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Film / Dear Diary, Total Film Magazine

Dear Diary

In the Summer of 1999, Jaap Mees and friends filmed Irish music doc Off The Beaten Track around Dublin. This is their story... Off The Beaten Track was shot in nine days on Betacam Sp and digital video. The film is a posthumous tribute to Tommy Barton: The Gentleman Busker, an exceptional Dublin musician who played the banjo in the '50s and '60s. His sons Billy, Tommy and John, all musicians, travelled back to Ireland to tell their father's story.

day one: Our crew of four is joined by seven musicians. The first mistake is the hired minibus: it's Japanese and too small for 12 people and their instruments. Next mistake? The B&B is too far from central Dublin, our main location. Only 40 minutes, the landlady promised on the phone, but every morning it takes us at least two hours. Result? Missed appointments and pissed- off people.

day two: We have almost arrived- late - at our destination, when one of the musicians throws up last night's Guinness all over our valuble luggage. Later, the cameraman says to me: "I have worked in Afghanistan and in the Kosovo war, but this is the worst shoot of my life."

day three: I set my alarm clock at 4.30 am to change the shooting scedule drastically: today is Do or Die Day. We film a wonderful interview with the charismatic Uilleann piper Finbar Furey, a family friend of the Barton's, who's in great form. Not easy for the crew, though, when a short street interview of 10 minutes turns in to more than an hour: all handheld, with no breaks. Sorry crew, but it's impossible to break the flow. I feed the questions in the bus to narrator Billy Barton and then let them get on with it. Sometimes the best directing is non- directing.

day seven: Travel to Howth, about 10 miles outside Dublin. Barney Mc Kenna, the banjo player from The Dubliners, is genuine and easy-going. He invites us for a hot lunch at the local hotel.

day eight: Barney shows us the locations in Dublin, where Tommy Barton used to play his banjo.

day nine: St Patrick's Day. Billy, narrator and co-producer, says on camera that he was never allowed in to St Patrick's Cathedral as a child, because he was too poor. Later the two most precious moments of the shoot occur: a meeting with a fascinating poet and the discovery of a harp playing Nun in a small leystone cottage. Moments of grace, real gifts after all the hardship.


Uncovering the Barton link by Paul Chai (Moving Pictures)

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK, the story of Irish musician Tommy Barton, started life as an advertisement in The Irish Post looking for a documentary narrator. Director/producer Jaap Mees was searching for a voice for his as-yet-unspecified documentary, but when he met Tommy’s son Billy, he found both a narrator and a story.

Billy Barton is himself the lead singer of Traditional Irish band The Dublin Rogues, but it was the exploits of Tommy which captured Mees’ imagination for the film. A Dublin banjo player known as “The Gentleman Busker”, the elder Barton was a strong influence on prominent local musicians, who went on to found pioneering Traditional Irish bands such as The Dubliners and The Fureys.

Mees, a graduate from the London International Film School, had already produced music based shorts about a reggae singing bus conductor and a sitar player, and he already had a love of Traditional Irish music.

This was cemented during his nine-day Dublin shoot, where he captured the story of Tommy Barton and translated to film a homage to the style of music, that van Morrison once said “has the ability to express the spiritual character of the human psyche.”

The Gentleman Busker’s life story is told through the remembrances of his three sons, Billy, Tommy Jr and John, as well as family friend Finbar Furey, leader of The Fureys.

There is powerful archive footage from this time in Ireland’s history as well as a clip of Tommy Barton’s one big screen appearance in a film called ‘O’ Donoghue’s Opera’ (1965).

With a current resurgence of interest in Ireland’s darker times fuelled by Frank McCourt’s novel ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and Alan Parker’s resulting film(’99), the documentary is timely.

But unlike Mc Court’s more sombre outing, Mees’ documentary never gets mired in self pity. Tommy Barton simply comes across as an unassuming yet influential figure in the world of Irish music. There are plenty of live performances peppered throughout the film as well as footage of the quiet achiever’s family and friends.

“It is a posthumous tribute to Tommy Barton, because he was never recognised by people outside his field”, says Mees. “He really was a very accomplished musician.”

“Off The Beaten Track” screens today (Thursday 26 October) 2pm, at the Green Room at Creative Partnership.