Díóg O’Connell examines the cultural and economic argument for film production in Ireland – continuing Film Ireland’s ‘Sounding Off’ section – the place for debate and discussion on the topics that you find most compelling.
Although not to everyone’s political taste, a universal sigh of relief was heard when the old, redundant and failed regime of the last government exhaled its final breath and the new incumbents took power, allowing for a little ray of hope to shine. But before resting on our laurels and slipping into complacency, a word of caution needs sounding. We are certainly far from exiting the doldrums and anything can happen as the coalition government seeks to make its mark by implementing its policies as Ireland attempts to recover. As the new Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan T.D. gets familiar with his brief, how should he respond to the Irish film industry? Film culture and industry attract a see-saw of defense between two arguments, on grounds of economics and culture. This can change depending on the prevailing wind of boom or bust. Arguing in terms of economics can be convincing but misleading, suggesting that film is measurable along the lines of other industrial practices, based on profit and loss logic. In times of recession, when there is no money in the nation’s kitty anyway, the culture argument is trotted out. Without a doubt there are economic benefits to film activity and the figures are there to prove it. For very little state investment (less than 20 million euro per annum), the benefits to the economy run to many millions, measured in terms of inward investment, job creation and services.
However, caution must be exercised around the economic value argument. The over-inflated vanity of the ‘Celtic Peacock’, it is suggested, was driven by a sense of monetary wealth and little else. The economy was built on a foundation of sand driven by property development and house building, sanctioned and approved through government policy and banking mal-practice. Aside from a few dissenters, the so-called ‘experts’ in government, planning, banking etc. failed to shout stop. While the economic argument for film culture is a valid one, it must be made by honest brokers. Of course all film production contains a level of economic activity and can contribute to a growing and diverse economy but should this be the motivating force to maintain state supports? What if does not deliver?
Film production is part of a wider film culture, at a local level and on an international scale. In Ireland, as in most European countries, film production cannot compete with the industrial levels of Hollywood, nor should it want to. European cinema, albeit based around industrial models, has always had a wider remit of cultural practice and identity. While individual films function to degrees of popular culture and entertainment, they also act as cultural documents that shed light and reflect on our times. Irish film is still in its infancy, with less than a twenty-year period of consistent and consecutive state support, yet has made its mark in a variety of ways on the national and international stage. With the release of four feature films in Irish cinemas in the month of March alone (As If I am Not There; Between the Canals; Rewind and Wake Wood), the Irish film industry is in a healthy state despite our economic meltdown. The success of His and Hers, as the highest grossing Irish film at the box office in 2010 after thirty-seven weeks of distribution, indicates the potential of Irish feature documentary. Seven Oscar® nominations since 2002 for Irish short films testify to our strengths as storytellers and the potential for the fledgling industry on the international stage.
If we let the dominant discourse of economic doom and bankruptcy direct all decisions about Irish life, we will end up, in five or ten years, living in the equivalent of a vast grey industrial estate not physically but mentally and emotionally, devoid of any aesthetic or cultural value, where everything is measured in unit terms. While economics is central to life in the western world, we do not live in an economy; we live in a country and participate in a society. And for that society to recover, grow and prosper we need both bread and roses. The Irish film industry can contribute to the recovery of Ireland’s economy but equally will enhance Irish society as Irish film moves towards its next phase of development, so long as its oxygen supply isn’t cut off at source. The next ten years is crucial for Irish film culture in terms of consolidation and advancement. While many of the so-called pillars of society have been exposed as harbouring its fair share of charlatans – in politics, religious life and business – cultural activity has continued to grow and contribute in a positive way. All is not lost for Ireland, at home in our self belief and abroad in how we are perceived. The key lies in supporting areas that grew slowly yet consistently during the so-called boom years, without becoming a national and international disgrace. Film culture is part of this recovery.
Díóg O’Connell is the author of New Irish Storyteller: Narrative Strategies in Film and teaches film and media studies at IADT.
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