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A Sense of Loss: Dónal Foreman’s The Image You Missed

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By James Slaymaker.

Jean-Luc Godard once explained that he pioneered his late-period, archival style after realizing that “in a striking manner, film was able to recount its own history in a way quite different from the other arts. And in montage alone, there was a story, or attempts at stories, told in film’s own language. One can put a Goya after an El Greco, and the two images recount something without the need for a caption. One doesn’t see that anywhere else. […] And for cinema, little by little, it could be done, and this principle would establish a cinematographic history”. Dónal Foreman’s remarkable audiovisual collage The Image You Missed seems indebted to Godard’s philosophy of historical montage. Combining imagery from home movies, news broadcasts, propaganda films, paintings, advertisements, and video reportage, Foreman reflects on the history of struggle for Irish independence and, in particular, the role that cinema has played in this conflict. Although sporadic snatches of voiceover add some contextual information, Foreman avoids using an overly simplistic, logocentric approach, instead thinking through the images by placing them into dialectical exchange.

The Image You Missed juxtaposes footage culled from the archival material left by the director’s father, the late, great nationalist filmmaker Arthur MacCaig, and material shot by Foreman in contemporary Ireland. MacCaig was never a prominent presence in Foreman’s life (as Foreman observes, he himself does not appear in any of the archival material left by his father), yet their work seems connected in a multitude of ways. Many of the film’s most moving passages are structured visual and thematic rhymes in material produced in drastically different environments: a side-view of a train travelling from Dublin to Belfast shot by Foreman is cut together with a corresponding reverse angle filmed by MacCaig as a passenger on the same vehicle 30 years prior; the protagonist in an unproduced script by MacCaig seems to have been inspired by a fantasy of the man he wanted his son to grow up to be, and a scene from Foreman’s debut narrative feature stages a fantasy meeting between himself and a stand-in for his father.

Foreman searches through archival fragments in an attempt to trace out an understanding of an estranged parent, and in the progress plunges headfirst into the historical consciousness of his homeland. This dialogue between father and son is used to reflect a larger encounter across geographical and generational divides, and functions as the backbone of the film’s structure. MacCaig filmed in Belfast during the 70s and 80s, a period of intense political activity which saw the resurgence of nationalist fervour and opposition to Britain’s rule over Northern Ireland; Foreman finds himself creating within a vastly different social context, an Ireland characterized by widespread apathy and compromise in the wake of the Good Friday agreement which may have brought the horrors of the Troubles to an end, but fell short of establishing the independent, self-governed nation that the IRA which the Republicans have been fighting for for centuries. Foreman locates parallels and contrasts between these two epochs. MacCaig harboured a deeply romanticized view of the land and the revolutionaries he was descended from, while Foreman expresses a more sceptical view of the IRA, sympathetic to their goals but weary of the tactics employed by the more extremist divisions to achieve them. “I never shared this idea of Irishness with you. I never cared for the parades or the rituals or the flags”, Foreman narrates over images of nationalist crowds celebrating the centenary of the Easter Rising. “I always saw myself as coming from a place, not a nation”. Though Foreman questions whether this is the result of his own nature or because of the time he was born into. He acknowledges that he is making films in “in the wake of the failure of those movements, the failure of those images” which his father was enthral to, and though he admires the clarity and passion of MacCaig’s more didactic filmmaking, he feels ambivalent on the subject of whether film can bring about substantial social change.

The ethics of representation, the ability of cinema to function as a tool of historical thought, the power of the camera as an instrument of political action – all of these issues come to the fore in Foreman’s montage. The mass media were infamously biased in their documentation of the Troubles, presenting the conflict as religious war rather than a fight against imperialism, and painting the IRA as a group of violent thugs who harboured an irrational hatred for the Protestant Britain. The rigid broadcast censorship policies implemented by the mass media in both Ireland and England made it illegal for members of Sinn Féin or the IRA to voice their perspective on state-sponsored television stations, and programs dealing with the Troubles were routinely heavily censored or cancelled outright. MacCaig’s work during this period was dedicated to reframing the discourse surrounding the conflict and producing striking counter-images against the empire’s official narrative. His films portrayed a socialist, anti-colonialist genealogy of the Troubles, highlighting the actions of the IRA as the response to centuries of British occupation and casting his comrades as inheritors of a nationalist cause that preoccupied the minds of many great Irishmen. Unfortunately, the systematic erasure of Republican voices meant that most of his films were virtually impossible to access until recently. In contrasting footage of MacCaig’s subversive, formally experimental work with the contemporaneous news reports and mainstream documentaries, Foreman foregrounds the ways in which images of Northern Ireland were hijacked, repurposed and weaponized by its oppressors.

Figures like Wolfe Tone, James Connolly and Charles Stewart Parnell loom large over the political imagination, and art enshrining these great men who gave their lives to the resistance of imperialist rule still provide a source of inspiration for the younger generation of Republicans. The Image You Missed recognizes the lure of this mythos and the persistence of the revolutionary dream in its current incarnation, yet there is an elegiac tone to the film. Foreman removes MacCaig’s fervently politicized images from the period of their creation and reflects upon in an era in which the hope for the unification of the country and the establishment of a socialist republic seems impossible. Many formerly radical IRA members have entered positions in the new, neutralized Sinn Féin government and the country seems to be in the grip of neoliberalism for the foreseeable future. Foreman recognizes that one of the most insidious elements of late capitalism is that it creates an environment in which any alternative system seems untenable, and that compromise is falsely labelled as progress. As attuned as he is to the flaws of the current system, he has difficulty aligning himself with the optimistic political spirit which animated his father. The images captured by MacCaig of political murals spray-painted on the sides of government buildings brim with a genuine belief in the possibility for utopian social change. When we see similar patches of graffiti in Foreman’s footage, this possibility seems to have receded – they are laughed at by tourists who merely see them as empty curios. It’s not so much the work of a defeatist as a sceptic conditioned by neoliberal consensus who is eager to recapture the fervor of an earlier generation. In seeking out resonances with MacCaig’s practice and his own, Foreman speaks to the way that the personal and the political intertwine, and makes the possibility of genuine social reformation seem achievable, however elusive it may appear.

James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.

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