“In 1997 I was making my first film while you were making your last” goes one of the spare lines of voiceover narration from director Donal Foreman in his painful, probing, personal new documentary The Image You Missed. But the directness of second-person address is no more indicative of an insular approach as the wealth of home video footage this fascinating film makes use of; in grappling with the legacy of his late, largely-absentee filmmaker father Arthur McCaig and attempting to reconcile it with his own nascent cinematic sensibilities, Foreman has not so much crafted a work of collaborative catharsis as plumbed his own unique circumstance to explore deep, delicate questions of national socio-political soul-searching.
That’s an impressive achievement for a film born, in effect, of processing grief: Foreman’s limited relationship with his father in life appears to have allowed enough of an emotional remove for his uncanny impulses to contextualise it capably in death. It helps, of course, that McCaig’s work sits at a crucial juncture of Irish history: the Irish-American arrived in Belfast at the onset of the Troubles to chronicle the fraught political atmosphere of his ancestral home; its nakedly partisan perspective, seen in detail across extensive clips, contributes at once an impressively kinetic clip and—especially in light of its being produced for French television broadcast—a suspect simplification of the struggle. Foreman, by contrast, moves slowly and thinks deeply; it’s little surprise, given the tension between styles, that he’s pitched the movie marrying them as “a film between” himself and McCaig.
That dialectical approach makes of The Image You Missed a fascinating formal experiment, anchored by Foreman’s astute editorial instincts: whether it’s in match cutting from camera lens to gun barrel, implicitly interrogating their respective potential as political tool, or in subtly juxtaposing film formats to lend weight to meditations on images’ impacts in vastly varying geopolitical contexts, Foreman is everywhere expansive in his critical consideration of his father’s legacy. “We came into cinema and the world at different political moments” his restrained voice intones; it’s in expanding the innate intimacy of this particular, personal narrative to a nuanced exploration of artistry, imagery, and Irishness that Foreman displays the assured command of cinema language that, perhaps above all, uncovers the family ties.
It might seem overly analytical to relate this back to the paternal dynamic of Foreman’s fine debut feature Out of Here, but that’s a kind of comparison explicitly invited in his use of clips from his own and McCaig’s work that gesture to each’s perspective on the other. In that earlier film, Foreman shot a fringe father figure half-seen through a patio door; in this, we catch fleeting glimpses of McCaig as his own camera whips past glass. And like in that work, Foreman here plays with archetypes and ideas of fatherland, upholding McCaig at once a cinematic spectre hovering over his life, and an embodiment of a nationalism entirely at-odds with his own political outlook. There those tensions gave rare voice to the stilted frustration of Irish youth; here, there’s something deeper, darker, more complex and chaotic at work.
One of the film’s most valuable lines comes from McCaig, in the form of a performed voiceover taken from his diaries: “an Irishman never speaks to the person in front of him, but to an image”. In the dialogue he creates between these images of identity, of ideology, and of Irishness, Foreman has once again conflated the personal and the political, the cinematic and the social, the then and the now in a story that resonates far beyond its apparently insular primaries. In seeking to locate an individual through his art, Foreman has demonstrated above all his own profound prowess as a maker and interrogator of images. There is to this movie a touch of the ineffable; in its efforts to come to terms with one filmmaker, The Image You Missed brilliantly brings to bear another.