In the protestant Fountain-Quarter of northern Irish Derry, the musician Roy Arbuckle intents to hold a dance night. Arguing Protestants and Catholics shall dance together again.
«Before 1968, we had a future», Pam Mitchell told me once. He was then aged 77. His grandfather had been born in the Fountain Estate in Derry. The Presbyterian church on the margins of that area bears the profound inscription: «Hell has no exits – heaven doesn’t need any.» That was in 2007, a year before the film Paradiso was released, a film commissioned by the BBC (Director: Alessandro Negrini; producer: Margot Harkin; duration: one hour).
The Fountain Estate is a tangible monument to the folly of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Here, nestling at the base of Derry’s mighty walls, the last Protestants on the west side of the majestic river Foyle which bisects the city can be found. Around 300 of them are left in this sad reservation, surrounded by twenty foot wire fences. In the 70s, before the forced segregation of Catholic and Protestant housing had begun in earnest, there were 2000. Most of them have since crossed the Foyle to settle in the Waterside where they could live amongst their own.
The film’s title goes back to a pub of that name in the Estate – long since gone. «The poor man’s paradise», as the musician Roy Arbuckle explains, whose fantastic imaginations provide the film with its narrative glue. Everything in this enchanting story goes against the grain. Fiery Tango tunes in the windswept northwest of Europe? Protestants as victims? Protestants who dance and sing? They are supposed to be stuck-up, stern and philistine. All wrong. Arbuckle, who has a weakness for clever utterances: «Victors write history, the vanquished write songs.» Such a sentence from a rotestant mouth requires a re-boot of the hard disk.
The film presents itself as a documentary, but if every piece of fiction was so fleet-footed, we would all have more fun. We are invited to observe Arbuckle in his attempt to bring his old showband from the Sixties back to life. Then, Protestants and Catholics still used to dance with each other. Although he should know better, Arbuckle gets giddy: he wants to organise a dance to which Catholics can come along. Catholics form the overwhelming majority in Derry. In 1921, they ended up in the wrong country. They were punished for that, by being discriminated against, by electoral fraud (gerrymandering). Now, however, they are the victors.
In the film, the location for this experiment is always called by its colloquial name: the «Mem». Only once is its full title pronounced: «Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall», a pretty specimen of neogothic brick inside the walls. The Apprentice Boys are the Derry-variant of the sinister Protestant Orange Order, and they are devoted to commemorate the futile, yet painful, siege of Derry by the last Catholic king on the English throne, James II., in 1689. Into these headquarters of the colonisers, the Catholics of the Bodside and the Creggan are now supposed to go for dance?
There is no trace in this film of the (understandable) contrariness and mulishness of the last Mohicans of the Fountain Estate – even though these traits do exist. Regrets and nostalgia? Of course. But also: shiploads of optimism, joie de vivre, humor and sheer humanity. The fact that we are watching real people provides the film with its magic. Who could make up the elderly sisters, May Hamilton and Kathleen McKane, whose bones are itching at the slightest sound of tango? I am neither a film critic nor particularly well versed in literature, but this is magic realism, coming from the allegedly chilly north – by an Italian director.