Desmond Bell is a Northern Irish filmaker and academic. Over the last decade he has directed a series of documentary films which have been widely screened on television and in the cinema. These include ‘Hard Road to Klondike’, ‘The Last Storyteller’, ‘Rebel Frontier’ and most recently ‘The Enigma of Frank Ryan’ – released earlier this year. These films combine moving image archival material with narrative voice and elements of re-enactment/reconstruction in a distinctive and quite analytic manner.
In the violent period immediately leading up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire he set out on an attempt at a vérité documentary about the rave scene that was in full swing at the time in and around Belfast. The scene, like the punk scene of the late seventies, seemed to be providing participants and observers with glimpses of a possible non-sectarian identity and future.
Bell’s early films (available here) concern themselves with the nature of loyalist identity and culture in the early nineties and particularly with the experiences of young people within that culture. During the making of ‘Dancing on Narrow Ground’ Bell sought the active help of groups of young participants in the ostensibly ‘non-sectarian’ rave scene from both loyalist and republican communities. The quite gripping, raw, almost investigative film looks in a detached and critical way at the notion of rave somehow providing a cultural shortcut to a non-sectarian future. The film was completed in 1995. It, for reasons discussed by the director in the short interview below, was never broadcast on television and never found a significant audience.
EC: What was the motivation for making the film?
DB: I have had a longstanding interest in youth cultures in NI and the issue of whether these subvert or reproduce sectarian relations. John Davies 1978 film ‘Shell Shock Rock’ explored the world of punk in Belfast and how it transcended the sectarian divide. I wanted to see if ‘rave’ culture a decade and a half later could do the same. With the worsening conflict it could not – except in the midst of drug fuelled gatherings.
EC: I get the impression your background led you to identify quite strongly with the young Loyalist drum fan who features heavily in the film. Do you know what became of him?
DB: Johnny Nevins? Sadly he died several weeks ago, age 34, after a sad life of drugs, petty crime and self-harming. He always seemed to me on a collision course with danger but a lovely guy despite the personal tragedies he experienced. His father was killed in the Maze breakout. He was a prison officer. Johnny was not bitter about it.
EC: What influenced your strong ‘vérité’ approach to the film?
DB: I had experimented with a vérité style in a number of earlier films but combined with a film essay form. Here I wanted to get close to the kids and let them tell their story. I am not sure vérité does that as the director’s point of view is always smuggled in and this is wilfully obscured by the apparent photographic verisimilitude.
EC: Who funded it and why was the film never broadcast? Why have you decided to make it available on the internet?
DB: The film was funded by the Cultural Traditions Group in NI. They funded a range of cultural projects that challenged the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. You’ll have to ask BBC NI why it was not accepted for broadcast. Something about the foul language and the wrong class of person being featured, I seem to recollect. I was persuaded by Connor Clements who assists me in my film making to put it on the internet. I should have done it years ago – but then you couldn’t really with bandwidths etc.
EC: Your work since has not utilised the same approach. Why?
DB: As I say I am unconvinced by the honesty of the vérité approach and besides which I am getting a bit old for gadding round the streets following youth groups!
EC: The film reminded me when I watched it first of Shellshock Rock by John T. Davis. Did that film influence it?
DB: See above. I think DANCING is a more analytical and critical film in that it engages more directly with issues of sectarianism and political identity. John’s film of course has the energy! But we seem to be enjoying a new round of sentimentality with regards punk in NI with GOOD VIBRATIONS which might have profited from following the punk film aesthetic John pioneered.
EC: The scene at the end when you sit down to have a ‘jar’ with the nationalist/republican participants is very powerful. Were you ever afraid while filming scenes like that?
DB: Not really. I had by that time spent several years on ethnographic work in the North and like a good journalist you learn to assess the risks. This was the night of the declaration of the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the start of the peace process and all the kids were in a good mood. I did, however, have my tyres slashed in west Belfast that night – probably an act of ordinary decent vandalism!
EC: Do you think that a non-sectarian youth culture now exists on a large scale in the north?
DB: Not at all. There is the facade of this among the middle class youth in south Belfast and in the club scene but the divisions are as entrenched as ever and have not really been challenged in the peace era – in fact quite the opposite. The sociological evidence suggests a deepening of sectarianism in education, residentially and in cultural terms.
Dancing on Narrow Ground
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- Interview with Des Bell on the Making of Dancing on Narrow Ground - September 11, 2012