Donald Taylor Black’s new Irish-Film-Board-funded documentary Skin in the Game examines the current financial crisis through responses of a number of artists who are using it as subject matter for their work.
Skin in the Game screens on Tuesday, 12th March 2013 at the IFI at. 18.30. Donald Taylor Black, Brian Maguire and Roddy Doyle will participate in a post-screening Q&A with broadcaster Vincent Woods.
Below Donald tells Film Ireland about the process behind making his documentary and the importance of support for feature-length documentaries.
I began shooting my latest film, then called Stuffing the Tiger, on polling day of the general election in February 2011. After that, I shot on an occasional basis until September of this year. The project had been shortlisted by the Arts Council’s excellent Reel Art scheme. It came close but ultimately received no cigar and was turned down just before Christmas in 2010. I went to see Alan Maher at the Film Board in the first week of January. He was immediately positive and his enthusiasm led to a formal offer of First Stage Documentary Production Funding in February 2011. We made a promo, which persuaded the Board to fully finance the film, which is now called Skin in the Game. The origin of this financial term is sometimes attributed to veteran American investor, Warren Buffett, and refers to a situation in which high-ranking insiders use their own money to buy shares in the company they are running. Clearly, it can also have a metaphorical meaning – in this particular instance implying that citizens, by definition, have a legitimate, undisputed interest in the state of their own country or society. I took it from a line in Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley’s short fiction film, Divestment, which is featured in the documentary.
Skin in the Game is about a number of Irish artists who are using the current financial crisis as subject matter for their own work. These include: Seán Hillen (photographer), Rita Ann Higgins (poet), Christy Moore (musician), Brian Maguire (painter), Anthony Haughey (photographer), David Quin (animator), David Bolger (choreographer), Gerald Dawe (poet), and David Monahan (photographer). Some of these participants regularly make political work; others have been motivated by their anger at the actions of bankers, developers or politicians and the catastrophic damage that they have caused. Roddy Doyle has written several texts, which are performed (or voiced) by actors, including Lorcan Cranitch and Hilda Fay. The documentary will receive its world premiere in Cork.
Over the summer I spent six weeks editing with Pat Duffner in Digital Post’s new basement premises in Mespil Road and, there, in the cutting room, one day at the end of July, I read online that Chris Marker had died. Although I had never met him and knew that he was over ninety – he actually died on his ninety-first birthday – it was still a shock. Although far from being a household name, apparently news of his death trended on Twitter second only to the Olympics. This was particularly appropriate, given that his first feature-length film was Olympia (1952), a documentary filmed during that year’s Olympic Games in Helsinki, exactly sixty years previously. The October issue of Sight & Sound published seven pages of moving tributes from friends and admirers, including Agnès Varda, Patricio Guzmán, and Patrick Keiller. CalArts faculty member and filmmaker, Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself), quoted an extract from a 2003 interview with Chris Marker in Libération: ‘The exponential growth of stupidity and vulgarity [in television] is a concrete, quantifiable fact… and a crime against humanity.’ For this reason, whether we are filmmakers, or just love the medium, we must strongly encourage the Film Board to continue its enlightened policy towards creative documentaries.
Since the first Bord Scannán na hÉireann was established in 1981, it has supported documentaries. At a meeting of the Board in May 1982, it decided to fund projects by Bob Quinn, Paddy Carey and myself. The first to be completed was my own début film, At the Cinema Palace (1983). Although successive regimes have continued the practice, in most cases, they have usually supplemented television budgets, which has effectively meant that it was the broadcasters who actually made the decisions as to which projects got made. This has also been the reason that the majority of these documentaries were 52-minute ‘programmes’, their length constricted by the schedule. Of course, this was beneficial for the filmmakers and their audiences, but it was probably more beneficial for RTÉ, BBC, Ulster Television, TG4, and Channel 4. Nevertheless, the Board had occasionally involved itself with feature-length documentaries, notably Liam McGrath’s Southpaw (1998) and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley/Donnacha Ó Briain, 2003), but they were rare.
It was only when Simon Perry became chief executive in 2006 that a more ambitious policy about feature-length documentaries was introduced. This coincided with both an international trend for successful theatrical documentary releases, such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2005), Kevin Macdonald’s Touching The Void (2003), and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) and with the appointment of Alan Maher as production executive with responsibility for documentary output – although ironically he had virtually no previous experience in the genre.
Perry and Maher decided they would encourage mainly longer-form cinema documentaries. If these films failed to obtain a theatrical release, at least they should have a substantial festival life. Consequently, the Board committed more funding – and a higher proportion of its annual budget – to documentaries, rising to almost €1.85 million in 2008. It gradually built up serious relationships with distributors, festival programmers and, of course, broadcasters, particularly with commissioning editors like Nick Fraser of BBC’s Storyville. Successes have included: Saviours (Liam Nolan/Ross Whitaker, 2007); Waveriders (Joel Conroy, 2008); The Pipe (Risteard Ó Domhnaill, 2010); Pyjama Girls (Maya Derrington, 2010); Knuckle (Ian Palmer, 2011); and His & Hers (Ken Wardrop, 2010), which was the highest grossing Irish film of the year. However, even though television sometimes partly finances the films, they are not conceived as television programmes but as creative documentaries and this is highly significant; the subject matter has to be suitable for a film that is aimed at the cinema or festivals. There is a crucial difference, for instance, between a political documentary and a TV current-affairs special. Some documentaries have been fully-funded by the Board, without the filmmakers having to raise matching finance elsewhere, which is hugely advantageous; these include Pyjama Girls, His & Hers, and Skin in the Game. One of the genuine benefits of this progressive policy has been that Ireland has begun to gain an international reputation for creative documentaries and a number of the films have been selected for major festivals like IDFA (Amsterdam), Sundance, Berlin, and Toronto. Indeed, this year there are an unprecedented three Irish nominations for the Grierson Awards, all of which received funding from the Film Board.
However, as we know, initially the recession threatened the actual existence of the Board – with the publication of the McCarthy Report in 2009 – and government cutbacks have reduced its overall budget from €22 million in 2008 to €18.4 million in 2011 and €15.9 million in 2012. Nonetheless, as a documentary filmmaker, I feel very strongly that these severe financial restraints should not persuade the new team in Galway and Dublin to reduce its commitment to creative documentaries. At the very least, it should maintain the ratio of spending on documentaries and, on behalf of my colleagues, I hope that at least one of the incoming ‘troika’ of project managers will champion them in 2013 and beyond. The Film Board has been rightly applauded for its progressive policy of supporting the production of creative documentaries but it must not water it down in the future. We need to be informed, educated and entertained by Irish documentaries and see them on screens of every size – but particularly in cinemas. As Marker said, ‘Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined’.