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Thread: NORTH CIRCULAR (Luke McManus 2022)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    NORTH CIRCULAR (Luke McManus 2022)




    Local bards sing along a Dublin road

    It had me from the opening strains, a beautiful classic Irish song sung in a pub by a woman sitting with a pint of bitter in front of her. And then the opening images, lovely and reminding me of the land I came from in Maryland, had the tears streaming down my cheeks before ten minutes had clocked. That doesn't happen often, especially with a documentary. This is a crude but effective test. If a film can do this, it passes muster with me.

    North Circular the title points to what holds the film together - I would liket to point out that the classic Irish way of saying "film" is "fill-um" - a road near Dublin that passes with indifference by the purveaus of the rich and the hovels of the poor alike. And so the fill-um has an agenda, as all good films must do: it's commenting with knowing sadness on the disparities of wealth in the country. and how they can be observed along this road.

    The road runs from Phoenix Park in the west to Summerhill and the docklands in the east, with some neighborhoods still deprived, others gentrified, and residents, glimpsed here, fighting back against being priced out.

    Above all this film succeeds because it's a powerful welding together of image and sound. It uses the classic, heartbreakingly simple Irish a cappella songs of sadness sung in pubs, and a succession of handsome black and white images. McMannus works magic with this combination. The power of the music is shown in how the images move you when you see them with the songs behind them. I wished my late friend Arkin could have watched this fill-um. Arkin was known for his teaching of Irish literature and students came back semester after semester to hear him talk of it. I know he would have liked North Circular and felt the beauty and the sadness of it and the protest against the wrong of what is taking place.

    That intro runs for a little over ten minutes. Only then people start to talk and places are named. Along the length of the road, , the underlying theme is gentrification. Some poor neighborhoods still exist along the road, and others have already been priced out by the rich who find these places too nice to allow their original residents to continue to enjoy them. An aging bagpiper in the army says this art is dying out. Sometimes a band rose to eighty but his sons and grandsons are not interested in continuing the art. "It'll probably die with me, you know?"

    O'Devaney Gardens is "inner city Dublin." A vanished housing estate, quite large and long, along the road, once housed office workers who had come in from the country to work in Dublin. O'Devaney Gardens was a big, quite unified community that went rough, but those why grew up there loved it and wished they could live "back in the flats." They were torn down to make money, a former resident says, and the new flats won't have the sense of community: the tearing down was to make money. Community gone.

    Stoneybatter is the center of a kind of folk revival, "as people keep calling it," as a bearded man who lives there and found himself playing music there says. The Cobblestone was a great music center there but the people owned the license and not the property. It was taken over to build a nine-storey hotel. A whole musical culture displaced. There is a movement to protest this, that says Dublin's culture is. being crushed. There is also a movement of squatters who protest that this is the only way they can live in Dublin because the rents are too high. A squatter talks at length about the house he lives in and the former resident, a desperate man who died there, alone.

    Grangegorman women's prison is where female offenders were processed before being sent to Australia. It is empty now. Indeed the film turns rather drk here, speaking also of Montjoy prison, on the North Circular Road. There is also a homeless man now no longer homeless but still , who had a bad forty years after being imprisoned at eighteen. "I thought it was an overnight thing, but I was there for a long time." And "on top of that," he saw his twin brother murder their father. Ah well.

    A young woman song writer Gemma Donleavy, paces around remembering and speaks of having written six songs commemorating Sheriff Street, an important area where she grew up that is being taken down. The songs depict different negative stereotypes of working class people. Grifters there are, she says. The men were dockers and the women dressmakers, and there can be no better grifters than those, she says. But you get your grifters everywhere. Donleavy speaks much of the loss of the flats. But while we see her, we don't hear hear her perform; the film's emphasis in more of folky songs.

    The stories told throughout this film are linked by the music and songs and the beautiful black and white images that illustrate them. Much is owed to the rich monochromes and the squarish format; the handsome, head-on style of the cinematography has a unity of feel though the work of four cameras, McManus plus Richard Kendrick, Evan Barry, and Patrick Jordan.

    Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review links this film with two documentaries, Gianfranco Rosi’s 2013 film Sacro GRA, focused on Rome's ring road about the people who live and work along it, and Alice Diop’s film Nous (We), focused on the diverse communities all living near the RER Paris rail network. The difference here, Bradshaw rightly points out, is the importance among Dubliners of a vibrant, evolving musical tradition. Unfortunately the promise of North Circular showing the encroachment of rich on the poor is imperfectly fulfilled. But this is primarily a musical film, its emphasis is on the vibrant musical life of working-class Dublin, and its artful images strikingly illustrate this.

    For the background on McManus, see the article in The Irish Times, which says the film "tells the story of Ireland." McManus speaks of the North Circular Road as "this Dickensian boulevard of all of human life." The songs here are ones to save and hear again and again.

    North Circular, 80 mins., premiered March 2, 2022 at the Dublin Film Festival. I also showed at Biarritz, Helsinki, Santa Barbara, and other documentary film festivals, opening theatrically in the UK March 21. Opens in NYC on Friday, July 28, 2023 at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-26-2023 at 12:18 AM.


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