Irish Radio Canada
Austin Comerton speaks to documentary film maker Maurice Sweeney about his latest film, I, Dolours, which opens at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto later this month.
Where’s the audio? It can’t be uploaded here. You can download it from the Irish Radio Canada site. Click on ‘Maurice Sweeney’ on 1 April 2018 here.
Austin: And we have been chatting the past few weeks with some of the people behind and involved in the Hot Docs Festival that’s coming up in Toronto towards the end of April/the beginning of May and one of the movies that is being screened is I, Dolours, which is the documentary on Dolours Price.
And Dolours was a militant IRA activist, a hunger striker, a dissident Republican and, two years before she died, gave a filmed interview on condition that it would not be broadcast in her lifetime. And now for the first time her story can be told in full and entirely in her own words. And Maurice Sweeney is the director of the documentary, I, Dolours. Maurice, thanks a million for agreeing to have a chat.
Maurice: Good to be here. Thanks.
Austin: So that gives a little bit of the background. You had the opportunity to meet Dolours before she died. Tell us a bit about what, first of all, your own background in the movie industry and what got you into it and what appealed to you about documentaries?
Maurice: I always, I’ve been filming documentaries now for the last fifteen-sixteen years. I love the format because you start off pretty much with an empty page and you’re still working with an empty page by the time you get to the edit. You feel your way through the subject. It’s very different drama in that respect. A documentary can go anywhere and you have to deal with certain things that come up and it’s a constantly changing thing and it’s an exciting format in that respect and actually going to Hot Docs is great because I think the format of documentaries really has become hugely popular, especially in Ireland I suppose, there’s been huge success in documentaries over the last few years with Irish film makers and it’s great to see them being shown abroad now.
Austin: So, like there’s a reality about it that might not necessarily there that you connect instantly because of reality.
Maurice: Absolutely. I think with documentary it offers a different angle on life, on people, on situations, on politics, on culture. It allows the film maker to kind of show an audience different ways of looking at stuff that you know that doesn’t often have to be the status quo or what we’re told to think, you know? Nothing’s ever simple you know and I think when I was approaching the documentary, I, Dolours, I remember hearing a quote and I can’t remember who said. It said: Monstrous acts aren’t committed by monstrous people. They’re committed by human beings like you and I, you know, who are radicalised (or whatever) and I think that angle really kind of fascinated me for taking on the documentary.
Austin: Now some of your previous work would have been more historical in a way. I notice that you had a series, Barbarians Rising, and Saving the Titanic and The Forgotten Irish. In one sense would I, Dolours be then, you could say, far more contemporary?
Maurice: It was. I mean I think The Forgotten Irish is probably quite close in a lot of ways because it tells the story that – not always the obvious story of people just emigrating to Britain – there were other reasons for them being forgotten. It was, I mean I’ve done stuff, a lot of cultural stuff like Yeats and Flann O’Brien and modern writers like John Connolly as well, so I’ve always been interested in the person and how they viewed the world and how they acted in it when they were alive and Dolours is another example of that. But I mean, we’re still dealing with history with Dolours at a very contentious time and it’s funny – it’s only I think in the last few years that documentaries have been able to tackle The Troubles in a more stand-off point in a way and that’s what can really get underneath the skin of it. I mean I think of the Bobby Sands documentary last year that did very well, Hot Docs as well, and I’d be interesting in seeing the reaction to I, Dolours, you know so?
Austin: And on that point: When you said allow you to get under the skin – you know we approach I suppose, all of us approach, incidents or people that are in our lifetime with preconceived attitudes – when you mention Bobby Sands or Dolours Price or be it an Ian Paisley or whatever – we’re going to approach a subject like that or a person like that based on some of the background that we’ve grown up with so when you confront something or a person like this that may or may not been aligned to your leanings does that present a challenge and then, when you come away from that having felt: You know, I’ve really learned and grown from this?
Maurice: Oh, absolutely! I mean I think it’s incumbent upon a film maker to be open. I think it’s incumbent on a film maker to ask questions to open the mind to possibilities of things. Dolours Price’s actions – I wouldn’t personally have agreed with. I can understand her reasons which, I think understanding sometimes is a lot more important than agreeing with things, and I think that’s something that could be applied to all parts of life – you know, from your relationship to your wife or your husband, to friends, brothers, family, to politics – and I think documentary gives us that chance to kind of step back and say: Well, hold on. Why did this happen? Why did she do these things? Why did she react in that particular way? A very intelligent woman. Went down a certain road. And at the end of the day I think it’s a lot about circumstances and it’s where we grow up and it’s very hard to walk in other people’s shoes but I think if we can try to understand what it was like for them and why they did things it gives us a better over-all picture, I think, of The Troubles and why people do things. I mean, it’s interesting – she took a very different stance later in life, you know, about the peace process (which I again wouldn’t probably go along with) but I can understand where she was coming from, you know?
Austin: And when you say that, where you can understand, I suppose the whole benefit of the documentary is that it gives us a window into that element of an individual that we wouldn’t otherwise get.
Maurice: Absolutely. And actually you know, the process of making this was very hard. It was – Look, when you’re dealing with The North and you’re dealing with the years, especially the early ’70’s, in The North of Ireland it’s very contentious and when we approached people in the initial days of filming most people didn’t want to be interviewed and the people we really wanted to talk to definitely didn’t want to be interviewed and we made the decision:
Well, it’s just her. We have the interview. We have radio recordings with her as well. We had writings that she had committed to paper and published and we just decided this is one woman’s version of events. It’s her own version of events but it’s a very honest one I think and I think that comes across in the film. So it was difficult in that respect but because I think it became a much simpler documentary in that respect I think it became a much more of an emotional – had more of an emotional impact – when it was finished.
Austin: Then she agreed to sit down and enter into quite a long interview I take it and that she didn’t want it then to be released until after her death. How did – that in itself must have been, I suppose, quite an emotional experience to be sitting across from somebody in that scenario.
Maurice: Well it was actually Ed Moloney, the journalist, who had done the interviews and I know there was a lot of controversy around the Boston Tapes at the time – which is still ongoing and these are part of the Boston Tapes – I came in after the interviews but these were a separate thing that she wanted to talk to us again – they wouldn’t be shown, could be shown posthumously, so I think there was a lot on her mind at the end of her life and I mean I sat down with Ed for hours and hours and hours – we talked about the interviews and what she was like and what state of mind she was in and she was very clear in what she wanted to do: giving the interviews.
There’s certain areas she didn’t want to go to and there’s certain areas in the documentary I didn’t want to go to, for instance, but it was dealing with radicalisation, a lot of it, and her coming to terms with the actions she had done in her life, how she had felt betrayed as an activist, as a radical, as a militant – whatever people, what label, to put on her – but she had felt she had done it for nothing and that – I mean at the end of the day the principle of the film is: Violence costs – it costs the victim and it also costs the perpetrator and I think that comes across and I think that she wore that very heavily on her mind, you know? And you know in a way, we were very much, we didn’t want to be sympathetic either. It’s her telling her story. It’s Dolours’ words. But we don’t shy away from the things she did, either, and we don’t take a side, if you know what I mean.
Austin: And given that you mention her like it covers, it deals with, her reaction to or her feelings relating to what was the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and of course we’re around the twenty year anniversary of it being signed. Based on the interviews and based on what you were able to garner from the experience how does that leave you feeling about the future for peace, long term peace, reconciliation of communities, people working together and things improving in The North of Ireland – long term?
Maurice: Yeah look, things are a lot better. I think, it’s twenty years since the (inaudible) and fifty years since the start of The Troubles – if you take 1968 as really the kicking-off point. I mean I’ve been up The North a lot. I mean I definitely remember spending a week with David Ervine in his community for a documentary years ago and you know, he showed me East Belfast and what became clear to me was that how Northern Ireland had been ghettoised – east and west, north and south. It was a working class problem in a lot of ways – people kind of went down paths that they didn’t want to and you know what? You still see that in Northern Ireland. That’s still prevalent. There might not be paramilitaries in a very obvious way anymore but there are divisions. And look, you have an Assembly that isn’t working at the moment. You know, it’s felt that the Good Friday Agreement was great – but you know, there isn’t a government there working at the moment – it’s in limbo. I still think there’s a long way to go; it’s a generational thing and I think it’ll be another generation or two before that really kind of gets rid of a lot of the old hurt. There’s a lot of talk about, kind of reconciliation – and truth and reconciliation – I don’t know. It’s like I mean if you see it as as a civil war, whatever it was – It was deep. It scarred a lot of individuals. And it scarred society I think quite deep but look, you have to admit, that it is in a better place but I wouldn’t be overly optimistic but I think we’ve got be realistic at the same time.
Austin: And how would you say Dolours felt about the long term future for The North of Ireland?
Maurice: I felt she felt, in her own words, she felt cheated. She contended that she and others carried out acts that was against their nature, that was against their human sensibility but they did it because they were ordered, because it was a war, because that’s what they led themselves to believe and were led to believe, she would argue, that was necessary to fight for Irish independence. She did her time. She served. And I think when the Good Friday Agreement came about she felt that any struggle had been ignored. That her argument would be that the Nationalist politics of the day capitulated too easily. You know, I don’t fully agree with it. I think most people in Ireland would rather see peace but there was a kind of a runt of Republicans in North and South that felt you know this wasn’t right – you know, obviously felt – we obviously had the terrible atrocity of Omagh later on – but these are the feelings that are deep-rooted in politics in Ireland and Republicanism hasn’t gone away you know and it has to be talked about and dealt with. I mean, in a sense it’s a story about a woman being radicalised. There’s never been a better time to talk about radicalisation. It’s the same across the world in different circumstances – it’s about people growing up and being inculcated with beliefs and idioms that you and I might not necessarily agree with but you can understand why people carry out certain things in certain situations.
Austin: And it’s one of the ways, where I’m coming at in a way is that, you know, when you mention radicalisation and how we change – like I know I’m sure your views were different when you were eighteen or nineteen or seventeen than they are today – as are mine. And you know, the School of Hard Knocks does take the corners off you as life goes on so for Dolours, when she got close to the end of her life, the radicalisation that you describe that had happened – was she able to look back at that, that she had been radicalised, and that it had, that some of her corners had been knocked off and her views had changed? Or, did she still believe that the fight was a glorious fight?
Maurice: I don’t know if she thought it was a glorious fight. She saw it as a fight. I think she had the maturity, she had the internal maturity and wisdom to find out you know that: Okay, life had changed and it wasn’t what she had signed up for and I think the struggle had changed as she saw it. She was committed to her original beliefs all along. But I think she felt robbed of something – absolutely. I mean I wouldn’t speak on her behalf and say she came round and she said that we did terrible things for wrong reasons – that’s not how she felt. She was a committed Republican. She was committed to her ideas. She was inculcated with these ideas from her parents and her grand- you know, generations of Republicans in Northern Ireland, Belfast particularly, but she was aware of the pain she had caused. She was aware of the pain that had been caused to her and I think she found that very hard to handle and I think she had a very sad last years of her life – kind of struggled with her own emotions and you know her own demons and you know I wouldn’t say she totally denied her beliefs but whatever was done there it was a maturity of some sort. A reckoning.
Austin: Are we getting a world premiere on this?
Maurice: You are, yep – world premiere in Toronto – it’s great. And actually I was very – I remember going to a Bobby Sands, the reason we wanted to show it abroad, to be honest with you, is I remember going to the documentary Bobby Sands when it was premiered in Galway two years ago I think and it was very contentious and there was a lot of people out there afterwards with different agendas and it didn’t make for a comfortable sitting to be honest with you – there was a lot of politics going on so I was adamant that I wanted to have this shown abroad first because I do think it’s an international story – it’s not just an Irish story and I think it’ll be good to get reactions in Toronto to that and get a Canadian perspective on that. We’re going to Sheffield as well and hopefully show it in Galway for the first time in July but it’s a world premiere in Toronto.
Austin: And Toronto opens on April 26th and runs until May 6th. And I know that there’s I think three, at least three screenings, spread over the period of that time.
Austin: And there’s a few locations but certainly it’s worth looking at the website. It’s: hotdocs.ca for tickets and full information on the screening locations and times. Are you going to get over yourself, Maurice, to be able to attend?
Maurice: I am. I’m going to be there from the first, too, so I think it’s Saturday night the 28th at six o’clock in the Bell House Theatre, I think, and then the following day at one o’clock which is Sunday so I’ll be there for two or three days – so looking forward to it.
Austin: And then it’s on the following weekend as well because I know we’re looking at catching it on the second weekend.
Maurice: Brilliant! Great! Brilliant, brilliant…
Austin: So Maurice, I want to thank you for taking the time. It’s been fantastic and I look forward to being challenged by the documentary because as I said earlier – you know, we approach these things with attitudes that are ingrained in ourselves and as you said earlier you know that you might not agree but you come to understand and I’ve always felt that when I watched The Wind That Shakes the Barley it helped me understand why the Republican Movement may have evolved in the way that it did.
Maurice: Yeah, I mean I think let’s always be open to stuff you know and keep your beliefs but be open to the other side – that’s a secret of life I found that makes it a bit easier.
Austin: Maurice Sweeney, director, I Dolours. Thanks a million for taking the time.
Maurice: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you. (ends)