Gruesome imitation of life

 

Last weekend, as the news from Wexford unfolded, I watched television with a growing sense of disbelief. The story was unnervingly familiar. A long-distance driver hears noises coming from the back of his truck. Concerned and perhaps a little fearful, he pulls over. The garda∅ are called and the sealed container opened. Inside is a gruesome catalogue of anguish, suffering and death. This was the story of Zulu 9, a short film I made recently. The television was showing shaky news-helicopter footage of the open truck amid a cordon of Garda cars, ambulances and fire engines.

Even now, as I try to recall these real images, my memory has blurred the distinction between the news footage and that of my film. I quickly recognised the vanity of thinking first of something as trivial as a short film in the face of such tragedy. Yet the eerie similarity continued even down to the number of deaths - as well as being a fictional police call sign for explosive material, Zulu 9 refers to the eight dead and one survivor in the film.

It would be easy to slip into indulgent theories of synchronicity, but there is probably a more mundane, though shocking, explanation. This was, simply, a tragedy waiting to happen. There was a horrible inevitability about the news, and the film was merely a distillation of something we all knew. And in that knowledge was a complicity in this crime, which has led to such unbearable anguish. This, of course, is an irrational guilt, but one I shared when I began to reflect on what had happened without the prism of my petty concerns.

People often ask where one gets the inspiration for a creative idea. Someone once answered, "between heaven and Woolworths", and that's probably as close as you'll get. Most ideas emerge from fragments of stories and undefined emotions. Zulu 9 was no exception. I remember hearing, as I drove up the N11 from Wicklow to Dublin, two unrelated stories on the radio.

The first was about the Chinese who suffocated in a refrigerated container in Dover. The second was the more mundane story of a truck driver in the British Midlands who heard banging in the back and, rather than stop, called the police, who advised him to drive on to a service station, where they apprehended the illegals - although one, gloriously, made a run for it and escaped.

These two incidents lodged in my mind and fused into an idea for a film. But there were other, less defined influences: reading Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness in Colombia; listening to the beautiful and mysterious voice of the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal; catching a glimpse from a traffic jam in Donnybrook of an African couple and their baby, sitting on a bench, lost yet dignified.

But there was also something I could not put my finger on, an inarticulate feeling when confronted by all these foreign faces on Irish streets. Maybe, despite my dinner-party sentiments, I resented these new neighbours. Or maybe I just could not find a way into them, into their world. Maybe I just wanted to go up to someone at a bus stop and shake their hand and say it's all right, or welcome, or some other bland inanity. But all I could manage was a smile for the pretty girl serving in the Spar. All of these and more, allied to other practical concerns, were where Zulu 9 came from.

When the story unfolded before us, our reaction was not really one of shock but of guilt: we knew it was coming and did nothing. We are that poor driver in Wexford. We are the garda∅ and the hospital staff. We are the public representatives. We are the bystanders. We try to convince ourselves we did nothing wrong. It wasn't our fault. Sure, the bloody thing was supposed to be going to England. Not Ireland. Not us. And yet the guilt persists, and with it the unsettling thought that it could have been otherwise.

Unspoken images and feelings influence more than the artistic process. They inform the world in which we live. Our stories and memories inform the national psyche as much as our laws and economics. The almost unimaginable tale of what happened in that sealed container on its way to Ireland conjures some unsettling resonances.

It brings to mind the Famine's coffin ships and the sufferings endured by Irish people journeying away from home in the hope of a better land that many of them never reached. It also, perhaps, evokes the dirty protests and the H Block hunger strikes. Something about the hunger and the smeared excrement, the emaciated figures, the agonising pain and the harsh confined conditions, certainly, but also something of the idealism and the belief in something higher strikes a chord. Something beyond political persuasion and debate, something closer to a belief in the human spirit and that spirit's belief in the possibility of finding something better, something over the rainbow.

There is a reminder in these stories that our hearts are with the dispossessed, that we Irish should be dealing with asylum-seekers and immigrants more fairly than our European neighbours. We should know better, and the tragedy reminds us how much we have failed.

But maybe all this guilt is ill-founded. Nobody was to blame, except for those unscrupulous traffickers who profit from people's desperation and dreams. Driving to the airport last Monday morning for a flight to the United States, I heard John O'Donoghue, the Minister for Justice, repeating on Morning Ireland that nobody coming to the Republic has been denied due process. Due process was, of course, of little consolation to the families of the dead in Wexford. He also argued, persuasively, that he has a constitutional obligation to protect the citizens and borders of this country to the exclusion of others.

But surely there is also a higher moral obligation to offer shelter to the displaced and the wounded, and as citizens of Europe we cannot depend on the Irish Sea to shield us from our responsibilities. This is to argue not for some Utopian view but for a proactive policy that is not merely a ring fence sugar-coated in pious aspiration.

By Monday evening, I thought I had left the story behind. As I write, the New England countryside stretches beyond my hotel window. It is not quite winter yet in Maine, but a bright low sun shines through the bare trees and falls on the snow and the prettily painted timber houses. Even here, in this peaceful landscape, I am aware I am in a country at war. In the hotel lobby, a sign commands: "We will remember. 11.09.01". Everywhere the Stars and Stripes flutters, and banners proclaim "God Bless America" in the most unlikely spots. Every restaurant, filling station and bar has heard the call.

Nobody can forget, and even if they could the television channels would not let them. One station carries a report about the cast of a new film, Ocean's Eleven, going to a US military base in Turkey to support the war effort. Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and George Clooney wander about the base and queue for chow in the canteen. They all seem to be dressed in army fatigues and flight jackets. Lines are blurring. Movies and real life seem interchangeable again. The Barbie doll reading the news is talking cheerily about "hunter-killer" teams moving into Tora Bora, while the caption beneath reads "America strikes back". Already, with victory in its high-tech teeth, there is talk of Iraq, Somalia, Sudan. Clean up the whole damn thing. I switch over.

The next channel tells me that this is the war against terror, but of course it is not. It is a war against the other - other colours, other values, other religions, other cultures. Anyone other than us. Others, like those others in a container in Wexford. This morning, a homeless man came up to me in the street. He seemed to be looking for directions. "Excuse me, sir, but do you know where humanity is?" I told him I was only new in town and moved on.

We tried to make Zulu 9 as authentic as possible. We shot it the way Sky News would shoot it. The crew wore flak jackets or firemen's outfits, so from the helicopter, filming above, it would look real. We tried to embrace reality without understanding its significance. We filmed on a then-unfinished section of the M50 motorway. Above the set was a bridge carrying commuters home from work. Many pulled over to peer from the bridge at the action below. Idly curious.

At one point, we were shooting from inside the truck container. The shot was a reverse view, as firemen opened the doors. I stood inside with the cameraman at the farthest end of the container. The extras, themselves all immigrants, were playing dead on the floor. Fake blood dripped from their mouths. Crates and personal belongings were strewn around. Karen Bryson, the actress playing the sole survivor, stood ready, cradling her dead infant. A black pietα, I liked to think.

Everything in place, the doors were shut. We were enveloped in darkness for a moment. There was a stifling feeling of claustrophobia and a fear that the doors would not open again. I tried to imagine the horror of suffocating in this dark place but could not. I could just hear Karen quietly rehearsing her only line, a word of a Nigerian dialect. "Oulkai? Oulkai?" she repeated. "Why? Why?" Indeed.

Looking back at the film, it seems charged with new significance. But, of course, in the face of the suffering endured by those involved, it seems to pale into insignificance. In the film world, the story ends as the credits roll. But in what passes for the real world, the stone of human tragedy cast into the lake of history causes endless ripples in the lives of those unfortunate enough to be connected to it. Before this story, regardless of nation, we are all powerless.