Díóg O’Connell responds to Ferdia Mac Anna’s article insisting that there is indeed alot to like about Irish Film.
When the Irish Film Board was re-activated in 1993/94 at the start of the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland had a challenging game of catch-up to play. Unlike most European countries whose film production was supported through public and private funds throughout the twentieth century, Ireland had little resembling a film culture. Many of our European neighbours experienced national movements of political cinema, short lived in many cases but having far reaching impacts as they hit a nerve at a critical historical moment (German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, French New wave etc.), an experience denied to Ireland due to an absence of wider infrastructure. The state ran scared of film culture for fear of offending the Catholic Church, failing to put any supports in place for indigenous film while at the same time, eager to support big Hollywood productions so as not to offend the Americans.
The response to film culture since the foundation of the state was split between censorship on the one hand, to that of creaming off any economic benefit of off-shore productions, regardless of how these films portrayed the Irish. Aside from sporadic film activity in the 1970s and 1980s by notable directors such as Joe Comerford, Pat Murphy, Cathal Black, Bob Quinn and Thaddeus O’Sullivan, there was little to call Irish cinema.
With the reactivation of the Irish Film Board, following the successes of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan on the international stage, Irish cinema was given a badly needed infusion. To expect, in a few short years, Irish film to do what other national cinemas managed in over a century, suggests a misplaced ambition that got us into serious trouble elsewhere. Instead, assessing Irish film over the past fifteen years as part of a developing film culture may answer some questions about its well being.
Distinctive narrative phases can be identified reflecting on the one hand the organic development and evolution of an industry forced to play catch up with other national cinemas, alongside the actively shaped approach, ideologically inspired and managed through policy decisions at Film Board level. The first phase of film up until the late 1990s saw the familiar and traditional themes retold. After a hiatus of seven years when the first Film Board had been cut off at the throat, a number of national themes, sometimes referred to as the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the Catholic Church, rural Ireland and the Troubles, needed to work their way through the national system (Broken Harvest, Maurice O’Callaghan 1994; Bogwoman, Tom Collins 1997; Nothing Personal, Thaddeus O’Sullivan 1995; A Further Gesture, Robert Dorhhelm 1996; Some Mother’s Son, Terry Gorge 1996; The Boxer, Jim Sheridan 1998), not really a surprise given the vacuum of film production in Ireland since 1987. Representations of repressed sexuality (Circle of Friends, Pat O’Connor 1995, Gold in the Streets, Liz Gill 1996) begin to fizzle out at the end of this phase particularly evident when compared with the types of films to emerge subsequently (About Adam, Gerry Stembridge, 2001; When Brendan met Trudy, Kieron J. Walsh 2001; Goldfish Memory, Liz Gill, 2003), signalling a shift, post-1998 in the direction of more progressive themes, situated mainly in an urban milieu. This second phase, following changes to IFB script development policy, experienced a dominant trend towards genre production – romantic comedies, thrillers and horror movies (Dead Meat, Conor McMahon 2004; Boy Eats Girl, Stephen Bradley 2005; Perrier’s Bounty, Ian Fitzgibbon 2009) as Irish filmmakers looked towards more mainstream international films as models.
Remember the thrill attached to seeing an Irish film in the cinema alongside other genre productions, films that didn’t feature green fields and lashings of rain as the dominant iconography. Maybe they weren’t the most polished of narrative forms, but they certainly gave a breath of fresh air to the perceived nature of ‘Irish film’.
2001 is documented as a record year for Irish films with nine films being released in Irish cinemas. Clarence Pictures, Buena Vista International and Abbey Pictures accounted for the release of eight of the films funded by the Board. While the shift towards script development may account partly for increased exhibition rates, the launch of Clarence Pictures and Abbey Pictures (Irish distribution companies) and the development of Buena Vista International focussing on Irish productions at this time meant increased opportunities for Irish films to progress towards box office release and DVD/video distribution.
Clearly film production doesn’t occur in a vacuum and to develop as a cultural form, space, time and support systems are required. Since 2005, the scripts produced have been more eclectic in style, less generically formulaic and often displays an auteur stamp (Adam & Paul, Lenny Abrahamson 2004; Garage, Lenny Abrahamson 2007; Once, John Carney 2007; His & Hers, Ken Wardrop 2009; Savage, Brendan Muldowney 2009), and produced on very low budgets. These films have not only struck a nerve with the audience but are generally critically acclaimed, not just in niche film festival auditoria.
I reckon there’s a lot to like about Irish film and I suspect if the pattern continues, there will be more. The diversity across films such as I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach, 1997), How Harry Became a Tree (Goran Paskaljevic, 2001), Nora (Pat Murphy, 2000), The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (Dudi Appleton, 1999), Disco Pigs (Kirsten Sheridan, 2001) and A Man of No Importance (Suri Krishnamma, 1994) to name but a few reveals an assorted mix. There was a time when a universal groan would echo around the lecture hall when you mentioned Irish film. Now students of the subject have their favourites and their allergies but they are not indifferent. And because they have grown up with seeing mainstream and genre Irish film in their local cinemas, there is a renewed curiosity about older Irish films, often concerned with the ‘Holy Trinity’. Rather than seeing ‘Irish film’ as one size that fits all, when viewed up close there is a diversity and range warranting a second look.
Díóg O’Connell is a lecturer in Film & Media Studies at IADT, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. She completed her PhD in 2005 entitled ‘Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Irish Cinema 1993-2003’ and has published articles and critical reviews on this period. Her book, New Irish Storytellers: Narrative Strategies in Film is published by Intellect, 2010.