Today: April 9, 2024

Director Ian Palmer – Knuckle

SHELLEY MARSDEN speaks
to Ian Palmer, director of gritty film Knuckle, about the Traveller world of
bare knuckle fighting.

Irish director Ian Palmer has taken his hard-hitting
documentary film Knuckle to, amongst other places, the Sundance Film Festival
this year. Right now, he’s at another film festival, in a little hilltop town
in Croatia called Motovun. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. His
powerful film is an epic 12-year journey into in the world of an Irish
Traveller community, which takes us inside brutal, secretive and exhilarating
bare-knuckle fights.

Palmer chronicles a history of
violent feuding between rival families, with the focus on two brothers as they
fight for their reputations and the honour of their family name. As moving and funny as it is fierce,
Knuckle allows viewers to glimpse a world which, until now, has remained shrouded
in almost complete secrecy. We find out more about the project that practically
took over one man’s life for more than a decade…

How did your ‘voyage
of discovery’ into this secret world begin?

I was invited to a wedding, and the girl that was getting married was
marrying one of these two brothers who I end up spending a lot of time with
over the next ten to twelve years. These guys started inviting me to fights and
I said I’d really like to make a film. I was invited to the first brother’s
training for the first fight that appears in the film. It was only after
experiencing the first fight as a personal revelation; the way it worked, how
incredibly dramatic it was and how important it was in their lives, that I
thought I really wanted to start filming this and travel this road with them.
The family were amazingly open. They’d contact me about coming over.

Couldn’t you have
shot ‘Knuckle’ in a year or two rather than twelve?

Yes, is the answer – I would have had a life then! That’s
what I meant to do when I started this in November ’97. But a certain kind of
film takes a long time to do. This was never going to be a scheduled shoot; it
was really as life unfolded. I was never commissioned to make this film – I had
no deadline, so I could take as long as I wanted. That meant I was able to have
this story which traversed twelve years in people’s lives, which is a generation
really. But it really took over my life for years and years; it became an
obsession, in a way. If I wasn’t working on the film it was in my head. As you
see in the film, I was stopped from going to a fight in the year 2000, and at
the time I thought that would be the natural end of the film.

You worked with these
guys for years; were you ever completely accepted?

Welcomed, but not as part of their group. We’re always
different; even if I as a settled person married a girl from one of the
families, I would still be an outsider. I think if you get married to a
Traveller, you’re called a ‘half-Traveller’; that’s a phrase they use! I have
an ongoing relationship with a few people from the film though. It was a long
time to make this film, and once I got into the editing process, my
relationship to the material changed. It was no longer a life experience I was
having as well; it was now a film I was focused on finishing. The excitement,
the interesting colourful people and language, I do miss all that to an extent.

What were the big
challenges on Knuckles?

Keeping going! Also, Travellers’ way of life is not a nine to five existence.
In the film I refer to the fact that James, who is the main character and the
person I became closest to, has a different mobile phone number from one month
to another. Chasing people around and tying them down is very tiring. I’d be
always slightly one step behind, trying to catch up, but that’s natural. It’s
great to finish the film and move onto a new theme. It’s been a long time!

Have your thoughts
changed since that first fight you witnessed?

They’ve become more complex; I don’t think they’ve changed.
I do see bare knuckle fighting, traditionally anyway, as a useful thing in
their culture. If there’s a problem, you organise a solution between two
families rather than go to the police.
Obviously there’s pressure on them, but two men agree on the fight, it’s
organised, there are referees. I’ve never seen anyone get killed or severely
hurt, though of course there are sometimes broken bones. It still does, in my
view, serve a purpose. It lances a boil at a particular time. It’s not going to
make a feud go away, but it may to calm it down. Of course, it might stir it up
again – it’s complicated. I do also have a certain admiration for those who go
out and do what they feel they have to, to defend the honour of their family.
This is what they are brought up to do.

There are serious
wads of cash exchanged in the film –is it about money too?

Well… it just so happened in the edits that with the two
Quinn-McDonagh brothers there was money exchanged on a number of their fights.
But generally speaking, the vast majority of fights I filmed would have no
money. It’s not a sport for money, that’s not it. I do hear stories in the
paper about Travellers and fights and they do talk about money, so maybe yes,
that’s starting to become a corrupting influence. In the fights I saw, it was
about honour and it was about pride.

You were turned off
by it all at one point, no?

Yes, when I saw the two old men fighting each other. Grandfathers
shouldn’t be doing that to each other, they should have a different role in the
family. My grandfather certainly wasn’t out slapping someone up a lane… I was
turned off as well by what I felt at the time was my increasingly voyeuristic
role – I was filming fights because I enjoyed filming fights.

A fight’s a massive
event, isn’t it?

Absolutely. It’s all about the fight. It’s excitement; it’s something
to focus on, something different; it’s as if you’re team is in the All-Ireland
Final, it’ll take over everything. You have the women preparing food for
everyone; that’s the role women have in Traveller sites, they keep a clean tidy
home, they put food on the table. Even if they express regret for the damage
fights do to families and relationships, they still get drawn into it, because
it’s a big emotional rollercoaster when it happens.

There are
thought-provoking scenes involving newborn babies and boys…

That really is the point of including that stuff; this is
the life these kids see all around them. Instead of their dads going out and
being doctors or whatever, they see a particular lifestyle. They’re exposed to
it, and they’re seeing videos, someone on the site is training, maybe they even
watch a fight. Lots and lots of Traveller boys excel at amateur, ring boxing;
it’s the main sport that they go in for.

What’s been the Traveller
reaction to Knuckle?

Very good for two reasons; they saw it as a truthful
representation of their world. They’ve also seen it as quite an entertaining
film to watch. It’s a narrative drama, which is also telling real stories about
real people – from the inside, that’s the key thing for me.

There’s a lot of
humour, especially the language used!

Yeah, I mean Travellers are extremely articulate, theirs is
an aural culture. Even now many might not be very good at reading or writing;
it’s still a spoken culture. That’s why mobile phones are the perfect device
for Travellers! The colourful insults they exchange are great, but it’s also
how they tell a story. Often, I wouldn’t even have to ask somebody a question
for people to launch into a conversation. Going back generations all that comes
from telling folk stories and fairytales around the fire.

What’s your most
striking memory of making Knuckle?

The first fight I saw was a big emotional hook for me. It was midday,
getting gloomy, and we went back to a pub in Dundalk afterwards where all the
Travellers were gathered. It was a huge occasion for them and a real insight
for me. There were other moments
too, like Michael at the end of the film, ten years after I’d filmed him at his
wedding, coming out of his trailer, stripped to the waist, preparing for a
fight against his cousin. His week-old baby boy was in his arms and his
daughter was calling me over to show me her baby brother, these were very
poignant moments for me.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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