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The triumph of capitalism takes many forms, and as Risteard O Domhnaill’s new documentary demonstrates, the ruination of traditional coastal communities is one of them. His story is told by examining three villages bordering the north Atlantic, in Ireland, Newfoundland and Norway.
Each place – Arranmore, Renews, and Lofoten – has a spokesman. All are lifelong fishermen and big personalities, articulate, level-headed and quietly enraged by the despoliation of their home places. This, as O Domhnaill shows, has happened because of pursuit of massive profits, in tandem with bloodless trade agreements and decisions by politicians far away who know nothing of the coastal life and apparently care less.
It may not sound thrilling, certainly not very sexy, but this is a compelling, calm and beautifully-shot documentary. The twin themes of over-fishing and fossil fuel undersea extraction are explored from the bottom up, and lead to major questions about what is of value in human existence. Ocean vistas, rippling waves and soaring whales, alternate with shots of the harshly glorious scenery of Arranmore or the coastal mountains in Norway. A long shot shows hundreds of code, hung out to “dry” in salt on huge mesh stands; a close-up underwater zooms in on dozens of dancing golden crab on a rich green sea floor.
O Domhnaill is also fortunate, or wise, in his dramatise personae: Jerry Early from Arranmore (Arainn Mhor), Charlie Kane of Renews, and Bjornar Nicolaiesen from the Lotofen islands in the far north of Norway. Each tells a tale of a traditional way of life and livelihood overridden by bureaucrats, distant politicians, and the demands of market forces. The film looks at the thorny issue of fishing quotas, the numbers allocated to different countries in the EU, and then the encroachments of an increasingly desperate oil industry on the ocean environment.
“They are mad, taking oil from the sea for energy,” declares Nicolaiesen, something of a performer, with hypnotic light blue eyes and a confident manner. “Fish is food, and that’s the energy people need.” In another sequence, he talks fondly of the satisfaction he feels, homeward bound after a good day’s fishing, his hold full of cod that he knows will find a ready market as people eat and enjoy it to live. But such simple joys are in the ha’penny place compared with the riches oil brings – Norway famously has a gross domestic product (GDP) of which oil and gas comprises around 22%, and two-thirds, 67%, of all exports.
Norway is not a member of the European Union. In 1994, when a referendum was held on joining, the people decided they should avoid the raft of agreements and directives over their industries which membership would bring. And the Norwegian government is one of the some-time heroes in this story. The former premier of Newfoundland, Danny Williams, who stood up to oil exploration, is another, as is Irish industry minister in the 1970s, Justin Keating.
But Keating’s good work in devising a Norwegian-style partnership for oil exploration in Irish waters was unpicked by his predecessors, and finally thrown away by Fianna Fail. Ray Burke, who ended up in jail for his tax affairs, is singled out as a particular villain.
Ireland’s accession to the EU and the disastrous low fishing quotas that brought, is described. Ireland has 25% of the fishing grounds in the EU within her national waters, yet was allowed only 4% of the catch. Time and time again the filmmakers return to the sight of vast Spanish, French and Dutch fishing vessels, taking massive hauls from western waters, as well as those around the Porcupine Bank off the south-east.
A fisherman called Martin Eanna is resigned, though his income has been decimated. Irish fishing boats have to retire early in the seasons as soon as their quota is filled, while the huge trawlers under the flags of bigger EU states keep on dragging in thousands upon thousands of fish from the over-harvested waters. In a very Irish comment, Martin Eanna tells the camera: “Well we just have to put up with it for the moment – until Ireland gets some politician who’s brave enough to stand up to them.” Then he laughs, self-consciously, at the absurdity of such a thought.
Atlantic, which started as an ambitious crowd funding project, ended up with support from Bord Scannán na hÉireann (The Irish Film Board), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation and Nordnorsk Filmsenter (the North Norwegian Film Centre). It won the best documentary award at this year’s Audi Dublin Film Festival in February, and is attracting much international attention. O Domhnaill came to the subject through making his previous documentary, The Pipe, about the Corrib pipeline Shell has built in County Mayo. The Shell to Sea movement protested long and hard against this construction, which often flared into violence and led to the jailing of a number of people, including retired school principal Maura Harrington.
O Domhnaill has said: “The [Corrib] story raised more questions for me than it answered, leading me to look at the politics of our oil and gas prospects off the Irish coast. What has since unfolded is an incredible story of resource mismanagement, and the capture of our offshore riches — oil, gas and fishing — whilst our gaze is elsewhere.” He broadened his remit to the parallel disasters which were affecting people in other Atlantic regions.