“Reality Isn’t Given — You Have to Take It”: Writer/Director Donal Foreman on His Fictional Memoir, The Image You Missed
“I’ve been able to develop more of a sense of being from somewhere by not being there…. Your nationality starts to feel like a more important part of you when you’re away from home.” Writer, director, and editor Donal Foreman splits his time between his native Dublin and Brooklyn, his home for close to a decade. Debuting in 2017, The Image You Missed is his first feature documentary, a fictional memoir of Donal’s complex relationship with his filmmaker father, Arthur MacCaig. MacCaig, the son of Irish immigrants, was a documentary filmmaker born in New Jersey in 1948. He made his home in Paris most of his adult life but centered much of his work on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. MacCaig made 20 films between 1979 and 2005 and died in Belfast in 2008 at the age of 60. After his father’s death, Donal went to Paris and immersed himself in his father’s private archive, the one he had left behind in his apartment. As Donal went through Arthur’s possessions and artifacts, a reverberant dialogue began to take hold in Donal’s imagination, a conversation between the young filmmaker and his deceased father about the legacy of this archive that spanned the course of 30 years of Irish history. When Donal was still quite little, the small amount of exposure and access he had to Arthur was cut off completely by Arthur’s new wife. As a result, The Image You Missed is a meticulously hand-made, achingly evocative piece about a son coming to terms about who his father was as a man and as an artist, his elusiveness throughout most of Donal’s life and their common choice of profession the spaces within which Donal crafts a complex and unending conversation.
As prolific as his father had been, the 33-year-old Dublin native is as well. He’s been making films since he was eleven. In 2013, he wrote and directed his first fiction feature called Out of Here about a young man in his 20s returning home to Dublin after traveling the world for a year. He’s made over 50 short films, both fiction and documentary. Donal also writes film criticism and has been published in Cahiers du Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, and Filmmaker. Since Arthur MacCaig’s death, Donal manages the rights to most of his father’s film work and due to his own film’s recent success, he’s been invited to curate and present screenings of Arthur’s work alongside his own and that of many of the seminal Irish filmmakers that were part of his mother’s circle of friends when Donal was growing up in Dublin in the early ’90s. This past year, he curated and presented a film series at the Irish Film Institute called “Northern Ireland: Our Battle of Images,” which emerged out of his research on The Image You Missed, a version of which has also screened at La Cinemathèque Française in Paris. An expanded version will be shown at the Metrograph in Manhattan to accompany the U.S. theatrical release of the film. The Metrograph run commences this Friday. As the film has traveled internationally (having an astonishing 10-week run for its Mexico City theatrical release), Donal also put together a talk where he discussed the process of creating the film and showed scenes from some of the 21 rough-cut versions alongside excerpts from his production notebooks.
He and I met in September of last year when he was a participant (along with filmmakers Cyril Aris and Zita Erffa) on a panel I was asked to moderate called “The Personal Lens” at the Open City Documentary Festival in London. I was struck by Donal’s quiet confidence and thoughtful and eloquent way of expressing his ideas on how to extrapolate enough fragile materials from the past to piece together a vibrant, palimpsestic visual and sonic portrait that consists of deeply personal material while still containing enough narrative heft to sustain a delicate balance between political cogency and emotional intimacy. As he was editing the film over the course of a year, Donal wove in his own audio-visual commentary with Arthur’s film material as he continued to investigate his own relationship to, and points of view about, polemical filmmaking. Addressing his father at one point, Donal says: “Your camera always looked out at other worlds — never your own. I’m piecing together a fiction of who you might have been.” One of the most captivating aspects among many is the film’s soundscape, one that consists of constant interference, soundtracks from other films, static noise, and ghostly voices one atop the other, accompanied by curated musical selections, together creating a vividly orchestral landscape.
Donal is currently in production on his next feature, which has received funding from the Arts Council of Ireland (as this recent film did), another “tangled blend of fiction-doc-essay” that will be filmed off the west coast of Ireland. He spoke to me last October from his apartment in Brooklyn. This is an excerpted portion of a longer conversation with Donal that will appear in my forthcoming book Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 28 Filmmakers releasing this autumn by OR Books, New York.
Cohn: I’d like to start by citing a line towards the end of the film, the beacon that highlights one of the seminal ideas you propose: “Reality isn’t given — you have to take it.” What’s the source for that?
Foreman: That line comes from a piece of dialogue from Maeve, a Northern Irish film from 1981 by Pat Murphy. I use several scenes of dialogue from it in my film. Maeve is a unique experimental feminist film about the North, and Pat is also an old friend of my mother’s whom I’ve met over the years. I had seen it for the first time while I was researching this film and was really blown away by it. The main character is a stand-in for Pat, someone who grew up in Belfast during the conflict and then moved to London to go to art school. She was always alienated from the political culture of the North and in the film she returns home and reconnects with her ex-boyfriend who’s in the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. They have these intense, polemical arguments about memory, history and myth, him coming from a militant nationalist perspective, her from a more critical and intersectional feminist perspective.
It seemed to mirror a lot of the tensions I was exploring in my film, and when I talked to Pat about it, she told me part of her inspiration to make the film was actually seeing Arthur’s film The Patriot Game when it screened in London in the early ’80s. She really didn’t like it; she had a lot of problems with it in the way it presented this didactic master narrative of what the situation was in Northern Ireland. I think part of the problem for her was the limitations of conventional documentary form, which The Patriot Game for all its radical energy, basically adhered to. It didn’t relate to Pat’s lived experience of actually growing up in Belfast in the ’70s, so she set about finding a cinematic form that would actually reflect that — partly as a counter-narrative to The Patriot Game. What she came up with was a collage of personal memories, intellectual debates, stories, songs — it’s a much more multi-faceted, rhizomatic kind of approach.
One of the things I loved about it is encapsulated in the line you quote, “Reality isn’t a given” – there’s this really exciting skepticism in the film towards the idea that our notions of nation or identity, or even resistance, are simply these given parts of who we are that we either accept or reject, rather than something that’s being constantly invented and revised. And this kind of questioning is reflected in the form of the film itself, as opposed to the givens of a typical documentary approach. The problem that Pat encountered when the film was released was: How do you reconcile these kinds of critical questions with the immediate, material needs of a political movement? The film was released around the time of the Hunger Strikes in the early ’80s and some saw it as irresponsible to be tackling these kinds of high-minded questions when the situation on the ground was so urgent and dire. So even her experience with the reception of the film seemed really relevant to the tensions and conflicts I was wrestling with in the making of my own film.
Cohn: It also feels a bit like a hidden homage to your mother who is also called Maeve. Her influence on you and your artistic life is quite profound, very different from your father’s who just wasn’t around when you were growing up.
Foreman: I did enjoy the fact that Pat’s film shared my mother’s name. That seemed apt, especially because throughout the making of the film I was considering this question of influence and generational connections. Where did I come from as a filmmaker? I play a lot with the idea of Arthur’s influence on me — it’s something people always assume when they hear my father is a filmmaker and it used to annoy me because I never believed there was a direct connection there. But for the purposes of the film, of course, it was much more interesting to suggest that there was. Yet at the same time I was aware I could as easily have made an argument that I became a filmmaker because of my mother. She knew so many filmmakers when I was growing up, including some really important ones. It was always something I was aware of. In earlier versions, I tried to delve into some of that more directly.
There’s a photo of Maeve and me when I was very young that’s taken by Pat. Vivienne Dick, an important experimental filmmaker who was part of the No Wave scene in New York in the ’70s is in the photo as well with her own son, alongside Jane Gogan, who was a film producer who was really instrumental in setting up some of the institutions of film culture in Dublin in the ’80s. So there are all these lines of influence I could trace, and while the link between father and son is obviously at the core of the film, at the same time I also wanted to disrupt that and call it into question. That was why I chose to incorporate the home movies of my mother’s uncle Seán as well, as another kind of cinematic ancestor that is part of the maternal line. I think one of the resistances I have to a lot of typical first-person personal documentaries is because I really value the idea that there are a lot of different voices moving through us that we need to try to recognize and respect. It’s not just about how I feel or what I think. There are all these ghosts that are informing who we are and how we see things. I remember what Deleuze and Guattari said about writing A Thousand Plateaus together, that “since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd,” and I felt like that was very much the case with myself and Arthur in this film.
Cohn: There is this lovely feeling of riffling through a scrapbook and part of that is greatly enhanced by the soundscape of the film. I felt totally wrapped in these layers of sound and image inviting me to go deeper into this material. Subliminally, it taps into very deep emotions.
Foreman: The approach to sound was really rooted in my experience of discovering and sorting through Arthur’s archive in his apartment in Paris after he had died. Practically all of his material that I use in the film was found in that apartment, and I always returned to the emotional experience of that event while I was editing. That was the key reference point for what I wanted the film to feel like. In dealing with all the different materials, I didn’t just want to get lost in the immediacy of that particular time and place. There should always be a certain distance, distance in the sense of mediation: you’re always in the archive, buried in this world of images. There’s something kind of deathly and ghostly about that. Obviously the varied and degraded textures of the images help with this, but I also wanted the sound to play a big part. The sense of being wrapped in it, as you said, is a good word to use because I was also interested in a sense of overwhelm — there’s too much to take in, whether it’s hearing different voices layered over each other or different musical sources merged together. In the same way that the film’s premised on a dialogue between images, I tried to think of the sound as something that spoke to and responded to the images, rather than just echoing them.
Cohn: Just as Arthur’s presence is so solid most of the time, your Uncle Séan’s presence is more ephemeral but you tell us that you feel closer to his work. The more we see Arthur’s physical presence — although it’s always so brief — the more elusive he becomes. He has this way of staring into a camera that’s quite inscrutable. You have him tell us that form is there to serve the content and that making something formal didn’t interest him at all. But there’s much that’s formal in his documentary work. Throughout this film, you take mere suggestion or specific statements like those and end up drawing a quite substantial portrait, a direct result of the careful choices you made in the edit.
Foreman: I let myself be guided by fairly instinctive connections in both the research and in the editing. I spent five months in Dublin watching all the footage, taking notes and making selections. I wanted to go back to his unedited footage so that I could have more freedom to make my own interpretations and find things in his material that he hadn’t noticed, or wasn’t interested in. That was all a very intuitive process. What moments jumped out at me? It could be something that connects to an idea I had or reminds me of something else, or I see a connection between it and another image I saw the day before. It’s the way I watch all films, really, and I want the audience to bring their own associations to bear on this film as well. And of course, I was always really curious to spot the man himself, to get a sense of his presence since there wasn’t much of it. He didn’t have a lot of personal material. There weren’t any home movies, journals, or anything really directly reflecting on himself. So if you saw him or heard him it was generally by accident. For the most part, it’s a fluke that any of these images of him survived. He had no interest in himself in that way, which isn’t to say he was totally self-effacing; he definitely seemed invested in a sense of his own importance as a filmmaker, and the importance of his work — but not as an individual.
But throughout this process, I also knew the main questions I wanted to explore through his work. Those emerged pretty naturally. In looking at Arthur’s work, I immediately started to have the argument in my head about my way of approaching things versus his; things I admired or even envied about him as well as things that frustrated and disappointed me. In a way, I was able to cast him as the more militant or engaged side of my own personality. So when in my voiceover I say something like I feel closer to Seán’s work than to Arthur’s, I think it’s important to consider these are sides of myself that I’m working through in the film. The voiceovers, both his and mine, are characters in the film in a way. Arthur’s words are all taken from things he said or wrote, but they’re still edited and constructed by me and they’re distinct from my overarching point of view as the filmmaker. So while I suggest this closer kinship to Seán’s more hedonistic, poetic approach, I also let Arthur’s voiceover critique Seán’s images at the same time, connecting them to Dublin’s ignorance of and dissociation from the crisis in the North during the Troubles.
Cohn: Within the film, you also present this notion of failed activism — your own failed activism. That even though it might begin from a pure place of good intentions, when you’re ensconced in those activist situations, disillusionment can set in rather rapidly. Do you see your dad as an activist filmmaker? Do you see yourself as one?
Foreman: Some of his best films could be said to be pretty important and effective activist films, ones that really helped spread a point of view and an analysis that was marginalized at the time. It was also something that was really embraced and used by the communities they were made for. The Patriot Game in particular became an organizing tool for Irish nationalist groups and their supporters in the UK and the US, and was widely screened in activist contexts. I think that’s a key point to appreciate. But that might be different than saying he was an activist — as far as I know, outside of making his films, he wasn’t directly participating in these struggles outside of his film work.
As far as my own activist involvement, probably since my late teens I’d been really interested in ideas about how art can transform consciousness and change the world. I started from a more romantic, poetic notion of transcendent experiences of art. The more I read and the more I saw the more I became interested in explicitly political and collectivist approaches to filmmaking. When I was in film school, I did my graduate thesis on radical film collectives in the ’60s and ’70s, in particular on the Newsreel collective in New York and the Dziga Vertov Group in Paris. It was an interest that developed in parallel to my own filmmaking. In my films, I was playing around with approaches to improvisation and collaboration and thinking about ways film could be less hierarchical. But the films themselves didn’t really extend themselves past my own personal experiences. There was a certain disconnect in what I was writing and thinking about and what I was making. That was one of the reasons why I made this film, to try and bring those disparate elements together.
I don’t think I could say that I was ever really an activist in the world. I’ve always been on the periphery of those things. I’ve dabbled, helping friends with projects now and then, and going to lots of meetings and protests, but I never really felt totally comfortable in that world or was able to find my place in it. I moved to New York eight years ago just a month before Occupy Wall Street happened. Getting involved in that was a pretty transformative experience for me, even with all its messiness and disappointments. I always feel ambivalent when people talk about the failure of these movements. In many ways, I’m a pessimist about the prospects of these things but I also feel like political projects can have a lot of knock-on effects that can be imperceptible for a long time but can still be important. I always think about Jean-Pierre Gorin saying it was “too early to tell” what impact the Dziga Vertov Group had had. And that was thirty years after the fact!
But as I said, outside of his filmmaking, I don’t think Arthur was an activist. He wasn’t part of these groups or part of any kind of collective action as far as I know. His contribution was making the films. His sacrifices were the same as most independent filmmakers make whether their work is political or not. It’s a life of struggling to get the film made and scrambling for money and putting that before anything else. That’s not very compatible with collective action. I could say that I’m envious of that kind of clarity of purpose and of analysis, that ability to say, “This is what the situation is; this is what’s right about it; this is what’s wrong about it and here’s what you need to know.” With social media, Twitter or Facebook, I very rarely put out political opinions, or any opinions on anything for that matter. Partly because in any way of phrasing things, I’ll always think about what I could have said, or that what I’m saying is too simplistic; maybe I should also mention these other things, and “on the other hand…”, etc. I get tongue-tied in my head thinking of all the nuances of everything.
When it came to Occupy, one of the bleaker assessments I have of the movement isn’t at all fair to the whole thing. But I remember this aspect of it where you have a village of people and then this media circus, all these people roaming with cameras and phones, TV crews, every level of media presence. Then there are people who are there just to give their opinion, up on their soapboxes, holding signs, wearing costumes. The camera people are wandering up to them going, “Hey, what are you angry about? Why are you here?” It’s like a real-life Twitter feed. Let’s hear your few sentences and now let’s hear yours! The same feeling I have about social media is similar to the one I had about Occupy. I didn’t have that sense of confidence and certainty to make declarative statements like that. I did, coincidentally, do a series of 25 short online docs 10 years ago that I titled Declarations. [laughing] But of course they were all totally oblique and ambiguous.
Cohn: In The Image You Missed, one of your overriding concerns is what’s missing (as the title suggests), a formalist statement that acknowledges how images are framed and edited once they’re captured. Does the art of filmmaking here conflate or converge at all with the overall narrative or approach of how you might navigate as an artist in the world, one wanting very much to be engaged in that world?
Foreman: In a certain sense I am a formalist at heart and I’m always thinking about the formal problems of cinema through whatever subject or theme I’m dealing with. On the most fundamental level for this film that meant thinking about the frame and the cut, about what gets framed and what gets cut out. These are formal questions of inclusion and exclusion. One of the things I really enjoyed about making this film is that the style of it allowed me to really reflect on these things all the time, particularly with the editing, to really think about what happens when you put two images together and all of the different kinds of thoughts, ideas and connections that can come out of that. There are very few cuts in the film that are continuous in the sense of having any temporal or spatial continuity. And when you don’t have those kinds of mundane obligations that most films are weighed down by, there’s a whole universe of emotional, conceptual, rhythmic and graphic connections between images that you’re free to play around with. In the few moments where there is continuity editing in the film it’s totally fictionalized.
For example, there’s the sequence where you see Art in the editing room with his editor and they’re playing back footage. The voiceover from that sequence is taken from a scene from a screenplay he wrote that he could never get funding to make. The protagonist is a thinly fictionalized version of him, an Irish-American journalist who has a love affair with a Basque revolutionary, a kind of romantic thriller. Apparently, Sandrine Bonnaire was attached to play the Basque revolutionary and William Hurt was interested in playing Art! Anyway, I had these cutaway shots from the TV interview Art did that you see earlier in the film. I used those cutaways and put them together with this scene from the script. Then I had them watching footage they weren’t actually watching, a 16mm outtake from one of his films. This was footage of a gig in Belfast and there’s a reel where the cameraman is presumably supposed to be getting general shots of the crowd, but he ends up filming this one woman’s face for several minutes. Whatever cutaways they might have needed for that scene, they certainly didn’t need three minutes of one person’s face. The cameraperson, who wouldn’t have been Art, clearly just wanted to film her because he was fascinated. It’s exactly what that scene is about from his script, this journalist who’s fascinated by this Basque militant. It beautifully fuses together all these layers of political, romantic and sexual elements.
Cohn: It must have been quite difficult to accomplish this method of overlaying dialogues, whether scripted or not, all of these concurrent discussions about the truth of documentary and the use of fiction to perhaps make it more authentic, capturing reality and how that reality is interpreted and framed. It sounds like you had lots of time treading in this big pot of conceptual soup.
Foreman: It was nightmarishly difficult. That’s why it took two years to process all this, months of pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to put it together. Some sequences came quite easily. I would build a sequence around a certain idea, sometimes as simple as “this image reminds me of this” or “I would like to talk about this problem.” But the film went through so many different versions as I tried to find the right kind of structure and flow. In making a non-linear narrative like this each sequence could connect to another in a hundred different combinations. It would have been much easier, perhaps, to exhibit it as an art installation, just throw everything up on a wall so a spectator could make associations for him- or herself. To find that inner thread to hold it all together was really tricky. It does connect to this idea you’re talking about, that sense of fiction within documentary images. It’s something to do with this kind of desire. It’s something I felt about the footage he shot with the IRA as well. Those shots feel very theatrical, almost like a collective hallucination. It is literally staged for the camera. He’s made an appointment to meet up with this masked IRA brigade. They’re putting on a show for the camera, patrolling around with their guns. You can see this push and pull between the IRA’s political motives to show their strength and confidence to international media, but also their desire to simply show off, to play at being soldiers for the camera. Arthur and his crew’s attraction to that, again for reasons that are both rational and more libidinal, is driven by political concerns but also the excitement of being in proximity to this. This all feeds back into these formal problems. What do you pay attention to, what kind of story are you going to tell with those images, and why?
Cohn: And what about your own shifting sands in terms of homeland? You’re living in the US and the tone and timbre of what’s happening is very strange at this moment, maybe something you wouldn’t have envisioned when you moved to New York eight years ago. I mean I’m sure the move was around perhaps more practical reasons of work and opportunity but are these things you think about given the current political climate? In the film you speak briefly about this reverse crossing — your dad went from the US to Europe and is buried in Ireland and you moved from Ireland to America, as did your Uncle Séan.
Foreman: I’ve been able to develop more of a sense of being from somewhere by not being there. I don’t think that that’s untypical for a lot of emigrants, the fact that your nationality starts to feel like a more important part of you when you’re away from home. I feel like I’ve been able to reflect a lot more on questions of Irishness that would have been totally uninteresting to me ten years ago. But I still feel very much allergic to any notion of nationalism. What I am fascinated by is landscape and geography and how that ties into political histories. I really like the work of essay filmmakers like Patrick Keiller who explore that a lot, the notion of psycho-geography and how we’re navigating this whole history under our feet that’s led to the streets and buildings we navigate today. And it’s pretty much always a violent history. Every city is a traumatized landscape in that sense. It’s sort of, in a sense, about creating a counter-genealogy in a way by inserting myself into Irish history and the history of Irish images. What I’ve also been thinking about a lot living in Brooklyn is how the Internet affects the architecture and design of the city. I have a feeling it’s filtering through everything. The way buildings are being built, the way shops are designed, the way graphic design functions. There are all these aspects of social media and the Internet that are now setting up how the material world looks and how we interact with it.
Before I made this film, I spent a couple of years on a script about anarchist activists in New York. I’d like to pursue that but it was on the back burner while I was making The Image You Missed. It’s dealing with some of the same questions of the personal and the political through a particular character whose interpersonal behavior is quite at odds with his political beliefs and his activism. This Irish project for which I just completed a huge funding application is set in the west of Ireland dealing with Irish history and the challenges of trying to film history or resurrect the past and the various points of view on that, from the notion of the past as something that can be conjured and resurrected through cinema to the idea that it’s completely unknowable and inaccessible and all we can do is project our own problems onto it — meaning having a conversation with ourselves, basically. It’ll be centered more in fiction but with essay and documentary elements. I really want to work with actors again. I’ve really missed working with other people in that collaborative way.