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“These people aren't saying what I think, they're saying what they think, so it's their truth and their reality that you represent;” Director Luke McManus on the Journey of North Circular
05 Jan 2023 : Nathan Griffin
North Circular
Director Luke McManus talks to IFTN about the journey of his film North Circular, one of the most successful Irish documentaries of the past year.

Luke McManus’ lovingly constructed, black & white documentary North Circular was released at the tail-end of 2022 in Ireland to much acclaim from critics and audiences alike. A hypnotic odyssey, the film traverses the length of Dublin’s North Circular Road, from the Phoenix Park to Dublin Port, exploring the history, music, and perhaps most interestingly the residents of one of Ireland’s most interesting thoroughfares.

The film is far from a love letter to the area however, chronicling many a grim tale from the city’s history -  touching on everything from turf wars between drug gangs, British colonialism, mental health struggles, and the fight for women’s rights. The film is also an ode to Dubliners’ sense of community and in particular the shared sense of humour that is so synonymous with the area and which permeates the film alongside some beautiful musical sequences scored by the likes of Gemma Dunleavy and Seán ó Túama amongst many others.  It’s a significant piece of psychogeographical documentary making, particularly in the way it filters an objective space, the titular North Circular road, through the subjective realities of the people who live there. Speaking to IFTN about the film’s journey, McManus explains how the film made its way to the big screen.

“I was surprised how close we were from what we set out to do, to the thing that we actually did!”

The film feels like a love letter to a place that's clearly very familiar to the director. The audience feels like they are moving along the historical landmarks, with the film stopping at key locations to hear from people who paint a picture of past and present. We hear the good and the bad, but without bias or subjectivity to it, with the stories from the people in the community propelling the narrative forward, creating the impression of an effortless journey.  However, such apparent effortlessness takes a lot of work. When asked about the structure of the piece and how it evolved, McManus outlined how the project changed very little from its inception to the final product, and how important the editor was in keeping it true to the initial vision.

“I was surprised how close we were from what we set out to do, to the thing that we actually did. It was kind of interesting, from that point of view that the vision for the project was this journey. The editor and I talked about a couple of different things, in terms of structure. John Murphy is a superbly talented editor, and just a very kind hearted fellow as well, which is a rare blend of ability and lack of ego, which is really remarkable. We had a lot of chats about how it was going to work, but in the end, it was always, 'okay, we're gonna go down the road’. We kept coming back to that. We start here, and we end there, and we have to make it work around that. And finally, letting that be the structure or the journey in the film was a physical journey.”

The commitment to “going down the road” ended up taking viewers on a journey that not only gave them a sense of the spaces and people on that journey but also, albeit unknown to the director at the time, a sense of the real-time journey along the route.

“The film is 86 minutes long, and I went on to Google Maps, and I put in the one of the monuments (in the Phoenix Park), and then the Point Depot, because that's what we did our sort of most easterly shots was, the East Bridge, and via Phibsboro. That's an 84 minute walk and the film's 86 minutes! I only realized this like literally about three or four weeks before it came out, and I thought 'that is so cool.'  Because it's like you're doing a kind of real time perambulation, you know, like you're a pedestrian.

In addition to the structure, the film has a unique sense of tone, operating between the traditional genre elements of pure documentary whilst embodying something closer to what the director describes as more akin to a “black & white folk horror, basically… with an elevated tone and a heightened, surreal, sinister kind of atmosphere at times”. When asked about the stylistic influences, McManus invokes everything from Rocky Road to Dublin, James Joyce and the work of Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski. These combine to give the film an atemporal sense of a place that is a palimpsest of overlapping eras, much like the North Circular itself.

“It was an instinctive aesthetic choice, but like so many instinctive choices, you only start to realize why you chose that afterwards and it kind of starts to make sense”

“The aesthetic look, I suppose there was a couple of big influences: There's some classic films about Dublin and about the inner city that had music in them. So 'Rocky Road to Dublin', which obviously is a very well-known documentary from the 60's. And then 'Bargain Town', which is a slightly less well known one from the late 80's. About the Keys, and bargain town was shot on 16 mil black and white. And one of the reasons Bargain Town was such a big influence on the film is that I remember seeing it and going, this is like the 60's in Ireland, and then boom, they were singing, 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' by Stevie Wonder. And I was like ‘oh that’s an 80s song, oh this is the 80s!’”

“It had this kind of weird, timelessness, which I thought was really interesting. Actually, the James Joyce 'Ulysses' film from the 60s as well, which was also black and white. But they filmed that in 1966, Dublin, and they didn't hide it. They weren't pretending to be the real Bloomsday. And again they had a foot in two worlds, temporarily. So I kind of thought that would be interesting, if you're making a film about history, and you don't want to have any archive in it, is that not an interesting way to go about it? And then there were other things as well, like books of all photos. Evelyn Hofer's photos, the German photographer, took these amazing photos of Dublin in the 60's and then also Ida and Cold War by Paweł Pawlikowski.”

 “I had a little style guide that I gave to the cinematographers and a lot of the framing influences were from 'Cold War' and from ‘Ida’. And what you do is instead of using 4-3 as a tight little box to frame, you do a widescreen framing, then you have loads of headroom. And that was a theme we kept coming back to in the film. When you're looking at Anto, the Piper, there's a massive plaque of all the dead names and this idea that history in buildings is a weight that sort of pushes down on you, and having that makes you feel insignificant. One of the guys is singing Van Diemen’s Land and up the wall, there's all these pictures of old singers of the past. It's almost like a family tree leading them to this value. It was an instinctive aesthetic choice, but like so many instinctive choices, you only start to realize why you chose that afterwards and it kind of starts to make sense. You realize it's starting to reinforce the themes in the film and the journey that you're going on.”

“You need luck, when you're making documentaries. You can have really bad luck and it just messes up your project.”

That journey of the film is one that creates a unique emotional connection with audiences, as they get to know the community along the route/runtime of the film. This leads to some wonderful moments of catharsis and in many ways tracks a wider social journey taken by Irish society up to the present day, but for these things to work you need your structure in place, but as the director tells us, you also need luck.

“I was very fortunate. You need luck, when you're making documentaries. You can have really bad luck and it just messes up your project. The Kelly Harrington thing, I thought there might be something there but it wasn't particularly worked through in detail. And then it felt so climactic, and so cathartic. And then it fed into other things like overcoming trauma, which is quite a big theme in the film and for that community. So many of the people we met were either normally there when there was shootings and murders, the Hutch-Kinahan Feud and so on, so whenever they'd see a camera crew, they'd have anxiety, that someone they know had been killed because that's what it symbolized for five years. Suddenly, there was all these camera crews, and it was because of one of them (Kellie Harrington) was winning a gold medal in the Olympics, and for that, to be the reason we were there. It just felt really cathartic and healing for those people, almost like they were saying  ‘we have reasons to be proud. And now we're being shown at our absolute best.’”

“It's kind of like a history of Ireland. It starts with the Empire and the British Army and all that stuff. And then it moves through like revolution and O’Devaney and The Cobblestone uprising, the squatters and all that, and then it kind of goes through the institutionalization and the oppressive church. Then eventually, you get to the last 15 minutes of the film, there's no male voices at all. It's Ellen Rowley, Jemma Dunleavy, Lisa O'Neill, you know, Kelly Harrington, it's just a female universe that you kind of find yourself in. I think part of that was kind of trying to tap into this idea of 21st century Ireland, the patriarchy has been kind of fatally undermined -  it's okay to be gay, it's okay to be a woman, and you can do your own thing. I think it's quite an optimistic film, even though it's quite grim. I think that's important.”

“To get into one of the big three Documentary festivals with a €90,000 film made in my backyard was massive. It's brilliant!”

The film has been a hit with audiences, both in Ireland and abroad at festivals. The film played at the Sheffield documentary festival, which alongside, HotDocs in Torono and IDFA in Amsterdam, is one of the “Big Three” documentary festivals internationally. The status afforded by playing at such a significant festival was not lost on the director.

“It's pretty massive, to be honest with you. I mean, to get into one of the big three with a €90,000 film made in my backyard was massive. And the response there was very strong: The first screening was nothing special but then the next screening was really good, and the third screening was even better. You could feel the momentum built behind the film in the festival and the goodwill builds, you know. It was a huge thing. It was the first Sheffield back, everyone was back together, and you just realize what you've been missing out on in terms of filmmakers and audiences coming together, you know, so that was great.”

The film also played in both Dublin International Film Festival and at the Galway Film Fleadh. The latter of which was something of a homecoming for the filmmaker, marking another journey that demonstrates immense progress over time, in this case his career from trying to not make “terrible” shorts to showcasing something like North Circular. He also noted the incredible standard of emerging filmmakers coming up in Ireland and pointed to how Short Films are a great way to find talent.

“My first short drama was in Galway. In fact, I remember going to Galway and seeing all the shorts. One or two of them were really amazing. I remember 'Frankie' by Darren Thornton, such a good film. And I was like really excited by the possibilities of filmmaking by that film. And then some of the films were not so great. I was like, I'm not going to make something as bad as them, so it was kind of like all I have to be is better than those terrible ones. Maybe I can aspire to being as good as the really good ones. But if there's one thing I noticed, I went to a shorts program of docs in Galway, maybe your film was in it actually. The standard was so high like, you know there wasn't any of the crap films you used to get. All of them were a very good standard. Some of them are outstanding. Also, you see who's coming up, who's interesting, and who's a good camera person, who's an editor. I would have done my time doing shorts about a decade ago, and I found it really worthwhile and really useful.  It's more about the collaborators that you managed to connect with than it is about the end product.”

Another sort of return was the ability to enjoy the film with audiences, something which the director notes can change how the film comes across, particularly when your venues are as diverse as Cambridge and Mountjoy Prison. There’s a scene in the film with some men who look like they may be heroin users who end up dancing with some Romani people, a particularly Dublin event. McManus finishes by telling us how such a scene can draw different responses from audiences.

“I have had a huge amount of luck with this film. Like you can't overestimate the amount of luck I've had. But in Cambridge, there was kind of an appalled, embarrassed English silence when that happened. Whereas we screened the film in Mountjoy prison for the prisoners. They were laughing at that. So it's just interesting to see and hear what people get out of the film. And I think everyone gets something different out of it. It's interesting from their point of view, you know?”

Click here to find out more about Luke McManus’ North Circular.

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