Tuesday 24 October 2017

This farming life really grows on you

The Home place: the irish family farm RTé 1 BEHIND BARS TV3 sTRANGEWAYS UTV

Given that Sean O'Mordha's two-part film, The Home Place: The Irish Family Farm, was the only documentary of substance to be screened by RTÉ in four months, the national broadcaster made it the centrepiece of a week that focused on rural matters.

'Heartland' was the title of this themed exercise, though you couldn't help feeling that RTÉ's own heart wasn't really in it -- certainly the result came across as a somewhat desultory attempt to lend O'Mordha's film some spurious back-up.

Thus, The Frontline had Pat Kenny inconclusively asking whether it was "time to pull the plug on handouts to rural Ireland", while later in the week George Lee's The Business was being more upbeat in looking at the opportunities available to be taken by the agricultural sector.

More interestingly, the 'Heartland' week began with an engaging final episode of Ear to the Ground, in which its three presenters evoked their own relationships to the Irish landscape: Helen Carroll, born in Kilkenny city and educated in Dublin, outlining her reasons for settling in rural Kilkenny; Daragh McCullough bringing us around the family farm in Gormanston; and Dubliner Ella McSweeney telling us of her love for Co Mayo.

Meanwhile, in What's Eating Ireland? Philip Boucher-Hayes was a man on a finger-wagging mission, telling us that we've "never been more disconnected" from the production and preparation of the food we eat and that the price we're paying for our unconcern is "the nation's failing health".

His polemic was full of arresting facts -- over 50pc of the fish we eat is frozen and breaded; our potato consumption has halved in the last 10 years; 90pc of the chicken sold in our restaurants comes from abroad -- and he delivered them with zealous gusto, while also relishing his indictment of how supermarkets operate, including how they require small agricultural producers to foot the bill for their much-publicised discount offers.

This was stirring stuff and so, even if more ambiguously, was O'Mordha's film, a robust celebration of the family farm in which the distinct strains of an elegy could also be detected, though the musical score he'd chosen -- Ballykissangel-type frolics from the early 20th-century composer Hamilton Harty -- threatened to overwhelm proceedings.

Mixed into the soundtrack at an inordinately high volume, it was mostly too declamatory for what we were seeing, as if Elmer Bernstein had been let loose on a Jean Renoir reverie about life in the country.

This was a pity because the film was full of beautiful images that needed no intrusive accompaniment, while the farming families to whom we were introduced were similarly bracing in their unaffected eloquence about the vocations that most of them had inherited -- the filmmaker's affection for them also being obvious.

Arresting, too, were the contributions from geographers William Smyth and William Nolan, sociologist Ethel Crowley and Teagasc researcher David Meredith, all of whom offered a wider social context to the particular experiences and observations of the families, though I wondered if the film was attempting to encompass too much, and I also wondered about its frequent recourse to charts and graphs, which seemed to belong to a more drily factual documentary than to the lovingly evoked human stories that were the film's essence.

Perhaps I'm nitpicking but, if so, it's because this filmmaker demands to be judged by the highest of standards.

By contrast, I hadn't expected much, if anything, from Behind Bars, simply because it was commissioned by TV3, which is not normally noted for documentaries of quality.

But Niamh Sammon's film, the first in a series about our prison system, had both a satisfying structure and real punch, with presenter Donal MacIntyre heroically content merely to provide the links in a story that didn't need any grandstanding.

Moving easily from present to past and back again, this opening instalment took in the grim conditions to be found in today's Mountjoy ("a kip," according to former prison officer Larry Buggy), the cruel and unusual punishment meted out to 18th-century offenders, the barbarities of public executions, the history of Kilmainham jail, the 1940s hunger strike of republican prisoner Sean McCaughey and the 1990 abolition of capital punishment.

Such to-ing and fro-ing could have made for an incoherent mess, but a pacy narrative and expert editing ensured that the film segued confidently from one to the other.

This week, as it happened, also saw the first instalment of Strangeways (UTV), a three-part series about Manchester's notorious prison.

There we met hardened killer Michael, who was "doing as much drugs as I can get my hands on. I wouldn't last 10 years in here straight-headed -- I'd top myself".

We also met serial self-harmer Wesley who, after slashing his wrists, pithily summed up his situation: "I've no qualifications, no family, no friends. This is my life until I die."

The film, admirably unsesational in tone, looked on Michael, Wesley and their fellow inmates with a degree of wary empathy, which seemed like the most sensible approach.

jboland@independent.ie

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