Documentary, not rated, 74 minutes, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
Exclusive access to the archives of Irish American documentary filmmaker Arthur MacCaig meant that Dónal Foreman, MacCaig’s son and a filmmaker in his own right, could give a thorough biographical recounting of his father’s life. Instead, he chose to tell a moving story of absence and estrangement between father and son through a montage of images, with the Northern Ireland conflict serving as the backdrop.
The Image You Missed is director Foreman’s redemptive exploration of the similarities and differences between him and his father, told in three separate sections through voice-over narration, still photographs, home movies, and documentary footage of The Troubles, the bitter dispute between the nationalist Catholic minority and the Protestant government.
Foreman’s film is, in part, a fascinating merging of two distinct approaches to the subject of the Irish conflict. He and his father saw it from different angles and from different times and ideological positions. MacCaig, who was born in New Jersey and moved to Belfast, was immersed in the conflict as it raged; Foreman, by contrast, was born in Dublin and emigrated to the United States, growing up in its aftermath. In the film, he confesses to not sharing his father’s sense of nationalist pride.
To place this impressionistic story of familial relationships in the context of The Troubles is necessary because the subject consumed MacCaig. He made several documentaries — including Irish Ways (1988) and A Song for Ireland (2005) — but is best known for the searing history of the conflict portrayed in The Patriot Game (1979). Foreman seemed not to really know his father, and The Image You Missed — a loaded title that serves as a statement from son to father — is Foreman’s effort to understand MacCaig through his work. But it’s more than this. It’s a dialogue between two filmmakers, spoken through the common language of filmmaking itself. In a way, that language was all they had to tie them together. This is a film about the importance of the image itself: its ability to convey meanings, to document truths, and to serve — in the absence of Foreman’s remembrances of his father/mentor — as his father’s conscience and memory.
The claim, stated in the opening credits, that The Image You Missed is a film between Foreman and MacCraig, hints at more than one man’s search to discover the father he hardly knew. The film itself is the bridge spanning their distance. In light of this, the decades of strife in Northern Ireland take on more impactful resonance. It’s a deeply personal film that’s somehow small in its intimacy, yet greater than the sum of its parts.