Sunday 24 September 2017

David Robbins: Like seeing a ghost -- the human face of the crash

Aftershock: Ghost Towns RTE 1
Aftershock: Where to Now? RTE 1
Aftershock: The Frontline RTE 1
Phoebe Prince: Bullied to Death TV3

Remember a few years ago when we used to wonder what the legacy of the boom years would be? The Bertie Bowl? Or the Spire? The Calatrava bridge in Dublin? Or just a lot of shiny Travertine marble in people's kitchens?

Thanks to the first in RTE's Aftershock series of programmes, now we know. Ghost Land (RTE1) showed us that it will be 300 or so grandiose, empty, unfinished estates at the edge of towns and villages all over Ireland.

Many were launched to great fanfare, and people queued up to pay top-of-the-market prices. But when the bubble burst, the developers went wallop, and the building stopped.

The estates cannot be "taken in charge" by the local council because they're not finished, and the few people who live in them are left rattling around huge building sites quite literally in the dark.

The documentary, made in-house at Montrose and produced by Brian Hayes, was an example of the national broadcaster at its best.

It showed us real people, and told us their stories in a plain, unfussy way. It was creatively shot, but didn't go in for that showy Four-Courts-from-every-angle style of camera work we get so often in RTE news programming.

We saw the unfinished roads, the street lights that didn't work, the sewers that backed up, the scaffolding that invited the kids to climb them.

There was no intervention by the filmmakers, no one to tell us how outraged we should be about this. The home- owners spoke for themselves, and the message was all the more powerful for that.

The individual stories were moving: the young Dublin electrician and his wife who bought in Belmayne in Balgriffin, Co Dublin, at the peak and who are now reduced to one income and are saddled with a house they can't sell and a mortgage they are struggling to pay.

The film also showed the other side of the transaction, following the rise and fall of a quarry-owner who succumbed to the national mania for house building.

His business went bust, his son died in an accident at his quarry and he is now left to drive around his various premises as they stand empty and echoing.

Give us the chance, he said, and we'll get things going again.

But he'd had his chance, I thought, and we never want to get things going the same way they were before.

Ghost Town told us the story of the boom and bust more effectively than a hundred shouting matches on The Frontline or a week of "Isn't it true, Minister" questions from Miriam O'Callaghan on Prime Time.

There were no politicians interviewed, no experts, no academics who could gloss over these human stories by talking about policy, or history or any other big ideas that diminish the plight of little people.

There was, however, telling use made of sound clips of Cowen, Donie Cassidy and others assuring us that there was never a better time to buy property. The point was well made -- and made subtly.

The unemployed electrician in Balgriffin refused to indulge in self-pity. "It's our own fault," he said.

But the achievement of Ghost Land was to show that, yes it was his fault, but not only his by a long way.

The second programme in the Aftershock series was, regrettably, not of the same calibre. After Shock: Where to Now? (RTE1), made by Animo Productions, was a talking-heads programme that simply was not suited to television.

Four commentators -- Richard Curran, Dan O'Brien, Matt Cooper and Justine McCarthy -- put forward various remedies for our political and economic crisis.

There was nothing wrong with their suggestions -- that the "smart economy" is not a silver bullet solution; that we need a list system for elections; that young people need help with their mortgages; that we need a new constitution -- it was just that these were basically filmed newspaper columns.

In order to make things visually interesting, we had footage of the speakers walking down streets, crossing roads, at GAA matches, gazing over railings, going up and down in lifts, having coffee in the offices of Google, walking around Kilmainham Gaol.

Dizzy from the camera work, one was left with the impression that it didn't amount to much, but at least the four of them got a bit of exercise.

The discussion on The Frontline (RTE1) that followed this did not illuminate things much further. The show did not benefit from presenter Pat Kenny's relentless drive to reduce everything to a one-sentence sound-bite. You can almost sense his tension when someone tries to make a complicated point.

His usual tactic is to paraphrase what they've said in a reductive way. But sometimes things are complicated, and looming over someone making speed-it-up movements isn't going to change that.

Nonetheless, the Aftershock series is a laudable effort by RTE to deal with the national situation. It's heartening to see what they can do when they galvanise their resources creatively.

The problems of getting relevant footage for After Shock: Where to Now? were as nothing compared to the plight of Glen Gorman when he set out to make a documentary on Phoebe Prince, the teenager who committed suicide after being bullied at her Boston high school.

There were no interviews with anyone connected with the school, town or family. Presumably, they wouldn't talk. Yet Phoebe Prince: Bullied to Death (TV3) was watchable because the story it had to tell was so gripping.

Relying on interviews with a variety of Irish and American journalists, spliced together with US news footage and panning shots of the Clare village where Phoebe grew up, Bullied to Death told the story of the deliberate physical, emotional and psychological destruction of a vulnerable teenager by her peers.

What Bullied to Death and Ghost Town showed was that stories about real people are a much more powerful way of dealing with issues than mere talk.

Irish Independent

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