John Davis breaks it down

Belfast filmmaker John Davis has travelled some hard roads and fast trains making documentaries about subcultures.

To spend 45 minutes on the phone with documentary filmmaker John T. Davis is to appreciate the way a lifetime can be shaped by the breaks.

The latest break to come his way belongs to his wife---a fractured ankle sustained in a fall at their son's wedding in Washington, D.C. Speaking from his Northern Ireland home, Davis battles jet lag magnified by the challenges of travelling with a wounded partner.

But there's no trace of bitterness in his laidback brogue. Just the charm of a born raconteur who has turned the breaks to his advantage in his career.

Davis' films will be featured at the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival, presented by CFAT. His afternoon master class for NSCAD film students includes a screening of The Uncle Jack, a film about Davis' cinema-architect uncle. Shell Shock Rock, a chronicle of the late-'70s Belfast punk scene, and Hobo, an examination of America's rail-riding subculture, screen together Friday at the North Street Church.

The 63-year-old's path was set, in part, by an fortuitous encounter with documentary legend D.A. Pennebaker in 1966, around the time that Pennebaker was making the Bob Dylan doc Don't Look Back. The experience left Davis contemplating a film career, but he had to wait more than a decade for the break that would launch it.

That break came as a concert invitation in the late '70s. "I was invited to a Stiff Little Fingers show in Belfast and it just blew me away," Davis says. "I couldn't believe the music and the energy and what they were saying."

This was his entry point into an underground scene where Protestant and Catholic kids sought refuge from Ireland's political and religious divisions through music. Fascinated, Davis pulled out all the stops to make the low-budget Shell Shock Rock.

"The film stock---I used to take it into the back door of the BBC because I knew the processors there," he recalls. "The news was still filmed on film, so my footage would be going into the bath along with the 6 o'clock news."

Shell Shock Rock caught another break when it was banned by the Cork Film Festival. "I owe everything to that movie, because after it was banned so many people wanted to see it," says Davis.

But for Davis, luck hasn't always been kind. While making The Uncle Jack one of his uncle's cinemas burned down and his own father passed away. He's also suffered voluntarily for his art---adopting his subject's lifestyle while making Hobo.

"The whole romantic notion of being a hobo lasts for about two minutes once you get on a freight train out of town," says Davis. "I had to learn to live the life---to jump a train and jump off a train, where to hide your gear if you went into town and how to disguise it.

"Mentally, it's quite a thing to learn to eat food out of a dumpster."

Davis has moved on from dumpsters and punk. He spends his time playing country and blues music. "It's a big relief from the heartbreak of making movies."

After the hard roads he's travelled, Davis is entitled to take it easy. Still, as his wife would attest, there's no escaping the breaks.

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