THE ATLANTIC OCEAN can be wild, dangerous, beautiful and mystical.
It provides a stunning view, a home to shoals of fish and marine life. But it also provides a livelihood for fishermen and those who trawl the sea for fish, and companies who drill for oil and gas.
Director Risteard Ó Domhnaill is the man behind the acclaimed documentary The Pipe, about the Shell pipeline controversy in Rossport, Co Mayo. It was an intimate story, but one which taught him about the bigger picture of politics and industry around natural resources, says the director.
It also showed him about Europe’s “perceived giveaway of Irish oil and gas resources or perceived resources”, and it was this that inspired his latest work, Atlantic.
Atlantic was meant to be a half-hour documentary about the oil and gas resources that Ireland has, but like many projects, it blossomed. The resulting film looks at how these resources as well as the fishing industry are treated in Ireland – but also in Newfoundland and in Norway.
Fishermen tell Ó Domhnaill in the documentary about how fishing resources have been treated by the European Union, and the impact this has had on their livelihoods. He is told stories about super trawlers and fishing quotas, and the impact drilling for oil offshore can have on the sea.
“To me it seemed this complete parallel story, the exact same thing was happening again – Irish fishing was being handed over to Europe and we were getting the crumbs off the table,” he says.
To try and get some context, he brought in Newfoundland – which has a long connection to Ireland – and Arctic Norway.
These communities are separated by thousands of miles, but the communities are very similar in many ways, the people, the fishermen are very similar but what is different is how their governments and their state has managed their resources, looked after the coastal communities.
The documentary is full of shots of the rolling Atlantic, the white-topped waves with their hidden depths out of sight. We see huge supertrawlers with what look like miles of nets splayed behind them, contrasted with smaller fishermen like Jerry Early in Arranmore Island trying to eke out a living on small boats.
The documentary explores the differing ways Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland treat natural resources.
“In Newfoundland they made mistakes with the fishing, they handed it over to other fishing countries and handed out quotas and factory trawlers just cleaned up and destroyed the fishing, and led to the collapse of coastal communities across Newfoundland,” says Ó Domhnaill.
“In Norway, they handled both resources well. Instead of joining the EU they said ‘hang on a minute’.”
In Norway, the oil and gas resources were “responsibly managed”, he says. Scenes of enraged fishermen banging on the doors of a government meeting in Newfoundland are contrasted with the experiences of happier Norwegian fishermen. In Ireland, a lone fisherman is seen being taken to court for using nets that have the potential for catching salmon.
“We don’t have the political maturity Norway has”
Making the documentary made Ó Domhnaill think about whether Ireland would be equipped to deal with the discovery of a large oil field.
“If we had a bonanza like [in Norway] I just think it would have increased the corruption in Ireland,” he says.
I don’t think we have the political maturity as a democracy that Norway have, to manage such a big resource that comes along with such potential for corruption, such power.
Ó Domhnaill believes Ireland needs a more responsible and transparent political system before it can deal with its oil and gas potential.
He has also evolved in his thinking about what natural resources mean to Ireland. His thinking switched from being about political control and what money a country should get, to “if we keep going the way we are going, and we destroy the fishing stocks or we keep banging out this seismic blast looking for oil, and drilling, at this rate there will be nothing there for anyone.
I evolved in my thinking more into an ecological argument, that if you don’t put the ecological argument first, everything else doesn’t matter. So if you look after your ocean it will look after you, is the message of the documentary. Look after your coastal communities.
He says that among Irish fishing communities, “there is a feeling of abandonment, but there is a resignation”.
“Fishing communities and fishermen have always been abandoned by the State going back through our history. They are always looked down on I think,” he says.
The documentary is voiced by actor Brendan Gleeson, who Ó Domhnaill says “represents, nearly, the voice of the ocean”.
“Using his voiceover, it pulls these disparate communities together,” he says. “The ocean unites and pulls them together so after a while we don’t see them as different. What’s different is the politicians in those countries and the weather.”
At first, it was hard to get funding for Atlantic. So Ó Domhnaill turned to crowdfunding, gathering €56,000 from supporters. This enabled him to go on to gather more financial support in Norway and Newfoundland, and from the Irish Film Board.
“They put their faith in me,” he says of his supporters. “It was a great responsibility for me but very humbling.”
You don’t want to let people down – if you’re making a film there is a lot of potential to let people down.
Anger and learning
Now that the film has been released in cinemas – it is showing in various places around the country and more details can be found on the official Facebook page – Ó Domhnaill says that audiences have described feeling angry after watching it.
“A woman last night in Headford said it was her second time seeing the film. [She told me] ‘I was so angry in the Eye [Cinema] that I missed half of it. I had to come back and see it’,” he laughs. “In some ways you are supposed to go to the cinema to escape and visit a fantasy world but [with this film] people are coming out a bit mad.”
He has also been approached by a number of secondary school teachers about screenings – the film has been classed as educational by the film censor.
Did he feel angry while making Atlantic? He didn’t really have time to assess that, he says.
“I’d be very focused on the technical side, I have too many other things to be thinking about,” he says. “It’s not really until you stand back and look at it that you get to take the whole thing in.”