What do people do, when the law prevents them from protecting themselves? That’s the question at the heart of “The Pipe,” a stirring, character-rich docu from Irish helmer Risteard O Domhnaill about Shell vs. Rossport, Ireland, where the oil company decided to run a gas line, and the community decided otherwise. The Irish don’t harbor a lot of affection toward things British, but those behind “The Pipe” might think fondly of BP, whose recent gulf disaster will add currency and urgency to this charismatic David-Goliath tale. Look for some theatrical gas and a secure on-air berth.
The film is beautifully composed and valiantly photographed (O Domhnaill, also the d.p., shoots clashes between Rossport villagers and members of the Irish Garda so closely you can virtually feel the rioters’ breath in your face). But it’s also politically astute: It isn’t just one village that’s at stake, but democracy itself, especially when the Irish government all but abdicates its role in the case and the Garda essentially assumes the role of corporate muscle. Shell will move on, “The Pipe” implies, but the wounds left behind on a small community like Rossport — where neighbor essentially fought neighbor — will take generations to heal, if at all.
Narration-less and musically upbeat, the film begins in 2005, with the arrest of what would become known as the “Rossport Five” — locals who refuse to allow Shell to lay pipeline across their land. Among them was Willie Corduff, who not only exemplifies how a Rossport waterman makes a living, but also shows how delicate the ecosystem is below his feet. Shell refused to cooperate with the film, and that may have been a good move, politically speaking: It’s hard to imagine a corporate functionary countering Corduff’s knowledge or elementary wisdom.
O Domhnaill’s access to the Rossport citizenry seems to have been unlimited, and just as he portrays a people pulled together by common grievance, he also gets inside the internecine verbal warfare that threatens to pull them apart. Maura Harrington, whose take-no-prisoners attitude toward Shell makes her a divisive force in the town, launches a hunger strike that may or may not have helped the cause. Pat O’Donnell, a fisherman and community pillar, stars in several scenes in which he defiantly runs his fishing boat around the massive Shell craft; he’s arrested many times for insisting Shell obey the court orders it so blithely ignores. O’Donnell is a hero of the campaign, and the movie.
Tech credits are first-rate, especially O Domhnaill’s shooting, which ranges from action-thriller verite to meditative and painterly.