Ian Palmer talks about directing the documentary Knuckle, an epic 12-year journey into in the world of an Irish Traveller community that takes viewers inside their brutal, yet secretive bare-knuckle fighting lives and beyond. He also discusses gaining their trust, missing out on a really big fight and what it taught him about himself as a person and as a filmmaker. Traveller and former bare knuckle fighting champion James Quinn McDonagh also recalls his greatest fight, which lasted an epic two-and-a-half hours, and some of his regrets.
Were there times during the 14 years it took to make Knuckle that you thought it might never see the light of day?
Ian Palmer: Yeah. It took 14 years to make Knuckle, as you say, and there were many times when I thought we wouldn't make it. I never had funding throughout - well, maybe the last year of editing - and I stopped making it a couple of times. The way it worked would be that I'd go and shoot stuff, come back, pick it up again... it was a stop-start process because I never had a deadline to deliver to. So, it could go on and on and on. It was difficult to define when the ending was going to be. It's one of the reasons it took so long. I was coming home with tapes, putting them in a box in a spare room, and then coming to the next situation, shooting more stuff. On a few occasions, I just felt weary of the whole thing until something would spark off my interest again and I'd pick it up again. So, it was a long process but we got there in the end.
How important was it for you not to glamorise the world of bare knuckle brawling among these travellers?
Ian Palmer: Yeah, from the very beginning I thought that I was not going to glamorise this thing. I felt a responsibility because I was given access and really what I wanted to do was something that I felt hadn't been done in this kind of film with travellers before. I wanted to draw three-dimensional characters, showing people having lots of different motivations and complexities in their life. This is only one part of their lives and this stuff - bare knuckle fighting and feuding - is only one part of the way they live. So, I was really determined to draw a complex portrait of a complex people.
How did you go about building a bond of trust with James Quinn McDonagh and the three families?
Ian Palmer: I met James first. I met him at his brother's wedding, when his brother was 18 years old, in 1997 and he was a very sociable guy. We got on well and soon after that I met him when he was training for one of his fights. They rang me up and said he was training and did I want to go along and do a bit of shooting? So, it was step by step after that. We got to know each other, I got to know the family, the fight happened, I then got to know some of the other families, and there wasn't any rush. I was never knocking on the door and saying: "Bare-knuckle fighting... interested? Do you want to make a film about it?" That's not the way it worked. I got to know people, they got to know me and so it was a process of learning about each other and gaining each other's confidence. It was a two-way process.
Were you also aware that your film could have inadvertently kickstarted another feud depending on how each of the three families were depicted?
Ian Palmer: Well, for me in terms of what results this film would have when people from the traveller world looked at it... I was determined that this film would be a true representation of real life as it happened. I was never inventing anything or trying to provoke anything. The feud ran its course for James and his brothers and the other guys and the other families from when I got involved to when it concluded, and I show that conclusion in the film. I was determined also to show that it's not just about the fights, but the families and how they were trying to sort out problems. So, by the end of it James had got to the end of the road in terms of fighting and even refereeing and really that's the journey. It was about trying to sort out a problem and reaching a conclusion of it for this generation at least.
James' big fight lasted for two-and-a-half hours, but you couldn't get access to it. How frustrating was that for you at the time?
Ian Palmer: That was devastating... devastating for me at the time. But if I'd filmed it at the time that was only three years into the process and that could have been the end of the film. I think it would have been a very different film then. It still would have been interesting but I never would have had the long 12-year story, which is unusual and makes the film unique in that sense. And what it did was make me more determined to continue. I could have stopped then and said it wasn't going to work. But it made me more determined to continue and hang in there. And it meant hanging in there for quite a bit of time because what people need to understand is that bare knuckle fights between Irish traveller families don't happen every day of the week. It could be a few years, it could be every couple of years. So, you need to hang in there if you're going to get to the complexity of the way these relationships work.
How much did you learn about yourself during the process of making the film? You mentioned giving up at one stage because of the feeling of exhilaration you wanted to avoid...
Ian Palmer: I learnt a lot about myself during the making of this film. I started with not a lot of experience in film-making. I'd really set out to be a writer... that's really where I was going in life, I hoped. And making films in Ireland back in the 1990s when I started this was very difficult because there was very little funding. So, making a documentary really wasn't what I had thought about doing. But once I met the families the whole thing took a journey of its own. And for me it became a journey of my own, as well as with the families. It was a learning process of me. I suppose I found that I had the resilience as much as anything else to stick with something, even though I had no backing or funding. I had some backing from some friends but I had no backing financially, so I was always on my own. So, it was about having the strength to keep going... even when you wanted to stop, or had stopped, to start again if I saw the opportunity.
What's been the most surprising reaction you've had to the film so far?
Ian Palmer: The reactions to the film have been varied. I've shown this film in a lot of festivals in the States, in Europe and even in Israel. One of the things I've liked about the reaction generally from audiences [is that it] has been two-fold: they've seen it as a representation of truth, as an honest depiction of what's happened between three families, and also people have seen it as a movie which has been entertaining.
James, as the subject of this documentary, were there times during the 14 years it took Ian Palmer to make Knuckle that you thought it might never see the light of day?
James Quinn McDonagh: Yeah, a lot of times I'd ask Ian: "Where's this going?" It might be five or six years into it and he would say: "I'm hoping in time to do something with it but at the moment, no..." So, another fight would come up or I'd be doing refereeing on another fight, and he'd come along and that would be my answer. I'd then know he hadn't reached the end of it. He collected a lot of material and in the end I said to him: "When it comes to [my brother] Michael's fight, this is going to be the end of it for us. We're going to leave it at that." So, from then on it was a question of deciding which footage he wanted to use. I personally knew that something would come out of it because it is a story that needs to be told and it is a story that has been told now. I think it will trigger some positive opinions in people about... people have been judgemental on it [the subject] as they are with every documentary. But I think there's going to be more of a positive response than a negative one.
How important was it for you that this issue of feuding and bare knuckle brawling wasn't sensationalised or glamorised?
James Quinn McDonagh: Well, what I like about it is that it's not just about the actual bare knuckle fighting with two or three characters. It's about the families and it shows the family side of life as well... the female opinions on it as well, which is good. Other people had approached me in the past wanting to do something like this, but they wanted just to focus on the blood part of it - the blood money and the blood story, just the fights and make it into a little 30-minute documentary. But Ian's idea was to combine it with the family and to explore the reasoning behind it. He did it the right way. He took his time, 12 years, he's got some great shots and it's a very truthful and honest story about three families.
It's clear you had a great bond of trust...
James Quinn McDonagh: Ian was very easy to trust. I sensed almost immediately that he's the type of guy who, if he says something, he'll do it. He hasn't let me down yet, so he has my trust and my friendship.
You mention at the end of the film a sense of regret at only being known for fighting. Is that still true? How much did you find out about yourself through the course of making the film and then perhaps watching it as well?
James Quinn McDonagh: When I started off on this, each time I fought I was provoked into it. I was asked to fight. I'm a person who doesn't want to fight. But each time I had to do it for my family, for myself and for my family name. But even though I remained unbeaten it's got me something that I didn't want, which was a name. That name was given to me. I didn't accept that name, it was given to me by the Joyces and the Nevins. They gave me that name and what hurts them is that they could never take it back off me. But that was their choice. They set the challenges. And I had to stand up and make the choices. A lot of my life was put in front of me and I had to do it. I did not realise at an early stage that I had a choice. Later on in life, I realised that I do have a choice and I took that choice and said: "Do you know what? No more... I'm finished." I just hope that the younger kids who are growing up and watching this... I have nephews who are growing up and would love to be street fighters and all of that but I'd love to tell them to do something else. It's got me nowhere. It's got me a name I didn't want.
Your big fight lasted for two and a half hours. How do you keep yourself going through that, especially mentally?
James Quinn McDonagh: I went out there mentally and physically focused for that fight. I was ready. I knew there and then it was going to be my last fight. The purse on that fight was £60,000. There was a lot of pressure on me, not from my family but because people knew it was going to be my last fight and I was fighting the son of the man I had beaten during my first fight. This guy was groomed for 12 years to take me on to get back his father's honour, shall we say. So, I knew it was going to be the biggest fight of my life. The timescale didn't come into it. I was so focused on the fight. Time flew... as they say, time flies when you're having fun and I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed the fight. So, the tiredness didn't kick in because I was mentally wired into winning this fight and no one was going to take that from me. So, even if it lasted for 24 hours, so long as my body was able to keep going I would still have kept going. Losing that fight wasn't an option because of the purse, the family name and who his dad was.
What's been the most surprising reaction you've had to the film so far?
James Quinn McDonagh: I've seen it a number of times and the response I get from film-goers when they speak to me afterwards is that it is entertaining and that it is true. They've liked the openness of it and the insight into the life of an Irish traveller. They think it's a well put together documentary.
Interviews: Rob Carnevale Photo: Revolver