Risteard Ó Domhnaill: From Corrib gas to a battle for the future of the Atlantic

Risteard Ó Domhnaill follows up his Corrib gas documentary with a remarkable new film about the political, economic and environmental threats to the Atlantic Ocean

 

‘It’s a story that hasn’t really been told. People don’t understand it.”

Risteard Ó Domhnaill, a filmmaker born and raised on the landlocked fields of Co Tipperary, is the first to admit that, for the average landlubber, it can be hard to picture the life of the sea, to get a sense of how the people who work it live their lives.

Ireland’s waters cover an area 10 times the size of our landmass and contain some of the richest fishing in Europe, but Ó Domhnaill contends that we continually “turn our back” on that valuable resource.

“The way we look at the ocean, we always saw it as something related to emigration or tragedy or invasion,” he says. “Fish was something you get on Friday as a penance. Mouldy, dry fish. We don’t have a positive attitude towards the ocean.”

Ó Domhnaill, a theoretical physics graduate and TV cameraman, has spent much of the past decade attempting to change this attitude. His first feature-length documentary, The Pipe, was a vital piece of independent journalism covering the controversial establishment of the Corrib Gas Project in Rossport, Co Mayo.

Through the lens, Ó Domhnaill witnessed a community organised in resistance against a violence all the more shocking for its proximity. What he captured is the spirit of the people fighting for what they believe is right. For all its political, historical and environmental import, The Pipe remains a charmingly intimate story.

His new film, Atlantic, picks up where The Pipe left off by following its ripples out into the wider world. Ó Domhnaill heads to Norway, Newfoundland and the Donegal coast to find stories that help elucidate the complex development of our offshore resources over the past 50 years.

Atlantic, which is narrated by Brendan Gleeson and was initially financed through a crowd-funding campaign, blends contemporary characters and archive footage to track the growth of big oil and industrial super-trawler fishing, as well as the decline of coastal communities in all three countries.

The film holds out hope that by learning from one another’s successes and mistakes, these otherwise disconnected communities might find better ways to deal with common threats to their livelihoods, communities and entire landscapes.

As Ó Domhnaill says: “Water doesn’t recognise borders.”

Climate change dominates

Despite rarely addressing it directly, the threat of climate change leaks through every scene in Atlantic. Coming off the back of The Pipe, Ó Domhnaill wanted to highlight the political and economic factors creating this “perfect storm” of overfishing and oil exploration, as well as exposing the agents profiting from it.

As he travelled up and down the coastlines, talking to people, a different story began to emerge.

“The game has changed in the five years since I started this,” he says. “The price of oil collapsed. Climate change became a much bigger issue. The issues with the ocean, environmentally, began to creep back in. Who knows what’s going to happen, what’s going to hit the ocean? Acidification, warming of currents? We’re facing a crossroads. We can’t just fence off our part of the sea and say ‘We’ll look after that’. It’s a much bigger challenge.

“The game has changed, the reality has changed, the science has changed. What’s more important now, what’s come more to the fore, is how do we manage this in a way that can sustain us into the future, in a way that we won’t destroy it?”

This is where Ó Domhnaill’s subjects shine. Whether sitting in a clapboard house in the tiny Newfoundland village of Renews with the Kane family, or fishing off the coast of Norway with Bjørnar Nicolaisen, Ó Domhnaill lets the people of these small, oft-forgotten communities tell their own stories. The stories, as edited by Nigel O’Regan, interweave, each strengthening the others’ experiences.

Nicolaisen is very articulate, explaining in what Ó Domhnaill calls a “very philosophical” way how our ocean resources need to be cared for. It’s an age-old truism about the environment, no less powerful for being repeated: if we look after it, it will look after us.

“They are people who don’t have a great education or anything, but they’ve got a knowledge and understanding far beyond an academic knowledge,” he says of these fishermen. “I’m trying to tap into that. I think Bjørnar’s message is very powerful. It’s about understanding the ocean, working with the ocean. Not just seeing it as something to grab, but as something you look after.

“You understand the cycles, you take what’s fair and it’ll always be there. That’s a real message that I want to come from the film.”

Counting salmon

At the same time, Atlantic is not a twee celebration of the local, the folksy or the home-grown.

Take Jerry Early, a fisherman from Arranmore island whose livelihood from salmon was destroyed by a change in the law. During the course of the film, Early ends up in court for bringing home wild salmon, a protected species, after catching them in nets intended for other types of fish.

“I didn’t try to romanticise Jerry,” says Ó Domhnaill. “No one is saying Jerry Early’s a saint. If he brought home an odd salmon or two he wasn’t supposed to, I’m not saying that’s right. But he’s the one with five fishery officers running around Arranmore island, hiding behind rocks, trying to catch him out for a few salmon. And yet there are no observers on the big boats offshore.

“It’s up to the audience to decide. They’ve seen Jerry’s story, they know he acted illegally when it came to the salmon – he didn’t throw the salmon back in the water dead. But, morally, where do your sympathies lie? He looks offshore at the super-trawlers just hoovering up fish and firing dead fish back.

“Which is the greater evil? Is it fair to just focus on punishing the smaller fishermen when, at the same time, you’re taking their livelihood away from them?”

This commitment to ambiguity, to not offering all the answers, is one of the great strengths of Atlantic. It reflects an uncertainty at the heart of the subject matter; how do we weigh up the ineffable factors of community, craft and tradition against the easily calculated profits of industry? Is something legitimate just because it’s legal? It’s a question that takes the viewer into a place of morals and values, and engages them in asking difficult questions.

There’s more to this than fighting for the little guy; it’s a question of how we want to live.

“How do you put a monetary value on a community?” asks Ó Domhnaill. “Take the Arranmore community. If you’re a civil servant looking at that, you’ll go, right, we’ll save a lot of money if we take these guys off the island and we put them in the town. The services will be cheaper, education, all that kind of stuff. It’s a very simple argument: ‘These are a nuisance.’

“It’s not until you actually immerse yourself in those communities that you realise the huge wealth in those communities that you can’t put a monetary value on.

“You can’t put a monetary value on culture, on heritage, on knowing where you’re from.”

  • Atlantic is in cinemas from April 29th
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