Willie and Mary Corduff, Monica Müller, Pat O‘Donnell, Maura Harrington
Stranger Than Fiction: 28 Mar 2011
The aim would be that the film would provoke debate and focus discussion on the issues surrounding the Corrib Gas controversy. One of the casualties in this whole saga has been open and transparent examination of the facts surrounding Corrib, and often truth has been the victim.
—Rísteard Ó Domhnaill
I’m not leaving no area.
“They came here one morning early, he said it could be coming across here with it. You know, just beside our house.” Willie Corduff’s dog runs across the green field before him, and he pauses, to point his shovel toward his house, nestled against the shore, chimney smoking. “That’s what they did at the beginning. They came telling us what they were going to do, they never asked us at any stage for our permission.” He’s talking about the representatives for Shell Oil who had decided to run a pipeline through his land in Rossport, in northwest County Mayo, Ireland. He sighs, then assesses: “I mean, they tried to bully us, and it didn’t work. Then they turned around and said, ‘Well look, there’s only one answer for this crowd. It’s throw them in jail.’”
Sounding fed up but hardly defeated, Willie walks away from the camera. The story of his and many of his neighbors’ resistance against Shell E&P is at the center of The Pipe, screening 28 March as a Monday Night Pre-Season Special for Stranger Than Fiction and followed by a Q&A with director Rísteard Ó Domhnaill and producer Rachel Lysaght. Filmed over four years, the documentary reveals that the conflict divided the community, with some residents inclined to make a deal with the oil company and others refusing to do so.
This divide evolves over years and involves a number of factors, not least being Shell’s assumptions and aggressive tactics. When the natural gas field was discovered off Ireland’s west coast in 1996, it seemed at first that the local economy would benefit. But it wasn’t long before farmers and fishermen were feeling pushed around by the oil company: left without reasonable options, they so decided to fight back. Monica Müller describes the encounter this way: “Rude people that don’t care tell you go away, go out… They want to build a pipeline to get from A to B.” As she sees it, “The landscape doesn’t mean anything to them. Otherwise, they would find a route that would make more sense.”
It’s this question of sense that drives the film. In 2005, Willie Corduff and four other protestors are arrested and jailed, inspiring supporters to picket outside the courthouse: “Free the Rossport Five,” read their placards, and “Strength in Community.” Graffiti tags captured by local TV cameras, read, “Shell out.” By October 2006, the Refinery Construction Site is underway, and protestors regularly stand in the way of backhoes and bulldozers. The local police force, the Gardaí, seem unprepared for the conflict, the captain insisting, “Neither I nor my guards are going to be bullied around here,” as they drag demonstrators away. The camera operator is apparently under attack as well, as the frame pitches and reels, as women scream off screen. Corduff’s voiceover describes his own reaction to the official aggression: “The more you see wrong being done, the more angrier you get.”
As the camera follows Corduff and his neighbors on these frontlines and into their homes, it adopts a perspective reminiscent of other advocacy documentaries, for example, Harlan County, USA or more recently, The Cove. That is, once the film states at tits start that “Shell E&P Ireland refused to participate in the making of this documentary” and then lays out a basic history (here, an animated story of the planned pipeline), it follows the experiences of the protestors, inviting viewers to sympathize not only with their arguments, but also with their subjective states. Whether observing an increasingly confrontational community meeting or a dark night’s clash between the Gardaí and demonstrators, the handheld camera suggests internal as well as external turmoil.
Such passion is embodied by a set of particularly ardent protestors, including Willie and his wife Mary (“I couldn’t believe that we would ever witness here in rural Ireland, in a small community, local guards involved in a day where people would be literally beaten by guard batons”), their neighbor Maura Harrington (who goes so far as to go on a hunger strike), and local priests, who write a letter to Shell in hopes of generating a dialogue over an “alternative site” for the pipeline.
The film crew goes along on Pat O’Donnell’s crab fishing boat when he decides to stand up to a massive pipe-laying ship, the Solitaire. “It’s in my family, in my blood,” he says of fishing, “I love it so much that there’s no job in the world that would replace it.” Clearly at risk due to Shell’s proposed changes to the landscape and shoreline, O’Donnell’s traditional way of life is here pictured as robust and admirable, the very facelessness of the enemy helping to demonize it. “We’ll show them,” says O’Donell, “that we mean business.” When he and other fishermen form their own protest, a united display of their resistance on the water, it is, as he says, a “lovely sight to see all the fishermen united and fighting for the one thing.” But they’re up against it with Shell, which continues to dig and lay cables despite court orders and cases pending, presuming the corporation, equipped with lawyers and deep pockets, will prevail.
As much as The Pipe benefits from its association with the protestors, so too the protestors recognize the usefulness of the camera, in order to make visible their saga as well as to publicize Shell’s wrongdoing. As they speak to the camera to tell their stories or invite the filmmaker for a cup of tea, it’s clear that they’re developing a sense of connection and collaboration with the crew. Even as its agents remain mostly off screen, Shell looks both daunting and deplorable. “We have nothing against them making profits,” Corduff explains, “But not at our expense.”
As corporations are increasingly able to deliver their own messages through commercial and industrial media, as they make use of lobbyists and lawyers to achieve their ends, those wanting to fight back must turn to communities—both local and beyond. Using film and video to tell their stories, they are finding ways to create these communities.