How to make a show about travellers

Anthropologist George Gmelch (centre) catches up with travellers Sally Donoghue and Kevin Donoghue during the filming of 'Unsettled.' Photograph courtesy of RTE.
Anthropologist George Gmelch (centre) catches up with travellers Sally Donoghue and Kevin Donoghue during the filming of 'Unsettled.' Photograph courtesy of RTE.
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Forty years ago, two Californian anthropologists, George and Sharon Gmelch, moved into a barrel top wagon in a traveller encampment in Rathfarnham in Dublin.

They spent thirteen months living and travelling with three extended traveller families. They returned to the States with material for a number of books and over 3,000 photographs.

They returned to a different Ireland and a different travelling community earlier this year to make a documentary. The resulting footage was aired on Monday night on RTE 1. Unsettled - from Tinker to Traveller - is one of the best portrayals I’ve seen to date on the life and culture Irish travellers.

It was a refreshing shift from the Channel 4 big fat gypsy mockumentaries. It was produced and controlled by two educated individuals who handled their material sensitively and intellectually.

Like many great films of late, it was a credit to RTE.

The most interesting aspect of the one hour television piece was the mammoth archive of black and white photos the American academics had taken during their time with the traveller community.

They hadn’t just sat in a university library laboriously pouring over academic texts for the anthroplogical studies of this particular ethnic minority.

They had lived the life, in the wagon, for over a year.

There was no glory in it for them in the seventies. In fact, they had to ‘cold call’ all the families they spoke to and introduce themselves as two unknown Americans who wanted to move into the camp. It took a while to permeate what was traditionally quite a closed community, according to Sharon.

This was before the era of reality tv. The only camera on the camp belonged to George.

Nevertheless, during a very gradual and human process, the Gmelchs integrated themselves and won the trust of the families they worked closely with,

It was uplifiting to see them revisit the old ground they’d once covered. So much had changed and there were no traces of the old wagons they had spent their year in Ireland in.

The wagons have been replaced by more modern caravans and, for a significant number of the families, bricks and mortar, with many of them now living in houses.

Many of the people the Gmelchs had known had since died and the children they’d spent their time with had grown up and were parents and grandparents. Still, they remembered their American friends and were delighted to welcome them back for a brief visit,

Here and there, there were hints of the kind of traveller life which has become tabloid and tv fodder but there was very little, if any, special reference to it.

The one hour programme didn’t need that. It wasn’t trying to masquerade itself as a social commentary while projecting a string of tacky misconstrued images.

It was, in the genuine sense of the word, a social commentary.

In the end, there was no sarcastic comment to wind it all up. The programme simply ended, with the Gmelchs reflecting on their work and the changes in the traveller lifestyle, before returning to America.

It was interesting, thought provoking, honest, unbiased, human and touching and a great piece of film making.

Other broadcasters across the water could learn a lot from this when considering how to represent the travelling community.

‘Unsettled’ was no less interesting because it was less sensationalist. Absolutely the opposite, in fact.