The colourful and cartoonish ice cream vans across Ireland are synonymous with childhood delight, hot summers and their unmistakable chimes – but the person behind the cone is a character often forgotten about. 99 Problems is a short documentary which delves into the humorous, charming but often murky world of the Irish ice cream van trade. The unassuming ice-cream van business on the surface seems harmless, but has in fact quite a dark undertone, where turf wars are fierce. The self declared ‘king of the ice-cream men’, Pinky, works in the community where he lives. Competition is stiff, but he manages to make a decent living from it despite the challenges he faces. Through Pinky’s one liners, observational footage and animation, 99 Problems unearths unsung toils and troubles associated with this unconventional, yet humble profession.
Ahead of its screening at this year’s Dublin Film Festival, director Ross Killeen talked to Film Ireland about how his short film came to life.
99 Problems was something I’d had in my head for years. It all started when my wife was taking driving lessons with a guy called Ken. He was a bit of an hilarious character and turned out he was an ice cream man. So he has loads of stories about his profession and how it actually is quite violent. That there are loads of fights with other rival ice cream men. He told her how he used to be attacked and had to carry a baseball bat in the back of the van. She’d come home and tell me all these stories and we were thinking this is crazy, this would make a great little film. I don’t think people are aware that this goes on – these territorial spats between rival ice cream men. I’m a massive hip hop fan, so it was like ‘OK I’ve got the name of the film’… and then everything just kind of fell into place.
I started trying to meet as many ice-cream men as I could. It’s not something you expect to be doing – you’re around the pub with the lads and they ask you what you’re at and I’d be saying I was out with Mr Softee or I was with Mr Jingles.
My wife’s driving instructor Ken was Mr Jingles and he introduced me to Mr Pinky (Mark Jenkinson), the subject of the film. Initially, I had this Reservoir Dogs Tarantinoesque type scenario in my head. The metaphors are all there – a man driving around getting the kids addicted to his produce; being territorial about his area and driving other dealers out of it. That was 4 years ago. After a break from production I returned and realised I needed to streamline the focus and settle on one driver and tell that story well. And after listening to Mark’s stories it was clear that the film just needed to be about him.
We focused on Mr Pinky and his route and spent some days observing him. He’s a great character and I really enjoyed hanging out with him. It also made me realise how hard drivers work and the pressure they face every day, including that of other drivers coming on their territory – there are no regulations to stop anyone from doing that. So you’re always looking over your shoulder. But they are enterprising. That appealed to me. I’ve my own company and my father was an entrepreneur before me and I’ve always admired people with a good work ethic who are out there doing their thing. That’s one of the things that drew me to Mark was how hard he worked. It struck me that being an ice cream man was just like any entrepreneur. Work hard, be tenacious and look for new opportunities. In spite of all the challenges Mark’s work ethic was always strong. As he says himself, “I could give you a list of things you’ve to put up with in the ice cream business but I go by what my ma’s philosophy was and my da’s philosophy was…. everybody has a right to make a living.”
We finally shot the film last summer. Did a few interviews with Mark. Got a really talented animator, Jonathan Irwin, to bring Mark’s back-stories to life, which really works well. The whole idea was to keep the visuals quite colourful and although there’s some serious stuff there I think the film overall is quite fun.
99 Problems screens on Monday, 25th February at 6.pm at the Light House as part of the DIFF Shorts 3 programme at the Dublin International Film Festival 2019 (20 February – 3 March 2019).
Buy tickets at www.diff.ie