Interviews, Trailers

A Gas Film That’s No Laughing Matter: Interview with director of The Pipe, Risteard O’Domhnaill

INTERVIEW WITH RISTEARD O’DOMHNAILL

“I fell into TV by accident, I did theoretical physics in college, so it was a bit of a jump!” laughs Tipperary born director Risteard O’Domhnaill. “But I moved to Mayo in 2005, just working freelance really, and the Rossport protests were right down the road. I used to go down every morning, filming a bit and as I spent more time there, I just felt that there was just this sense of real injustice, as these locals had been abandoned by everyone and were being lambasted by the media, so I kept coming back. It was just curiosity really.”

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but in this case it gave birth to The Pipe, O’Domnhaill’s compelling film about the Mayo community at the centre of the Rossport Shell to Sea controversy, when Shell Oil ignored not only local protesters but E.U regulations and legal injunctions, constructing a natural gas refinery and pipeline through this small rural community. Five local men were famously imprisoned in 2005 for their involvement in the protests, but this was merely the beginning of this David vs. Goliath battle, and it wasn’t until a year later that O’Domhnaill became involved.

“In October 2006 the Rossport locals had made a blockade around the gas refinery. Suddenly one night a huge number of gardai were moved into the area and set about moving all these people who had gathered around the refinery gate in the dead of night, literally lifting them out of the way. This caused a train of events where every morning the protesters would gather in front of the refinery to block the workers, and it just got very violent and really rough. The gardai had a policy of no arrests, but that just meant that they had to literally force people to leave. They’d be throwing people in drains, and there’d be batons out and they’d be dragging them along the road. From my point of view, I just thought it was pretty incredible that a small community who had the fecking lowest crime rate in the country were suddenly being classed as bullies and thugs and criminals.”

And it wasn’t just the gardai who were treating the protesters like criminals, as the small mayo community found themselves the victims of a vicious media campaign.

“I realized while filming that the story that was being represented through the media was very different altogether than what was actually happening on the ground. The story was being sensationalized and the media were writing really nasty, libellous stuff. There was a real agenda against them by large sections of the media, especially the Independent group which is controlled by Tony O’Reilly who, funnily enough, owns a big oil company. So there were all these vested interests swaying the media helping to isolate the locals. Paul Williams was even writing about IRA guerrillas in the hills of Ballinaboy! There was loony stuff being passed off as fact. And it all worked so well for Shell, as the locals were isolated, everyone was against them, the gardai were told to move them, so Shell could just get on with it and build their refinery. The community really was isolated completely.”

But as they say, it only takes one. After six months of filming, TG4 and the Film Board became interested in the project, and commissioned him to make film. This move would dictate the next four years of O’Domhnaill’s life, as the Shell to Sea campaign grew more complicated

“I became really close to the people involved, and their story just grew, getting more political with all these twists and turns. I couldn’t really stop at any point, because the story wasn’t finished. So I just hung around the locals like a bad smell!”

Contrasting with his media peers, O’Domhnaill’s film is a firmly character-driven narrative, focusing on individuals like Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell who faced off huge Shell ships in his tiny wooden fishing boat on a daily basis; the intensely passionate Mura Harrington who went on a hunger strike, and whose aggressive actions caused fractions within the community; and Monica Muller, who refused to engage in the protests but was instrumental in highlighting the illegalities of Shell’s construction and methods. However, noticeably absent is any direct contribution from representatives of either Shell or the Gardai.

“We were very eager to have Shell involved,” O’Domhnaill laments. “There was a lot of misinformation on all sides, and we wanted to set the record straight, so we wanted them to contribute. But they always wanted some kind of editorial control, and I couldn’t allow that, not with anybody. And as for the Gardai, it’s not an attack on them at all. They were thrown into a difficult position, as they were mainly local, and were pitted against their own neighbours. But the orders were coming from politicians, who were completely ignoring the situation. There’s a clip of Bertie Ahern saying that the protesters were breaking the law, then he and the other politicians just walked away. They were just treating it like a security problem. The fault lies completely in the hands of the politicians.”

The film has been incredibly well-received both in Ireland and abroad, getting a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, with O’Domhnaill being hailed as a filmmaker to watch. However, he has a different path in mind for himself

“This film has given me a real insight into politics and how this country works. I’ve learned a lot about how as a nation we deal with power and how we treat our own citizens, often rolling over for vested interests. It’s been a real eye-opener, and I think Ireland’s at a real crossroads right now, so I’d hope that it could possibly contribute in some way to a change in attitude, and a discussion of where this country is going. Corrib was just this microcosm of just how broken the system was, and I think it shows how much things need to change.”

The Pipe is in cinemas from December 3.
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