“Those in power write the history. Those who struggle write the songs.”
Those words appear on the cinema screen just before the closing credits roll-up on North Circular, a new documentary film that chronicles the life and times of Dublin’s community of the same name.
“That quote is from the late Dublin singer and song collector Frank Harte,” shares the film’s writer and director Luke McManus via Zoom. “I thought that it was a fitting way to finish the film. It really ties things up nicely, especially for audiences who don’t know the area as well.”
For those that have yet to see the flick, the film’s website serves up a short synopsis.
A multiple award-winning documentary musical travelling the length of Dublin’s fabled North Circular Road, where local characters share their powerful and emotive stories, accompanied by traditional ballads and folk music that add to the narrative. North Circular conjures the ghosts of the past while engaging with the conflicts and celebrations of today, with a little bit of Dublin humour thrown in. Told in black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, the film evokes many narratives from the history of the city and nation, from colonialism to mental health, to the struggle for women’s liberation while also engaging with urgent issues of today, including the battle to save the legendary Cobblestone Pub, centre of Dublin’s recent folk revival, from destruction at the hands of cynical property developers.
Although only released theatrically in December of 2022, North Circular has already picked up a number of honours, including a Grand Prix Award at Fipadoc 2023, Best Documentary at the 2022 Louth International Film Festival, and a prize at The Spirit of IndieCork Film Festival. The film also received a Special Mention Best Documentary Award at the 2022 Dublin International Film Festival and was an Official Selection at both the 2022 Galway Film Fleadh and the 2022 Sheffield Doc/Fest as well. It recently made its North American debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
“We are currently shopping it around to other film festivals around the world,” says McManus, who still lives in the North Circular Road neighbourhood of Grangegorman.
“So far, the critics have been very kind, as have audiences, so word seems to be getting out.”
Indeed, along with the array of awards, accolades from McManus’ peers have been prodigiously positive.
“Moving, poetic, visceral, thoughtful and funny in equal parts,” noted Film Network Ireland, while Film in Dublin called it “warm and engaging…equal parts sensitive and celebratory, the film’s 85 minutes flies by in a comprehensive view of a variety of lives.” Balls.ie described the documentary as “brilliant…a special love letter to the areas found along the road – the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly…beautiful depiction of a complex area of Dublin…”
Mainstream media was equally praiseworthy; Variety called the film “beautiful, visually and sonically striking…a heartfelt love letter to Dublin,” while The Guardian wrote “resonant, vivid and beautifully shot…pregnant with images and ideas…a film made with real artistry.” The Dublin Inquirer shared “a film full of astonishing imagery…a remarkable contemporary document of places, people, lives and times,” with The Irish Times adding “a fascinating psychogeography…captivating, positively operatic.” John Fardy of Newstalk lauded the film as “a gorgeous, beautiful, important story told with beautiful photography and glorious music.”
While McManus has previously produced and directed a number of documentary projects for NBC, Netflix, RTÉ, Virgin Media Television, TG4, NDR/ARD, Al Jazeera and Channel – winning four IFTAs, one Celtic Media Award, and the Radharc Award in the process – he has found all of the acclaim overwhelming.
“The response to the film has certainly been unlike anything that I have ever experienced,” he laughs. “It’s all a little bit surreal at this point to be honest. I suppose that – being knee-deep in the project for so long – that it was, and still is, sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees.”
His own director’s notes dive deep into his own motivations and process.
“North Circular is a personal film. I have lived just off the road itself for two decades and remain fascinated by its variety, by its contradictions, by the competing tensions that it finds within itself.”
He adds that it is a film “in a tradition of the great documentaries of urban place, such as Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA and Zed Nelson’s The Street – choosing a physically proximate geography to be the thread connecting a diverse collection of narratives and characters.”
“In the end, my approach was simply to allow these people to tell their own stories.”
The documentary also includes musical performances from artists local to the North Circular, including Séan Ó Túama, Eoghan O’Ceannabháin, Ian Lynch, John Francis Flynn, Gemma Dunleavy, and many others.
“The use of music as a specific technique of storytelling is both an aesthetic and a editorial decision – to make a documentary which combines the musical and the factual film in a way that isn’t simply a documentary about music but is more a documentary musical. This narrative form reflects the traditional of musical storytelling and narrative in Dublin.
“Songs plays a massive role in the film,” he continues. “They had to – I could not have told the story without the right soundtrack.”
He muses that the use of black and white imagery reiterates the connection between the values and culture of the past and those of today.
“There is a timeless quality to the challenges that face our characters with yesterday reflecting in their eyes as they live their present lives. There are numerous themes, characters and issues bubbling beneath the surface of the North Circular Road when you walk along it. A certain darkness at times, a celebratory energy at others: this single road encompasses so much diversity of human experience. This film will only ever be a glimpse of life on a couple of moments in the complex history of this multi-faceted place.”