Sunday, July 31, 2011



Life and times of gypsy site seen through camera's lens

THE walk into Dale Farm is not what you might call welcoming. The road is strewn with potholes and glass litters the approach to the scaffolding which acts as the official entrance, from which a hastily erected banner hangs declaring "we won't go". You are acutely aware you are entering someone else's land.

Few outsiders are able walk through the site without being watched with an air of suspicion. Fewer still are able to walk around with a camera filming the travellers in their day-to-day lives.

Richard Parry is the exception. Over six years the 44-year-old has cultivated a rapport with the community that has enabled him to film a documentary about the site and its inhabitants, which aired on BBC 1 on Thursday.

"The first time I came down here I was a bit nervous walking onto the site given the reputation," said Richard, who is sat perched with legs up on the garden wall outside Mary Ann McCarthy's home. "Half a minute later those fears were gone, they have always been very welcoming to me."

The Big Gypsy Eviction charts the conflicts and lives of the travellers since 2005, but also of residents in neighbouring Crays Hill. It portrays a balanced account of a situation that has escalated beyond belief.

For the most part, the director worked alone on the documentary, which he believes made it easier for people to relate to him.

"I don't believe in fly on the wall film making," he said. "You are emotionally attached to them. You are part of the story and the relations off camera are genuine.
"I have seen kids grow up. There was a pudgy, red-haired kid who I filmed in 2005. I came back a while later and he had completely changed. He had been to secondary school where he was bullied and dropped out. He started to grow suspicious of the settled community. It was sad to see that strain grow in him."

He recalls with great sadness the fire that claimed the lives of Cathleen McCarthy and her husband in 2005.
"I filmed Cathleen a week before she perished in the fire there. She was very funny, very verbose. I knew she liked to sing and I filmed her singing and a week later she died."

He played the recording of her singing at the site through a car stereo after she died.
"It was the most extraordinary sight – the women mourning," he recalled. "I didn't film it. You are part of the story, it is a pariah like activity. I was upset when Cathleen died, it makes the film more interesting, but someone died and that's more important."

Her singing can be heard accompanying footage in the documentary.

Such is his bond with the travellers, he accompanied them to Rathkeale, Ireland, where he "knocked back the Guinness" with Cathleen's brother.

So whose side is he on?

"I don't think I have a partisan view. I like them but I understand why the conflict exists," he replied. "I have got more emotional connections to these because I have known these people for so many years."

The Londoner was 14 years old when he shot his first film and had his first documentary broadcast in 1991. His career has taken him to war zones across the world. He is no stranger to conflict.
"What works well in documentaries is conflict and there is definitely clear conflict here – conflict with the council and with the locals. It does not have an easy answer. It is interesting to make a film for an audience that presents conflicting ideas, otherwise you are just making campaign films."

As part of the documentary, Richard spent time with Crays Hill residents who have seen their homes devalued by the traveller site, which has swelled to about five acres.
"There are people on the other side of the fence that I know as well. I am conflicted about it," he said with a hint of distress in his voice. "I don't want to see these people put on the roads. I have got to know and like them, but it doesn't mean I don't agree with green belt, it has to be protected."

The film-maker knows his subjects and spends time researching them. He does not have much time for Channel 4's traveller documentary, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which aired earlier this year. It promulgated the idea of 'grabbing' in the traveller community, whereby young males 'grab' girls for a kiss.

"They invented grabbing. I reckon those boys were having a laugh with them [the film-makers]. I have never heard of it, but they don't care. It got eight million people watching it.

"If you are a film maker, the responsibility is on you to put down what is true. Research it. If someone said that to me I would not put it down."

It is such integrity that has seen him accepted into the traveller community.

As we talked outside Mary Ann's home, Richard Sheridan, or Ricky as he is known to the film-maker, president of the Gypsy Council, came over to have his say on the eviction.

His arguments were passionate. "In some senses there is an oversimplification to their arguments," said Richard, following the speech by the gypsy council president. "But there are misunderstandings and miscommunication on both sides.

"It is a conflict and it has blown out of all proportion."

The solution in his eyes is for Basildon Borough Council to find alternative, smaller sites for the travellers.

There is also a potential follow- up to last week's documentary – the eviction itself.

"I don't want to see an eviction. It would be a great ending to my film, but I don't want to see it happen," he said solemnly.

It is a view shared by the travellers and the council, yet it is a reality that creeps ever closer with every passing day.

The Big Gypsy Eviction can be viewed on BBC iPlayer at

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