18 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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“We had an ongoing dialogue with the workers”, director Joe Lee discusses 406 Days
2023-05-24 : Luke Shanahan
406 Days
We caught up with Joe Lee, director of 406 Days, releasing in Irish cinemas on Friday May 26th.

406 Days tells the story of the 1,000 Irish Debenhams workers who were made redundant through a generic email on the 9th of April 2020 after Debenhams UK Retail Ltd closed all 11 Irish stores including their flagship store on Henry St. Dublin 1. The workforce, 95% female, had been denied an earlier agreed redundancy package. 

They voted to go on official strike and blocked stock being removed from the 11 stores by the liquidator. The workers remained on the picket lines, through the Covid-19 pandemic for 406 days, making it the longest industrial dispute in Irish labour history. It finally ended in May 2021 through a compromise government-sponsored proposal based on a retraining fund.

The film was directed and edited by Joe Lee, and produced by Fergus Dowd, co-author of Tales From The Debenhams Picket Line. Dowd also serves as production manager, archivist, and transcriber on the film.

406 Days premiered at the Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year, and won the Audience Award. It has since earned the ICCL Human Rights Film Award and the Dublin Film Critics Circle Award for Best Irish Documentary.

Director Joe Lee sat down with us to discuss the origins of this documentary, collaborating with the Debenhams workers, and shooting and editing the film with a minimal crew.

IFTN: You began working with producer Fergus Dowd after his book Tales From The Debenhams Picket Line was released. Could you tell me about how that collaboration came about?

JOE: “It was written by Sue O'Connell and Fergus. He rang me up on a Friday evening, I was making the dinner. I didn't really know much about the Debenhams dispute before that. I live in Marino, which is pretty close to the city centre, like it's only a few kilometres, but because of the pandemic I hadn't been in town very much. I went out and bought the book the next day, sat down, and read it from cover to cover. It was really interesting.”

“I hopped on my bike the day after with my camera and I took a few shots at the Henry Street store, because I wanted to get close to it quickly. One or two of those shots actually ended up in the film. It really wasn't long after that we began filming. We started filming this in March 2022. I think one of the things about the film is that there is an immediacy to it.”

IFTN: What was it about the book that made you want to make a documentary about the Debenhams dispute?

JOE: “What really struck me was I lived so close to it and yet, I didn't really know anything about what actually happened.”

“The essence of the book really is about the picket lines. What interested me in becoming involved was making a film from that perspective. These people were doing 24 hour day pickets. Another thing that really sort of interested me was the idea that it was national. It wasn’t just Dublin. Most of the work that I’ve done is about Dublin stories, but this was national.”

IFTN: What was it like interviewing the workers? Did it take them a while to get used to speaking in front of the camera?

JOE: “No, I mean Fergus had built up a lot of trust with the women. They knew that he was genuine, he was authentic, he wasn't trying to exploit the story or exaggerate any aspects of it. He was trying to tell the story, as much as he could, from their point of view. That carried over into the film.”

“I interviewed people in twos. In some ways because there were so many of them, but also there were a lot of visual things going on, just between two people acknowledging each other, laughing with each other, bouncing off each other. It seemed to me that this worked well, and made people feel relaxed about talking.”

IFTN: As well as directing, you also edited the film. Could you tell me about the process of putting the story together in the edit?

JOE: “As a filmmaker I work quite collaboratively with the people that I am making stories about. I kind of view it more that I’m making stories with people. I found a great partner in Fergus as a producer. We had an ongoing dialogue with the workers, and consulted with them during the editing process. We brought people in on a few different occasions, just to get their take.”

“There were things that we didn’t understand fully, like the Foley talks. It was really hard to sort of work out what exactly went on there. And the women were brilliant, they said ‘Oh, Marie was very involved, you need to talk to her’, and then we were able to piece it together. The women really helped in terms of putting together the chronology of the story.”

“There were a lot of people who had social media stuff that they allowed us to use. Fergus did a fantastic job at going through all that material, and kind of packaging it up and presenting it to me. I could come back to him throughout the process and say ‘Is there anything more on such and such?’ It was a really positive working relationship.”

IFTN: You worked on narrative fiction films early in your career, but over the years you’ve done more and more documentary and installation work. What draws you to the medium of documentary?

JOE: “I come from a visual arts background, so in a way, I nearly approach everything like painting. I like to be able to just do things. What I found very difficult in those earlier years dealing with narrative, was the filmmaking process at that stage didn’t suit me as a person. I didn't like having this circus around me, trying to bring people from one place to another to get a shot that was going to just be three seconds in the film! I like having the ability to go and do something myself, to be close to the thing that I'm trying to do.”

“There’s two camera people that I work with, Daniel St. Ledger and my son Tom Lee. We've worked together on lots of different things. We could move and do things very easily. We were able to sort of say ‘Okay, let's go to Limerick next Wednesday and get some interviews done, or get some filming done’. So, it was a very sort of direct way of making the film.”

“So there’s that directness, and also my interest in social issues, social theory, oral history, social justice. That kind of territory has been in my work throughout.”

IFTN: How did you navigate the process of finding funding and distribution for this film?

JOE: “You’re kind of looking at the bank of Fergus and the bank of Joe really! We did get some support, but really not much support at all.” 

“Debenhams leased their premises from Roches, so once liquidation had been completed, which it had by the time we started, the actual buildings themselves were empty. As long as we had the insurance, and we had the equipment, we were able to walk in the door and film in there. To be able to achieve that we had to act quickly. When it comes back down to the thing of money, I was willing to sort of forego everything until the film was made, because the means of production were at my fingertips and I believed in this story so much.”

“We aimed for the Dublin International Film Festival because they had been good to me before, and Grainne Humphreys saw it and said ‘We’d really love this to be part of the festival if you can have it finished in time’, so we had to get it done. We produced a DCP ourselves, we graded it ourselves. Tom has got a lot of skill sets in there. We were able to meet the criteria of the festival, and Eclipse Pictures came along to the screening and said ‘Look, we really love this film, we’d love to distribute it with you guys’. We just had to keep our heads down and keep going.”

IFTN: Are you working on any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?

JOE: “Myself and Fergus are working on a film together about the Dublin-Monaghan bombing in 1974. We've been working on that for the last month or two, and we're working with an organisation called Justice for the Forgotten. We've done a lot of research interviews, and some filming.  We're hoping to do the main filming part of it towards the end of the year. May 17th next year will be the 50th anniversary, so we’re trying to use that as a context to get it out into the world.”

406 Days releases in Irish cinemas on Friday, May 26th.

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