There’s a moment late in the documentary “Image You Missed” that is so surreal and so fitting that it feels like something out of a fictional film rather than a documentary.
The scene is the 2008 funeral of Arthur MacCaig, an American filmmaker who devoted his career — and his life, really — to documenting the conflict in Northern Ireland. His work, including the acclaimed 1979 documentary “The Patriot Game,” was such a major part of his life that during the graveside service, the priest reads from his most glowing movie reviews.
MacCaig’s commitment to his work came at the expense of his family, and in particular his estranged son, Irish filmmaker Donal Foreman. So, in “Image You Missed,” Foreman reconnects with his father the only way he can — through his father’s footage. It’s telling that the documentary is billed as a film “between Donal Foreman and Arthur MacCaig,” in which the two filmmakers are almost in conversation with each other — an often strained and charged conversation — through their images on screen.
“Image You Missed” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., as part of the museum’s Spotlight Cinema series. Admission is free for museum members, $7 for all others.
Foreman drew from decades of footage that MacCaig shot in Belfast, a torn city that MacCaig would visit and revisit for decades, leaving his family behind in Dublin. The footage is stunning and intimate, as MacCaig captures demonstrations in the streets and masked IRA members railing against the British in pubs.
Foreman layers these images with footage that he shot, both as a child in Dublin, and as an adult. MacCaig’s shot of an injured man soaked in blood cuts to a homemade horror film Foreman made as a kid, his torso covered in fake blood. MacCaig’s shot of pro-IRA graffiti is paired with Foreman’s footage of the same spot, the graffiti now painted over and replaced by a billboard for an optometrist.
Back and forth the film goes, mixing voiceover narration that MacCaig recorded years ago with Foreman’s own recollections of an absent father, and the legacy he left. At times the juxtaposition is ironic, as when, during the Peace Process, MacCaig talks about the importance of clashing sides learning to listen and talk to each other. This from a father who didn’t see his son for years at a time, largely abandoning Foreman after he divorced his first wife and remarried.
“Image You Missed” is a very personal documentary, an essay on film, as Foreman unpacks his complicated feelings toward his late father. At one point, Foreman confesses that as a filmmaker he envies the certainty that MacCaig brought to his expressly political filmmaking, his confidence that he was on the right side of the conflict. But that black-and-white view of the world — “shot, reverse shot, nothing in between,” in Foreman’s words — leaves out a lot of ambiguity. Foreman’s own, more esoteric approach to filmmaking could be seen as a corrective to that.
But “Image You Missed” isn’t an exercise in score-settling. It is a tribute to MacCaig's work, filmmaker to filmmaker, as well as a reckoning of what that cost his family. “Your camera always looked out into other people’s worlds,” Foreman says. “Never into your own.” In “Image You Missed,” Foreman turns his camera around and tells that half of his father’s story.