Traveller film Knuckles perpetuates stereotypes

Ian Palmer's film Knuckles presents Travellers in a prurient and stereotyped way, writes Rosaleen McDonagh.

The film Knuckles both frightened and disturbed me. It confirmed all my fears about voyeurism and creating entertainment from people living on the margins.

The power of the outside gaze in the case of 'Knuckles', directed by Ian Palmer, cannot be underestimated. The atmospheric phrases like 'the secret world of Travellers' had that tiresome drone of here-we-go-again: the mad, poor, would-be-dangerous-if-not stupid, archaic and savage Travellers. It used to be that this form of stereotyping was how the colonisers viewed the pig-in-the-parlour Irish: now it's the Travellers who are the 'strange other' within Irish culture.

This said Knuckles brings with it a set of complex dynamics. Somebody wanted to make a film, somebody else said "Make your film about me. This is something I'm good at."

Both the director and the Travellers who were involved in this documentary have perpetuated stereotypes of our community. 'Knuckles' made me feel sad and ashamed. Is bare knuckle fighting the only thing about our culture that interests the Irish population? I would ask the question is feuding or bare knuckle fighting integral to Traveller culture? In my opinion, absolutely not. Traveller ethnicity does not mean Traveller men and women are programmed to fight each other in order to uphold families' names and honour.

When a community implodes on itself questions need to be asked. Questions about educational opportunity, employment possibilities and social, political, cultural participation. Knuckles presented Travellers in a very prurient way. Yet we collude in our own objectification and that's the saddest element of the documentary. Part of me wants to scold and criticise the director but the reality is my own people allowed him into their lives. He may be voyeuristic and opportunistic but they also got something from participating. They got the time and attention of a well-resourced settled man, and they played to that gallery – there is still a job for a stage Irishman.

The saving grace of the film happens close to the end. All during the film Mr. Palmer spoke about how difficult it was for him to get the Traveller women to talk. Finally we hear the voices of older women: they explained how futile the feuding was, and how we're all kin to each other; more importantly these Traveller women spoke about how they didn't want their grandchildren growing up and being pressurised to fight.

I left the cinema with a knot in my stomach, twisting and turning, unable to sleep. I was thinking what damage to the community this film will cause. While Mr. Palmer is promoting it all over the world, the fall out and the debris of bare knuckle fighting and feuding will go on long after the camera has stopped rolling. My other thought was we need to tell a different story. We need to hold the camera ourselves and more importantly we need to find pride in our community not just in upholding our family name.

Rosaleen McDonagh was a Seanad candidate in 2011. You can read an interview with Rosaleen here.