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MA Student Experience Blog

Blog. Cathal Black’s Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name.

15 Nov 2018
Five Red Roses. Image courtesy of Cork Film Festival

On Wednesday evening, I saw Irish director Cathal Black’s...

... ( new documentary, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name, as part of the Cork Film Festival. Black is known for his groundbreaking work in both documentary and narrative filmmaking, including the 1981 film Our Boys.Continuing his theme of exploring subjects that can be divisive or unacknowledged, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name explores the life of writer, activist, and Sinn Fein leader Máirín de Burca.

During his introduction to the film, Black discussed the inception of the project, and the organic process during which de Burca’s story became a more prominent element of the film over the course of the eight-year project. Finally, Black said, the documentary became a study of de Burca and her experiences, though the film does not cover every element of her eventful life. Such a task, Black pointed out, would require a three-hour film.

In watching the film, I was struck by Black’s unique audiovisual techniques. For instance, he employed voiceover in an incredibly gripping way by juxtaposing it with a variety of still photographs, historical reenactments, and symbolic imagery. One of my favorite sequences in the film was of a house whose lights gradually go out, which plays just as de Burca describes her late-night walks home after Sinn Fein meetings. I was also struck by a scene when de Burca describes the racist language used by her family when she was a child, which is accompanied by shadowy, almost ghostly footage of antique television sets. Then, as de Burca continues to speak, the camera pans up to a group of African Americans dressed in old-fashioned clothing. The actors stare into the camera as though challenging not only the morality of de Burca’s family, but also of the audience and its complicity.

Nuances such as this scene prevent the documentary from treating de Burca as an inhuman hero or villain--a misstep that many biographical documentaries fall into. Instead, the documentary offers a complex view of Máirín de Burca that is just intimate enough for the audience to keep interest, while keeping enough distance to allow us to come to our own conclusions. Black thoroughly explores his subject matter while taking great care to treat its delicate issues with sensitivity. In fact, Black said that rather than the documentary being too political, he felt that de Burca likely found the film “not political enough.” Considering the highly charged energy of the subjects he addresses--including feminism, violence, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland--this impartiality is an impressive feat in filmmaking.

During the Q&A that followed the screening, Black also talked about how difficult it was to make a film about such a complicated subject and time period without turning the documentary into a dry historical piece. In addition, de Burca is a complicated character with “many layers,” so it took a great deal of time and effort to understand and coherently convey her as a character. However, interviews with other activists from the period helped Black because, he said, those stories could “go left or right of Máirín, but they always brought it back to her.” The documentary effectively painted a colorful picture of Máirín and her accomplishments, and fulfilled of Black’s goal of “getting the veins of the story.” Striking, fascinating, and even mysterious, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name left me inspired and truly lived up to its beautiful title.

Department of Film and Screen Media

Scannánaíocht agus Meáin Scáileán

O'Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland