Docbox Books

Harvey O’Brien,
The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary Film

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005.
ISBN 0-7190-6906-8
Ruth Barton

In early summer of 2005, RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, aired a four-part series on former Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Charles J. Haughey. Now retired, Haughey has come to symbolise the Irish state. A complex, and by all accounts engaging individual, Haughey with his Fianna Fail party were committed to creating a new, financially stable country out of a moribund economic backwater. The trouble, as any number of media and judicial investigations have exposed since then, was that just as Haughey forged ahead with the reshaping of the economy, so he amassed a huge personal fortune by diverting political donations away from party funds into discreet offshore bank accounts. Nor did he see himself obliged to share the crippling personal tax burden on which the state’s financial recovery was partially based. The series promised some fascinating television; in the event, most media analysts and many of the programme’s viewers were disappointed. By common consent, the filmmakers went soft on Haughey, rehearsing old anecdotes and common knowledge rather than cutting through lingering admiration for the myth to expose the “real” history.

Haughey was made too late for inclusion in Harvey O’Brien’s foundational study of Irish documentary; yet, in many ways, it bears out much of the book’s central contention. Taking a long, closely-argued look at documentaries about Ireland, primarily made from within the state, and ranging from early travelogues, through state-sponsored educational shorts, to the work of mavericks such as Liam O’Leary in the 1940s, Peter Lennon in the 1960s, Bob Quinn from the 1970s and John T. Davis and Alan Gilsenan from the 1980s, O’Brien subjects the medium to a sustained analysis that ultimately finds much in its history to critique. In common with many other Irish cultural historians, O’Brien is concerned with “how the evolution of Ireland has been both visible within and represented by non-fiction films” (p. 237); that is, this book is intended to be read simultaneously as a history of Irish documentary and of Ireland in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. At the same time, his approach is theoretically informed, drawing particularly on Bill Nichols and John Corner’s writings and locating Irish filmmakers within international documentary traditions. The latter in particular leads him to some provocative juxtapositions. For instance, in a subsection entitled “Triumph of the Catholic will: the films of Fr Browne,” O’Brien draws parallels between the work of Leni Reifenstahl and that of the Irish Jesuit priest, Fr Frank Browne, now better known for his series of photographs taken aboard the Titanic on her maiden voyage from Southampton and Queenstown (now Cobh), where Browne disembarked. Browne also was responsible for the making of several films, including the feature length Eucharistic Congress 1932, a record of the eponymous national religious celebration, widely agreed to have constituted the formal announcement by the new state of its Catholic identity and its fealty to Rome. A colourful event that left few corners of the country untouched by bunting and holy water, it was an expression of a national consensus that O’Brien himself questions, wondering if indeed the enthusiasm of the people was as spontaneous as Browne’s film proposes. Acknowledging that comparisons between Triumph of the Will (dir. Leni Reifenstahl, 1935) and Browne’s amateur oeuvre are “grossly unfair” (p. 33), O’Brien nevertheless pursues the analogy, ultimately concluding that if Riefenstahl’s motivations remain open to dispute, Browne’s work was dictated by his unquestioning convictions, that he could not conceive of any alternative position to that of the Catholic Church and its inseparability from the state.

It is this triangular relationship, between the Catholic Church, a conservative state and a populace whom he later resignedly dismisses as ready “to accept whatever ontological, spiritual or judicial argument was presented to them in the form of both documentaries and other forms of cultural expression [as] it was literally what they had been taught to do” (p. 59), that O’Brien sees as defining the better part of the twentieth century. Only subsequently was this relationship questioned by those mavericks listed above (of which Davis is the least overtly “political”). Yet even they, as O’Brien cogently argues, were constrained by a reluctance to go beyond surface imagery to deconstruct the “real Ireland” of the socio-political imagination.

The representation of Ireland’s history has been central to the country’s documentarists and it is this that occupies the greater part of this book. More recently (Haughey notwithstanding), the emphasis has shifted from the larger issues of Irish political history to social history, and particularly to the exposure of institutional abuse, much of it perpetrated by representatives of the Catholic Church. At the same time, RTÉ has become the major source of funding and transmission of documentaries. Productions such as Louis Lenten’s Dear Daughter (1996) and Mary Raftery’s States of Fear (1999) became national talking points and the occasion for the release of an enormous sense of collective anger and resentment. Here I think O’Brien is perhaps overly severe on the filmmakers, particularly of the latter programme, whom he takes to task for not adequately questioning the media’s earlier failures to expose institutional abuse. It seemed to me in the late 1990s that, even though many of the events described were old history, the attention paid to their victims in the media publicly validated their grievances in a manner that had not heretofore occurred.

In this punchy, all-encompassing and generously illustrated history with its informative filmography, O’Brien has opened up many areas of representation for debate. This now ought to allow the next wave of researchers to engage in the luxury of detailed analyses of Ireland’s small but important documentary filmmaking tradition.


Ruth Barton
O’Kane Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Film Studies, University College Dublin. Her most recent publication is Irish National Cinema (Routledge, 2004).

Kamanaka Hitomi, Kim Sung-woong, Kana Tomoko,
The Power of Documentary (“Dokyumentarii no chikara”)

Tokyo: Kodomo no Miraisha, 2005. ISBN: 4-901330-52-7
Mori Tatsuya

I first met Kamanaka Hitomi at the 1997 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. It was on the premiere of my first documentary film, A, or perhaps the day after. I was seated at the counter of a downtown bar. Beside me was a powerhouse in the documentary film circle. I knew his name, but little else. He was in high spirits, and must have been very drunk. After some polite conversation, he asked me, as if just remembering, “By the way, which one’s yours?”

“It’s called A,” I replied. “A as in A, B, C . . .”

“The one about Aum?”


After a short pause he mumbled, “Why in the world did you make a film like that?”

“I’m sorry?” I tried to gauge what he meant.

“Why did you choose to use enemies of society as your subject?” His demeanour was changed, his tone accusatory. The mission of documentary film is to be a voice for the downtrodden, to speak out against oppression. There is no value in making Aum Shinrikyo the subject of a documentary film. Documentary film should never take the viewpoint of the mass media.

I realized that he presumed my documentary contained the kind of images of Aum that were being broadcast in special programs all over TV at the time. But in that situation, I wasn’t strong enough to refute him. As I sat silently, looking downward, the woman beside me spoke:

“When did you see it?”

“The movie? I’m not going to.”

“That isn’t right. You’re welcome to critique as much as you want, but only on the condition that you watch it first. Criticizing a movie you haven’t seen is just wrong.” I only retained flashes of the events that followed in my memory. It was probably me, just sitting there smiling amiably at one or the other. It was only much later that I discovered the identity of that woman: Kamanaka Hitomi.

She was the same Kamanaka Hitomi who co-authored the book with the straightforward title, The Power of Documentary. It was a matter of great misfortune that my book, Documentaries Lie, hit the shelves at about the same time that Kamanaka’s was released. Admittedly, I had tried to entice readership with a controversial title. I mourned the bad timing at the storefront of a bookshop that had displayed both books side by side on the New Arrivals shelf. Perhaps somewhere at the storefront of another bookshop she was thinking, “What a masochistic guy . . .”

In her book, Kamanaka takes us on her journey making Hibakusha—At the End of the World (2003). As she leads us through the path she took, her words dynamically reproduce every single detail like a quality road movie of sorts. Of especial note is the episode about when she filmed Mustafa’s family in Iraq. I reproduce the original text below.

When I told the Ministry of Information guide that I was coming back the next day, he gave me an incredulous look.

“Why? Didn’t you already shoot your film?”

“Actually, I’d like to start coming every day.”

He got angry. “I’ve worked with media teams from all over the world, but I’ve never seen a single one that went to the same place twice. Why do you want to come? There’s nothing here!”

A simple description, but one which vividly illustrates the differences between news and documentary film. The trouble comes when we start blindly using cases such as these to bandy around iron-cast aphorisms, such as “documentary is all about the relationship between filmmaker and subject.” If we depend on such stereotypes, we start to tumble into idioms like “focusing on the weak to confront authority.” Kamanaka wanted to know more about Mustafa’s family. That was why she wanted to continue. It’s a very simple thing, but this kind of simplicity is an element severely lacking in today’s mass media.

Kim Sung-woong spent five years on Hana Hanme (2004), a documentary film about the everyday lives of resident Korean (zainichi) mothers living in Japan. Why did he choose to assimilate into their lives? The answer is obvious—Kim is zainichi as well. He can’t resist the desire to join in their lives. But when that happens, his movie is sublimated as a documentary film. For Kim, who desired to become a regular part of the women’s daily lives, the fact that there were hardly any interview-like interviews in the film is probably also a natural result.

To be absolutely truthful to oneself. If anything can be said to be a requirement of documentary, this has to be it. But to be frank, when Kim wrote, “I wanted those women to see the documentary most of all,” it hit a sore spot with me. Until now, I had never thought of showing my work to any of my subjects. In fact, I usually don’t enjoy the filming process at all. While I realize Kim wrote this from his own sincere nature, I nonetheless have high hopes for him to become a bit more insincere in the future.

Kana Tomoko, director of From the Land of Bitter Tears (“Nigai namida no daichi kara,” 2004), reflects on her time in the news section of a TV station with the following statement: “There is no one single truth. It cannot exist. No matter what kind of article it is, it has no more than the truth from a certain perspective, spun from the materials gathered by the reporters and directors at the scene.”

I have nothing to add to these words. This is exactly why the one standard of documentary film is that absolute truth can only be found in the feelings and experiences acquired while shooting. Though their vocabularies differ slightly, in this the three—Kamanaka, Kim and Kana—concur. To these three I submit a fourth: Mori Tatsuya is in complete agreement as well, although he is probably the most cowardly of the lot.

—Translated by Derek Lin


Mori Tatsuya
Filmmaker. His documentary film, A2 (2001), received both the Citizens’ Prize and the Special Prize in the International Competition at YIDFF 2001. A (1998) and A2 have been screened at numerous international film festivals. His written works include Documentaries Lie and many others.

*A had it’s premiere screening at YIDFF ’97, but was later reedited and rereleased in an “international version.” This international version is now considered to be the official version of Mori’s documentary.—Ed.

Mori Tatsuya,
Documentaries Lie (“Dokyumentarii wa uso o tsuku”)

Tokyo: Soshisha, 2005. ISBN: 4-7942-1389-1
Kamanaka Hitomi

For starters, the title is an interesting one. It fills you with a curiosity that causes you to pick up the book. Perhaps that is because people have always been, by nature, more fascinated with lies than the truth. But upon reading the book, one discovers for oneself how hopeless a liar Mori Tatsuya actually is. He seems to be incapable of pretence, as he exposes his own faults and insecurities without disguise.

Documentaries Lie draws its inspiration from previously published material—“Document of Documentary” which ran for two years starting in 2002 in Soshisha’s periodical Soshi, and “Review Films,” which ran in Kodansha’s Gunzo. To these, Mori added new material. Mori tells us where the nature of documentary lies as he brings us through his own life as a documentary filmmaker—itself an antithesis to the ideas and conventions of the world of documentary. The process by which he discovered his own “documentary” is described in rich detail. Readers naturally start to be convinced of how the unease Mori felt towards the television business from the start of his career is something like proof of his tendencies as a born creator, someone opposed to the stance of a “television director” affiliated with a large organization.

The first two chapters include an analysis of the traditional definition of documentary. Mori feels that the essence of documentary is in the filmmaker’s point of view, located in “the unclear difference between being based on the individual and being based on the vast majority, full of ‘isms’ and ideology.” Mori argues that works like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Kamei Fumio’s Fighting Soldiers (“Tatakau heitai,” 1939), and Ushiyama Junichi’s TV documentary series are able to capture the power of universal images exactly because they are drawn from the eyes of a single filmmaker, and contrasts them with the degeneration of post-war television documentaries, in which such viewpoints were discarded and suppressed. As one proceeds to the latter chapters of the book, one becomes more and more convinced that the creative stances of these three directors blend with that of the author, and that their experiences of being systematically sidelined and criticised by the establishment are his as well.

In describing the directorial stance of these filmmakers, Mori writes of Flaherty: “It was not a theory or passion that came first; it was the real experience of rolling film.” Of Kamei: “Kamei was not a slave of isms or ideology; his bare physiology nature burns through the film. Mori uses Ushiyama Junichi’s own words to describe him: “Reporting is not about delivering objective facts—it is about making facts objective. Facts can turn around 180 degrees depending on the observer. Images are the world of meaning when reality is faced directly and the subject is perceived; an interpretation of the documentarist’s reality. Humans are always intervening in them.” Also, “Perhaps documentarists illustrate the struggles of the challenge against the impossible. No documentarist is capable of expressing a completely objective truth. They produce only a record of their own struggles.” Mori depicted the Aum Shinrikyo in a documentary—is it not true that the basis of this is found exactly in the stances of the above three filmmakers?

From the third chapter onwards, Mori expands on his theory of documentary film together with an account of the production of A (1998) from start to completion. All of this is unified in style with a stance of detailed reporting from the ground. The television industry favors the use of catchphrases such as “objectivity” and “neutrality,” but from Mori’s perspective he finds those terms dodgy and suspicious. As he heads further straight into this bottleneck, the pitfalls trapping television documentary become clearer and clearer to see. When Mori rolled the camera for the first time, he realized that he was “directing the camera at the object, but (later) became painfully aware that the subject was actually me. The image that appears on the viewfinder is something I selected by my own judgement; a scene I subjectively found meaning in, and separated from the complex reality. The fruit of that subjectivity is the completion of a work created through the artificial processing called ‘editing.’ There is no room for concepts such as neutrality or objectivity to creep into the process at all.” In time, he comes to realize the element of harm he introduces as a filmmaking subject.

“You can never shoot the truth ‘as is.’ The world in the camera frame is one that has been triggered by the foreign object known as the camera, a reality reconstructed from processed fiction.” In other words, “the documentary genre has been, and will always be, an act of personal expression.” This is precisely why it is self-apparent that “objectivity” and “neutrality” exist in opposition to documentary. What Mori is saying is that when his peers still use words such as “objectivity” and “neutrality,” it is like they are throwing away the responsibility that comes with individual expression.

If documentary is to reclaim its original richness, it must become free from the misconception that it bears the burden of “portraying the truth.” People act out their lives in front of cameras; cameras accept that performance as is, and then use it. This fictionality is exactly what lies at the root of human nature, and documentaries can shine richly precisely because they illustrate that. Documentaries Lie speaks this truth—one which seems so obvious after realizing it—carefully and with feeling. On the other hand, we know very well that there exists a vast majority separated from this seemingly obvious truth. That is why a documentary film as interesting as A did not enrapture and mobilize the audiences it should have. This book should narrow the gap of understanding between what the audience perceives as “documentary” and what the creator perceives as the same. Otherwise, the possibilities for this talented documentarist to continue his work will become more and more narrow. That would be a matter of great concern.

—Translated by Derek Lin


Kamanaka Hitomi
Filmmaker and Associate Professor at Tokyo University of Technology. Her documentary film, Hibakusha—At the End of the World (2003), caused an upheaval in the YIDFF 2003 New Asian Currents program and has been shown at various international film festivals. She is a co-author of The Power of Documentary.