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IFTA Focus: Q&A With 'Congo: 1961' Producer Brendan Culleton
17 Jan 2013 : Brendan Culleton was in conversation with Eva Hall
'Congo: 1961' was broadcast on TG4
Nominated for Special Irish Language

Despite there being a number of books written on the subject, little was really known about Ireland’s involvement in Congo 1961 until this documentary aired on TG4. Why do you think that was? The army didn’t want to talk about it, the survivors didn’t want to talk about it. Books were written, but while books can get publicity, most people don't read them, book sales are quite low in this country. Television is a great way to get a message across. But even now, I still meet people who talk about Niemba and the Balubas, even though Jadotville was a different battle, different place, different time, different tribe. However, the important thing for us, is that the film allowed closure for the surviving veterans and their families. This has been huge and deeply satisfying.

What did you want to achieve by putting this story out there again? We wanted Irish people to see how a real hero behaves. A hero whose actions and attitudes are just, honourable, without a hint of compromise. Somebody who basically sacrificed himself for his men.

We also wanted to be able to show to the world how Ireland, for this brief period of time, played a huge role in world affairs. The President of the UN General Assembly, the Supreme Commander of the UN forces in the Congo, the representative of the Secretary General of the UN in Katanga and lots of the troops in Congo, were all Irish. It was a big moment for us.

How difficult was it researching the history and contacting Irish veterans for interviews? We worked with Rose Doyle, author of one of the books and niece of the hero of the film, Pat Quinlan, who had interviewed some of the men. But there were some key players who would not talk about their experiences. Quinlan's son Leo provided us with a mass of documentation, including his father’s diaries, letters home, copies of military documents. But I eventually had to go to the UN Archives in New York to find the heart of the matter, which was that the UN Secretary General had sacrificed the Irish soldiers in a risky move, just to keep his job and reputation.

How did you go about obtaining the archive footage? I love archives and am an expert in finding them. I am prepared to spend hours, days, weeks on the research. But luck also enters into it.

The Irish army had quite a lot of beautiful colour film, but none of the period we were interested in. I decided to look at it anyway, to discover that the can had been wrongly labelled and that I had in fact one hour of archives of the 35th Battalion of the Irish Army in The Congo not known to have previously existed. Also, I interviewed one veteran and as I was leaving he said: "I made an old film out there, it's probably not much good, I don't suppose you'd be interested in that." A lot of army people don't put enough value on their own achievements and experiences.

The events in The Congo in 1961 were world news everywhere, so there existed quite a lot of film archives in the BBC and ITV which hadn’t been looked at since 1961, so we were lucky there.

Was there a particular reason you made the documentary in the Irish language? TG4 is the natural home of good documentaries. When we presented them with the idea, they agreed immediately to support it. In fact, the soldiers in our story were the Irish speaking battalion of the army, but we would have gone first to TG4 anyway, because of our enormous respect for Micheál O'Meallaigh, head of commissioning there.

Do you find it more difficult to get funding/broadcast support for an Irish language project compared to an English language project? No, the Irish Film Board and BAI are very positive towards Irish language productions.

Do you think the documentary introduced a young audience to the Congo conflict? It certainly did; apart from the relatives of the veterans, who turned out in droves to see their granddads on screen, the Congo Crisis has been on the Irish Leaving Cert History Syllabus for the last while, so lots of secondary school students have been able to make use of the film. I also noticed on our Facebook page a lot of younger Irish army personnel like the film very much, I think it makes them proud of the Irish Army.

Did you feel pressure to depict the story accurately, from the Congolese, to the Irish to the UN’s points of view? We made the story deliberately from the Irish point of view. As the veterans themselves were to be our ultimate judges, we were absolutely determined to get everything right. We also want this film to be an historical document that is not sensational and will stand the test of time.

What has the feedback from the Congolese, the Irish and the UN been like? Feedback had been 100 per cent positive, from schoolkids who knew nothing about the story to generals who served as junior officers. The best reactions were from veterans and family. People told us that they now understood why their father or brother never spoke about their experiences. Veterans told us that they could now finally put the matter to rest, something they had been struggling with for 50 years.

'Congo: 1961' is one of two documentaries nominated in the Special Irish Language category, and is up against two TV series. It is also nominated in the Documentary category. Have you watched your competition, and how do you rate your chances? All the films are excellent, it’s down to luck at this stage. We have as good a chance as anybody. But to be nominated is fantastic in itself, it certainly provides a bit of recognition for the years of work. A bit like what our film did for the Congo veterans!

See more IFTA Focus Q&A's below:

'Lón sa Spéir'

'Bernard Dunne's Bród Club'

'Rásaí na Gaillimhe'

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