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The Personal and the Political: An Interview with Donal Foreman

The director of “The Image You Missed” discusses his father’s films, Irish identity, and the catharsis and exorcism of filming.
MUBI is exclusively showing Donal Foreman's The Image You Missed (2018) as part of a collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their Art of the Real showcase of innovative voices in nonfiction and hybrid filmmaking. The film is playing May 9 - June 8, 2018 in the United States.
The Image You Missed
As I sat waiting for Donal Foreman to arrive at the headquarters of IndieLisboa, Lisbon’s International Independent Film Festival, I kept pondering over a brief, truncated voiceover a few minutes into his movie, The Image You Missed. “Each film is a mission impossible, but this one here, it was the most…” Watching his latest work screen in IndieLisboa’s international competition, the penultimate stop in a festival tour that brought Foreman to Rotterdam, Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, Buenos Aires’s BAFICI (where he nabbed the Grand Prize in the Avant Garde & Genre Competition) before landing a slot in the Art of the Real at New York's Lincoln Center, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the 31-year-old would use the same words to describe his own documentary essay. 
The Image You Missed is an achingly moving film between a son, Foreman, and his estranged father, Arthur “Art” MacCaig, the late Irish-American director who spent years filming Ireland’s Troubles and crystallized the conflict in the resolutely partisan The Patriot Game (1979). Exhuming largely unseen footage from MacCaig’s decades-large archive, Foreman pierces together the image a father he seldom knew, and conjures up a deeply personal feature that weaves together a fragile parent-child relationship with a portrait of a country the two filmed and experienced—in profoundly different ways.   
Executive produced by Nicole Brenez and Philippe Grandieux as part of their series “It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve,” dedicated to directors who’ve partaken in struggles for liberation, The Image You Missed is, at once, an archival quest to resuscitate a man’s oeuvre, an attempt to come to terms with one’s national identity, and a struggle to reckon with the legacy a father left behind.  

NOTEBOOK: Tell me about that early voiceover. “Each film is a mission impossible, but this one here was…” 
DONAL FOREMAN: Oh, it’s from an interview my father gave in French a few years before he passed away. It’s something he’d say a lot when he’d refer to his own work, and I think there is a certain self-dramatizing aspect to it. I was thinking of it as a sort of opening note to give a sense of how he thought of and described his own films, but then—like most things in The Image You Missed—it ended up reflecting on the film itself. And making this definitely felt like a mission impossible.
NOTEBOOK: How much of MacCaig’s own footage did you have at your disposal?  
FOREMAN: There was a huge amount of stuff—I guess 100 hours? I never really counted. I spent around six months in Dublin, where most of the footage was stored at the Irish Film Archive. I watched everything and made some preliminary selections. I started to write and edit as I was going through the footage, and then spent a year and a half of just editing, locked in my room.
NOTEBOOK: Part of the challenge, I suspect, consisted in grappling with the different aesthetic approaches of the several cinematographers who worked with your father.  
FOREMAN: One decision I made early on is that I wanted to go back to the raw footage of his films as much as possible. I think I left none of his original edits in The Image You Missed. I wanted to take the material he used and interpret it my own way to discover new things within it. And that allows you to really engage with what that person filmed at that moment, and it’s a strange experience, like time traveling. At times it feels like a kind of backseat driving, you’re just like: “oh no, hold on that a little longer,” but of course, you can’t. And it’s interesting to see how his films differed depending on who was filming, and the sort of different aesthetic approach that they would take.  
NOTEBOOK: Early on in The Image You Missed you describe your father as “an American living in Paris making films about Ireland.” I wonder whether you think the description could possibly apply to your own self. 
FOREMAN: I’m an Irishman based in New York, and made two feature films about Ireland since I moved there [Out of Here, 2013, and The Image You Missed, 2018]. I think there was a more complex dynamic at stake with my father. He moved from America to France to make films about Ireland, and I don’t have this triangulation of places, as it were. But I know that moving away from home, from Ireland, made me reflect more on the country and my own conception of Irishness in a way that perhaps didn’t interest me as much when I lived there.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think your idea of Irishness may have changed since you started filming The Image You Missed?  
FOREMAN: That’s a hard question. I guess in the film, when I talk about how I didn’t share the same sense of Irishness as my father, what I was referring to was how I grew up compared to him. I grew up quite disconnected and disinterested from traditional Irish culture, and all the cultural references that were important to me were mostly international and American. I just wasn’t that interested in those things.  
NOTEBOOK: What changed?
FOREMAN: It’s a process that started when I was a teenager—I guess I just slowly got more into politics and the history of radical and socialist politics in Ireland. Some of those things I discovered in my father’s films, in The Patriot Game in particular. The first time I watched it was after he died, and there’s a scene in it which I used in my film, where a representative of Sinn Féin talks about their vision for a united Ireland and goes into a lot of detail about how they were going to establish a kind of direct democracy. It was all very new to me: up until then, my sense had been that their discourse was just all about uniting Ireland - not necessarily crafting a particular vision of how the country should be organized.  
NOTEBOOK: Watching your film I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was your interest in Ireland that brought you back to your father, or whether it was your father who brought you closer to Ireland. A sort of chicken and egg scenario, if you like.
FOREMAN: Yeah, it surely feels like that. I definitely think of the film as a way to explore my father through the way he looked at the conflict in Northern Ireland, and at the same time to explore the conflict through the way he looked at it.  It was the synthesis of those two urges that made me want to make the film.  
NOTEBOOK: There’s another great quote that struck me, when you hint at the fact that you two had markedly different geographical identities even within your own country. You say: “for you, Ireland has always been Belfast, for me it’s Dublin.” Has that geographical divide blurred through time?  
FOREMAN: Yeah, in a way. I definitely spent more time in Belfast and became more familiar with its geography and history just by virtue of making the film. But even so, that doesn’t really change where you came from, and how you grew up. I grew up with a Dublin-centric vision of Ireland, and that’s something I tried to explore in the film by including some of the Super 8 footage that my mother’s uncle Seán Brennan filmed in the late 1960s in Dublin. There’s something about what and how he films that I find very striking. It was all shot around the birth of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and it’s a portrait of very middle class world that feels a little enclosed, and—at least in the way he described it—focused on recreation and pleasures, and immediate sensual experiences. I wouldn’t say that’s what Dublin is all about, obviously, but the disconnect from the political urgency of the North and those middle class comforts do ring true.
NOTEBOOK: Is that why at some point you ask why you’re possibly closer to Brennan’s world than your father’s own rendition of Ireland? It’s a question that you leave deliberately open.  
FOREMAN: I don’t think I even fully agree with what I imply in the film at that particular moment, to be honest. I approached The Image You Missed thinking of it as a film with two characters—myself and my father—and I wanted to leave room for people to criticize my stances as well as my father’s. I didn’t want the film to protect either of us. I do feel a genuine affinity and kinship with Seán's material, and I really think that a lot of what he films is very beautiful, and movingly so. But I also have my father’s voiceover play over that footage, and so as Seán's camera focusses on those bucolic, idyllic middle class scenarios, my father talks about how Dublin has always preferred to ignore the Troubles. So to an extent, by aligning myself with Seán's images, I ended up formulating a kind of self-critique in there.  
NOTEBOOK: There’s also a certain attack on pessimism at stake. I’m thinking of that segment when you bring the camera to Zuccotti park to shoot during Occupy Wall Street, and you state you began filming in the wake of the failure of the images your father had championed and believed in. I felt a phoenix-like quality in the statement—a feeling of building from the ashes, so to speak.  
FOREMAN: Oh, I like the image! [laughs] I’m glad you asked about that because that part of the film is one that I feel perhaps the most uneasy about. I’m weary of falling into a certain kind of cliché like, everything was possible then and nothing is possible now, and I don’t want my statements to be taken as a kind of surrender, there’s nothing to be done and no way forward. I do think when my father started to make movies there was this sense of international change, a feeling that something was really going to shift. And now things look a lot more confused and dispersed. But I didn’t want to be prescriptive or definitive, I was simply trying to think through my own confusion as I was making the film —and to present my work in a way that could open up as many possibilities for the viewer to problematize what they were watching and how they were thinking about it.
NOTEBOOK: And there’s also a lot of delusion. You chose a poem by Seamus Heaney, The Disappearing Island, to introduce your film and the different chapters you structured it in. The last line struck me as particularly eye-opening: “All I believe I saw there was a vision.”  
FOREMAN: I liked the idea of using Heaney because I thought he was an interesting interception between North and South of Ireland, between art and politics. He played out a lot of the tensions that the film was, in its own way, gravitating around. As for delusions, the thought definitely became a preoccupation for me as I was making the film. I was thinking about how images are used in political struggles, and how identities and ideologies are built and reinforced through them. In Northern Ireland the strategy is quite explicit: images are employed and weaponized to remind you who you are, who they are, and what we’re about. And I guess that links back to one of your first questions, my relationship with Irishness. I still have an ambivalent relationship with that political history. On the one hand I would identify as Irish, I feel that’s where I come from and there are elements of Irish culture that I feel at home in, and I also feel connected to some aspects of Irish revolutionary traditions. But at the same time I’m very allergic to nationalism and any sort of flag-weaving ethnic tribalism. It’s something that I find endlessly fascinating and endlessly problematic in Irish history, this interweaving of signifiers of nation, culture and identity with a politics that is essentially about emancipation, autonomy and equality.  
NOTEBOOK: As The Image You Missed came to an end, I couldn’t help but wonder whether shooting your film helped bringing your relationship with your father to a catharsis of sorts—as though the image of your father that you were able to resuscitate on the screen allowed you to exorcise his ghost, in a way.  
FOREMAN: I had a line that used to end the film but I ended up cutting it out. It said: “film is the art of conjuring ghosts, not getting rid of them.” I used to think filming could act like a kind of catharsis and exorcism: you film to try to get something off your chest so that you can get rid of it. But I never found it to play out that way, because by making a film you’re essentially creating a ghost that you’re going to live and travel around the world with, and talk to people about. Essentially, you’re making something that will live on—you’re not getting rid of anything. So my first answer to that question is actually no, it wasn’t really cathartic at all. That said, I already felt a certain peace in my relationship with my father before I started making the film. I wasn’t in a turmoil trying to work it out, so to speak. But I did feel like there was some unfinished business to attend to, and I wanted to know more about him and his world, and looking back I feel as though I did build which now has its own existence in the world, and there’s something really satisfying about that. But it’s always an unfinished process. I was thinking a lot about the idea of reconciliation when I was making the film. Reconciliation between me and my father, between North and South, between his time and mine. I thought a lot about what it is like to place one image next to another. There’s always something missing in between, a weirdly primal desire of wanting to make a whole out of what is not. It’s almost like the idea of going back to the womb—a certain desire that can never truly be fulfilled. 

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