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Irish Director Luke McManus Makes a Doc of Dublin and Life on Its North Circular Road

Luke McManus
Photo: Killian Broderick

Film: “North Circular”
Director: Luke McManus
Opens: Friday, July 28th, 2023
At: DCTV Firehouse
Where: 87 Lafayette St.

Having been to Dublin before, my image of the city is filtered through one idealized version or another. I’ve met buskers on Grafton Street and seen hipster haunts in Temple Bar. I’ve traipsed over to the scene north of the Liffey, and hit the bars there. But I’ve never found myself on the North Circular, meeting the characters and musicians who populate this much talked-about new hybrid doc. “North Circular” makes its New York debut this Friday at DCTV Firehouse with director Luke McManus in attendance.

This film maker has not only traveled the length of Dublin’s North Circular Road — exploring the area’s history, music and streetscapes — he is now bringing his documentary musical to the States, presenting it by making its NYC theatrical premiere.

Told in a black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, the film evokes many narratives from the history of the city and nation to its musical styles and mores. Topics range from colonialism to mental health to the struggle for women’s liberation, all while considering urgent issues of the day. The film addresses the battle to save the center of Dublin’s recent folk revival — the legendary Cobblestone Pub — and looks into its destruction at the hands of cynical property developers. The movie also includes musical performances from artists local to the North Circular, including John Francis Flynn, Séan Ó Túama, Eoghan O’Ceannabháin, Ian Lynch and Gemma Dunleavy.

Numerous themes, characters, and issues bubble up from underneath the surface of this windy thoroughfare when you walk it. It’s couched in darkness at some times while exuding a celebratory energy at others. This single road encompasses so much diversity of human experience. While McManus’s film only offers a glimpse of local life through a couple of moments, audiences also get a taste of the complex history of this multifaceted place. And It’s actually traveling the world now while being linked to some of the Emerald Isle’s most beloved and infamous places.

Music is used as a specific storytelling technique both aesthetically and editorially. The result combines the musical and the factual in a way that makes this neither a simple music documentary nor a road movie. What emerges is a musical-as-documentary. According to the information provided, “This narrative form reflects the tradition of musical storytelling and narrative in Dublin that began with Peader Kearney and Dominic Behan and continues with Lankum, John Francis Flynn, and Gemma Dunleavy today.

“The use of black & white imagery reiterates the connection between the values and culture of the past and those of today. There is a timeless quality to the challenges that face our characters with yesterday reflecting in their eyes as they live their present lives.”

The film had its world premiere at Dublin IFF (Special Mention for Best Doc), screened at Sheffield DocFest and won the American Cinematographer Magazine Award at Salem Film Fest as well as the Grand Prix in Music Documentary Competition at FIPADOC. In Irish cinemas, it has had a very successful theatrical run starting last December — and is still selling out screenings.

Based in Dublin, filmmaker McManus has produced and directed award-winning projects for NBC, Netflix, RTÉ, Virgin Media Television, TG4, NDR/ARD, Al Jazeera and Channel 4. He’s won four IFTAs, a Celtic Media Award, and the Radharc Award in the process. McManus’ debut feature as a producer was “The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid,” which premiered in the Main Competition at IDFA in 2018, won the George Morrison Award for Best Feature Documentary at the Irish Film & Television Awards and the Best Irish Film Award at the Dublin International Film Festival. All of this positive feedback led him to finally direct “North Circular” —his debut feature documentary. 

There will be Q&As with McManus and musician Annie Hughes at select showtimes — and maybe a performance or two as well.

Q: This is a pretty dark film. Did you make it with the idea that it was going to be dark? Or did it become that as you were in the process of making it?

Luke McManus: You kind of follow your instincts a bit. I did know that it was a place that had a bit of a troubled history and I thought that maybe that would be an interesting thing to investigate. I think Irish folk music is quite dark in its tone. Its subject matter typically is dark as well. I was following that path, but I like to think that the end of the film is uplifting enough to give you a sense of the light at the end of the tunnel. I think it’s ok to bring people into the darkness as long as you leave them in the light.

Q: From your experience on the road, were there some dark moments that aren’t in the movie?

LM: Making any movie is a challenge and the creative process tends to lead you into a lot of self-doubt and difficulties. This was no different. In fact, it was difficult. But in my experience, the hard ones are the good ones. You know, the easy ones are mediocre. So even though this was a very hard thing to make, it certainly gave me immense satisfaction to see how it turned out. The success has been incredible.

I suppose I didn’t want to make a film that pulled its punches. And this area of Dublin has a notorious reputation for criminality, poverty, addiction and suffering of various kinds. It’s a humorous place and a cultured place. So I wanted to make sure all that came through in the film.

Q: If you had just lived in a nice, sweet suburban area without any of these elements to it, could you have made this film?

LM: I probably could have, but it might have been somewhat bland and an uninteresting one. I think hard times make good art as a rule. Suffering is like the Irish way of dealing with trauma and suffering: to crack a joke, tell a story or sing a song. I think something that came out of the film as a kind of learning is that it’s not about whether you suffer, It’s about how you deal with and channel that. I was lucky to meet a lot of people that channel that suffering into their art.

Q: You concentrate on a couple of people whose life experience was dark. I wasn’t sure that there was anything else redeeming about them. But in a funny way, like the one fellow who went on a bit, they were intriguing. He had the really cluttered apartment. That was the way he lived. I was trying to say that to myself since I have had issues with clutter myself. I was worried to see if I was being reflected in him and maybe that’s why I was reacting.

LM: They say that clutter and hoarding is sort of a response to loss and bereavement. I mean, we’ve all suffered a loss. I hope you haven’t suffered a too-traumatizing loss. But that sort of thing is a catalyst. I mean, you’re talking about the tin whistle player. He did have a very tough life, but in a way I find him a very inspiring character because he’s managed to find a way, despite being homeless at times, incarcerated in the mental hospital and witnessing some dreadful events. He still might start playing his whistle, cracking his jokes, giving his speeches, talking to people in the community. And he’s managed to go out into the world and make a life for himself which has a bit of meaning. So even though in many ways, inmanyways, he’s a tragic person, he also sort of also inspires me.

Q: I really was being a little bit tongue in cheek when I was asking this. But in any case, I don’t think Tourism Ireland will be promoting this film because I thought of it as the dark side to the tourist vision of Ireland. We’re getting a sense that living in Ireland is not quite what we see when we’re on the tourist bus.

LM: Well, that’s for sure. I think this community has had a very bad press and it’s been in some people’s eyes, too dangerous place to go to. But ultimately, I think it reflects the spirit of the city and of the country very well. We’re not a fancy country, we’re not a blandly bourgeois place. If you want that, France is there. But if you want somewhere where, as I say, hard times are met with the raise of a glass and the cracking of a joke, then Ireland’s the place. I think that as a reality, it reflects a rich, cultural, diverse, always interesting place.

Q: You didn’t try to offer any social solutions. In other words, in some ways, I didn’t get the feeling that any of this could be corrected in one sense or another. Wrong or right? Do you have solutions that are you just going to do in the next film?

NORTH CIRCULAR poster USLM: You’re both wrong and right. I didn’t offer solutions. I don’t really feel that the role of a documentary maker is to offer us allegiance necessarily with a filmmaker. Well, what I like to think I did do is as we were going down the road in the film during the making of it, I realized that not only was it a journey through the city. It was also a journey through the history of the city. We start with the 19th century imperialism, soldiers, the British army and you move through revolution and land war and incarceration and institutionalization. But when you get to the end, you find that these young women are very 21st century characters, very independent, very high achieving, very positive. You have Jennifer Levy the singer who’s a wonderful kind of spokesperson for her area as well as a creative force. You have Kelly Harrington, the boxer who’s a gay woman who’s you know, celebrated her gold medal return with her wife and her family. And it isn’t even a thing that she’s a gay person. It’s not even a, a remarked upon thing. It’s not even that it’s accepted in Ireland. That’s not even remarkable. You have these people at the end who represent contemporary life very powerfully and, I think, are quite inspiring. Part of the thing in the film is that Ireland, even though it has problems around housing and accommodation, it’s also in a good place. I think as a country, maybe, a better place than it’s ever been in.

Q: It’s the women of Ireland who have really been saving the country. in fact, when you show those scenes of the soccer lads, it’s almost like, “I’m really embarrassed to be a guy.” Thankfully, I’m not a sports fan so I’ve never been in that kind of a rally, like a neo-fascist environment — it really did come off like a Hitler rally.

LM: It’s an interesting point because there’s a reason those rallies were so popular. And the reason is that they tap into a very human need or just the need to belong and to escape your own ego by being subsumed into the crowd. That’s interesting for me and has always been a subject I’ve been fascinated with from my own time as an Ireland fan and experiencing the good-natured euphoria of being an Ireland fan. It was something I wanted to capture in the film. But what I find about that scene particularly is that it’s very strongly connected to the start of the film where we have some people talking about the reason young men join armies. You’re looking for excitement, for adventure, for brotherhood and camaraderie. You’re looking for an enemy to focus your aggression on — your masculine energy. It feels to me when I look at that bohemian crowd that I think there’s the same cause that made young Irish men join the army and go to die in the fields. In the first World War or even to join the IRA. There’s a sense of purpose and a mission that’s very seductive.

Q: Do you think that the experience of joining… because women had a more equal position in the NRA, in the IRA, excuse me? Sorry f had a Freudian slip there. But in any case. And I think that in a way part of being involved with the IRA elevated women in many ways, like look at who the leader of Sinn Fein is now.

LM: It’s very true. I mean, the left in Ireland has had a lot of successful women politicians. We’ve had Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese as presidents, obviously. And we’ve got a woman Sinn Fein leader now and there’s a female Labor party leader now. Having said that, I don’t think the IRA by any means had a monopoly on feminist feminism or progression of women. And there has been a lot of very questionable stuff that’s come out about abuse — sexual abuse inside thr organization that was covered up by Gerry Adams and a few other people. So it’s a tricky one. But, generally speaking, I think the story of Ireland now is very much a positive one as regards the quality of gender equality.

Q: One thing I thought about while I was watching the film was how you evolve the songs. You start out with the old kind of sessun type song, where it’s got that ambling sort of melodic quality. Then you start to get into pop music at the end and there’s still a strong lyrical sense there as well. But it’s now connected through a much more up-tempo pulsing experience.

LM: Well, that part of the journey through time was also reflected in the music. The very first song you hear is about Charles Stewart Parnell, the great nationalist leader of the 19th century — “The Sweet Blackbird of Avondale,” that was his nickname: The Blackbird of Sweet Avondale. And that last song with the Flat, which is kind of like a garage R&B type sound of Gemma O’Riordan, very modern sounding. But having said that, when you look at her band, she has a harpist, which is the most traditional Irish instrument of all. And not only is it on our money, it’s also on our pints. and she even has a fiddler as well. So even within that very 21st century slick kind of construct that she has, that heartbeat of folk music is still there. The penultimate songs, “Rock the Machine” is sung by Lisa O’neill and written by O’neill as well. So the performer wrote that song. It’s very much in the folk and traditional idiom, but it’s written in the 21st century. So again, that journey into the present and the past.

Q: I think there’s an Italian film that I saw at a festival that had a similar feeling of the road about Rome. It’s kind of like the circular road around Rome.

LM: That’s Gianfranco Rosi’s “Sacro GRA,” which is a magnificent film and very much an influence in my film. There were also some writers in the UK, in the ’90s, called the Psycho Geographers. A lot of what they did was about journeys and places and wandering about. Iain Sinclair, Will Self and a few others even back in the ’70s. There was a wonderful French film about the road in Paris. So, it’s certainly been done before, this idea of traveling through a place and meeting people on the way. But I don’t think there’s been a film in Ireland like this, in this way. I think every film is built on the shoulders of giants that came before, and there’s very few original projects in this world now.

Q: This is an unusual way to make an American debut. In any sense, it’s a pretty unconventional film, number one. And number two, it’s very Irish-centric. Are you worried about it having a reach a more general audience? Or do you feel it’s going to at least reach Irish audiences who would come out to see it because it’s a portrait of Ireland that they don’t often see.

LM: It’s an interesting question. When I was making the film, I didn’t think people outside of Ireland would be that interested. But what I’ve discovered is, in fact, [there’s an audience beyond Ireland.] I think we’ve done 40 festivals now around the world. I’ve had amazing feedback from Melbourne to Istanbul, to Buenos Aires to Vancouver. We got nominated for an award in Shanghai, and it’s surprising how much global purchase the narratives have, the stories have and the music has. I’ve been doing a lot of Q & As and had a lot of discussions about the film. My favorite question of all was from an Italian man who said, “I don’t have a question, but I’m from Napoli and I’d like to thank you for making a film about Napoli,” which really stopped me in my tracks. I then knew exactly what he meant. There’s a certain type of a place that’s chaotic, dirty, energetic, funny and frightening in nearly every city in the world. I think it is universal.

Q: One thing that’s interesting about the film is that you feel like you walk into it in a way without it starting with a more traditional kickoff of a film. Did you back into that idea of doing it that way or was that always in your mind?

LM: You mean the song at the very start or at the park?

Q: Well, there’s just elements to the film — it doesn’t start like a typical documentary which sets you up in a certain way and says this is a film about this experience or that idea. The idea kind of evolves as you watch it.

LM: Well, a huge thing for me was the fact that this was a cinema film. I’ve done a lot of TV. I’ve done jobs for streamers. And when you make those films, you’re always under huge pressure to get your cards on the table very early on, to try and hook people in. I knew that if you’re in the cinema, you paid your 16 bucks, and you’re sitting in the middle of aisle four… You’re not going to get up and leave after five minutes. You have the luxury of time with people. I thought, “Well, why not just make it experiential and bring people into a world?” The journey begins and you’ve established the grammar of that world, the atmosphere and the tone of that world. It was a rare privilege to do that. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to make a film exactly as I wanted to in a very old commercial way. But the irony of that is the most commercial film I tried to make has been the most successful as well.

Q: You’re from Dublin. You grew up there or you are from a suburb?

LM: I grew up in a little town called Bray, which is somewhere in the county island of Dublin. It’s right on the edge of the city where there’s fun fairs. When I grew up there, there were the movie studios like Ardmore. There were film makers like Neil Jordan and John Boorman making movies there. Bono and Sinead O’Connor lived there and it was quite a creative place. But I moved to the North Circular in the ’90s. And during the making of this film, I discovered my grandmother grew up on North Circular, literally around the corner from where I live now. And her life experience actually informed a lot about this film.

Q: When did you know you wanted to make movies? And when did you have the idea that you’re going to make documentaries? Some people make documentaries, but don’t necessarily move to narratives. But do you want to move to narratives after you’ve done a few or more — or not?

LM: I’ve done a few. I’ve done a web series. I did a TV movie for Channel 4 in the UK and in Ireland. I did a few shorts and I love narrative filmmaking. But I think documentary is sort of my [thing]. Narrative is hard, man. You get one thing wrong and it destroys the entire illusion. You mess up a costume choice or you cast one bad actor and your film is wholly below the water line straight away. The margin for error is miniscule. Whereas with documentaries, there’s always a different way to tell the story and you always have reality there. It’s sort of the wind beneath your wings, carrying you along a bit and just providing a foundation. And in a weird sort of a way. I think documentary now is just as creative, if not more creative than narrative filmmaking because of the freedom it gives.

Q: You have a better opportunity to blame people if it goes awry with a narrative production rather than a documentary. With a doc, you can only blame your editor, maybe your DP, and yourself. Whereas on a fiction feature, you have a lot more people to blame.

LM: That’s very true. In fact, ultimately, I had no one to blame but myself on this project because, for the first time ever, the Arts Council of Ireland gave me a grant to have complete creative freedom. I hired everyone in this job. I didn’t have anyone to tell me what to do. It was a wonderful gift, but it was also terrifying because of exactly that thing. It was only going to be my fault and I bloody lived there. I’d be reminded of how shit it was, every morning when I opened the door. So I’d have to move my house if it hadn’t worked out well. I’m totally relieved and thrilled that it has.

Q: I saw that somebody had ….  There was an “in memoriam” for someone there. I don’t know if anyone else died during the process, but yes, you’d better get it right because some of these people are still on the street. Right.

LM: I meet them all the time and they come to see the film, some of them numerous times. It’s been one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling aspects of the whole process … seeing their pride, happiness and joy in what I’ve done. Even though sometimes it’s maybe not the most flattering portrait of people either, you know. But they accepted my values and approach and the deal I’d done with them. Yeah, it’s been wonderful.

Q: Do some of them join you for Q&A’s?

LM: In New York, I’m being joined by Annie Hughes, who’s the extraordinary singer at the very start of the film, and who’s in the trailer singing “The Blackbird of Sweet Avondale.” She’s going to be in the Q&As and might even sing a few verses of a song or two if you’re very lucky. And we’re also being joined by Maeve Mulligan from the cobblestone who has that very emotional moment when she’s given the speech on the steps of the city hall to the protest. And she’s joining me in New York, too. So I’m really lucky that we’ve got such a high-caliber of talented and interesting people coming over to join us.

Q: How did you pick this time to be the time when you’re putting this film out and bringing it to an American and particularly New York Irish audience.

LM: To be honest with you, it’s probably not the ideal time because it’s the middle of the bloody summer. I’d say half of the people are going to be on the beach. But I was offered the slot by the cinema and they programmed it. They said they wanted a program for a week which is going to qualify us for the Academy Awards, which is incredibly exciting for such a left field film to be on that list. I didn’t want to say no to that. And my wife is very pregnant. I couldn’t wait for the autumn. I won’t be leaving Ireland then, that’s for sure. I’m doing well to leave next weekend, to be honest with you. Its world premiere was in March of last year and it has traveled all around the place. We’re still on at the cinema in Dublin 33 weeks after we released the film, which is mind-blowing. But I think New York is going to be a high point on the end of the journey probably.

Q: Has it changed your ideas of what you want to do next? Or have you an idea of what’s going to be the next project?

LM: It’s been incredibly fulfilling. I feel almost unburdened, as if at the age of 50 I’ve finally fulfilled my potential as a filmmaker. You know, it’s a wonderful sense of satisfaction and sort of calm I have now, and I just did a TV series about homeless people in Dublin. Since I made this film, I did a three-part TV series. I’m now in development on a few more projects. I have a range of things on the development slate, but I think my next project is going to be a baby girl coming in September and I might just give her some attention.

Q: That becomes a project in and of itself and that project never ends. My daughter is in her late 30s and I still feel like I’ve got a baby on my hands.

LM: This is the thing. I’m sitting with a nine-year-old very patiently looking at his Nintendo on his laptop on Zoom. So, yeah, it’s here. It’s a joy and I think as a creative person as well, it’s very easy to become wrapped up in your own bullshit. So I think kids are brilliant at sort of making sure you have a bit of perspective and an outward focus.

Q: This is your second child, right? Do you think that’s going to change your filmmaking perspective?

LM: Hopefully. It’s certainly changing my perspective on many things. It’s just been such a weird time, the last couple of years, with the lockdown and all that. I think this film was a product of the lockdown in Ireland. We were restricted to a very tight radius of our homes during lockdown. And if it’s got that “first film that I’ve been dreaming about for a very long time” quality, well I realized that if I don’t make this film now, it’s never going to happen. Because this is the perfect moment.

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