Review by Rosaleen McDonagh
King of the Travellers
Directed by Mark O’Connor
Co-written by Michael Collins
There was some talk that we might not all get into the cinema. King of the Travellers was on, the much talked about film directed by Mark O’Connor and co-written by Michael Collins, protagonist in Pavee Point, actor and casting director.
Sweets and popcorn were negotiated, a sigh of relief and we were in. Anthony, a 16-year old, questioned whether or not they knew who we were. His younger brother piped up, “Of course they know who we are, they think we’re in the film” .
It was the atmosphere created by seeing ourselves on the big screen and listening to the giddy comments and laughter from a dozen or so young Traveller men that got to us. All my generation had was Glenroe or The Riordans. These came, inevitably, with settled people playing our parts, caricaturing our identity in a manner that was not representative.
Our expectations are greater now. The formula has to fulfil certain demands. It has to have a narrative that is expositional and explores and at times exploits racism as the main theme. Racism seemed secondary when we went to see King of the Travellers. It got over-shadowed by humorous factors within Traveller culture. My nephew Eoin articulated it afterwards “my head is done in living and talking about racism. Sometimes I just want to switch off and escape“.
Audiences and critics feel short-changed that King of the Travellers doesn’t deliver on these expectations. But King of the Travellers is not a Ken Loach piece. It never claimed to be anything other than fiction. Clichés were relied upon. The mad, bad, crazed Traveller man is at the heart of the film. Inevitably, bare-knuckle boxing is there with all its violence and machismo.
However, the film stands up when compared to other pieces of drama that objectify and humiliate. King of the Travellers didn’t exploit our people in the way that Ian Palmer’s Knuckles or that facile piece of drivel Big Fat Gypsy Wedding does.
King of the Travellers is not a Ken Loach piece. The mad bad crazed Traveller man is at the heart of the film
Sharing this perspective with a settled friend, her scolding was harsh. She was unable to understand that, for all its clichés, King of the Travellers, had authenticity due to the majority Traveller cast. My friend wouldn’t listen to this in the context of Traveller representation in cinema.
Should ethical films portraying Travellers be bound to depicting Travellers in a positive light? King of the Travellers is a film about love and revenge, portraying Travellers neither positively or negatively. If racism did not exist, the scrutiny to which it was subjected would not prevail. It is because racism is all too real that people are critical of images that depict Travellers.
Fresh and innovative representations don’t come easy for Travellers. Ethics and values influence how a narrative and characters are created and shaped. One particular hue of Traveller culture gets communicated. Variations are the key. Within our community, we don’t know each other as homogenous. Diversity is all around us.
The burden of representation is ever-present when one writes about Travellers. It is not about engaging in polemic or diatribe. It is about finding that balance of presenting material in both an ethical and an authentic way. This does not always fit comfortably with what audiences or funders may want.
The ‘settled people’ view demands the misfit, untethered, dysfunctional, over-sexualised, alcoholic, bare-knuckle fighting, misogynist Traveller-man. Any such representation is a total diminution of Traveller male identity. A Traveller female representation is often sought for the sole gratification of the settled male gaze. We are presented as passive, vulnerable, virginal.
The binary position of villain or hero can leave very little room to make new challenging, complicated, dynamic narratives. Fulfilling a prescribed aesthetic can be a form of colluding and playing the part that they have chosen for you.
Travellers seem to make for easy pickings when collaborating with settled artists. The agenda can be ambiguous, more about money and marketing than representation. Engaging with the film or arts industry could be empowering and liberating for a new generation of Travellers. However, we must move into these new areas with a mature balance of caution and confidence. The new possibilities evoke the old questions of suspicion and trust.