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Familiar Faces

2 Dec, 2013 By: Ashley Ratcliff

Director Seán Ó Cualáin discusses the surge of interest in the subjects of ‘Men at Lunch,’ based on a famous photo

Eleven men sitting on a steel beam dangling above New York City on a gloomy day is an iconic image, but it’s one that surprisingly was never the subject of a film or book.

That was until director Seán Ó Cualáin, along with producer brother Éamonn Ó Cualáin, went on a fact-finding mission for their would-be documentary, Men at Lunch, based on the famous “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” image.

First Run Features releases Men at Lunch Dec. 3 on DVD ($24.95).

“The photograph is everywhere,” said Seán Ó Cualáin. “For me, I just came across that photograph at a bar in Ireland, as you do in many bars. What was interesting about the photograph is that there was a note from an Irish immigrant who claimed that [the men on the far left and right of the picture were his father and uncle.]”

This chance encounter led the brothers to that family and back to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where the photo was taken in 1932. Along the way, Ó Cualáin encountered many more people claiming to have some connection to the 11 workers.

“It’s an iconic photo but it has baggage, such that Irish people and a lot of Europeans have lived with the tale of ‘we built the American skyline,’” he said. “Italians, Eastern Europeans — they all played their part. There are very few places in Ireland that do not lay some kind of claim to that picture.”

Since the documentary’s theatrical release and showings at film festivals across the globe, Ó Cualáin said he and his brother continue to receive correspondences from people purporting to be a relative of one of the men — 40 to 50 claims and growing.

It’s possible that the filmmakers may make another movie or a book following some of the families who profess to be related to the men photographed.

“I never intended to be the go-to guy for this picture, but because I’m the first guy to probe into it with the film, I in turn have become the go-to guy,” Ó Cualáin said. “People expect answers, and I don’t have answers because the key to the photograph is the anonymity of the men. I can’t prove or disprove the identity of the men because no work records survived from the Rockefeller building — that we know.”

However, Ó Cualáin was able to identify a few men based on Rockefeller archives of pictures taken that same day. He and his brother later came across a never-before-seen photograph of the same 11 men in a different stance (taking their hats off and posing for the camera), which in turn sparked a surge of interest in the film and its subjects.

More importantly, Men at Lunch tells the story of a generation of men that built the New York City skyline during the Great Depression, Ó Cualáin said.

“The key really isn’t to find out who they really are,” he said. “For me, the magic of the photograph is that we don’t know who they are — they could be anybody. They came from the bottom and worked their way up bit by bit. The story of the men on the beam is the same story of millions of immigrants.”

While the filmmakers could have told the story in myriad ways, they chose to stick with a traditional documentary, a great deal of which is in classic black and white, just like the image.

“All the themes of the photograph are in the film,” Ó Cualáin said. “All the aspirations and the hope that the men had are in the film. While [people] look at the photograph, they might say to themselves, ‘How bad was life that the men had to go up on the beam that high with no safety harness?’ Even though those men are 69 stories up, 800 feet off the ground, they’re the lucky ones. They’re the ones who had a job. There were queues of people waiting at the bottom of the skeleton Rockefeller building for people to fall from the beams so that they could have a job. That’s how precious jobs were.”

Special features include five bonus shorts and four featurettes. Ó Cualáin said “The 1929 Crash, Rockefeller Center” explores workers in the context of the difficult time.

“We really didn’t get time to go through the 1929 crash and the effects it had on American society,” he said. “There was a certain amount of hope that was in the city.”

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