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Film Review: The Pipe

Documentary offers a first-hand insight into the complications, setbacks and triumphs of a collective citizens’ protest.

Photos courtesy of Underground Film Warehouse Studios.

The Pipe (2010) | Director: Risteard O'Domhnaill| trailer | website

Seen from a bird’s eye view, small-town Northern Ireland is a breathtaking landscape of jagged rock faces, sprawling fields and open waters. Seen from the ground, the emotional climate of the county district of Mayo is markedly less idyllic.

Filmmaker Risteard O'Domhnaill is conversant in both perspectives, cutting between a series of sweeping aerial helicopter shots and hand-held protest footage in the opening minutes of The Pipe, a slow-burner documentary screening this Sunday at Vancouver’s Amnesty International Film Festival.  Domhnaill wastes little time bringing the audience up to speed: here is the land, here are the people, this is the fight and these are the stakes.

The fight at the center of The Pipe surrounds the contentious location of oil conglomerate Shell’s incoming pipeline. The people are the denizens of the small bayside fishing community opposed to the construction, which would uproot their backyards and disrupt their fishing grounds. Devoting half its running time to the land concern and the remainder to fishing industry, The Pipe offers a first-hand insight into the myriad levels, complications, setbacks and triumphs of a collective citizens’ protest.

O'Domhnaill’s camera follows the group through organizational meetings that are characterized by strained empathy and vitriolic rejoinders as the group looks to their next step. He also picks up a first-person point-of-view of the police brutality that too often punishes these decisions.

The nuts-and-bolts telling of this story also serves to shine a light on the reality, often-overlooked in documentaries, of just how many years are involved in taking on a corporation, especially as the proceedings grow progressively more litigious.

Stylistically, The Pipe is an elegant study in invisible filmmaking. One seldom feels Domhnaill’s hand pushing the narrative this way or that; the film takes its time to listen and observe as citizens tour fields and beaches, speaking their minds. The remarks are given room to breath and as such, never feel clipped or tailored.

The Pipe lets people be people, rather than talking points or simple narrative fulcrums. Even the score, so often the clunky ham-fisted culprit in documentaries, is lean and spare. Domhnaill is often just as content leaving a scene sonically untouched, as in the scenes of group meetings, where the shouts and interjections of its members provide a vérité soundtrack.

The Pipe does a couple of tough things exceedingly well. It elucidates a complex and protracted situation. It also accomplishes this without discounting nuance or style. But most of all, it remains grounded in a handful of vital people one is willing and eager to get behind. As fisherman Pat O’Donnell stands his ground against a hulking Shell tanker, protecting his crab pods and his livelihood, the audience is temporarily inducted into this community and the fight hits home.

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