A curse on the zombie establishment

An interview with filmmaker Eamonn Crudden

Picture 16

This interview is published together with another post  here, which provides embedded video of Crudden’s cinematic commentary of Ireland’s property crash, Wallets Full of Blood.

A compelling narrative of Ireland’s crisis of capitalism is very difficult to find. Those provided by economists, contemporary philosophers and mainstream documentary makers rely heavily on figures, graphs, ominous stringed instrumentals and thunderous voiceovers. But the transfer of economic and social wealth orchestrated by the government and banks in the last few years is not simply a consequence of state policy and intricate financial market formulae; it is also a story of primal greed and connivance.

RTE’s Freefall tells the tale of Ireland’s economic collapse as if it were a natural disaster, as if the global financial markets were a vortex sucking the defenceless Irish sector into it, before spitting it out. The music and voiceovers build to a crescendo, signalling the disaster that lay just “around the corner”. In contrast, Eamonn Crudden’s Wallets Full of Blood puts to one side the economic analysis which can be so often co-opted by the very same entities that fuelled the boom and instead identifies the raw urges of power, its insatiable hunger for wealth. Wallets Full of Blood mercilessly portrays the bankers, developers and political profiteers of the boom and bust as zombies, flesh eating harvesters of Ireland’s resources.

In this interview we ask about the inspiration for the trilogy and the relationship between independent filmmaking and the mainstream media.

Crudden’s feature length documentaries are also worth revisiting as global events show signs of coming back around the historical merry-go-round: Berlusconi’s Mousetrap, a first hand account of the chaotic G8 protests of Genoa in 2001, and Route Irish, a story of Ireland’s anti-war movement struggle against US military aggression and the use of Shannon airport.

(EC – Eamonn Crudden, MB – MediaBite, Miriam Cotton and David Manning)

MB – The story of Irish housing bubble in documentary is often characterised by a series of interviews with experts and talking heads, why did you choose to make a film rather than a traditional documentary?

EC – I think I was really interested in documenting the atmosphere created here by the deluge of bad news since late 2008. At the beginning of the crisis I got extremely interested in the whole tone of commentary on the web by hordes of anonymous commentators about the events. That feeling that there was a dark malignancy to the society around us just below the surface. The facts are available and were available and I was never interested in a dry recounting of the facts – I’m not expert enough in the area for starters. I’ve also always avoided falling into talking heads style material in the work I’ve made – I’m completely bored by that kind of material – even though – like the recent Freefall series – it has it’s place. It just does nothing for me. I’ve always found myself, in the work I make, interested in attempting to capture the texture or atmosphere of my own experiences. I’m interested in the way things make me feel and in a way have a tendency to try to ‘bottle’ my subjective reactions to events.

MB – Where did the title of the trilogy come from?

EC – It was suggested to me by a friend – John Buckley. I’d brought him on a tour of the ghost estates featured in the first film a few weeks before I shot it. Just before I completed it we did some online brainstorming about a title for the series. It’s derived from a lyric by Godspeed You Black Emperor – a Canadian anarchist post-rock band.

MB – What inspired you to begin the series?

EC – Well the village in Roscommon where I spend most of my time was completely overbuilt in 2006 and 2007. More than half of the housing there is still empty to this day. At the point where I began filming the discourse of ‘ghost estates’ was already a common currency in the media and I was particularly impressed at the time by a website set up by a contributor to the PropertyPin.com website which was allowing users to upload photos of these estates nationally to the site and link them to a google map. I was interested in the eerieness of these places as a result of my own experience in the village where I live – of walking past a whole estate of houses which had been there for almost two years and was totally uninhabited. No lights except the doorbells at night.

I decided to do some kind of video piece documenting the village just at the point where the exteriors of the houses were starting to degrade due to lack of maintenance. I had nothing in my head at that point about zombies or horror films. The one thing I was thinking about when I filmed the material for the first ‘Houses on the Moon‘ instalment was a piece of video art by Northern Irish artist Willie Doherty. He’d used the same style of fixed still shots to document a closed factory somewhere outside Belfast. I literally decided to mimic his visual approach. At that time the media here was basically wall to wall coverage of the economic crisis. This was pre-NAMA. As a result I chose to pick the shittiest weather I could for the actual filming, and I decided to bring a small radio with me. I shot hundreds of still shots with a shitty video camera and tripod and as I took the shots I scanned through various frequencies on the radio picking up a variety of soundbytes from the radio.

Around the point where I began editing the images together my partner rented a relatively new film by George A. Romero. He of course is celebrated for a trilogy of Zombie films which he made in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Land of the Dead, starring Dennis Hopper, is a cheesy kind of film which he made in the last few years. I was immediately struck by the name of the gated city which Hopper’s character ruled over – ‘Fiddler’s Green’. He was also excellent in the film as a psychotic manipulative elitist ruling over a very unstable kingdom. Parts of the dialogue also reflected a kind of class war with the zombies as the enraged and dispossessed proletariat outside the walls of the shining city. Again this resonated with my perception of what the housing market had been like in Ireland from the mid-nineties onward where working people were priced out of the housing market and simultaneously rack-rented by a network of ‘insiders’. I decided to do some sampling of the audio and layer it under the images I had already edited. I knew I was onto something immediately as the stolen chunks of audio really resonated with the bleak imagery of the ghost estates. The ‘action’ suddenly seemed to be taking place within earshot inside these houses. It felt very very Irish too despite the accents.

I went with it and improvised a very loose plot and spliced in sudden shots of zombies eating human flesh at various points. I also used sequences of shots to suggest a small developer suicide and a kind of war where capitalists who had manipulated the zombies for their own benefit, had lost control of them, and had lost control of their functionaries. In the credits I gave the name ‘Brian ‘Brains’ Ahern’ to Dennis Hopper’s character. I got the ‘Houses on the Moon’ title from a song called ‘Houses Everywhere’ by Jinx Lennon where he takes on the character of a megalomaniac property developer in Dundalk.

MB – The zombie narrative is an excellent analogy, but unlike the enraged proletariat of Romero’s sequel-too-many the zombies seem to have turned on themselves rather than mounting the gates of the citadel, what would be your thoughts on how this is happening?

EC – Well – I use the idea of zombies or the undead in different ways in each of the films. The films have obvious similarities and are like a series of riffs around one theme. The zombies in ‘Houses on the Moon’ are kind of meant to be the slaves of Brian ‘Brains’ Ahern. I attempted to portray him as using them to manipulate the property market around him to his benefit. In that film they – I suppose – are the small greedy bourgeois investors – think syndicates of professionals – whose mania in a way facilitated and gave cover to the elites that were involved in larger and ever more risky property deals.

In ‘Zombie Banker Blues‘ It becomes apparent that the elites have given themselves over totally to greed and to to the mania of a ponzi scheme. In the film the ‘substance’ of the scheme is flesh and blood. The symbolism is obvious however. Their greed slips the leash of reason and they begin to enjoy the power which their succumbing to unreality gives them.

In ‘Roscommon Death Trip‘ ‘Fingers’ and others willingly zombify themselves. This film I suppose is the ‘Nama’ one. Here the elites welcome zombification as a way of avoiding and conquering death. ‘Fingers’, rather than dying, waits underground in suspended animation for a vehicle – ‘a new body’ – which will allow him to come back to life. I added in the whole theme of resurrection partially because of the rampant suspicion which is abroad that Nama is an elite way of making sure the biggest gamblers in the property game don’t suffer the consequences of their actions, and partially because the bizarre spectacle of some of the biggest bankers and developers contributing large sums to the Vatican just before the crash. On the plaque in the chapel in Rome on which a series of Irish donors are named is the phrase ‘the injustice of time rendered obsolete‘. Also I couldn’t but try to include some reference to the increasingly bizarre plans for various ‘towers’ in the docklands which accompanied the peak of the ponzi boom.

In all of the films – the proletariat are victims of the zombies – rather than zombies themselves. This is an inversion I suppose of what Romero usually does. His zombies are the mindless consumers of the working class. Here the mindless zombies that led us over a cliff were the professional classes and the economic and political elites.

MB – The second two films, ‘Zombie Banker Blues’ and ‘Roscommon Death Trip’ in a way are more conventional than the first in that they feature clear coherent narratives. What is the thread that links them to ‘Houses on the Moon’?

EC – I was very aware that the use of still shots of exteriors had worked very well in the initial film. By the time the banking crisis was in full swing here I knew that I wanted to continue with the kind of approach I had used in ‘Houses on the Moon’. I gave my sister Aisling a list of addresses of Bank and Government buildings and asked her to shoot as much as she could of them in a similar style to the style I’d used in the Ghost Estates. She did lovely work which is used heavily in ‘Zombie Banker Blues’. When I got her footage I initially compiled it with a montage of audio from Day of the Dead by Romero and with an extensive amount of soundbytes of radio coverage of the banking crisis. It worked Ok but I felt it was too tied into documentary reality and didn’t have the kind of charge of horror that the first film had. I put it aside for a week or two and then at a certain point began to write a narration.

I took on the role of a compromised insider who had been involved in banking in Ireland during the bubble and placed him in the aftermath of a scenario where the bankers had wilfully become zombies for periods of time – using the blood of the population to cleanse themselves periodically after their binges. I imagined this character in a post economic collapse scenario in Dublin where the IMF had come to the country and was attempting to wean these zombie bankers off their diet – a diet which was destroying the country. I was trying to make something which on the surface was a straight faced horror short – but which had clear roman � clef elements – and a resulting kind of nervous comedy element. My perception of the country at the time was that of a kind of comedy horror show where the media seemed to be actively terrifying the population and I tried to feed that feeling into the film. I wanted to link the film to the previous one so, as well as depicting a post-collapse scenario, it flashes back extensively to the back-story of ‘Brains’ and ‘Fingers’ and their activities during the boom times.

The way I was technically telling the story drew on some of what I’d done in the first film, but was more complex in that I used a large amount of stills and video clips from ‘Day of the Dead’ to make a kind of skeletal film with characters. I suppose I was drawing on the kind of mash-up language of film you see being improvised by amateurs on sites like Youtube in doing this. I also began to use elements of ‘Psycho’ by Alfred Hitchcock in the film. I was very taken by the scene in a bank which is featured in the opening part of the movie and I used the audio from that extensively at the end of the film.

MB – ‘Roscommon Death Trip’ uses a huge amount of sources compared to ‘Houses on The Moon’ and ‘Zombie Banker Blues’. What was the impetus behind it and the choice of sources?

EC – I was much less methodical in making the final film. I had a few key starting points. One very important one was the incredible sermon delivered by John Gielgiud in the film version of ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by Joyce. I got my hands on it completely accidentally. It was given out by a Sunday newspaper and I got it from someone who had got it in that way. I really loved the speech and imagined Fianna Fail being damned by this religious rhetoric which was part and parcel of its cultural currency historically. I had a copy on DVD of the ‘Haughey’ series of documentaries which I’d had for a couple of years at hand and began to imagine integrating the speech with some of the old footage of Haughey and his gang. To me the crisis which is ongoing stems from attitudes which were prevalent in that period and visible particularly in the scamming which went on around the Beef Industry and around Tax avoidance.

I also read Kinsella’s translation of the Tain in the period before making it. There was an abandoned box of paperback versions of it in my office at work! I’d only ever heard sanitised versions of those stories in primary school previously and was really taken by the extraordinary brutality of some of the imagery in it. I rifled through it stealing phrases and images which I thought might be useful. I also got the image from it of a population treated like cattle. Finally I loved the descriptions of landscapes in it – and the descriptions of crows.

I put that stuff aside and somehow fell into a burst of reading noir novels and watching old classic noir films. I was very taken by some of the voiceovers in old noir films – particularly the voiceover used in a film called ‘Detour’. Also around that time – the big snow happened and I was completely taken by the snowed under deserted landscape that appeared around me in Roscommon. All of these elements started to come together slowly when I wrote an initial draft of the voiceover. My partner helped me along the way immeasurably by showing me a modern horror film called the Descent. The elements I was interested in using clicked into place with the image of insiders residing underground feasting on flesh as they waited for ‘vehicle’ which could allow them to become immortal. I of course imagined this vehicle as being something like NAMA.

The whole thing was very improvised really in retrospect and the list of sources at the end of the film reflects that. I was literally recording voiceover material right up to the day I completed it. I am very fond of it, particularly because I found myself becoming completely unnerved by it when watching it as a whole the first few times. I wanted it to be like a kind of historically informed voodoo curse on the elites here and I hope I’ve succeeded in achieving that.

MB – The footage of the SIPTU banner billowing in the wind is particularly mesmerising, as the last ‘sanctuaries’ yield to the cabal for the last time. This series is not about hope, do you see it panning out as you’ve described? Is there, as with many zombie movies a chink of light?

EC – Well I didn’t include any chinks of light. I don’t see any. I see the unions as complicit in what is happening at this stage. I also see for example The Labour Party as complicit. They have done nothing real to date to oppose the socialisation of the gambling debts of an elite. I refused to join the union in my own workplace as a result of their inactivity. I see the Labour party as having decided to let Fianna Fail at it so that they destroy themselves. In doing that, and in not mobilising people to demand an election, I see them as putting cynicism ahead of democracy. Their unwillingness to force the issue here is in effect a deliberate leaving of Fianna Fail free to destroy the place.� They have created ‘facts on the ground’ in terms of sheltering their elite supporters and shifting the cost of the mania onto the ordinary people – and they have done this while the Unions and Labour stand idly by.

MB – You say that “the media seemed to be actively terrifying the population”, what do you think makes ‘horror news’ so palatable, so addictive? Post bubble we seem to be feeding of economic horror, where during the bubble we fed off the pornography of capitalism.

EC – It is addictive. It’s literally sublime. Beyond our full comprehension. I suppose there is something innately attractive about crisis in that at least crisis means something other than the stasis of consumerism and pseudo-democracy. I think there is a certain revelling in the crisis here because it seems to offer the chance of an end to the ongoing dominance of Fianna Fail.

MB – If you were to have created the trilogy for a corporate broadcaster how different do you think the end product would have been in terms of style and substance?

EC – I am not and have not been interested in dealing with corporate or state broadcasters for a long long time. I did some work from RTE while in my mid-twenties and it put me off that approach for life. I have been lucky enough to get serious about this kind of engaged filmmaking at a time when, because of developments in video equipment and technology, I can work autonomously in my spare time, and distribute stuff outside of television. I like it that way.

I also don’t think any broadcaster in Ireland would have been prepared to negotiate with and pay the holders of the many copyrights I have broken in this series of shorts. I think, if I had proposed what I’ve done here, they literally wouldn’t understand what I was talking about. It’s also I suppose worth saying that these films were made in a very experimental way – the end products came out at the end of the process of making them. I didn’t have a clear idea of each before starting into the editing of them. I edited and scripted at the same time in a very loose and intuitive way. This is definitely not the way – with maybe the exception of Adam Curtis – that things are done in TV in Ireland.

MB – Could single out examples of good and bad documentary making from within the mainstream?

EC – My favourite mainstream person who makes documentary stuff is Adam Curtis who made The Power of Nightmares and The Trap. The mainstream is obsessed with celebrity and I suppose in terms of bad stuff I would point to the way in which RTE and TV3 fell over themselves to commission documentary style stuff with any kind of celebrity angle in the last number of years. I don’t really watch TV at all any more to be perfectly frank. I make stuff and consume stuff mostly on the net or on DVD.

MB – How did you distribute the films?

EC – I was making these films at a very busy point in my life – working fulltime and doing postgraduate research. I didn’t have time to organise screenings etc and in fact never even considered it. I had been involved heavily in Indymedia Ireland in the early years of the decade and published the films first there. The actual videos are hosted on Vimeo.com which allows you to upload and make video available in quite high quality at lengths beyond those allowed by Youtube. By the time I released the first video there was a healthy left blogging community in Ireland and quite a few quite high profile blogs picked up on it very quickly. They didn’t really review the film but the fact that they chose to publish the film itself was very gratifying. They included ‘Dublin Opinion‘, ‘Slugger O’Toole‘, ‘Notes on the Front‘, ‘The Irish Left Review‘ and ‘The Punishment of Sloth‘. The first film gathered a big audience quite quickly and I suppose the ease of distributing it fed into my deciding to develop on the first one and make a trilogy. Throughout the process many of these outlets continued to support me by distributing the films.

MB – What would you do differently if you had the resources of RTE, for instance, available to you?

EC – I’d have used an expensive mic for my voiceovers in the second two films! That’s about it. The only resource that was valuable to me or needed by me during the making of these was time to sit and edit and think.

MB – What sort of reaction have you had from ‘mainstream’ journalists to your work?

EC – I haven’t the slightest interest in mainstream journalists and their opinions of my work. I don’t send it to them or pursue write-ups so I haven’t had any reaction I suppose. I DO like that I have had significant support with distributing these films from parts of the blogging community that are interested in politics.

MB – Lastly, is the infection described in the trilogy capitalism, greed, corruption, all of them or something else entirely?

EC – I see it as pure greed. The infection is the ability to transmute desire straight into money with no intermediate stage. The infection is the logic of a ponzi scheme. It feeds on itself and destroys the host. Eventually there’s no ‘blood’ left.

Biog: Eamonn Crudden is a filmmaker and a lecturer in film and video production. He has previously made a number of feature length documentary films including ‘Route Irish’ (2007) and ‘Berlusconi’s Mousetrap’ (2002).

More recently he has focused on more experimental modes of filmmaking. An archive of his films can be found at: http://vimeo.com/user1319195

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