Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story

Recently, there have been a number of discussions encapsulating what defines an Irish film and also, the caliber of the genre. For me personally, I am constantly in awe and somewhat surprised by the measure of talented actors, actresses, directors, writers, costume designers, assistant directors and crew that exist and work on this isle. Furthermore, I’m extremely proud of the work that they produce and the stories which they present to audiences at home and abroad.

At the beginning of this month, I experienced something that I hope never to forget; ‘Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story’.

The feature-length documentary denotes the story of Mark Pollock and his partner, Simone. Mark lost his sight at age 22 and ten years later, he was the first blind person to race to the South Pole. Throughout the film, the audience follows Mark’s triumphs and challenges and narrates the ways in which a couple re-build their lives after an accident leaves Mark paralysed from the waist-down.

The film made me think, question, laugh, cry, smile, angry and feel. It altered my perspective, not only on the world itself but on my own life and the challenges and highlights that I have experienced.

When an opportunity arose to speak with the film’s director, Ross Whitaker, I jumped at the chance – quite literally. Speaking with Ross was one of the most fruitful and thought-provoking experiences I’ve had this year and could not recommend the film more highly.

Unbreakable

What first drew you to the career of film-making and directing?

That’s going way back! I finished college in 1997 – Wow! That’s a long time ago…

I won’t tell you what age I was in 1997…

Please don’t! I studied Business and Political Science in Trinity. My friends all wanted to become accountants, management consultants and finance ‘people’ – whatever it is that finance people do – but it never really appealed to me. I had a grand idea that I wanted to spend my life doing something that I liked. So, without being too conscious about it, I took some time out. I worked and travelled in Australia, New Zealand and Paris in bars and on building sites. When I reached Paris, I arrived at this point where I had been travelling for around eighteen months and I started to think that maybe it was time that I should do something with my life. In Paris, they have all of these amazing cinemas where they show such a wide range of film; old, new, world cinema – everything really. I would go to an 11am screening before the bar (that I worked) in opened and see small independent films and old blockbusters. Everyday, I’d go to the cinema whilst still questioning myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ After about two months, it dawned on me and I thought, ‘I think this is staring me in the face! I’m going to see films every day, maybe I should explore a career in that domain’.

Around the same time, a friend of mine, Daniel O’Hara, had just gone on to do a Masters in Film and suddenly it wasn’t just something that was in Paris but a career that people I knew were getting involved in. I came home and completed a Masters in Film in UCD but I was really unsure about what you should do next. I tried to send a CV to a few place but if I’m honest, I didn’t really have a clue as to what I was doing. Unsurprisingly, I got no responses and moved to Toronto for a couple of years. I continued to be an avid cinema goer but documentary never really appealed to me until I went to see a couple of films in this genre and thought, ‘Wow, real people are actually much more interesting than actors’. That really changed my thinking and I realised that barriers into entry for documentary are also much smaller; you can just pick up a camera and go. I came back to Ireland and basically just began to do that.

Ross WhitakerThe very first piece that I made was with Mark (Pollock), he was doing his first adventure race across the Gobhi Desert. We made a half-hour documentary about that trek with John Sherwin, who sold it to RTÉ. It was the first time that I thought ‘I can do this’ and really started to pursue it.

You mentioned there that you knew Mark, how far back does your relationship span?

I went to college with Mark and when I knew him first, he could see and walk. I feel like I have been on the whole journey with him and in that sense, it felt like somewhat of an obvious topic to try to film. Not just because he and I were friends but it raises questions which most people have never considered. I mean, what is like to lose your sight at twenty-two? That was one starting point!

You have been filming ‘Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story’ for quite some time but when the initial idea first came about, was it you who approached Mark or was it a collaborative decision from the outset?

If I’m honest, it just evolved. After we had recorded the piece in The Gobhi Desert, I was somewhat aware that I hadn’t nailed it; purely because I didn’t have the experience at the time to do it as well as I would have liked. Approximately six years ago, Mark approached me and said that he was going to undertake a race in the South Pole and asked if I would like to film it. That began and towards the end of that race was when Mark had his accident. It was at that moment that I thought, ‘I don’t want to do anymore filming with Mark, I just want to go back to being his friend’. It was really strange too because during the time of Mark’s accident, I received several messages from people saying ‘Wow, this is a really interesting twist in the story’ but to me, it wasn’t a twist in the story at all, it was my friend having this horrendous accident. So, we didn’t really record any new footage for quite some time, but I received quite a senstive and nice email from RTÉ where they said that they understood it was an extremely difficult time but the project could be of great interest to them in the future if Mark and I were willing to continue filming. At that point, Mark, Simone (Mark’s partner) and I sat down and between us we decided to begin filming and to just see what happened. Mark and I always had this understanding though that if any point either of us felt that we should just shelve it, we would. We just kept going really and after four years, we’ve come to an end.

Due to the filming occurring quite naturally, in time to the beat of Mark’s life, was the editing process difficult, particularly in constructing a fluid narrative throughout the documentary?

The biggest difficulty was the volume of material, we had too much story and some people might even say that the documentary is too long but there was nothing more that we could take out without damaging the narrative. When making a documentary, it’s a necessity that you record what you need, not what you like to save yourself time in the edit. For this project, I did shoot quite sparingly – there were times when Mark would ring me and say, ‘I’m going to be doing this thing, are you interested?’ and I would have to say to myself, ‘It sounds like Mark might want to film this and it might be important to him but is it important for the narrative of the documentary?’

Was that process quite challenging considering that you are both his friend and his director?

At times, it was. As a director, you want to be in day-to-day contact, to ensure that you don’t miss anything but as his friend, you want to allow things to occur naturally too. There were a couple of instances where something happened and I said to Mark, ‘I would have loved to have filmed that’ and Mark’s reply was ‘Oh, I didn’t think that you’d be interested’. It’s difficult to balance being present in his life but also being a drain on his life; a challenge for both our friendship and on the relationship between director and subject but we persevered and are really proud of the result.

Speaking of the editing process, if it was possible to have five additional minutes somewhere in the film, is there any piece of footage which you would love to include?

When leaving stuff out, it’s hard because you want to portray how difficult it was for Mark in the hospital but at the same time, you don’t want to make it so difficult to watch that it’s a struggle for the audience. Mark had quite a few infections and in retrospect, the film somewhat breezes over that and mentions it but doesn’t dwell on it. Also, we would have loved to have told the audience more about the scientific aspect of it but attempting the find the balance again between a science lesson and facts that would add to the narrative is a challenging process.

Sometimes when documentaries are made about people with disabilities or those who have challenges, it can occur that the tone may be too sympathetic, did you find it difficult to balance highlighting the person and then the disability or was it a natural occurrence because of your relationship with Mark?

Hopefully, it comes across naturally. We didn’t really want to make the documentary as a publicity piece for Mark but at the same time you are filming someone who is experiencing a very difficult time and they’re managing it extremely well. Simply, we wanted to portray an authentic representation of the story including a little bit of the good, a little bit of the bad, a little bit of the in-between and that it’s truthful. It won’t always be everything that happened but that’s impossible. Ad nauseam, I would say that life is never entirely dark or light, it’s never entirely sad or happy; if you can get a mixture of those things – including a bit of humour – it’s a fair reflection on life and what we strive for in our film-making.

For this project, you’ve visited such a wide range of locations and experienced such a diversity of temperature and climate but that pose any challenges for the technical aspect of the film?

We went to Norway to film some training that Mark was undertaking and the camera started to act up. It started to act very strangely and all of a sudden, the batteries died immediately. We had brief moments like those but nothing too troublesome that stopped us from filming. From that location though, some of the images came out quite strange – it was -25 degrees – but the funny thing about it was that the guys had pitched their tents beside this hotel, that I was staying in…

You didn’t camp, Ross?

No, you see, I thought for the sake of the equipment, I needed the hotel…

Of course *slight sarcastic tone and raised eyebrow*… Moving on swiftly, at the very beginning of this chat, you said that you had a degree in business. Is that financial training a huge asset for this industry?

I think where it comes in handy is when you are considering how to market your project. For this film, we are distributing it ourselves; I think that there is an audience for this film but it is a very specific audience and that’s who we shall be aiming to bring it to.

If you had to describe that audience via characteristics, how would you define it?

My feeling on it is that there is an initial core audience who already are interested in Mark’s story; he has over 8,000 followers on Twitter and over 8,000 people who are following the Mark Pollock Trust on Facebook. Thus, there’s an audience there who have already displayed their interest in his story. Beyond that, you do all of the normal press but what you are trying to get across to people is that this isn’t a story that is entirely tough or entirely sad but a good news story – which there aren’t that many of. It’s about someone finding their way in the world and doing some very positive things.

If you are asking me to really break it down, I would expect that the audience will attract more of a female audience because it is a love-story. That too is a challenge because sometimes the media will simplistically say ‘Oh, isn’t this person great because he has defied the odds’ but there’s a more interesting story within; it’s about how two people, a couple, re-build their lives after a trauma like this.

Regardless of their disability…

Yes, exactly. This could be about any one, really.

Finally, Ross – Was there any moment within the process of making this film that you realised, ‘I think we have made something quite special’?

We had been involved in this project for so long and when it finally felt like the end, that was quite special – not just because of the film but it was also somewhat of a closing of a chapter for Mark himself. He put so much life, energy and heart into this film. I’ve seen Mark at his lowest and at his best and to have some involvement in presenting that story to those who don’t know him like I do, I consider it quite an honour.

Thank you so much to Ross for giving up his time so kindly – even when I had the world’s worst cold. You can follow Ross on Twitter here but I would also wholly recommend that you follow Mark himself.

‘Unbreakable…’ is showing in Dublin at the Lighthouse Cinema and Irish Film Institute. For further information on upcoming country-wide screenings and Q&A sessions with the cast and crew, please visit the film’s website here.

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.