Rouzbeh Rashidi & Maximillian Le Cain: Weird Weird Movie Kids Do Not Watch The Movie
Alan Lambert explores the current climate in Irish Experimental Film.
Experimental filmmaking in Ireland has grown rapidly over the past decade. There are many production platforms emerging for artists and filmmakers working on non-commercial formats, the first edition of the PLASTIK Festival of Artists’ Moving Image is currently under way and the Experimental Film Club still runs every month in the IFI for its fifth year.
Last summer Film Ireland suggested to me to write an article about the current state of experimental film in Ireland. The idea was to give a kind of a who’s who of contemporary players, rather than a potted history. At the time I had just co-curated a show for the Solus Collective, in the Loft Project Etaghi gallery in Saint Petersburg. As I had drawn from many of the above groups in my selection I felt that the show was a good representation of current Irish experimental and artist films and I decided to shape this article around that programme. The Loft Project Etaghi show, curated with Russian filmmaker Masha Godovannaya, contained work by Moira Tierney, Maximillian Le Cain, Vicky Langan, Dean Kavanagh, Anthony Kelly & David Stalling, Michael Higgins, Esperanza Collado, Aoife Desmond, Rouzbeh Rashidi and myself.
Hanging the Solus show in Loft Project Etaghi in Saint Petersburg with Masha Godovannaya, summer 2014
But before I proceed, perhaps I should furnish the reader with a potted history of some sort, as the Irish experimental and avant-garde film world has been sporadic in its development to say the least – at times discussions have even arisen about whether it exists at all. Esperanza Collado, a Spanish artist that has had a strong and continuing presence in the Irish scene and one of the founders of the Experimental Film Club, playfully described it as ‘being defined by what it lacks’ … namely ‘industry’, ‘common thematic concerns’ and ‘Irishness’. There were independent film clubs as early as the 1930s, like the Dublin Film Society, which tried to import Russian avant-garde films of the day. There was an earlier incarnation of an experimental film club in the form of the ‘Project Cinema Club’ in the late ’70s and before that filmmakers like Bob Quinn, Cathal Black, Joe Comerford, Pat Murphy and Thaddeus O’Sullivan were forming collectives like the AIP (Association of Independent Producers) – more broadly encompassed in the ‘First Wave’. Concurrently there was also a strong Irish contingency in the New York scene, most notably in the work of Vivienne Dick, and later with collaborators like Paddy Jolley and Reynolds Reynolds in the ’90s. Vivienne Dick now contributes to programming with the Experimental Film Club in Dublin.
But for more detailed histories of Irish Experimental Film in general and more specifically the Experimental Film Club (EFC) itself you could refer to the following 2 items –
An upcoming article on the history of the EFC written by Alice Butler for the March edition of VAN, the Visual Artist’s Newsletter, and an essay on the history of Irish Experimental Cinema, which the EFC wrote for the IFI international commissioned programme, which started touring last year; Absences and (im)possibilities: traces of an experimental cinema in Ireland.
Esperanza Collado: The Illuminating Gas
So, let’s talk to some of the filmmakers about their own motivation in entering the field. I asked several people for their memories of their first experience of an experimental film.
Fergus Daly, who set up the Different Directions Experimental Film Festival with Tom Flanagan in 2008, begins by rightly addressing the very fluid boundaries of what is determined to be ‘experimental’:
“It depends on where the line is drawn between commercial and non-commercial or experimental and non-experimental filmmaking. In which camp does someone like Eisenstein belong? He would’ve been one of the first filmmakers I saw projected when I became obsessed with the history of film as a young teenager in the late ’70s. In Cork there was a film club in the Cameo cinema that showed the kind of films that cropped up on Best Films Ever polls in Sight & Sound (besides Eisenstein you had the likes of Bunuel, Cocteau etc). Then there was the UCC film society which, believe it or not (given what they show nowadays in similar societies) screened all the latest Fassbinder, Herzog, Tarkovsky and so on. If we’re speaking about experimental film ‘proper’ then I would’ve only seen the odd thing at the Cork Film Festival or in the Triskel or the Art School in Cork until Channel 4 started in ’82 and the floodgates opened.”
Maximillian Le Cain, Cork based filmmaker and editor of the indispensable journal Experimental Conversations (unfortunately now defunct), reflects on a more domestic introduction;
“As I remember, a screening of Un Chien Andalou on British TV when I was about eight years old. I’d seen stills of the famous eye-slitting, so I approached it as a horror movie – but was also somehow savvy enough to realize it had enough cultural respectability that my parents might allow me to watch it!”
Maximillian Le Cain. JR: Dream This In Remembrance Of Me.
Moira Tierney, Irish filmmaker based in New York, with whom I set up the Solus Collective in 1998, remembers a trip to the RDS;
“They were screening a programme of experimental shorts from the Film Board of Canada and my mother took me to see them; I can’t remember how old I was or what the programme was, but I remember drawings on sand on a beach… My exposure to experimental film was limited from that point on, until I fell in the doors of Anthology (Film Archives in New York) in 1995 and soaked up their Essential Cinema series, which includes everything from the Lumière and Méliès, the Russian films from the ’20s (Vertov, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein et al), the Surrealists and early European experiments, a lavish helping of Bunuel and the American avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s (Sharits, Mekas, Kuchar bros, Conrad, Noren …)”
The absence of dedicated platforms for experimental film can be reflected in these oblique and varied inroads. Similar to Maximillian Le Cain, my own first memory of viewing something that was not like anything I had seen before was a late night RTÉ screening of George Méliès’ The Man With The India Rubber Head from 1901. I caught it just before the news sometime in the early 80s. Although not experimental in form, and dating from a period before anything was really determined to be non-commercial or otherwise, it still urged me to get a Super-8mm camera and start rewinding and double exposing film for myself.
Ireland was not a great place for non-commercial equipment and facilities and filmmakers had to really do their own research and development and work with limited means.
Maximillian continues; “I started shooting stuff around ’93 or ’94 and that was on Hi-8 tape. That was the only format I had access to for about five years after that.”
Moira Tierney, like myself, began on Super-8mm; “I got my first camera in a flea market in 1991 or thereabouts; that was my primary medium until Masha Godovannaya procured a K3 (Krasnogorsk) 16mm camera for me in St Petersburg; from that point on I’ve alternated between the two, depending on the circumstances. I’ve shot one project only on DV, due to a lack of lighting at the location – most of the action took place at night and as it was a documentary project, it would have been very intrusive to add the light necessary to work on DV.”
Moira Tierney: Train Station, St. Petersburg
Vivienne Dick began on Super-8mm in the late ’70s. Michael Higgins began on a number of formats – Hi-8 Video, Mini-DV, Super-8mm – as did Dennis Kenny. Dennis is one of the longest standing supporters and practitioners in any of the Lo-Fi or non-commercial formats, having helped me to cut my first film on VHS in 1998, and regularly acting as projectionist at events like last year’s Super8 Festival screenings. Fergus Daly began on Digibeta.
Masha Godovannaya, Moira Tierney and I all connected through Anthology Film Archives, a pivotal venue for Filmmakers in New York. Throughout the ’90s Irish connections were made in the foyer and on the steps of Anthology’s old courtroom building, linking with other Irish led initiatives, like Dónal Ó’Céilleachair’s ‘Ocularis’ experimental screening programmes.
Dónal recalls the development of Ocularis: “ In 1995 I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn which was a hive of alternative art activity throughout the 1990s and founded a cinema-screening and filmmaking collective called Ocularis based at the Galapagos Art space in 1997. Galapagos was a multi-disciplinary space so we found ourselves working alongside, and then inevitably with musicians, theatre-makers and artists working in a multiplicity of styles, genres and mediums.”
“Interestingly the majority of work shown at Ocularis in its early years was on 16mm film, while the majority of work shown in its latter years was all digital; mirroring the shift that was taking place in non-commercial audio-visual work and experimental ‘film’-making.”
Behind the history of the Anthology events that had been providing such platforms for filmmakers and artists since the ’60s, was the grand old master himself, Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas. When the Solus Collective collaborated with the Dublin Film Festival to bring Mekas to Dublin in 2008 he took part in a panel discussion with Maeve Connolly, Aoife Desmond, Moira Tierney and Pip Chodorov. This took place in the Ha’penny Bridge Inn, which spawned the idea of resurrecting the film club that ran there in the early ’80s.
New York has always had a strong influence on the Irish scene, but one of the most active groups in Ireland in recent years, the Experimental Film Society (EFS), has its origins in Tehran. Four of Ireland’s most prolific filmmakers, Rouzbeh Rashidi, Dean Kavanagh, Maximillian Le Cain and Michael Higgins, all frequently work under the umbrella of the EFS, a society established by Rouzbeh in Iran in 2000.
Rouzbeh Rashidi: Home Sapiens Project 150
Rouzbeh reflects, in statements on the EFS website and in Experimental Conversations; “I happened to start making films at the beginning of the millennium, in the year 2000. From the very first day, I thought of only one concept and that was the discovery of what cinema is in this new era. This question has pushed me to continuously experiment and investigate in the laboratory of my filmmaking. The films one makes are nothing but the haunting shadows and light of the films that one has seen in the past. There is no original film, except for the very first ones by the medium’s pioneers.”
The production parameters that Rashidi describes can be almost universally applied to all the filmmakers we’re discussing, myself included; “ The equipment used tends to be basic and inexpensive: web-cameras, mobile phone cameras, MiniDV, Super8mm and, more recently, DSLR. Most of the films are shot using available light. Film lighting is rare. Most of the cast and crew are non-professionals. Depending on the situation and circumstances, anyone can participate in a film.”
Another strong presence in the group that stemmed from Anthology, Lithuanian filmmaker Julius Ziz, who lived and worked in the West of Ireland for many years before moving to France, expresses simply and poetically; “ I enter filmmaking from the street.”
Dean Kavanagh: Late Hours Of The Night
The number of filmmakers in Ireland working in this way has increased almost exponentially since I first started counting heads in 1998, and the motivation always comes back to the same principle of artistic freedom – “ anyone can participate in a film”
But equally importantly, anyone should be able to view an experimental film, which is where the collaboration with galleries and institutes is crucial. In contrast to the late ’90s, there are now actually places in Ireland to not only view such films, but to also shoot and process them. Block T run courses in hand processing Super8m.
All the independent activity of these artists and filmmakers over the previous decades is recognized within the Irish arts industries. The Temple Bar Galleries and the IFI are both involved in the Plastik Festival’s film programme, which culminates this weekend in Dublin. If you peruse the full programme you will find filmmakers also in the curatorial role, most notably in the case of Aoife Desmond’s ‘Phenomenal Love’, the Cork programme that ran last weekend. Aoife originally assembled the Experimental Film Club in 2008, which became a definite turning point in the recent surge of experimental film activity in Ireland.
Aoife Desmond: Paris Dreaming, Paris Burning
The original EFC team, Aoife Desmond, Esperanza Collado, Donal Foreman and myself are all still actively involved in filmmaking. Donal Foreman is now based in New York but frequently screens and hosts discussions in Ireland in relation to his recent feature Out Of Here, and Daniel Fitzpatrick has recently joined the EFC curatorial team. Daniel is also one of the curators of the Plastik Festival.
As I personally know all these people and their work I can safely say that there is now no question that an Irish Experimental Film culture does exist. I hope that in this article I have given you a palatable overview of it. Thanks for reading.
Alan Lambert is a freelance artist and filmmaker based in Dublin. He co-manages the Solus Collective and the Experimental Film Club.
IFI International is supported by Culture Ireland. Solus Film Collective is supported by Culture Ireland.