Name your favorite film about the Irish famine? You can't think of one, can you?
Why? If the Great Hunger is the year one that the English colonial adventure in Ireland travels toward and from, isn't it remarkable that barely a frame of celluloid has ever been devoted to it?
Novels have been written, art has been produced, poems have been published and countless academic studies fill college libraries, but cinema - the most democratic medium of them all - has barely touched it.
Again, why? What explains this strange silence? Is there some sort of involuntary reflex at work, perhaps of the kind that makes you instantly close a too-hot oven door a moment after you've opened it?
Do we fear what we will find? Will it radicalize us? Will it break us? Or is there something else at work, something harder to quantify, some inherited shame perhaps, or perhaps survivors guilt?
The famine in Ireland was the greatest social calamity in Europe in the 19th century, it had the impact of a low level nuclear strike. But the medium of film has only offered the most signature of Irish responses to the legacy of trauma, silence.
Until now. Step forward film director Lance Daly and his groundbreaking feature Black 47. Groundbreaking is the exact word, the Dublin based director has taken an axe to the frozen sea of the Great Hunger and however you come down on the final result, that act is a blessing in itself.
“The first question I grappled with is how do find a way to tell such a horrific story?” he tells the Voice. “And how do you do it in a way that an audience will respond to it?”
Producers in Hollywood have been leery of the subject for generations, but Daly stuck to his guns and to date the critical and commercial response has been remarkable, he says.
“The Irish audience response has been really gratifying because I think people were bit nervous about this, because there's not really a precedent for this film or what it's dealing with, a genre film that takes a respectful and sincere approach to history. So I think again I'm delighted with the final result.”
In discussion Daly cites the importance of football in permitting him to celebrate his Irishness, minus other historical associations that used to make him uncomfortable. It defused the associations, over time it helped him approach more difficult themes.
“When I was growing up the Troubles were still ongoing and so the World Cup in 1990 was the first time that the generation that I was a member found a way to express our Irishness in a way that didn't seem like it was support for nationalistic violence in the north.”
You could cheer for the Irish football team and cheer for Ireland, he says. “And this is definitely a thing where people are now watching the film,” he says. “This is a history that they kind of want to hear more about and they want to talk about and have an opinion on.”
At times Daly felt he had taken on a subject that was just too complex and too dangerous. “At times making the film I felt like we made a terrible mistake. I thought there was a good reason why director John Ford backed off on this subject. I mean because there are so many ways it can go wrong and only one way can go right.”
For Daly the process felt like walking a tight rope between being too grim or too dryly historical, or for any number of the usual reasons a film doesn't work. It was a major balancing act, he says.
They simply couldn't include the sheer scale of the disaster, or the island wide cruelty of British political policy in Ireland at the time, he says. “Irish people had to work on a welfare program even as they were starving and dying on the side of the roads that they were building,” he says. “Obviously there are a lot of female perspectives to be explored too, but this is a film telling a story about soldiers so it's hard to do that.”
Daly also gave thought to the Atlantic crossing on the notorious coffin ships (which he's thinking about very seriously now as a separate film) but he thinks the same dilemma – how much can you cram into one film - will still exist.
“I think it'll be equally hard for another Irish director to make a story set in the Great Hunger time because of the resources that are required, but hopefully the door is open now in terms of people just talking about it more and I think that's why it's just a good response in Ireland because everybody has something to say about it.”
In the film James Frencheville, a 27 year old Australian actor, plays Feeney, a Connemara born Irish speaker who has deserted from the British army. Returning to Ireland after many years abroad he discovers his mother and brother are both dead, their family home is destroyed and the landlords have pocketed the inheritance he was due.
All that probably accounts for Feeney's thousand yard stare. “The eyes are dynamic,” he explains. “If you think it, the camera sees it. I spent more time preparing this character than I ever have, which is why it was such a gratifying experience. As a non Irishman it was important to me to get right, at the risk of making people angry they didn't cast an Irish actor to play a part like this.”
Making Black 47 was certainly no cakewalk, Daly adds. “The amount of barriers and obstacles that were put in the way of making this film and how difficult it was it to film made us feel like like it was a bit cursed.It felt like it was definitely harder to make than usual and people were less responsive and more sort of doubtful about what was it.”
What kind of resistance did he encounter? “It was just a general skepticism about the film and how it could it work, whether we were doing the right thing with the history.”
That uncertainty, that Daly had simply made a kind of western revenge drama set in famine times, didn't stop with the final cut. “Even critically it felt like at the start there was this reluctance to embrace us,” Daly says. “But now that it's come out there is this huge sort of unconditional positivity to what it is that is changing the narrative, and here is the film we're all waiting for.”
As for Irish America, Daly has a message. “Every time you make a film people mention there are 40 million Irish Americans. I just think if people in America don't come to this this particular film then I think that the whole diaspora thing is bullshit. You know this is an origin story for the Irish in America. And if we can't connect in some way with us, I think it just disproves the whole Irish American thing people keep talking about. I'm really hoping instead that it will reveal itself in all its glory.”
Daly says he made a film that set out to take a very unapologetically Irish perspective. Along the way movie people tried to make it more commercial, add a love interest, they made suggestions that he add more hope or a happy ending.
And Daly said no, this is a specific story and he just wanted to keep it true to the subject matter,“So hopefully hopefully that's why the audience responds to. It just feels so quintessentially true true to an Irish experience. I'm hoping that that it still resonates to an Irish audience that has been away for a year or ten years or a generation or three generations.”
"Black 47" opens Friday, September 28.