What we do
If there was one thing to be taken from chatting to David McDonagh about his progress as a filmmaker over the last couple of years, it’s that it doesn’t matter where you start, you have to start somewhere. He didn’t get going until later in life on his photography and filmmaking journey, but David’s experience has only made him wish he had started earlier, as the creative spark has always been there for him.
Not only is 2023 his Fleadh debut as a documentarian, with his short documentary Being Put Back Together; David has also been nominated for the Bingham Ray Rising Star Award, an honour he is blown away by. But the documentary making it into the Fleadh wasn’t as important for his own recognition – he saw it as more as a success he could share with his younger brother, the subject of the film. It was a validation, of sorts, that people would care about a story like this one and want to see it on screen.
In saying that, he knows the Fleadh is the biggest film festival in Ireland, and, in his own words, if nothing else ever happened with his work, he can always say he got a film into the Galway Film Fleadh.
David started out as a photographer with a second-hand Sony A6300, and then – all self-taught – he progressed to working as a filmmaker with Premier Pro and DaVinci editing skills. It wasn’t easy to learn, but it was something he wanted to be able to do so he did it. As we talk at the tail end of his exhibition in Sligo at Cairde Festival, he acknowledges he is still getting to grips with the fan fair that can go with showing his work in places like that. No more than the promotional element that follows making a film to bring it to an audience, he is still at the start of his journey and learning it all as he goes.
If the awards and fan fair weren’t there though, if there was no audience for his films, he’s sure he’d still be making them. The work itself, the taking off on Burkes’ Bus from his hometown in Tuam and heading into Galway city on his week off to take photos on the streets, it still gives him a buzz he can’t shake.
Filmmaking brings the same joy, and films have always been there as a companion and a compass to him since he was young. His grandfather devoured films. He couldn’t read, but he could watch great films. And David, who grew up with his grandparents, inevitably fell in love with the movies at the same time.
His latest work highlights his hometown of Tuam, and when he speaks about growing up on Gilmartin Road and the reputation it may have had at the time from those not within the Traveller Community, he’s delighted to see the amount of creativity that is coming out of his street and the town these days. He speaks about all the great artists and musicians that he is meeting who are creating new work about the place.
It’s important to have those new voices, and particularly David’s, out there as a voice not only for rural towns in the West of Ireland, but also a voice for the Traveller Community. He notes the wealth of storytellers in the Community and the great loss that has happened as a result of people not feeling like there is a broader space for them to be creative, or to be funny – or to share their talent with a wider audience.
As we speak about the work that is needed to break barriers and to open up opportunities for voices that might otherwise be silenced, David acknowledges the work that needs to be done both within his Community and outside of it to allow for more inclusivity. But by nature, in such matters, he tends to focus more on what he can do for himself. And one of those things he can do for himself is make art.
From his perspective, a lot of the issues within his own Community – with violence or feuding – tend to stem from a broader issue around communication, and people not being able to find the right words to express themselves. When someone finds themselves in a conflict where they can’t articulate themselves, they use what they have. ‘You may not win an argument, but you can certainly win a fight’. So, violence can become a default mechanism. But art, he has found, can be a good antidote to that.
With age, and with the experience of making art with other people over the last few years, David has seen the power of the arts as a vehicle for change. He can see it in terms of how others view him and his community, and in how he sees himself. He is no longer known as ‘Dave the Traveller’, he’s ‘Dave the Filmmaker.’ Working with subjects from outside his own community on films has also allowed for progress – he can see it in the attitudes of people – as the walls come down and preconceptions shift.
That is what his Fleadh Debut is about; the power of creativity, and the positive impact that it can have on a person’s mental health. David saw his brother suffering and he knew that filmmaking had helped him, so he wanted to share that gift with someone else. And with the average rate of suicide within the Traveller Community at 6-7 times higher than the average national rate, that needs to be addressed.
Not that the process of working with his brother was always easy. It could be embarrassing at times, for him and his brother, and it brought up a lot of questions. David wondered about the work he was doing and the ethics around potentially taking advantage of his subject by speaking about a topic so openly on a public platform. But his gut told him that if he was feeling this level of embarrassment about it, then there was something in that that showed the need for this story to be told. And his gut was right.
With the subjects he chooses and the work he creates, he says himself he always has loads of ideas floating around, but he will inevitably go with the one that jumps out at him at the time. That’s what happened back in 2021 when he was applying for the Misleór Bursary, the first scheme of its kind for Galway-connected Travellers who want to create a short doc. And he credits the mentorship by Misleór’s Alice McDowell and Ardán’s Eoin Butler Thornton as it made the process much easier for him.
If the Bursary application process hadn’t been so smooth, he may not have gone for it. It would have seemed too daunting to go for. But he did go for it, and the resulting documentary, Dreamer, premiered at Misleór Festival in 2021, and became David’s first film to be screened in front of a public audience at the Pálás. The Misleór Short Doc Grant, now in its third year, continues to be a starting ground for filmmakers from the Traveller Community, a vehicle to create a story that resonates with them.
Where to next? He’ll be quite happy to just be getting out there and making more documentaries and films and to keep learning as he goes. When he’s not working the day job as security in A&E, he’s just happy out taking the camera out and shooting things he finds interesting. And these days he’s also starting to get asked by others if he’s available for work, which is an exciting stage to be at.
But for now, he’s very happy to enjoy his Film Fleadh Debut & Nomination and to check out some great films and events while he’s there.
The Misleór Short Documentary Grant is an annual bursary and mentorship scheme managed by Misleór and Ardán with the support of Galway Traveller Movement, Galway City of Film, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Galway City Council, and Galway County Council.
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