Interview with documentary maker Risteard O’Domhnaill on the story of Shell at Rossport.

‘We were not trying to tell Shell’s story’ director Risteard O’Domhnaill tells Brogen Hayes, ‘It is the story of a small Irish community under immense pressure from the world’s largest oil company and a state who was putting the interests of the oil company first. It is about how they deal with that pressure as a community, how they rise to the challenges, how they descend into in-fighting and the tragedy of how the relationship with the local Gardaí breaks down’.

What inspired you to make The Pipe?
RO’D: I wasn’t inspired to make it. I was living down there. My uncle is a farmer down there. In 2006 there was a big force of Gardaí sent in to clear the blockade of the locals at the refinery. At 4am the roads were blocked off and the locals were surrounded at the gate. Then they were systematically lifted and man handled out of the way. I was filming this and thought it was mad. I had spent all of my summers down there as a child on my uncle’s farm. The area has the second lowest crime rate in the country. You would never see a Garda, there would never be any trouble and you would wonder, how could a small community like this end up being criminalised in this way. I just felt like, because I know these people, and the community, that there is something very wrong here and I just kept filming more and more. The more I filmed, the more I saw footage going back to the news and the more sensational stuff being used and the real story of the local people not being told, the more I felt that I should keep filming – more out of curiosity than a plan to make a documentary. About six months later I thought ‘I have something worthy here’ so I approached the Irish Film Board and TG4 and they agreed in principle to come on board. I thought I would get a half hour documentary and that would be it, but I kept on filming and the more incredible it got, the more interesting the characters got.

Shell had no input into the film, how different do you think the film would have been if they were involved?
RO’D: Yeah it would have been different. I tried my best to get Shell to contribute and I was always looking for a frank interview and access to the site to film – it’s not like Dr evil’s volcano – it’s a gas refinery, there is nothing too secret about it. At every turn Shell would not consent to an open interview. They were always trying to put some conditions in the way, they were always trying to have some editorial control over the film or the interview or have the questions approved beforehand and I couldn’t allow that. I gave them a deadline, they didn’t comply, so I had to say I would go ahead without them.

The Pipe is not an ‘activist documentary’, it is about the community. Did you decide this from the start?
RO’D: It just naturally evolved, and that is all the people wanted. They wanted an independent, open and honest platform on which they can expand their views and opinions. They have always beaten Shell hands down when they had an open platform, but the problem is, they have been deal with very badly through the courts, by the media and the politicians. It is incredible that they are still standing, they still have their sense of humour and the resilience and they still won’t give in. Which, in today’s Ireland is very admirable, seeing as everyone else is rolling over!

How difficult was it for you to remain objective when you spent four years living in and filming this community?
RO’D: I don’t really understand objectivity. When I was down there I wasn’t really ‘directing’ anything, I was just filming what was going on – the good, the bad and the ugly. When it came to the edit, there were decisions to be made about objectivity. What I tried to do was show the story honestly, to be as honest as possible, to show people and events in as honest a way as possible – the rough and the smooth – hopefully that came across. It’s a perspective on the local community and it is just telling their story and hopefully it will inform people on where we went, as a society, during the Celtic Tiger, how our country was run, especially at this time when the IMF are in town. People can see Corrib was just a microcosm of what went on across the State. How our regulators, our politicians and private interests all conspired to put the citizens of this country in second place and to put private interests first. That’s what the story is about – how one community suffered that fate. Now Ireland, as a community, is suffering that same fate at the moment.

In light of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the film is very timely…
RO’D: When we were over in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival the BP disaster and the issue of tar sands in Canada and Arctic drilling were to the forefront of people’s minds because it was all over the news. The coverage that we got over there was amazing – we got seven minutes on the main primetime show on CBC because they saw such common causes. In London also, people really got it and they really connected what is going on globally with the story of this tiny community. It could be a community anywhere – Canada, Nigeria, Russia… It’s global in that context, people identify with the story. Although it’s timely in terms of the issues raised, I think it’s the human story that is the strongest element of it.

After your experiences in Rossport, do you intend to make more documentaries?
RO’D: Never again! [laughs] I shouldn’t say that… I will probably make another one.

THE PIPE is now showing in Irish cinemas
Words – Brogen Hayes