Drawing to a conclusion
Three Irish documentaries take a look at the intimacy and artistry of undertaking, the still-bewildering account of Irish football’s visit to Gadafy’s Libya, and the politics of spray paint
Blessed with a naturally sympathetic face, and a soft, consoling voice, David McGowan exudes calm reassurance. That’s just as well, because the subject of Gillian Marsh’s exquisite documentary, The Funeral Director (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) is a man in the business of death. “We’d be surrounded by death every week,” McGowan says as the programme begins. “It’s normal.”
As though to emphasise the point, in the first of many artful details, we watch McGowan attempt to locate a headstone, somewhere in a graveyard. A single, beautifully deployed aerial shot reveals both its orderliness and its vastness. He is surrounded by death. It’s normal.
It gives you a sense of how unhesitant McGowan is on the subject to hear what prompted him to pursue professional training in Chicago: an emergency call when a coffin began groaning because the body inside had not been embalmed.
The documentary follows his unflinching, demystifying lead, and though it helps that McGowan is so considered and articulate, the programme portrays him as vividly in actions as words. “That’s him,” McGowan says, settling the glasses upon the face of a carefully embalmed body. In the gesture, at once professional and tender, you realise the intimacy and artistry of the profession. You may genuinely learn things too – the precise costs of a funeral, gravedigging superstitions, the science of embalming, the process of cremation – and, so disarmed by it all, find yourself comfortably considering your own mortality.
In the programme’s extraordinary second half, we meet someone considering his own. This is Captain Dougie Hopkins, a pilot in the late stages of terminal cancer, and a friend of McGowan’s. Although an expert in grief, and its expression, McGowan is slow to share grievances: the closest he comes, touchingly, is his pride in converting a decommissioned 767 airliner into glamping accommodation. “I’m not known now as the grim reaper,” he says, standing in its fuselage. “I’m known as the man who brought in the plane.” But this is not a sanctuary: it will be Dougie’s resting place. His ashes, combined with a tree, will take root in the plane’s tail.
In their friendship, we see two men preparing for death; nobly, philosophically, practically. Even without Saso and Kevin Corcoran’s affecting score, this would be profoundly moving to witness. Marsh, as discreet and tactful as her subject, continues to show Dougie’s interviews after his passing, ensuring a presence beyond death.
Nothing is quite as startling, respectful
new players such as Holly Pereira, whose expressions are more feminist off the wall than on. “It’s extremely hard to control,” she says of spray paint, but traditionally that has been true of street art as a whole. Where is the risk now?
Belfast’s murals are “a major draw for tourists” we are told, while treet art festival Waterford Walls is portrayed as mostly beautifying. Caslin, readying his first piece for the National Gallery, seems aware of the double-edged sword of street art’s newfound legitimacy: “An art form that has been on the edge,” as he puts it, is now being admitted into the mainstream.
McCloskey very earnestly presents Irish street art, increasingly commissioned and sanctioned, as a force for good. When it’s bad, though, it can sometimes be better.
“It may not have been the brightest thing anyone ever did in football,” offers Brian Kerr during In League with Gaddafi (RTÉ Two, Monday) a brisk and still bewildered history of how a team of Irish footballers went to play against Libya in Benghazi in 1989. Well, perhaps it wasn’t the shrewdest move to legitimise a repressive state that sponsored international terrorism. But given last week’s news of the FAI’s ¤55 million debts and its possible demise, it would be lucky to make the top five list of Irish football fiascos.
How innocent the League of Ireland was in its decision to accept the friendly invitation is an open question, though. Were they ignorant that the then Libyan leader Col Muammar Gadafy supplied the Provisional IRA with huge numbers of arms? Or were they just as mercenary as the Haughey government, which, we are reminded, wasn’t going to let ethics get in the way of lucrative beef exports?
Kevin Brannigan’s documentary, fizzing with 1980s pop-culture nostalgia, presents the whole farrago as a combination of mutual grift and naivety. Even the team, hurriedly assembled from Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic, was not the one the Libyans were expecting, neither confirming or denying that they were part of Jackie’s Army. (Wisely, perhaps, lest Gadafy try to supply this army with munitions). Who was scamming who?
For the most part, Brannigan’s documentary seems as slow to make any troubling connections, too dizzied by the flitter of archive clips and contemporary pop soundtrack. The reliable Eamonn McCann points out that Gadafy’s arms prolonged the IRA’s campaign of violence, though, “without any doubt”. The game cannot hope to match the sheer spectacle of Gadafy himself, of course, ubiquitous in propaganda and sinister in influence, who enters the stadium on a white horse amid a hail of celebratory gunfire. (There is nothing quite as amusing, nor as telling, as McCann’s comparisons of Gadafy to Haughey; two political cynics, fond of high-quality garments.)
The final score was a 1-1 draw, meaning no one came out of the whole too well, or too disgraced, to be vividly remembered.
Recalling the belated delivery of the game fee, a suitcase stuffed with dinar, Kerr is briefly distracted by a match today with a credible attempt on the goal: “What a save!” he says, “What a save.” Wasn’t it just?