Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2019: Land Without God

David Deignan takes a look at Land Without God,  an intimate portrait of a family coming to terms with decades of institutional abuse and the impact it has had and is still having on their lives.


Land Without God is a raw, emotional and unflinching investigation into the effect that decades of repeated institutional abuse has had, and continues to have, on Gerard Mannix Flynn and his family. Flynn, who co-directs alongside Maedhbh McMahon and Lotta Petronella, bravely steps in front of the camera to act as our guide through his own harrowing story.

He is our narrator, speaking to the audience in voice-over monologues, and our protagonist. While the film is framed around his family’s experiences (he conducts a host of raw, visceral interviews a host of them on camera – apparently the first time that they’ve truly opened up to each other about their shared childhood experiences), this is Flynn’s story first and foremost. We learn in great detail of the injustices inflicted upon him as he revisits the decaying sites of the reformatory schools and juvenile detention centres where he suffered in his youth. He remains staunch as he recounts his visceral stories for us, but there is a fierce emotion – a mix of sorrow, frustration and sheer anger – which underpins his every bitter word.

The documentary is broken into chapters, each one detailing a different, difficult period of Flynn’s upbringing and, through his and his family’s stories, it accounts to a shocking exposition of the extent to which Irish children have been grossly mistreated in institutions throughout the years.

The atmosphere at the film’s Dublin International Film Festival was noticeably charged, with many of Flynn’s family in attendance, which really highlighted the film’s nuanced balance of tone. It’s understandably heavy going for the most part, but it injects humour at smart intervals to break the tension.

Land Without God is no-frills, and pulls no punches. Flynn and his extended family have been torn about, both individually and collectively by cruelty, but they come across as intensely steadfast – and acutely aware that they’re far from the only ones to have been mistreated in similar circumstances. Their admissions are intensely moving, and their sheer honesty must be admired. They display such fragility onscreen, and deserve immense credit for their bravery.

The film isn’t without its issues, mind At 65 minutes it’s relatively short but the pacing is still uneven while it can be repetitive, especially at points during Flynn’s long monologues. But these are small complaints. This is powerful cinema, which tells a story which needs to be heard and deserves to find an audience.

The message at the centre is that, for the abused, justice has proved to be little more than a word in a dictionary. It would be foolish to think that forms of institutional abuse are consigned to Ireland’s history and in this sense, with an eye on contemporary prisons, care homes and the addiction and homeless sectors, Land Without God is an important attack on past injustices which still feel tragically and painfully present.

 

Land Without God screened on 28th February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

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Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2019: What Time is Death?

David Deignan approaches the People’s Pyramid.


Paul Duane’s What Time is Death? was funded under the Arts Council Reel Art Scheme, which is designed to provide filmmakers with a unique opportunity to make highly creative, imaginative and experimental documentaries on an artistic. Duane’s film, which certainly delivers in all three areas, focuses on Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, formerly known as British electronic band The KLF, whose last famous act was in 1994, when they burned one million pounds of their earnings in a disused Scottish warehouse – an act which courted much controversy.

Bill and Jimmy have returned to the public eye after 23 years of radio silence but they’re no longer a pop group. They’re now undertakers, bizarrely planning to build the ‘People’s Pyramid’ – constructed out of 34,192 bricks made from the remains of the dead. Duane follows the pair in the weeks and months leading up to the first brick of their pyramid being laid, starting a construction process which they predict could take 200 years to complete.

Charming from the first sequence, the bulk of the film is candidly shot hand-held, by Duane himself, cultivating an intimate feeling which perfectly suits the relaxed nature of its subjects. The filmmaker is a constant throughout the work; he appears on camera once or twice, but we’re always aware of his wry presence just offscreen. The film also makes use of archive footage with pulsating songs from the KLF’s era, as well as discombobulating animated sequences and humorous title card inserts.

It’s a light-hearted film, with a razor-sharp sense of humour which stems from Drummond and Cauty as well as their legion of family and friends. There is a small but tight-knit community that has built up around the pair and their strange project, and Duane acutely captures the feeling of family and absurd humour that are shared amongst these people. For example, at one point Drummond and Cauty host the “Toxteth Day of the Dead” in Toxteth, Liverpool, where people can sign up to have their remains be part of the pyramid. This event involves a crowded reception at the town hall and local residents receive free admission. All other visitors, however, will only be admitted by presenting a supermarket shopping trolley to the bouncer at the door.

This sort of idiosyncratic humour lends Duane’s film a great deal of charm. For his part he’s very careful not to deprecate his subjects – we laugh with them, not at them – and, although the idea of volunteering one’s remains for a pyramid may seem ridiculous to most of us, there is a sincerity and sweetness to the process which really comes across in the film.

What Time is Death? is a thoroughly entertaining, and at times emotional, investigation into an utterly unique passion project. It’s a celebration of life, of artistry and of staying true to oneself as well as a meditation on death. The resulting film is typically eccentric, sharply funny and, quite surprisingly, life-affirming. 

What Time is Death? screened on 26th February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

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Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2019: When Hitchcock Met O’Casey

 

David Deignan checks out  Brian O’ Flaherty’s documentary When Hitchcock Met O’Casey,  which tells the fascinating story of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 collaboration on one of the early British ‘talkies’ – an adaptation of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.


It’s not often that Sean O’Casey and Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned in the same sentence, let alone thought of as close collaborators. The latter, oft hailed as the ‘Master of Suspense’, is a household name; renowned as one of the most significant and influential filmmakers to have ever lived. The former was, and still is, a widely celebrated writer and memoirist whose work is synonymous with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The Abbey produced the three plays collectively recognized as O’Casey’s crowning achievement: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

O’Casey emerged from Dublin’s poorest people; he was the first playwright of note to write about the experiences of the city’s working class, electrifying the Abbey stage – which was sustained in its early years by his work. By the end of the 1920s, with his art receiving international acclaim, O’Casey had moved to London where Alfred Hitchcock had already directed ten films, the majority of which were silent.

It was the London premiere of Juno and the Paycock, in 1925, which brought the pair together for an unlikely project. Hitchcock adored the play and approached O’Casey with a view to adapting it for the silver screen. The Dubliner gave the filmmaker his blessing and the resulting film, released in 1930, turned out be something of an anomaly; an oft-forgotten and rarely talked about footnote in the outstanding careers of the two men. This documentary by director Brian O’Flaherty sets out to tell the story behind this altogether strange production and assess its place in the canon of each artist’s work.

O’Flaherty’s film opens by contrasting the dichotomous backgrounds and upbringings of the two men. Through examining their early lives and careers, we learn about their totally different personalities and the documentary begins to hint that maybe – just maybe – the pair aren’t going to see eye to eye on every issue  that arises during the production of Juno. The documentary decides to act as a study of these two characters just as much as it focuses on the making of the film. Structurally, this approach works well. It serves to ground the audience in the lives of both Hitchcock and O’Casey, while contextualising the world to which the screen adaptation of Juno arrived.

The medium of cinema was still in its relative infancy, and Juno – which the doc states Hitchcock originally envisioned as a silent film – was produced during a period of great change, as sound-on-film was fast becoming the standard for motion pictures. As a result, Juno inadvertently became one of Britain’s first “talkies”. What’s so fascinating about this from a contemporary point of view is seeing Hitchcock who was still unfamiliar with this unheralded form of cinema and, like everyone else, had to learn the ropes.

O’Flaherty’s documentary does a brilliant job of depicting this side of the production, showing the great director getting to grips with the new technology and exploring how this presented inevitable problems for his shoot. The documentary has managed to obtain a great deal of archive footage as well as clips from the film and snippets of interviews with Hitchcock himself, which imbue these stories with an immediacy and intimacy, making them feel contemporary despite being almost a century old.

The stories of Juno’s production are really interesting, and the documentary is smart to intersperse the clips of Hitchcock – with his droll demeanour and wry sense of humour – throughout the film, with the director almost guiding us through the story of his project. The documentary also features a host of other engaging interviewees, the majority of whom are associated with O’Casey. These include Joe Mooney of the East Wall Historical Group and the writer’s daughter Shivaun, both of whom give valuable insight into the Dubliner’s life and, in the case of the latter especially, provide a sense about how he felt personally about Hitchcock and the eventual final version of Juno. Alongside the talking-head interviews and found footage, the documentary is punctuated by inserts of still drawings by Peter Marry.

As a fan of Juno, as well as both artists’ work, I can’t help but wonder whether the documentary would need an audience to be familiar with the play to fully appreciate this documentary. It wouldn’t be strictly necessary, but some of the production stories are undoubtedly helped by a knowledge of the source material.

The fact that Alfred Hitchcock and Sean O’Casey are so different, both as artists and as people, is what makes this story enticing. The documentary is at its strongest when it focuses on the interaction between the pair, as their lives and careers dovetailed momentarily, and there is part of me that wishes O’Flaherty had been able to focus more on their relationship and deliver a more personal account of their brief partnership.

Nevertheless, When Hitchcock Met O’Casey is a well researched and executed historical study of a truly enigmatic film and a fascinating examining of an oft-forgotten collaboration.




When Hitchcock Met O’Casey screened on 21st February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

 

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Short Film Review: Stephanie

David Deignan takes a look at Fergal Costello’s short horror film Stephanie starring Moe Dunford. 

Moe Dunford must be the busiest actor in Ireland right now. He has five feature films releasing this year – including a magnetic turn in Paddy Breathnach’s recent Rosie – in addition to significant parts in two TV series and, now, the leading role in Stephanie, the frenetic new horror short from writer/director Fergal Costello.

Stephanie is an ambitious, deliberately ambiguous story which wrenches the viewer by the collar and refuses to let go from the first frame to the last. The narrative begins with Joe (Dunford) determinately struggling to protect the titular character, portrayed by Aoife Spratt, from the murderous intentions of Walsh (Joe Rooney). As tensions quickly escalate between the trio, it soon becomes clear that the secretive Stephanie is not all that she seems to be.

The abrupt opening quickly cultivates a tantalising sense of mystery: it doesn’t waste a second on exposition, instead preferring to drop the viewer without warning straight into the middle of the conflict. Violence looms like an ugly shadow throughout the opening sequences, threatening to burst to the fore at any moment. Costello’s clever script subtly balances the reveal of important information with intentional misdirection early on.

The film clocks in at just under 9 minutes in length and is impressively shot in one uninterrupted take. Costello’s staging is confident and plays out seamlessly while Philip Blake and Padraic Conaty deserve props for their work on the cinematography. The camera weaves its way dynamically around the characters on screen, reacting imaginatively to plot developments as they play out. Its eye is often trained on Dunford and he doesn’t miss a beat, ensuring that the internal rhythm plays out smoothly.

Mark Murphy’s pulsating musical score works well, plunging and escalating sharply as the action does. It comes to a crescendo in the third act, as the intensity increases, and contributes importantly to the film’s all-action finale.

The narrative’s initial hook is enticing and the opening minutes deftly draw the viewer into the story, with the early exchanges engrossing. But it falters somewhat in its second half, when it runs out of reveals and the execution of a key sequence becomes a bit messy, the film becoming caught up in its own franticity. The ambition on show, however, is undoubtedly admirable and the overall technical prowess on show serves to smooth over the plot’s weak points.

Stephanie feels like a sequence cut from a larger concept. While this is a testament to the world being built by Costello and crew, it also stops the story from fully resonating in its current form. It’s a shame – considering how effectively it starts – but this is still an enjoyable, stylishly executed short that’s well worth watching. And, with the director’s website listing his next project as a debut feature currently called Untitled Awesome Horror Film, I’d hope to see more of this story on screen soon. Lord knows Dunford could use the work.

 

fergalcostellofilm.com

Fergal Costello on Vimeo

 

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Irish Film Review: Rosie

DIR: Paddy Breathnach • WRI: Roddy Doyle • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle • DES: Mark Kelly • PRO: Juliette Bonass, Rory Gilmartin, Emma Norton • MUS: Stephen Rennicks • CAST: Sarah Greene, Moe Dunford, Ellie O’Halloran

Paddy Breathnach’s Rosie, directed from a script by Roddy Doyle, is difficult to try and pigeonhole. It’s at once an authentic family drama, a heart-wrenchingly intimate character study and a warped sort of road film, with a tight focus on displacement, space and identity which is reminiscent of the French cinematic tradition. Crucially, though, with Irish people currently suffering in the midst of an ever-worsening housing crisis, Rosie is timely, well executed and – more than anything else – important.

The narrative follows Rosie (Sarah Greene) and her partner John Paul (Moe Dunford) as they suddenly find themselves homeless and in a desperate struggle to secure somewhere safe for themselves and their four children to stay.  We’re introduced to the characters as they try to go about their daily lives while living out of their car. John Paul is under immense pressure at work and it falls to Rosie to juggle looking after the kids during the day with simultaneously trying to locate beds for the night.

Greene is magnetic in the titular role, carrying a huge amount of the film’s emotional weight on her shoulders. The intensity of Rosie’s living situation, crammed into close quarters with her family, means that she’s barely able to find a private moment for herself. She’s constantly wearing a brave face, trying to remain steadfast and optimistic in front of the children, while a wave of quiet desperation rides right beneath the surface. Greene’s performance is subtle but greatly affecting – a slow sigh or gentle curl of a lip can speak volumes about Rosie’s condition and her character. She shares a crackling chemistry with the steadfast John Paul, who Dunford deftly imbues with a tenderness and fragility which belie his unflinching exterior.

The film challenges the stereotypical images surrounding homelessness and explores the extent to which the havoc wreaked by this housing crisis is crossing social class borders. Open houses are thronged with prospective buyers while spare hotel vacancies are quickly filled with displaced families seeking shelter. It is painfully evident that these hotels, generous as they are, can’t be homes, with children shushed and confined to their rooms for fear of disturbing regular guests. It is quietly moving to see the family’s belongings – regular household items from teddy bears to fairy liquid bottles – crammed into black refuse sacks in the back of their car. Doyle’s screenplay squares up to the stigma that comes hand in hand with the label ‘rough sleeper’. “We’re not rough anything” insists the eponym at the mere mention of the term.

Rosie and John Paul are both desperate to hide the harsh realities of their situation from the people around them, terrified of what they’ll think, and their need to remain unseen comes into conflict with their desire to do what’s best for their family.

Doyle began to write the film after hearing an interview with a woman in a similar situation. He recalls being particularly struck by her admission that her partner worked a 9-5 job during the day and was still forced to sleep rough at night. This dichotomy is one that he purposely keeps in focus throughout the story.

The script neatly side-steps convention and embraces a healthy amount of ambiguity, which really works in the film’s favour. The witty, minimalistic dialogue is recognisably Doyle’s and helps to inject great warmth into Rosie’s otherwise cold world. Particular praise must be reserved for his handling of the film’s minor characters, whom he smartly steers away from cliché territory.

Breathnach’s direction is confident and assured. He has a masterful handle on the story and capably guides the audience through the use of careful framing. Scenes inside the car feel suitably cramped and help to convey the growing unrest of its inhabitants. In contrast, exterior shots are often wide and empty, crafting a tangible sense of hopelessness. Rosie is the film’s focus and the camera intimately hones in on her face in a way that may have been invasive in the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker. Visually Breathnach has a firm command of imagery and symbolism, using repetition to stirring effect.

He has also coaxed strong performances from his younger cast members, most of whom are first-time actors. Darragh McKenzie shines as Rosie’s son Alfie, with one particularly turbulent scene in the final third leaving a lasting impression.

The film is steeped in realism and the world on-screen feels absolutely authentic. Shot on the streets of Dublin, its no-frills approach helps to make the drama feel like a documentary at times. We open with the sound of news broadcasters describing the severity of the housing crisis, blurring the lines between fact and fiction right off the bat. The score is minimalistic but used to great effect.

Rosie is a beautiful film which is bound to make audiences angry. Hiding just behind its lovable characters is a palatable undercurrent of rage, a pent-up anger at the very real plight that good people – men, women and children – are being put through on a daily basis in this country. This is a poignant story that feels intensely personal. Sadly, it’s also urgently political.

David Deignan

82 minutes
12A (see IFCO for details)
Rosie is released 12th October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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