Ross McDonnell Interview

Above: Ross McDonnell
Above: Ross McDonnell

It’s two days before the Corona Cork Film Festival and Ross McDonnell is working on his new documentary short Remember Me, My Ghost, which he has to submit in just 48 hours. Despite the pressing deadline, the Dublin-born imagemaker is calm; he’s making the most of the transatlantic time zones that separate him and California-based editor and collaborator, Carter Gunn, who is asleep ‒ for a few hours, at least.

Remember Me, My Ghost is the story of one woman’s experience of life on Dublin’s notorious Ballymun estate; a 1960s concrete nightmare named by one environmental journalist as Ireland’s ‘worst planning disaster’. This project is a development from Joyrider; one of McDonnell’s stills projects. It was shot in Ballymun when the now-demolished tower blocks were still standing and when, by night, local kids soared through the estate in stolen cars before setting them ablaze. McDonnell, who graduated with a master’s in film production in 2002 from the Dublin Institute of Technology, returned to Ballymun with the intention of making a dramatic feature film, taking up where he’d left off documenting what he calls the “incendiary youth culture” depicted in Joyrider.

To develop the project, he decided the kids themselves could tell the story better than anything he could script. “They all had crazy upbringings,” he says. “I thought it would be better to try to listen to their stories, rather than sitting down and trying to write a script based on my own ideas.” On his return, however, Ballymun was in the midst of a regeneration project. “Visually there wasn’t that much happening,” he recalls. “The block had been knocked down and the demolition guys were busy completing a 10-year regeneration scheme.

I realised that while I’d looked at the youth culture, I hadn’t really focused on domestic life in the community. So I interviewed a group of women who were part of a creative writing group instead. I recorded about eight testimonies and picked one story to try to visualise.” This was the genesis of Remember Me, My Ghost: a tale of one woman’s struggle to keep her family intact as it crumbles in the face of domestic violence and drug abuse; a parallel with Ballymun’s decline. The film takes us on a visual and emotional journey through the decaying corridors and graffiti-splashed flats of a housing estate in its death throes.

Shot on a Canon EOS 5D MkII, McDonnell employed abstract shots, motion control and tracking shots to illustrate his subject’s nightmarish life story, which he recorded himself. “I think when you look at projects, especially documentary projects, there exists a narrative space between sound and image,” he says. “Film can be non-linear; images can be metaphors for what people are saying. So I allowed myself a lot of leeway with what the film could and couldn’t be. The story is so powerful; just as a piece of testimony, the imagery could be very loose. I guess the idea of ‘mental geography’ gets thrown about a lot just now, but as long as there is a functioning marriage of sound and image, as long as it works, then you have a movie I guess.” McDonnell says his master’s course was “a year spent operating cameras and pulling focus on other people’s films”.

He credits the course with giving him a good technical understanding. “We didn’t really make a lot of films,” he reflects. “We did a lot of screenwriting, then made two final films. It was at the end of that film school era when students were still shooting on 16mm. Imagine making a documentary on 16mm now? You’d really understand the discipline.” In 2003 he moved to the US, where he picked up a stills camera and started to work on photography projects while still making films.

From 2003 onwards his CV is bursting, and cites work in exotic destinations such as Afghanistan, where he documented Afghan self-determination; Honduras, where he did a project on domestic violence; and Kenya, where he focused on the impact of climate change on tribal communities. His work has featured in The New York Times, The Observer, The Washington Post, The Irish Times, among others, and he has won grants and awards to continue his work. Unselfconsciously he calls himself an imagemaker – one of the few I have interviewed who doesn’t see himself on either side of the stills/moving image fence – and seems to move fluidly between the two worlds. There’s a freedom in stills projects he enjoys: “You can just pick up your camera and start a project without having to formalise it, or put together a crew.”

When it comes to kit, he reels off a list of stills and video cameras he works with, from the 1970s Canon FTb he used to shoot Joyrider, to the Panasonic AG-HVX200A, REDs and ARRIs he makes films with. He doesn’t see any real difference between them. “A camera is just a box with a hole in it at the end of the day,” he concludes. With his background in film, it’s not surprising that he moves between stills and moving image so easily. However, I wonder if he thinks those with a pure stills background can easily make the transition to moving image. “I think everyone now thinks like a filmmaker,” he says. “I’m sure that in the next five to 10 years, anyone between the age of 12 and 17 will be so visually literate and so skilled at making their own movies. I am sure we’ll see a lot of work distributed on Facebook and YouTube that will be hugely successful. That’s the future… and it’s already here.”

I mention that I recently saw an online trailer for McDonnell’s 2010 film Colony; a documentary about how Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is threatening the American beekeeping industry. An unexplained phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly abandon their hives, CCD threatens not only beekeeping, but the wider agricultural industry. The trailer appeared in my inbox one morning, embedded in a digital newsletter from one of hundreds of sites that curate art and design content on the internet; many of which I subscribe to in an attempt to keep abreast of new work. He’s pleased but not surprised. “Projects have a life eternal now,” he says. “It’s the same with the Joyrider project; it keeps going and going. People find it every day and build a little platform for it.” Although he benefits from this viral culture, he has mixed feelings about it. “There seems to be a deluge of information and luckily we can choose infinitely what we look at. In my mind there’s something to be said for not giving everything all at once, it can lose its mystery.”

He mentions The Guardian’s Facebook application, which shares information on which articles you’re reading. “Part of me likes to be able to still pick up a newspaper and not have everyone know what I’m looking at,” he says. “I grew up in a generation where there was no internet, so I stumbled across photography that interested me bit by bit. It takes a while to learn about the photography world and to educate yourself. You uncover an archive of work that you feel speaks to you in a way you can relate to. Currently I feel that everything is a bit more bite-sized and, consequently, perhaps loses a bit of the mystery; that thing when something feels special to you, like you own a piece of it yourself. That to me is what makes photography unique. I admit that now I can get a bit of photo fatigue, when everything starts to look the same. Maybe there’s something to be said for projects that take a while to get out into the ether.” Colony is one project that is still finding its way out there.

McDonnell started pitching the idea for the documentary in late 2007, after a friend mentioned the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder. He managed to get some funding from the Irish Film Board to go and research it with his collaborator Carter Gunn. They soon realised that they were on to a good story; both from a social and environmental point of view. “We knew it was a great story so we moved quickly,” he recalls. “We shot it over the course of 2008 and 2009 and ended up getting into the Toronto International Film Festival at the end of September 2009.

Then in 2010 we had a fantastic film festival run with theatrical releases in the States and here [in Ireland].” In 2010 Colony was nominated for an Irish Film and Television Award. Yet despite its success in the US and Ireland, McDonnell has been unable to find a distributor for the UK market. “There were other bee films: one on the BBC and one on Channel 4. As a result it hasn’t been as visible in the UK. It really hurt our distribution but I still get about five or 10 emails a week from the UK saying: ‘I just heard about your film, Colony. Where can I see it?’ It’s wonderful, but unfortunately we don’t have a UK release.” He thinks that film festivals are important, but is realistic about how even a well-received film can flounder when its fate is placed in the hands of the money men. “The distribution market has a stranglehold in some respects,” he says. “Everyone who has a powerful hand in film distribution knows about your project early on and makes a call instantly. They seem to tot up the numbers and work out whether you’re a good investment or not, which is fair enough.

With feature documentaries the margins are never going to be that big, apart from a couple of films every year or, unless you’re someone like Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore; personalities who are proven successful commodities at the box office.” Despite this, he believes festivals provide a great barometer for the public’s appetite. “They can prove there’s a massive audience out there, so the lesson is in how you capitalise on that if the big distribution network isn’t going to put money into [distributing] your film. For filmmakers it’s important to understand that if you’ve made a fantastic film and it’s topical, you bring it to Sundance or South by Southwest.

That’s your platform right there; that’s the starting block. If you’re lucky enough to get into a big festival, as we were with Colony, and you shop around for a distributor, well that can be a big machine that works quite slowly.” He feels the time is right for filmmakers to take matters into their own hands and get their films out to the audiences they know exist. “As producers we have the capacity to build our market,” he says. “That’s something I’d look at for future projects. People are sitting there with their credit cards and iPads, ready to spend money, and you’ve got to be ready to seize the moment.”

While he makes films with stories that surround contemporary issues, he’s keen not to be seen as an activist. “I think that was something people thought with Colony. People feel very passionately about the bees and their disappearance; they are passionate about environmental issues. We made something that, cinematically, was very close to people’s hearts, yet based around a current affairs issue. I think it irked some of the audience because they came to it wanting to see some kind of environmental call to arms, but it wasn’t really that type of film. Sometimes documentary can be as subjective a medium as fiction. To me it’s crucial not to just tell the audience what to think, but to allow them be interested in the narrative you’re presenting.” With another ongoing film project, Muerte & Me – a look at the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez – there are different challenges.

Situated just across the US border, it is the most dangerous city in the world; in 2010 alone, more than 3,000 people were murdered there. “We were looking at an international crisis and trying to find an interesting story there; to say something about that situation that was different,” says McDonnell. “It’s been a difficult process though. Any kind of filming activity is just going to seen as meddling in a place like Juárez. It’s not such an easy place to build long-term narratives.” Whether it’s urban decay in Dublin, rural American beekeeping or Mexican crime capitals, McDonnell has a skill in taking a subject and finding the human interest; Colony, perhaps, being the greatest example of this.

In our high-paced, multimedia world, it takes skill to achieve viral success with a trailer about honeybees. He admits to having doubts about its potential in the early days. “A lot of the work you do in the early days [of making a film] is in the background; researching and writing pitches. I thought, ‘Do I want to spend the next two years living with beekeepers?’ Then, of course, I became completely obsessed. We met some great people and some unbelievable scientists, and we travelled round some beautiful parts of America, so it was just a joy to do.” As an unexpected bonus, he also became a de facto expert on the world of bees. “I was on the radio last year with some beekeepers,” he says, “chatting about viruses.” Some of his projects have been funded by small grants while others, like Joyrider, were personal projects that found a market afterwards. “I’ve never had a glamorous assignment to go off to Afghanistan. I don’t think there are many photographers getting their choice of assignments right now. That’s what’s interesting about photography; it’s personal and you have to follow things that are going to sustain your interest. I’ve been very lucky with my work. Most things are longer-term projects that I continue to revisit.”

In both 2007 and 2009 he worked in Afghanistan on his project The Afghans. “I’d like to go back next year, so I’m hustling some funding for that,” he says. “You just have to go out and make it happen, by hook or by crook.” He says there are some great foundations funding documentary film; especially across international borders. “If you’ve got something that fits in with what the European film funders want, or that the private market is interested in then, definitely, people are keen to allocate budgets.Sometimes you need a bit of a track record to guarantee that continual support; other times you pitch projects that people just aren’t interested in. Just keep trying to develop better projects.”

He’s not sure if he fits the traditional crowdfunding model for photojournalism. “It’s still supposed to be a medium that effects change. As such, the community supports projects that are presented with a proactive agenda that, somehow, photographically, I’m not sure I fit into,” he says. “I like to work on long-term documentary projects that aren’t about advocacy, but that I can still bring an honest perspective to. Maybe local and long-term are the future for documentary photography. It’s like Write101: write what you know. On the other hand, everything we’ve been discussing points to the fact that if you create work and get it out there, the support can be just overwhelming.”

He credits the fact that he grew up as a ‘film freak’ for informing his aesthetic in both stills and film, which isn’t fixed. “I like to find the aesthetic that fits with the idea I have. I’ve always taken a bit of umbrage with the idea in the photography world that you have a fixed vision to be the ‘black-and-white, urban, gritty guy’ or the ‘aerial beaches guy’. Shoot what feels good, is what I say. I always look to cinematographers who understand innately how to use image to build a more complete narrative; and really narrative is what I’m interested in. “When you listen to great cinematographers explaining how they used a certain colour to express mood in a character, or the decision to pick a specific aspect ratio or a particular set of lenses over another; that’s something I take great inspiration from.

Cinematography is in service to the narrative and DoPs, as the creators of that world, visually, are expert shape shifters. Something in me respects that ability for reinvention immensely. With the still images I shot when I made Colony, for example, I was working in colour, in square format, which felt right for that American, pastoral world. If I’d been purely the grimy, black-and-white guy, I may not have been so happy with the work.”

In a similarly fluid way, he’s relaxed about letting the story develop while he’s filming and advocates keeping the camera rolling. “As a documentary maker you can never recreate a moment, so if you’re driving past a beautiful sunset you should never say, ‘Oh we’ll shoot that tomorrow, let’s grab a beer’, because you’ll never get that exact same sunset again. Every day is different and photography is about seizing the moment. I think film should be the same. At the end of the day, if you’re opportunistic, you end up putting a lot more production value on screen. Now that you can, and it doesn’t cost you anything, it just takes a bit of concentration. Remind yourself to take a bit more time; try and be thorough. It’s not easy, because fundamentally I’m pretty lazy, but you sleep better at night when you get something really special. “In documentary you might go into a project with an idea that you have to sell someone on. You can write it down: what you think you’re going to do and how you think the story will unfold. However, you know, real life has a way of making that not happen. You have to go with the changes and make the most of what’s available to you. The more you’re shooting and the more dedicated you are to getting up and capturing moments, the better your project will be.”

I wonder if it’s the connection with his subjects that drives his work. “It’s just curiosity,” he says. “I really enjoy hearing people’s stories. It’s a privilege to be able to drop into someone else’s world. You have to understand that this is someone’s life and their environment. Whatever happens, that’s just the way it is. There are no shocks or surprises. I think people are the same wherever you go. You try to get along.” Maybe he does it for the same reason as the respected American writer Charles Bowden who, in McDonnell’s film Muerte & Me, explains why he continues to document the bloodshed in Juárez: “I’m someone who goes out there because other people have a day job.”

© Eleanor O’Kane 2012

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