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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Knuckle” Director Ian Palmer

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Knuckle" Director Ian Palmer

Residing in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom, the Travellers are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group with their own customs and a deep sense of clan pride, despite being interrelated by marriage within their small population. When conflicts arise, arguments are often settled through ritualized, bare-knuckle fighting.

Director Ian Palmer followed members of the Traveller community for 12 years and became privy to a decades-long family feud of Hatfield-McCoy proportions. At the center of the conflict is James, the confident, yet reluctant, defender of the Quinn McDonaghs, who is frequently challenged to fight his cousins, the Joyces. An outsider in a secretive world, Palmer waited years before he began to learn the reasons for the animosity between the rival clans.

Disturbingly raw, yet compulsively engaging, “Knuckle” offers candid access to a rarely seen, brutal world where a cycle of bloody violence seems destined to continue unabated. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Ian Palmer
Executive Producer: Alan Maher
Producer: Teddy Leifer
Composer: Ilan Eshkeri
Cinematographer: Michael Doyle, Ian Palmer
Editor: Ollie Huddleston
Music Supervisor: Ian Neil

Responses courtesy of “Knuckle” director Ian Palmer.

A long and winding path to documentary filmmaking…

I studied history at University in Dublin in the 1980s and left college wanting to write although I was more interested in fiction and the theatre at first. I loved all sorts of movies; “Raging Bull” and Schrader’s “Blue Collar” were big influences as were Europeans like Bergman and the Germans Fassbender, Wenders and Herzog. The first film I saw that really made me want to make films was Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror.” By the start of the 1990s I was involved in the low budget film scene in Dublin working on short films and writing film scripts and articles for film magazines. It wasn’t until a few years later – after a year long period in the Boston and LA, trying to write scripts and sleeping on friends’ couches – that I thought about making documentaries.

Lifting the curtain covering the bare-knuckle fighting world…

In 1997 I was researching a film about the history of an Irish Traveller family called McDonagh and they asked me to film the wedding of one of their daughters. The groom was Michael McDonagh and I met James, his older brother, at the wedding reception. A few weeks later they called me and asked would I video a fight James had coming up. I was curious and agreed though I knew nothing about bare-knuckle fighting. I hung out with James and his family on the run up to the fight without really considering that this might develop into a film.  The fight and the celebrations afterwards in the pub blew me away. It was exhilarating and I wanted to experience more of it and to learn about this world I had stumbled into.

Twelve years collecting footage; one film…

I just started to hang out with the McDonagh family getting to know them and some of the other families also. I wanted to make a film from inside their world. The idea and the approach was simple. I spent as much time as I could with the families, with a minimal crew and small camera – often alone or with at most a camera and sound person, usually friends, helping me. It was all about spending a lot of time there and letting things unfold. I just didn’t think that it would last for another 12 years. Finally, finding an editor, Ollie Huddleston I could work with was crucial in shaping the narrative.

When the money isn’t in the right places, keep making the film you want to make…

I had interest from a UK broadcaster early on but we couldn’t agree on the approach to the subject, I wanted the film to cover a number of years in the family’s life and they wanted a film more focused on the details and the rituals involved in the fights themselves. As a result of not having a backer the film was almost completely self-funded until the final edit when The Irish Film Board and then the BBC got involved.

Finding the right doc subjects…

Documentary is all about casting, I can’t remember where I read that line. But I was very fortunate to find a group of charismatic, articulate people who were willing to let me into their lives for a long period of time. Some people might be attracted by the fighting others might be put off by it but I hope the audience in Sundance and elsewhere appreciate that this film is about a community of people whose culture and traditions require their men to fight for their family name. I hope people see that it is a lot more than a fight film.

From the Latvian documentary version of Tarkovsky to the Maysles, Palmer’s influences…

John T Davis’s “Hobo.” He’s a Irish film-maker who combines a poetic style and a real ability to tell a story. I met him at a few years ago and it helped get my film back on track. Also, Juris Podnieks’s “Hello, Do You Hear Us?” & “Homeland.” From Latvia, Podnieks is probably my favorite documentary maker. His work documents a pivotal time in his country’s history with a passion and personal vision. For me, he is the documentary equivalent of Andrei Tarkovsky. The Maysles brothers’ “Salesman” & “Grey Gardens.” The way the form of these films emerge from their characters and not from an obvious narrative. I’m inspired and attracted by films and filmmakers like these who have a personal vision, a commitment to truth and who have the obsessiveness needed to make great films.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions.]

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