Arthur MacCaig, the subject of his estranged son Dónal Foreman’s evocative documentary “The Image You Missed,” knew little about the Troubles in Northern Ireland before spending a summer there in the 1970s. After that the conflict became his life’s obsession. He went to film school in Paris so he could become a documentarian and record what he observed and reveal what he believed to be the real story about the ongoing struggle, truths that had been ignored or denied by other media.
His debut feature “The Patriot Game” (1979) got a rave review from Janet Maslin in The New York Times and was condemned by the United Kingdom Foreign Office as “damaging and highly critical of Her Majesty’s Government.” MacCaig, who died in 2008, at 60, would make seven more films on the subject over the next three decades, documenting the evolving strategy and tactics of the Irish Republican Army, which permitted him extraordinary access to its activities.
Foreman was born in 1985. MacCaig, based in Paris, didn’t have much time to spare from his filmmaking for him or his mother, who raised Foreman by herself, in Dublin. That neglect might be the missed image mentioned in the documentary’s title. In the film, Foreman tries to restore it with impressionistic montages that reflect the vagaries of memory, the verities of history, and the need to reconcile the potential of the past with the realities of the present. He deftly and dreamily cuts from MacCaig’s footage to his own images and counterpoints his father’s comments in interviews or letters with his own sometimes-plaintive, never-to-be-answered questions about why his father abandoned him and what his life might have been like had he not.
“In 1997 I was making my first film as you were making your last,” Foreman says, introducing a striking sequence. Foreman, then 11, is seen shooting an amateur movie with his friends in his kitchen about terrorists. In one scene a kid stumbles through a door with his shirt covered in fake blood. A match cut is made to a shot of a man also stumbling through a door covered in real blood. It’s from the work-in-progress that MacCaig is seen in the process of editing, later to be released as “War and Peace and Ireland” (1998).
“Today I’m making a film about the end of the conflict,” MacCaig says. “I hope.” He is referring to the then-ongoing negotiations that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought a fragile but still-lasting peace to the island. However, as Foreman has pointed out, it would also be his father’s last feature because, as MacCaig laments, “nobody wanted to fund the film about peace in Northern Ireland.”
Foreman also poses a dialectic between the father’s and son’s disparate concepts about cinema. “Filmmaking is nothing more than people who find themselves in front of a camera confronted by a filmmaker and their own experiences,” MacCaig states. “In effect they must have the courage to account for their lives.” Foreman’s approach is less dogmatic and more searching. He envies his father’s certitude but questions its validity. “Your camera always looked out into other people’s worlds,” he says. “Never your own.”
“The Image You Missed” screens at the Brattle Theatre as part of the DocYard series on Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. A question-and-answer session with the director will follow.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.