Ciara Chambers and Barry Monahan report from Rome, where the Irish Film Festa shone with stories and sizzled with ideas.
As has been the case annually since its inception in 2007, once again this year one of the triumphs of the Irish Film Festa (27 – 30 March 2014) was its amalgamation of a regular core structure with an interesting diversity of supplementary events. The festival used to be held in late-November but has now been moved to March by creative director Susanna Pellis for reasons of publicity (it’s closer to Saint Patrick’s Day) and practicality (it allows Pellis more time to gather her selection of films from the previous year’s festivals). Now in its seventh incarnation, the four-day event again offered participants and patrons a rich schedule of interviews, presentations, workshops, and question and answer sessions, along with the opportunity to see some of the best of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, short and feature-length productions from the island. With her ear close to the Irish turf, Susanna Pellis has always been quick to seize upon any chance to celebrate innovations in Irish cinema, and this year’s surprise was the screening of two of the four digitally remastered programmes from Bob Quinn’s Atlantean (first broadcast in 1984).
Atlantean (Bob Quinn)
The eclectic miscellany of personalities and events that make up the programme contributes in a substantial way to the appeal of the festival and marks its distinction among others. This time was no different from any other season and, once again, invited guests included established and up-and-coming filmmakers and actors, practitioners, critics and journalists. Audiences were invited to engage actively in discussions with the participating artists and, this year, there was a strong sense that the conversations that took place on Irish cinema were not merely dialogues sharing ideas, but dialogues about ideas. In a post-screening exchange between Bob Quinn and Lelia Doolan – two of the creative intellectuals who were influential protagonists in the original and long-fought drive for government support for an Irish film industry – notwithstanding optimism for the future with a strong call to greater philosophical and aesthetic engagement with the medium by filmmakers, feelings of frustration were also aired. Ireland needs to be a place of more profound thought; where cultural texts express ideas, challenge diurnal attitudes, and propose radical concepts. The implication, needing no clarification, was that makers of cinema should be the avant garde of this revolution.
It’s no longer novel to proclaim the democratisation of the medium through individuals’ access to, or use of, the available filmmaking technologies; and no longer innovative to proclaim the fact that each of us with a smart phone and internet access can record material and make a film. What is at question is the quality of what is being produced in this mass tsunami of making and dissemination. We can send and see anything – that’s taken as read – but how and what are we seeing, and how profoundly and probingly this material is asking us to question our life in the 21st century, seem to be residual ideas that need greater mainstream interrogation. The talent and knowledge of a technical production of images for our screens is becoming increasingly widespread, but perhaps this breadth of experience has not been met with a commensurate conceptual depth?
Holding on to this thought, audiences were invited to see several recently-produced short and feature-length productions, all of which were generally representative of how filmmaking was developing in Ireland. While the festival director has stated that her ideal was that it never become an outright “competition festival”, patrons did hold until the last evening’s announcement of “Best Short Film in Festival” to see what the Italian jury endorsed from our output. The winner was Brian Deane’s Volkswagen Joe (2013) which had been contextualised for the audience by its main actor, Stuart Graham. Set in 1981 and following the financial and political manipulation of border-town mechanic Joe, it also leaves itself open to readings of current economic desperation for small business owners. Its powerful climactic standoff thus resonates with a range of local and international audiences. In terms of its programming, Volkswagen Joe opened the festival’s “Belfast Day” which also included a lively post-screening discussion about Made in Belfast with Ciarán McMenamin and Stuart Graham. The film is the first feature to be produced by Graham’s independent production company, KGB Screen, which he established with Paul Kennedy and Louise Gallagher. Shot over just thirteen days, the film repositions Belfast, so often the site of violent political conflict in cinema, as an evolving cultural centre. The film shows that the city has other stories to tell, but it also functions well in its coverage of writer Jack Kelly, returning home to visit his dying father, as a tale of post-conflict optimism. Jack must mend the rifts he left behind because of his bad behaviour towards his family, friends and former fiancée. He returns from his current home, Paris, to find a city in transition and he spends his time there making amends for his past actions. Once this is done, Belfast has transformed into a place he can consider living in once again, rather than one he must leave to escape further conflict. So much of this echoes in the on-going efforts of all involved in the complicated regeneration of Northern Ireland and its liminal spaces as part of the continuing peace process. Made in Belfast’s rousing soundtrack showcases a number of local bands, testifying to the diversity of ways in which the film displays the city, its locations and its local talent, and it offers a sign to other independent filmmakers that such production is possible. Belfast day concluded with another rousing and optimistic narrative in the form of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa’s Good Vibrations (2012), the tale of provocative local music producer Terri Hooley. The film acts as a musical call to arms, with the suggestion that shared cultural experiences can heal the wounds of conflict. All of the films included in Belfast day testify to the diversity of ways in which filmmakers are interrogating Northern Ireland’s troubled past but also recognising the range of other stories that its central city has to tell.
Stuart Graham receiving the award for best short for Volkswagen Joe from Ambassandor Bobby McDonagh and creative director Susanna Pellis.
The features programming opened with John Butler’s raucous comedy The Stag (2013), an exploration of contemporary Irish masculinity and recessionary woes. Also included were the lighthearted romantic comedy The Callback Queen (2013, Graham Cantwell), the frenetic exploration of corrupt border cultures, Black Ice (Johnny Gogan 2013) and stalwart Neil Jordan’s visceral vampire epic Byzantium (2013). Perhaps one of the highlights was Steph Green’s charmingly melancholic Run and Jump (2013), which depicts one family’s struggle to cope with challenging circumstances after a young father suffers a stroke. A visiting American doctor, conducting research into the man’s health after the event, further upsets the fragile family equilibrium. The film’s musings on tensions between individual desires and family responsibility contribute to a contemplative and bittersweet portrait of an outsider’s interaction with the Irish family.
The shorts and animation programming boasted an excellent selection of films which were both thematically engaging and aesthetically accomplished. The animations included Damien O’Connor’s nostalgic tale of a Dublin doorman, After You (2012), Teemu Auersalo’s Learning to Fish (2012) a quirky animation with awkwardly angular seagulls fighting for fish, and the charming stop animation Irish Folk Furniture by Tony Donoghue. One of the highlights was Conor Finnegan’s hilarious Fear of Flying (2012), a film that definitely merits repeat viewings. The partially animated Two Wheels Good (Barry Gene Murphy, 2012) is a wonderfully evocative portrait of cycling that celebrates the pleasures of movement – both physically and cinematically. The joy of movement was also the focus of live action dance-based short Off Your Trolley (Terence White, 2011). The other shorts included the stylish supernatural drama Nocturne Passage (Amy Joyce Hastings, 2013), a nostalgic celebration of childhood in The Daisy Chain (Denis Fitzpatrick & Ken Williams, 2013) and an exploration of how one group of “shed poets” deal with life, love and loss in Tidings (Greg Colley, 2013). Michael Kinirons’ hospital drama I Can’t See You Anymore (2013) had a particularly interesting premise for an audience of devoted cinemagoers, and the heartbreaking drama Stolen (Yvonne Keane, 2013) provided a startlingly moving narrative twist. Cathy Brady’s Morning offered excellent performances from Eileen Walsh as a grieving mother and Johnny Harris as a tabloid photographer with a conscience. Tom Sullivan and Feidlim Cannon’s evocative drama Mechanic (2013) also boasted sturdy performances from Paul Roe as the suicidal central protagonist and Sil Fox as the older man who (perhaps) unwittingly intervenes in his plans for a quiet death.
Two Wheels Good (Barry Gene Murphy)
Audiences in Rome had an opportunity to see two of the four parts of Bob Quinn’s 1984 documentary, Atlantean; Quinn’s offering that proposes a cultural and historical connection between Irish and North African societies. The thesis of the programme presents the idea that there has been a greater influence on our heritage from that continent than from the Celtic European spread and developments of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Fundamentally, the episodes argue that cultural influences have moved more fluidly from the sea than from the land; thus connecting us more significantly to other sea-faring nations. The argument is only half of the substance, here, as so much of what Bob Quinn has done – with his typical naughtiness – is to play with the structure in which information is presented. His agility with the form and his brilliant creativity are so conceptually exact that it is very difficult to tie him down on the conviction of what he’s proposing. But this is not really the point. Ultimately, what Quinn wants to remind us is that history is “up for grabs”; that it can be – and is – written and rewritten, made and remade, that it is open to negotiation and debate. What he does with his documentary is invite our critical reflection on the material. Formally his process is profoundly innovative – as has always been the case with his work – he plays with interviews, voice overs, found material and the documentary style in a way that unceasingly challenges the spectator to think. His authorial commentary, by Alan Stanford, acknowledges with some irony the precision of his findings, but this specialist is only allowed to refer to the documentarian in the third person. What Quinn has done with this complex piece was so ahead of its time in 1984, that its relevance today on thinking about how and who we are, cannot but be held as an expression of what it is to make films about ourselves in the 21st century, and demand that we keep thinking about our national sense-of-self.
Following Quinn’s documentary, audiences were invited to Lelia Doolan’s Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey. This film was more contemporary, deliberately politically focussed, and formally conventional, but just as powerful. Going back to the late-1960s, the film documents the activities of the 21 year old Bernadette Devlin whose struggle for social equality in Northern Ireland gathered a momentum that ultimately resulted in her being voted to the House of Commons. As the film charts Devlin’s political progress it demonstrates how her voice was variously used and misrepresented by opposing Republican and Loyalist sides in ways that falsely mobilised her agenda as sectarian rather than socialist. Her youth, brilliance and charisma earned her attention on both sides of the Atlantic and she explains in interview how meeting with African American activists during a visit to the United States crystallised her sense of the desperate need for the fight against societal inequality in all of its manifestations. As surely as Devlin’s agenda was commandeered by the political apologists on both sides of the Northern debate, once the Good Friday agreement was signed, her public position seems to have been relegated, her voice marginalised by the same media that had once feverishly documented her ideological contentions. The documentary leaves her as an active member of the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme – an organisation that she endorses in its “grassroots” affectivity – with some comment offered on her feelings about the jailing of her daughter in Britain as negative consequence of her own personal profile and political struggle.
After the screening of each film, we had the chance to hear from the directors, who were present. Whatever about the rarity of this kind of opportunity, to be able to access the thinking behind the creative process and listen to the philosophical perspectives of the filmmakers is a complement to the screening that is unfortunately too uncommon. Bob Quinn and Lelia Doolan spoke about the processes of the productions, and the motivations behind them, and then also entered into a dialogue with one another. The conversation about the contemporary state of Irish film was richly addressed by two contemporaries whose productions, created almost three decades apart, shared a number of implicit ideals: that we need a greater cinema of ideas; that our films must continue to entertain but should never avoid taking a political stance and asking difficult ideological questions; that we should never stop questioning our cultural situation; and that our cinema ought to endorse, defend and challenge our sense of what it is to be Irish in the 21st century.
The excellent features and shorts programming was further bolstered by a focussed set of workshops including an opportunity to “Meet Ireland on Screen” facilitated by Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Film Board and an “Acting for Camera” session by Academy Award nominated director Graham Cantwell. Aine O’Healy’s interview with Kate O’Toole offered a fascinating portrait of her father, Peter O’Toole, which was humorous, moving and certainly left the audience wanting more. Simona Pellis’ talk on the festival’s recommended reading, quirky Belfast novel Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson, further testifies to the rich interdisciplinarity of the festival overall, as it tapped into themes of identity, memory, history, music, acting, and the politics of filmmaking itself.
There’s an implicit expectation that, over the course of their development, film festivals grow and become more diverse in the design of their menu and the range of what they offer. In this respect the Rome Irish Film Festival has constantly out-performed itself: with appearing guest filmmakers and commentators; with the breadth of short and feature length documentaries and fiction films screened; and with the number of additional presentations and workshops offered. The vision and design of its Artistic Director – Susanna Pellis – is evidentially spot-on, as large queues of Roman audiences flocked to everything they could possibly attend during the course of the four-day event. She has successfully developed a celebration of Irish cinema that has garnered the support of enthusiastic Italians and, increasingly, the attention of some of the most interesting Irish women and men working in the industry. Her innovation and creativity are relentless, and we should acknowledge, from home, our fortune at having such a dedicated cultural ambassador inviting audiences from overseas to celebrate what is, still regrettably, a small part of our creative output.
It is certainly humbling, for enthusiasts of this medium, to have such recognition and support from patrons of the nation that gave us Neorealism in the 1940s, and directors like Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci and Leone. That our cinema is being seen, and furthermore discussed, in this kind of forum is enough to demand that, back on Irish shores, we seek to facilitate similar engagement with, and discussion around, what is increasingly the most significant cultural format of our lives. If festivals like this in Italy prove that Rome is truly an open city of ideas, let us embark upon a similar agenda of critical reflection on our cinematic cultural production when we gather to celebrate our filmmaking at home-based festivals.
Ciara Chambers (UU, Coleraine) & Barry Monahan (UCC), April 2014