Hats off to the American heartland
The films of John T Davis portray near-mythical visions of a romantic America. He talks to Donald Clarkefrom his home in Holywood - Co Down
Few profiles of John T Davis manage to avoid raising a wry eyebrow at the information that he has lived most of his life in the Co Down town of Holywood. How gorgeous that one of our most gifted documentary film-makers should hang out in a place just one consonant removed from the mighty movie dream factory.
Reading through the interviews Davis has given since Shellshock Rock, his near-legendary study of the Northern Irish punk scene, announced his presence in 1978, one begins to understand why he has remained so attached to this under-sung buffer zone between Belfast and Bangor. John T Davis's uncle, John McBride Neill, was a cinema architect who, during the medium's golden years of the 1930s and 1940s, helped construct 15 or 16 picture palaces throughout the North. On his death, he left young John the house in which the film-maker still lives and, more significantly, an 8mm movie camera.
The Holywood legacy enabled him to become the artist he is. "The camera was just something he used to take on holiday," Davis explains. "It was left to me and I felt guilty - I felt that I should use it. I had no real intention of becoming a film-maker. It was 1974. I had been to art college and studied painting. But when I started to play around with the camera a whole new world opened up to me."
This week, as part of its 21st anniversary celebrations, Filmbase, the support body for independent film-makers, is hosting a retrospective of Davis's work in its Temple Bar premises. Though self-taught, John T has put together a body of work to compare with any director of his generation. The Uncle Jackfrom 1995, a moving tribute to John McBride Neill, touches on an early enthusiasm for aeroplane modelling. A House Dividedfollows the painting of a group portrait of the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and allows us to draw our own various conclusions about that still-nascent body.
Looking at the beautiful still photographs that adorn the walls of Filmbase, one is, however, struck by how much of Davis's work is to do with near-mythical visions of a romantic America. A hobo, accidentally imitating the last shot of John Ford's The Searchers, is framed, back to the camera, by a boxcar's doorway as he gazes onto endless planes. Other trains and other hobos - and Bob Dylan, who appropriated the dustbowl look for himself - appear elsewhere in the exhibition.
Three of the films in the Filmbase season focus on aspects of America that might have appealed to Jack Kerouac. For 1991's Hobo, Davis, a camera stuffed in his blanket roll, risked life and limb to travel the rails with the nation's drifters. Earlier, Route 66 took a look at the historic thoroughfare that, before the coming of the freeway, provided the principal road link between Chicago and Los Angeles. Hip to the Tiptells the story of the great jazz and soul label Atlantic Records. All this from a man raised on the shores of Belfast Lough.
"It is just something that got ingrained," he says. "I can remember when Woody Guthrie died in the same way others remember when Elvis died." Guthrie, the great American folk-singer and professional wanderer, died in 1967 when Davis was 20.
"I will tell you a story which is in The Uncle Jack," he continues. "When I was going to school, the airbase in Sydenham was used to repair American jets. We would be sitting in class and the F-86 Sabre jets would take off in formation with black smoke streaming behind. The whole classroom would stop because we couldn't hear anything. The planes were so sexy and glamorous and that's one example of where that passion for American culture came from."
Yet, for all his love of folk music and fighter jets, Davis's first significant project was a study of a very Northern Irish phenomenon.
Punk had a greater impact on Belfast and Derry than it did on cities in the Republic, and Shellshock Rock, featuring appearances by Stiff Little Fingers, Protex and the Outcasts, remains the classic record of the phenomenon. Back in 1979 the film created a minor storm when it was mysteriously dropped from the programme of that year's Cork Film Festival. The organisers claimed the film was "not up to standard" - shades of progressive rock's constant complaint that punks "couldn't play their instruments" - but John has always suspected that the programmers were uneasy with the film's portrait of a unifying youth movement whose adherents expressed no interest in disputes between nationalist and unionist.
"That really was the feeling I got," he says. "There was this notion that the film was not technically up to standard. But I'm not sure. Of course the feel and texture of the picture was connected with its subject matter. I couldn't make it now, because I am too advanced in my trade. Back then the graininess was all part of the punk thing."
At any rate, Shellshock Rockwent on to win a silver award at the International Film and TV festival in New York and allowed Davis to begin his several journeys into the American interior.
"I was at a hobo convention and a guy said: 'How does a fellow from Northern Ireland know all those railroad songs?'" Davis laughs. "But folk music, blues music, soul music: that is the music I grew up with. When I was going to art college I was reading a lot of Steinbeck and I probably looked like an old dustbowl farmer myself."
Over the years, Davis, who has an uncanny ability to frame found images in ways that make them look rigorously composed, has supported himself by acting as cinematographer on a range of projects for other directors. Making ends meet must still have been difficult.
"I shot three documentaries last year for the BBC up here which provides me with a good income, but it is sporadic," he agrees. "But I do have the house. I was invited to join Aosdána two years ago and that was a personal life-saver. There is a bursary with that which pays the groceries and it allows you to concentrate on your own work."
Being inducted into Aosdána, the association set up to honour highest distinction in the arts, and receiving a retrospective such as that currently taking place at Filmbase, might give a man cause to consider his achievements. As Davis approaches his 60th birthday, he must have pondered what he might have done differently in his career.
"That's a hard one to answer," he says. "I suppose if I could do anything differently I would have taken care over the legal ownership of my films. When you are young you don't think about that sort of thing and there are some of my films I don't now own. But the films are like children. They go away, but they never quite leave you. Other people won't let them go away. I am still delighted that people want to see the things."
John T Davis: A Retrospective continues at Filmbase, Curved St, Dublin 2 until Sat (01-6796716) www.filmbase.ie