Niall McCann is something of an outsider in Irish cinema. The Dundalk-born director, whose first feature, 2012’s Art Will Save The World, was a documentary about the anti-commercial musician Luke Haines, while with Lost in France he now focuses his sights on Chemikal Underground, the Scottish independent label set up in 1994 that propelled many new and obscure bands — Mogwai, Bis, Arab Strap, etc. — into the popular consciousness. Through the story of the label, the film charts the changing circumstances within the music industry, and society more generally, over the last twenty or so years. If you could render McCann’s auteurial concerns down to one singular thing, it would be the Sisyphean struggle of creating art in a market economy.
An indomitable pessimism is a felt presence in McCann’s work, as well as the way he reflects on it — this he does unusually candidly for a filmmaker, with a straightforwardness that is often blackly comic. At one point in his career though, it seemed as though he might give up altogether. “I finished my film about Luke Haines and it didn’t come out,” he says. “There were a lot of problems with the production company and copyright issues with it so it didn’t get a release past festivals. That took the wind out of my sails a little bit. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna bother make films any more. Critically it did well and stuff, but it didn’t seem possible, unless you’re independently wealthy, to make films, ‘cause there’s no way of making money and everyone just fucks you over. It’s very hard to find people you can trust.”
Is this partially down to the non-commercial subject matter of his films? “Well it could be,” he says. “The budgets aren’t too big, yeah. I’ve been lucky with my two producers on Lost In France though: both Nicky Gogan and Paul Welsh are fantastic people and you can trust them. Anyway my first experience wasn’t great, but after a while I decided I should give it another go. There is glory in getting a film out there, even if it’s not even very fucking good, you know. Making a film is difficult, so I always have respect for people who actually get it done.”
Lost in France is an unconventional film to have made, in a lot of ways. It sees several members of Chemikal Underground acts — including Stuart Braithwaite (of Mogwai), Alex Kapranos (of The Karelia and later the major-label ‘art-rockers’ Franz Ferdinand) and Stewart Henderson (of The Delgados and founder of the label) — return eighteen years later to the French town of Mauron, where they once played a series of memorable gigs. But hidden within this musical documentary is an indictment of reactionary politics and cultural attitudes towards people on social welfare, led no less by its musical stars.
“That was the most important thing for me,” McCann explains. “You know, before the editing process — ‘kill your darlings’ — there was a much more politicised film in there. We spoke about that stuff constantly. I wouldn’t have been able to make this film without the dole. I don’t come from an extremely poor background, but I don’t come from money.”
The issue of class is fundamental to what McCann perceives as a problem with the arts in Ireland. “It’s like Waking The Feminists,” he says, “which I do think is important. You can up the ratios of female directors and writers that get funded compared to male ones, but I think class is a far bigger issue. You know, most people who make films are rich. They come from rich families, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if someone from a working class background wants to try to make a film and they’re up against people whose dads will just write fifty grand cheques, I’d worry about where it’s going and how it’s gonna end up. Social welfare and people’s attitudes towards it, as Stewart says in the film, are incredibly important. Luke Haines was the same. Pulp. Any band you can think of that you might like, all these guys were funded by the dole. Even in the film, Paul Savage, who’s one of the top producers in the UK, if not Europe: he learned to do that on one of those schemes they had on the dole back then.”
Class barriers to involvement in the arts have a knock-on effect on the quality of work produced, as McCann says: “You end up with all sorts of [protecting the] status quo films. If you come from a rich background, what are you going to be angry about, really? Maybe you will want to change something, I mean Ken Loach isn’t a working class hero, you know, he’d be a champagne socialist in a way, but we still need people like that. I just mean, I don’t know many working class voices involved in filmmaking.”
What was the catalyst for the present state of affairs? “The Celtic Tiger did something to this country,” McCann explains, “which is the idea that if you’re good enough and you want something, then you should achieve it. And if you don’t succeed then you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t deserve it. And that’s obviously bullshit. Most people don’t understand that the way things are isn’t the way they have to be. When people feel like they’re getting jipped, or not getting what they deserve, or what they were promised, then they get angry, and they turn on other people, and the media plays a huge part in this, who they’re told are taking their money. But it’s a scam, the whole thing. Capitalism is just a big trick. And it works by people not being given the time, or the lack of worry — ‘cause we’re so worried and so stressed the whole time about the next bill coming in — that they don’t have the time to sit back and think.”
Do artists have a responsibility to resist? “Selling out,” McCann says, ‘selling out to the man’: that was a big thing when I was growing up, and now? Forget about it. There were ideas in the 80s and 90s that are just gone now. I’ve heard of Irish filmmakers doing ads for banks, for supermarkets, all those sorts of people. In my opinion: do that? Fuck it then, I don’t wanna see your films, ‘cause you’re a liar. But I’m not allowed say stuff like that. Or I do it and people roll their eyes. But it’s a fair point, I think.”
Why is this? “I don’t earn enough money,” he explains, simply. “If I earned enough money I could say what I want. Remember [John Michael] McDonagh said his films aren’t Irish ‘cause Irish films are shit? And nothing. You know? He’ll get even more funding, even though his films are shite. So it’s funny that, but he makes money. So there’s a real problem. It’s funny, I don’t feel like I’m part of film in this country. I don’t feel included. Like I’ve a lot of friends who work in it, but I don’t feel part of it really. And I always say the wrong thing. But if Michael Haneke were to say it that’s okay. ‘Cause he writes his films on a fucking island, that his parents owned.”
For McCann, there was a very specific turning point at which he became disillusioned. “I got quite sick,” he says. “I was sick when I was a kid. I ended up in St. Pat’s for about a year, and St. John of God’s. I was in… a lot of things. You see another side of life in there. Psychiatry is in many ways the band-aid of capitalism. We’re making people sick but rather than admit that we say they’re just ill. I think R.D. Laing and Ivor Browne, whose film The Wonder Eye was on in the IFI, have a lot of interesting things to say about that. Well, R.D. Laing’s obviously dead but… Yeah a lot of stuff changed for me then. That’s when I decided I wanted to make films too. I take form seriously and I take the message of my films seriously, and a lot of the time this film has been described as being nostalgic, and that bothers me because I don’t see it as that. I do think it’s sentimental at times, but… I think, all my films, even the documentaries I made for TV, are about people who know they can’t win, but keep moving and keep trying anyway. But you can’t win. None of us can win.”
McCann’s is undoubtedly a unique voice in Irish cinema, remarkable for the clarity and earnestness of his criticisms, and his pronouncements on society more generally. The situation may be bleak, and the future even bleaker, but the career of this young filmmaker holds great potential. In a time where many creators increasingly see their sole responsibility as being a financial one, it is a welcome and promising change to encounter someone making art not just for its own sake, but for the alleviation of human suffering more generally. There is something therapeutic in that, no doubt.
Lost in France is on limited release from early March. See lostinfrancefilm.com for details.
3 Chemikal Underground tracks
Mogwai – ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ (1997)
From their seminal debut album, Young Team, comes the post-rock anthem to end all post-rock anthems. Iconic, extremely powerful music.
bis – ‘Kandy Pop’ (1996)
The song that brought Chemikal Underground their first real chart success, and an appearance on Top of the Pops. An off-kilter, extremely 90s-MTV banger.
Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – ‘The Copper Top’ (2011)
Beloved of director Niall McCann and described by Stewart Henderson as ‘the finest song in Chemikal Underground’s entire catalogue’, this slow, poignant reflection on grief matches Moffat’s spoken lyrics to Wells’ instrumentation beautifully.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall
Photo: Killian Broderick