Big energy corporations normally get what they want. When Shell discovered an undersea natural gas field off Ireland’s west coast, they swung into action. The plan was to build a giant, high-pressure pipe to transport raw gas through the town of Rossport to an inland refinery. Unfortunately, no one asked the residents of Rossport, who feared the risks of explosions and environmental hazards. In “The Pipe,” director Risteard Ó Domhnaill chronicles the crusade of Irish farmers and fishermen who rise up against Shell. For locals, the pipe isn’t a sign of prosperity, but a threat to their way of life.
The premise is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s 1983 comedy “Local Hero,” in which an American oil company faces cultural clashes with the inhabitants of a Scottish village. In “Local Hero” the dynamics could be played for laughs, but in “The Pipe” the real-life stakes have dire consequences. The film plunges us into violent clashes between protesters and police. As tensions mount, the community divides over how to confront Shell. The conflict widens to draw in Catholic priests and even the Irish political leader, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
In the past year, “Big Energy” has fought hard against documentarians. Industry advocates mounted a public relations attack on “Gasland,” and Chevron applied legal pressure on the filmmaker of “Crude.” “The Pipe” reminds us again how a multinational corporation can deploy vast resources to battle dissenters.
We come to know several key figures in the opposition, including the wizened and profane Maura Harrington and members of the “Rossport Five,” who served time in jail. Another standout is Pat “The Chief” O’Donnell, a professional crab fisherman who is fiercely protective over the region’s waters. “There’s no job in the world that would replace it,” he says of fishing. Chugging along in his modest crab boat, he confronts the world’s largest pipe-laying vessel, the Solitaire. The match is like a dinghy challenging an aircraft carrier, and the film places us alongside O’Donnell to witness the outcome. [Synopsis courtesy of Thom Powers/Toronto International Film Festival]