three main themes: the familial, the political and the filmic. MacCaig was as absent to Donal as he was present to the Troubles – constantly making excuses in letters to Donal’s mother why he couldn’t come to the Republic, but nevertheless making frequent trips north of the border. And he was there as a filmmaker, someone who learned his craft to further a cause, taking up cinema as a means by which to remark on the struggles. He was not so much an objective filmmaker as a filmmaker with an objective. MacCaig believed the IRA’s cause was a just and meaningful one, so he would film the Troubles with an untroubling comprehension of where he stood. as MacCaig says “What I’d really like to say about the film is I think it’s objective in a real sense of the word, in that it gets to the root of the problem there .For me, the objective truth is the historical truth of the situation, based on the experience of the mass struggle. It doesn’t mean being neutral – as if that’s even possible.”
Foreman envies that certitude, feeling he cannot make films with such an objective. Instead he offers the subjective, a precarious relationship with truth closer perhaps to Borges’s story than MacCaig’s work, as Foreman wonders whether this is a generational problem or a dispositional question and answers it by including footage by his great uncle Sean, whose work he feels a greater affinity with, someone who can film the breeze on someone’s face more readily than someone being dragged along by the hair. Foreman also acknowledges when he includes some of his own footage from Occupy Wall Street that he is political too, though he cannot quite find the wherewithal to proselytize as his father could. It is both a dispositional issue and an historical problem. There are unjust situations around the world one could actively engage in, perhaps the Kurdish struggle, the situation in Myanmar, the Palestinian cause. But would Foreman’s involvement in such political issues be the equivalent of his father’s?
If one thinks not, it rests on two things. The first is that though MacCaig was an American living in France, he was also descended from an Irish family as his name so clearly testifies. He could make the struggle his own because he could claim it was his own. The second is that, as footage clearly shows, for the IRA the aim was to create a united Socialist republic: MacCaig could affiliate himself not only to a specific political cause, but also promote a socialism that aspired to the universal. As the film suggests, one reason among others why the British couldn’t tolerate a united Ireland was it would have been like having Cuba or Angola so near to its own coastline.
The film might bring to mind a Fernando Pessoa quote Foreman knows well, “before trying to resolve the problems of the world you should start by doing so in your own person. This will take a lifetime.” Yet if Foreman’s film is fascinating it is that the director knows that when he asks Arthur if he has any regrets, he is asking of his father more than merely a moral question: one that would insist he should have been more involved in his son’s life. The father’s insistence that he doesn’t have any, throws upon Foreman a question that is much bigger than the moral one. A moral question often indicates a choice and his father chose to focus on the Troubles over his son: chose to go back and forth from Paris to Belfast and by-passed Dublin. Of all the footage MacCaig shot in Ireland, Foreman can find only one sequence filmed in the city where Donal was born and brought up. But what of the impossible question, one that Foreman forces upon himself, or rather that his father’s blunt remark perhaps forces upon him?
Foreman comes after the event – even his father he says struggled to find funding for films once Ireland moved towards the peace process. But he is also in the age of digital profligacy as opposed to celluloid parsimoniousness. (At one stage we hear Donal’s mother say in a scene shot on VHS that the filmmaker shouldn’t waste the footage on them: as though celluloid still hovered over the medium before digital would make such fears so irrelevant.) This filming of the struggle and utilisation of celluloid indicates a twofold necessity missing from Foreman’s film, but one that works within the context of a piece that is predicated on absences: the mother who looked after him, and who is a minor but significant presence in the work here, and the father who was never there but is decidedly here in the film we are watching.
But of course the digital film that Foreman makes is a movie made with the footage shot by his father and others, much of it on celluloid as the film credits nine cinematographers. some of whom were of course videographers. Foreman cannot claim to have the political single-mindedness of his father, yet he replaces it with a multi-media sense of the filmmaking magpie, someone who has himself edited a 74 minute work out of a hundred hours of footage.
And thus we come to our second Borges story, ‘The Circular Ruins’, with its passage: “he feared his son might meditate on his abnormal privilege and discover in some way that his condition was that of a mere image….All fathers are interested in the children they have procreated (they have permitted to exist) in mere confusion or pleasure…” In the story, a father dreams a son into existence but becomes himself aware that he is a product of imagination too, dreamt by another. Foreman’s film could have been a resentful Oedipal tale that insists on poor parenting. Instead it turns into a Lazarus story where Foreman dreams himself a father not out of his imagination but through celluloid footage, and encases him within digital recollection. It is the most delicate of revenge narratives in a film dedicated to Foreman’s mother Maeve (with infinite gratitude) but where the father rises from the celluloid grave, given another life through a very different sensibility from MacCaig’s own.