The Image You Missed – Film Review by Kevin Olohan
Written and Directed by Donal Foreman and Arthur MacCaig
“The land sustaining us seemed to hold firm
Only when we embraced it in extremis.
All I believe that happened there was vision” – Seamus Heaney
The final stanza of The Disappearing Island by Seamus Heaney, also acts as the prologue and framing device for Donal Foreman’s deeply personal documentary The Image You Missed, with each of the lines acting as chapter titles. The film was made “between” Foreman and the late documentary filmmaker Arthur MacCaig, the latter of whom is as much as you could call the main subject of the piece. MacCaig was “An American living in Paris making films about Ireland.” A New Jersey native with Irish roots who moved to Paris where he studied filmmaking, only to become fascinated by the then raging conflict in Northern Ireland. Starting with The Patriot Game in 1979 right up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, MacCaig made several documentaries about the Troubles. He even wrote a screenplay for a “romantic thriller” set during the conflict, but was unsuccessful in getting the film made. (Thank God.) Dropping dead in 2008 on a street corner in Belfast, the adoptive city he spent his entire career filming, he left hundreds of hours of unused footage behind, which Foreman has pieced together into this film. Why is it so personal then? Arthur MacCaig was Donal Foreman’s estranged father.
The Image You Missed is a film about many things. It’s arguably a film about too many things. Certainly for its 73 minutes run time. It is partly a biography of MacCaig, an autobiography of Foreman, a drama on their relationship, or lack thereof, an essay on the craft of filmmaking, and hey, the Troubles are there too! It’s not that it doesn’t work, most of it really does, there’s just too much to have focus.
This isn’t a documentary about the history of Troubles, and that’s fine, but it features so much footage of the politics, blood and devastation it caused the people of Northern Ireland, that it makes you wish it was. MacCaig is a very interesting character. The film features voiceover (recorded by an actor) of MacCaig’s letters the Forman’s mother and of his thoughts on the craft of filmmaking, and you get a real feel for his struggles both personally and professionally, but then you also have interviews with the ordinary working class people of Belfast and their day to day struggles during those turbulent years. One harrowing scene, in particular, is an elderly woman recounting of how a gun was fired so close to her face in front of her young family, she was blinded. These flashes and vignettes are ultimately more interesting, but that’s all they are, flashes, and then we return to one of the other many themes. I’m not saying every film set during that time has to be about the conflict itself, far from it, but the lack of focus makes it feel like it’s about too many large subjects, and so ultimately about none of them. One of the opening quotes from MacCaig is “Every film is a mission impossible.” And The Image You Missed certainly was one.
Like it’s name suggests, if the film is about anything it is the power of imagery, and it is in this that the documentary thrives. Both in MacCaig’s footage and in Foreman’s, The magnificent editing searches for reflections of MacCaig in his own footage. But possibly the most striking image is footage of the Peace Walls in Belfast in 2016. With freshly touched up murals, complete with a group of young women taking smiling selfies. (Was this what it was all for, you ask?) One particularly interesting character (who almost certainly did not know she was being filmed) is seen dry humping the mural of Hunger Striker Francis Hughes. Needless to say it is that image that will never leave me.
The Image You Missed was released on August 10th.