The 23rd of February, marked the first day of the Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF) 2023. The festival itself was established twenty years ago by Michael Dwyer, international film critic, and David McLoughlin; film producer and Trinity alumnus. The festival is an exciting event in the Irish cultural calendar that brings together film-makers, actors, producers and creatives from all over the world. DIFF screens some of the best Irish films to date, like last year they showed An Cáilín Ciúin which would go on to win best international feature film at the Oscars 2023.
On Saturday 25th February an incredibly unique piece, Accidental Anthropologist was shown as part of the festival. This piece is part of a bigger story that originated in rural Ireland almost 100 years ago. At a time when there was no television or radio to keep people busy Mícheál Ó Muinín of Ballyferriter grew up hearing folk tales. One of which involved an American man’s visit to their small Irish village. His grandfather would proudly recount the story about the American with the filming camera. One day when the man was recording, for a laugh, Ó Muinín’s grandfather stuck his pipe in his sheepdog’s mouth. This moment of mischief had apparently been caught on camera. Intrigued by the absurdity of the tale, Ó Muinín decided to track down the footage of the pipe-smoking dog.
Ó Muinín managed to identify the protagonist in his grandfather’s story. Benjamin Gault was an ornithologist from the Chicago area. He arrived in rural Kerry with a 35 millimetre nitrate film camera in the spring of 1925. The purpose of his trip was to study bird life, but at times he turned his camera towards the people of the village as they engaged in their everyday activities. Ó Muinín uncovered Gault’s reels in the Chicago Academy of Science and with the help of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), went about restoring them.
“Kathy Rose O’Regan, senior film restorer at SFSFF, introduced the film to the festival.”
Kathy Rose O’Regan, senior film restorer at SFSFF, introduced the film to the festival. She gave an overview of the complex processes involved when working with 100 year old footage. She highlighted the delicate balance necessary for the craft of restoration, between improving the condition of the footage, to protecting the authenticity of it. She spoke about the temptation to “perfect” older footage by altering it with modern digital editing tools. When working on the nitrate reels her team removed any dust that had built up over the decades in order to obtain as clear an image as possible. Clearing the dust off a reel is one thing, but where should the line be drawn? Some of the footage was overexposed and the camera work was wobbly. Instead of digitally stabilising the images however, O’Regan’s team stayed faithful to the camera man who lived in a world prior to camera stabilisers. The bouncy footage is not what we’re used to seeing in the 21st century, but it is authentic to its time.
There are thousands of reels of film waiting to go through the long and costly process of being restored and it is a constant struggle to choose which ones to prioritise. O’Regan saw the value in restoring this specific footage because of how unique it is. Gault, with his shaky camera, captured an Ireland that had never been seen before on the big screen. The country had been devastated by a famine and civil war, and was to begin rebuilding itself as a new Republic. There was no Irish cinema industry at the time and the only representation of the Irish in film came from the Irish stereotypes and caricatures in Hollywood. Gault’s footage shows us a candid Ireland. The people captured are beautifully ordinary as they go about their everyday life. This nonchalance of the villagers is in perfect juxtaposition with the originality of this rare piece of cultural heritage.
“The images we saw captured Kerry men farming, fishing in currachs, and harvesting hay by hand.”
The images we saw captured Kerry men farming, fishing in currachs, and harvesting hay by hand. We saw the locals going to mass, dancing in the streets, and children playing in the school yard. The film depicted the gloomy countryside and stone houses in ruins. There were animals in many scenes, cows and sheep at the Sunday fair, a collie resting on the bow of the currach, donkeys roaming the fields, and birds perched on the cliffs.
“The tunes were exquisitely matched to coincide with what was on screen. The combination of 1920s Ireland on film and the magnificent music made for an emotive viewing.”
In an ode to the silent era the short film was accompanied by live music. Two gifted musicians and Dingle locals, Deirdre Granville (harp) and Aoife Granville (fiddle, flute) accompanied the reels with traditional Irish melodies. The tunes were exquisitely matched to coincide with what was on screen. The combination of 1920s Ireland on film and the magnificent music made for an emotive viewing.
One of the scenes that garnered a loud chuckle from the audience was a shot of a black and white Irish sheepdog in the arms of its master. Perched between its muzzle was the notorious tobacco pipe. Ó Muinín’s grandfather was telling the truth after all.