Advocating Advocacy: The Protest Paradigm in Documentary Representation--Meeting Room (2010) and The Pipe (2010)
On Wednesday 29th September 2010 at 7.45 a.m., 41 year-old Mayo-born Joe McNamara drove a cement truck into the gates of Dail Eireann on Kildare Street, Dublin. The mixer was emblazoned with slogans including "Toxic Bank" and "Anglo". McNamara's anger was understandable in the context of a State facing a Budget forewarned to be the most severe in history. With the prospect of IMF intervention to manage a rising national debt preserving the broken banking system to insulate the decision makers from liability, people had already taken to the streets in mass protest on several occasions throughout the year, and would again in November and December. It would seem in this environment that Joe McNamara would have become a significant symbol of resistance. Solicitor Cahir O'Higgins, defended his client's actions as 'legitimate protest', and there was initially widespread support, certainly interest, on social media. Souring the deal though, was McNamara's profession. Regardless of his general or particular actions, about which no comment should hereby be inferred, it was always unlikely that the disaffected populus would adopt a property developer as a mascot.
Two Irish documentaries released in 2010 dealt with the subject of social protest. Both were historical in outlook, detailing with events in both the recent and distant past. While both are primarily thematic documentaries, each detail interactions between individuals, organised groups, the State, and the media that are illustrative of the paradigm of social protest, its place in Irish society, and the importance of its representation. Bill Nichols reminds us that the word 'representation' has multiple meanings in documentary film, one of which is synonymous with political representation--giving a voice to to the subject, outlining its point of view. Of what value, then, might Meeting Room (James Davis and Brian Gray, 2010) and The Pipe (Risteard o Domhnaill, 2010) be in terms of presenting a paradigm (or indeed paragon) of political resistance at a time when the need for change seemed so urgent?
Meeting Room recounts the story of the grassroots organisation 'Concerned Parents Against Drugs', which, with the initial support of Fr. James Smyth SJ, successfully drove drug dealers from Dublin's Hardwicke Street Flats in 1982. CPAD then grew into a movement, supported by community leaders and independent politicians including Tony Gregory. Mass meetings, street patrols, and even forced evictions followed, including confrontations with well known and high profile inner-city criminal figures. The organisation ran into difficulty when a skeptical media began to question the legitimacy of this community policing initiative and intimated that its real power came from the tacit threat of paramilitary enforcement. CPAD fought on, defying increasing political pressure to cease its activities and return the rule of law to the organs of the State, and eventually some of its leaders were imprisoned. The movement went into decline, and by the end of the 1980s it had fizzled out from a force of social change to a memory of proletarian resistance.
Davis and Gray's film tells the story of the movement through interviews with participants in it, including Fr. Smyth, John "Whacker' Humphries (whose outspoken manner and wild looks made him a minor celebrity at the time), and the late Tony Gregory. In its most extraordinary scene the film has journalist Brendan O'Brien examine his own interview with Fr. Smyth from RTE in 1982 in which O'Brien attempted to get Smyth to confirm paramilitary involvement behind the scenes of CPAD. Smyth's silence at the time is matched by his direct assertions in the present that "they treated us as the aggressors and the pushers as the victims", and O'Brien, reflecting on the context in which he had approached this thread of the story (violence in Northern Ireland), admits there was an element of bias. …