Rare screening ‘Looking On’ & ‘Alive Alive O – A Requiem for Dublin’

Review by Maria Brosnan


On 2nd April, two documentaries will be screened back to back as part of the 2017 Five Lamps Arts Festival, Sé Merry Doyle’s first doumentary, Looking On (1982) and Alive Alive O: A Requiem for Dublin (2001). Both deal with what Sé describes as “Dublin’s inner city under threat” and cover the twenty year period from the 1980’s up until the beginnings of the Celtic Tiger.
Alive Alive O documents how Dublin and its inner city communities were reshaped – including the clearance and movement of tenements to places like Tallght and Coolock, the clamp down on street trading which even saw the introduction of the 1985 Illegal Street Trading Act,  and  the closure of markets like the Iveagh on Francis Street.
Sé uses archival footage and photographs as well as primary interviews and original film.  There’s a layering of poetry by Paula Meehan, songs by Frank Harte and first account voices – a coalescence of people and prose that is  reflective of Sé’s film making style.  He creates an important archive of a social and cultural history, but his method and pacing allow us the space and breadth to digest the material, without being bombard with information.
We are taken on a walkabout; we meet the people who are being displaced and dispossessed while an Irish State pursues a (re)development plan that failed to respect, include and consult existing communities and traditional industry.  The disconnect is perfectly exemplified by the literal wall built between Sheriff Street and the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC), constructing barriers and boundaries.

We see the struggle and the resistance.  There are  confrontations between gardaí and street traders and even imprisonments, organised demonstrations, and strong representation and leadersrship from local TD, Tony Gregory and community activist, Mick Rafferty.  Looking On documents a festival of the same name organised in protest to highlight the issues of the inner city and to celebrate the vitality of the people.
It is over 15 years since Alive Alive O: A Requiem for Dublin was released, and Looking On is almost 35 years old but they were chosen to be part of the festival because of their relevance to now, as a way of looking at the present, and its link with the recent past.  Most viewers will be able to fill in the blanks of the past sixteen years because they have lived through the blanks, a boom and a recession.  Major, hyper, polarities, for any (sixteen year) lifetime.
The resonance hits hard. Despite improvements in infrastructure, increases in foreign investment, a more skilled and diverse population and more liberal cultural attitudes, it’s difficult to delineate progress when you are so aware of the host of current issues – or crises – the country is dealing with – gang wars, drugs, housing, homelessness. Then there is the dark recession that the country has muddled through and the reverberating impact of mass unemployment and austerity measures which will linger for a long time. Not to mind the staple of structural inequality; class, hierarchy and power structures are already written in hearts, minds and institutions – and will always constitute a barrier to working class communities.  The resonance is heavy indeed.

Alive Alive O asks the viewer to consider the function of a city and of a State, and the role of communities and the public.  For me, the film highlights the need to engage a multiplicity of viewpoints, and to ensure that real inclusion, negotiation and compromise form part of the decision making process.  Development – or progress – should be defined as a progression of thought or policy informed by the experience or mistakes of the past.
Sé describes the documentary as a “a kind of moral tale or metaphor. ” He believes that the situation we are in now could have been prevented if things were done differently, and that we are doomed to continue a cycle and make the same mistakes if we do not stop, reflect and make changes.  Sé is keen to make a follow-up documentary chronicling the intervening years and is currently looking for funding.

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