Duala: the making of a film

Last September 2020, Duala: a film by Jack Talty and Maurice Gunning, commissioned by ITMA/Clare Arts Office premiered online and in Glór, Ennis. We thought it would be interesting to go behind-the-scenes with the film makers to find out how it all came about. 

Duala Q A Glor 2020 1
Duala: a film Premiere Q/A, Glór, Ennis, Culture Night 2020


This commission, a partnership between Clare Arts Office and the Irish Traditional Music Archive was pioneering in many ways. Can you recall what initially drew you to the idea?


I remember being particularly curious about the fact that the commission call mentioned that this opportunity was open to practitioners from many artforms. I don’t usually let application guidelines influence me too much as I feel like that is a bit like putting the cart before the horse but having said that, I liked the idea that this wasn’t about trying to just create a new piece of Irish traditional music. The archival materials at ITMA can speak for themselves and don’t necessarily need any intervention from me or anybody else, in terms of the actual performance of traditional music. 

So, I was keen not just to write new traditional tunes and play them with archival footage, for example, because I felt that if people wanted to hear great concertina music, we could have just played archival material of people like Sonny Murray (who we discovered some incredible and rare footage of in the process of making Duala).

So for me, the ambition was to actually avoid making a piece of original traditional music but instead, draw on the world of traditional music and musicians associated with county Clare, to make something new, positioning our feelings about place and where we are from, at the heart of the project. 

I would describe the project then as an exploration of our feelings about place through the prism of traditional music, rather than an exploration of traditional music itself.

And naturally, as a Clareman who has always spent a lot of time at ITMA, this project seemed like a dream prospect.  

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Jack Talty & Maurice Gunning, ITMA 2019


The commission was really inspiring as it allowed us to explore our own areas of expertise, and then to combine them in film format. 

I’ve worked on documentary projects; still photography and also cinematography over the years, but this project was different as we would create independently from each other, share what we did, respond to that process, and continue in that way for more than 12 months.

Having spent a lot of my childhood visiting relations in East Clare, and summer’s around Spanish Point, and for the Willie Clancy Festival, it felt like a very personal project to immerse myself into those memories. I’ve been visiting Willie Week almost every year and have been photographing little observational moments, just to record them, without any intention to use them, to archive my own experience of being there. Often when we look back at photographs, be they our own, or others, a new relevance can be associated with them that was never imagined when they were first taken. This commission allowed me to reflect on those thoughts and memories, and to also remind me to continue to see some aspects of the world through the prism of the camera and not just through my own eye.


The piece opens with a song called Farewell to Lissycasey by Siney Crotty? Can you tell us a little about that choice of song and what it means to you? 


I’m from Lissycasey in county Clare so the song naturally resonates with me as one which has made people familiar with the name of our village but I suppose what is more relevant here is that it is the first ‘pride of place’ song that I ever heard. Of course, I recognise the placenames referenced in it so it feels localised and personal to me. Many people sing this song but I’ve always especially loved Siney Crotty’s version. In terms of integrating the song in Duala, I felt it was important to open the piece with an untouched statement about place that we didn’t musically intervene in. Also, in an usual way, I love the way that the song gradually changes key as it progresses. Too often when people use audio materials for digital manipulation or synthesis, the source audio is modified for convenience. Instead I was keen here to work with Siney’s interpretation just as he recorded it.

Duala Siney Crotty Straighty Flanagan And Martin Reidy Photo Courtesy Pat Mackenzie
Siney Crotty, Straight Flanagan, and Martin Reidy. Image Courtesy © Pat Mackenzie

Farewell to Lissycasey / Siney Crotty from: Farewell to Lissycasey: the traditional music of County Clare [sound recording] / Various performers (Ossian, 1995). Recording courtesy Topic Records


Can you speak a little more about why theme of place is so important in Duala? 


I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of place and place identity. While place obviously connects us to our region and the communities that we inhabit, I think of place as a metaphysical phenomenon that encapsulates diverse feelings such as nostalgia, pride, sentimentality, and melancholy. Because archival materials can powerfully evoke past memories, we felt that this was a perfect project for exploring a theme that we were already very interested in. Although place and community is so central to Irish traditional music, we don’t often foreground that significance because we prefer playing traditional music to expressing our thoughts about it. Therefore, this was a great opportunity to unpack how traditional musicians perceive their place and its role in their identity formation.   

Duala Blog Musicians Outside
© Låtar på Irland by Sveriges Television AB / SVT International


The archival film footage was fascinating to watch, can you explain why you choose those pieces.


We had sourced some great film material in the archive, and the hardest part was deciding which of it to use, as this meant making the choice not to include some great clips we were working with. 

Eugene Lambe recorded some fascinating material in particular which we really wanted to use, but in the end made a decision to leave it out, as it didn’t fit the narrative we were trying to create. 

We had found beautiful footage filmed in the ‘60s by Leenart Malmer from Sweden. I really liked the slow observational shots that he captured, a photographer’s eye behind the lens. The footage had its own narrative, with a Swedish voiceover, so we took the footage and started laying Jack’s audio over and seeing how it worked. I wanted the integrity of the original edit by Malmer to be maintained, rather than cutting his timeline up, so we let these long sections of his footage play. This really allowed the music and interviews to work well, to be heard, too many fast cuts would have been a little distracting, we wanted the audience to immerse themselves in the experience. 

From the beginning we had envisaged that the film would play on a loop in a gallery, and the audience to join it anywhere along, and that the impact would be similar if you saw it all, or just some of it. We plan to show it again in that format in 2021.

Duala Blog Biscuit Player
© Porter Och Pipa by Lennart Malmer


You included some specially recorded interviews with musicians for the piece. Can you tell us about that process? 


We thought it would be important to portray the importance of place to Irish traditional music and musicians in a very direct and explicit way. While many visual representations of landscapes and our environment in both film and photography can immediately make us feel the profound power of place, these feelings are often internalised and hidden or embedded in the music that we play, and can remain unexpressed in verbal form.

So as you can imagine, we couldn’t find archival recordings that included these kinds of conversations among musicians. This is why we decided to reach out to some musicians to begin a conversation on what place means to them. 

I think the result is important because these observations and contributions signpost a lot of the thematic content in Duala. Given our focus on county Clare, that is where each contributor is based. I’m really glad that Martin Hayes, Geraldine Cotter, Claire Egan, Liam O'Brien and Caoilfhionn Ní Fhrighil agreed to be involved because chatting to them was a very rewarding experience and I think it allowed us to communicate many ideas that existed in our own minds, in a less abstract and more direct way. 


Could you speak about the inclusion of some very interesting quotes that were dispersed throughout the piece in text form? 


Again, we thought it would be interesting to signpost some of the concepts behind Duala. They also helped to connect this very specific investigation of place identity in Irish traditional music with what others have expressed when speaking more generally about human experience. Having markers like that also allowed us some freedom with the original videography and music composition as we didn’t rely on these elements alone to tell our story.  

Duala Patrick Kavanagh Quote
Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)


You’ve both worked together at Raelach Records for a number of years. What was the working process like for Duala? Did the music or video come first or vice versa?


It was great. We work together regularly so that made the process much easier. There are times when we allow archival visual and audio material tell its own story but the process of composing and arranging the newly-composed elements had to be considered carefully so we could each allow the other to respond. So practically, in some instances, Maurice’s video led the way by providing me with some material to respond to in musical terms. Likewise, at other times I composed original music for later consideration by Maurice. Ultimately we both had editorial control so either one of us were to free to make suggestions on how the piece was developing as a whole.


This was an interesting question that was asked during the Q+A in Glór, Ennis, when we screened Duala there for Culture Night. 

I had been filming in many different locations throughout Clare, and been reviewing those on my own. Jack had started recording the interviews with the featured musicians. I think Jack shared the full-length interviews with me, and these were around 30 minutes long. I kept note of what was spoken about, key words and phrases that resonated with me, and from these notes continued filming locations in County Clare. I was using these interviews as source material and combining them with my own memories, recent and past, of being in the county.

 We had so much relevant archival material to work with from the archive too, hours of audio interviews, hours of what I had captured on camera: then the fun started. 

I began with the timeline, we decided on 25 minutes, and I laid down the archive material and the original footage. Over several months then, we would continue to work on it remotely. Jack would send me the audio file, I’d insert that into the edit, and I’d respond to that by moving footage around, deleting some, adding from my own footage, finding more great material in the archive, and eventually we got to the point where we said, it’s done. 

It’s a project you could keep working on, and in some ways we will, it was a privilege to be awarded the commission.
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Jack Talty, Maurice Gunning & Alan Woods, ITMA Reading Room

ITMA and Clare Arts Office would like to thank everyone who co-operated and contributed to the making of Duala: a film.

The film remains freely available to watch on the ITMA YouTube Channel. Please enjoy and share.