How the Mummy Came out of its Tomb

By Peter Lennon

rocky-road-to-dublin-peter-lennon-3.jpgRocky Road to Dublin, 1968

The Revival of the Rocky Road To Dublin (1968)

By the mid ’90s, my documentary The Rocky Road to Dublin (1968) was in danger of disappearing forever. This was not just because, after thirty years, Ireland had still not relented on its hostility towards a film which had attacked its clergy, educational system, censorship and patriotic sportsmen. Physically, it was ceasing to exist. During our continental exile the negative was lost. My heart still stops dead at the memory.

All we had were a few, increasingly ragged, 16mm prints and a defective 35mm blow up. But Sunniva O’Flynn and staff at the Irish Film Archive had been nursing the film for a decade and feeding it to film students, historians and social workers, suggesting it might yet have a future in Ireland.

Back in the ’60s, as a junior correspondent for The Guardian in Paris, I became exasperated with my fellow citizens’ claims that “no one takes any notice of the clergy now” and “there is hardly any censorship.” Using a technique now familiar from Michael Moore’s work, over 69 minutes in The Rocky Road to Dublin I let them blow the gaffe on themselves.

So we see the Asst. Sec. of the Gaelic Athletic Association spell out their Fathwa on members who were caught playing ‘foreign’ games: soccer, rugby or cricket. Six months suspension. More chillingly, we see 10 year old Christian Brothers boys spell out the Fathwa on themselves. “We are born without sanctifying grace, our passions incline us to evil and we are subject to suffering and death.” And the list of authors whose books had been banned by the censor: everyone from Beckett and Behan to Mailer, Sartre, Salinger and Wells. And Jomo Kenyata, as a sauce.

rocky-road-to-dublin-peter-lennon-2.jpgRocky Road to Dublin, 1968 

I also wanted to demonstrate that making a feature length film need not be as expensive as building a block of flats, as we in Ireland felt. We did it for about £15,000. I expected I’d get the hobnailed boot on social and clerical issues. I did. Only one Dublin cinema manager would, very briefly, screen Rocky Road; RTE never. But I genuinely thought that they would listen to John Huston, exhorting them on camera to start a film industry. They didn’t even try for another 11 years.

In 2002 I approached the Irish Film Board for funds to restore the film and produce a short, telling the story behind its making: suffocation in Ireland; ragged glory during the May Events in Paris ’68 (Rocky Road was selected for that year’s notorious, aborted Cannes festival). The director of the Board was the right man at the right time, Rod Stoneman, who had admired the film since his days in Channel 4. Rod stretched the rules to involve the Board in providing modest funding for restoration, as well as production of a 10 minute short.

I was recommended an independent producer of art films, Se Merry Doyle, (Loopline Films). He brought in Paul Duane, a young Irish director with UK tv experience, then also preparing, independently, a documentary based on the cult music book, It Came From Memphis.

After restoration when, early in 2004, we finally got down to work, it became obvious that we could not possibly shoehorn the Dublin / Cannes / Paris story of the film into ten minutes, particularly since its cinematographer, the great Raoul Coutard, always very supportive, had agreed to come out of retirement and do a long piece to camera about working in Ireland on this ‘revolutionary’ film, an adventure in the nouvelle vague cameraman’s career not recorded elsewhere.

Paul agreed we had to go a full half hour. But the funding, after restoration, barely covered the original length. So we applied for additional funding and, with no real assurance we would get it from the Film Board’s new director, we just went ahead. We stumbled along with the usual crutches of independent filmmakers, the generosity with time and skill of those working on the project. The problem was that financial and time constraints made it impossible to do full justice to the skills of those involved, Paul Duane in particular (we never did get the extra funds until well after the launch at the Cork Film Festival in October 2004 and then only part of what we needed). The notion that other Irish cultural institutions would help re-float the only substantial film document of life in Ireland in the 1960s proved to be illusive.

rocky-road-to-dublin-peter-lennon-1.jpgRocky Road to Dublin, 1968 

But, as the Christian Brothers had taught me, perseverance brings unexpected rewards. I remembered that while shooting Rocky Road in 1967, Gavin Millar, then a BBC arts producer, asked me to let him do an interview with Coutard, then at the height of his career (how I got him is another story). Gavin dug out the BBC footage and there was not only priceless footage of Coutard at work in an Irish dance hall but an interview with a very weary me. Gold dust. The BBC gave us a very generous deal on rights.

Then something close to a miracle. I had been trawling the Paris archives without success for weeks, helped by a French film student, Sebastien Layerle, for footage of demonstrations at the collapse of Cannes (we were the last film projected). Nothing. I had forgotten it was all indoors, debating furiously for a night and a day and a night in the Grand Palais. I gave up. We started shooting. Then came an email from Sebastien: “Last night at the Pompidou Centre I saw a clip of Cannes ‘68 in which an Irish film director argues with Jean Luc Godard.”

Great Jeez! Could it be me? I was the only Irish director present. It was indeed me, in a documentary made for Belgian TV, waving my skinny arms at a characteristically baleful Godard. Of course, we were now into more expense. Although, until then, I doubt if Belgian TV had encountered a customer willing to buy a few feet of film of me, the clip instantly assumed full commercial value.

Following our premiere at the now repentant Cork Film Festival (In ’68 they sabotaged our out-of-competition screening), we forged ahead, to Foyle, Derry, Belfast, Amiens, Moscow, Memphis, Cambridge, South Korea… And on we go, with our bundle on our shoulder, shadowed only by debt (it was a loan, not a grant…).

Peter Lennon is a writer and journalist.