Report from the Feminist Film Festival

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Eileen Leahy reports from the recent Feminist Film Festival and takes a look at three films that screened.

 

The first Feminist Film Festival in Dublin was a great success, money was raised for the charity Sasane and the films were well attended. In particular the festival was a great opportunity to see some feminist classics, for example Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) as well as more recent films like Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2014) and a range of interesting recent shorts. There was a great buzz around the New Theatre, as a venue it’s a good size and location to create a lively atmosphere and small enough to allow audience members to feel like conversations can be started with strangers. And all the screenings were followed by lots of lively conversations among diverse audiences, of all backgrounds and all ages, which is just what a good festival should be.

 

Bananas on the Breadboard (Joe Lee, 2010)

A documentary made by Joe Lee in collaboration with the communities of Dublin’s Markets Area, a part of Dublin that stretches from Moore Street to Smithfield in the north-inner city, Bananas on the Breadboard presents an oral history of the area and an affectionate tribute to the women street traders that have become iconic of an authentic Dublin inner city. The film provides a detailed examination of the history of north Dublin’s markets, the local industries and a disappearing way of life in the inner city, with a strong focus on the women street traders of Dublin and their struggle for the right to make a living. Archive film and photography are combined with interviews with local residents, community activists and historians, along with footage of the area in the present to provide a fascinating portrait of this part of the city from medieval Dublin to the present day, from the point of view of its local communities. Of particular interest is the social history presented in this film that shows, in general, how a city evolves and, in particular, how local communities have had to struggle to survive these changes. This film’s strong focus on a perspective from local inhabitants presents an interesting counter to the stereotypical touristic portraits of Dublin that we usually see on-screen.

 

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

As a three and a half hour long experimental “masterpiece” this film seemed like a bit of an undertaking, but in fact there is something very hypnotic about the repetition of the mundane, domestic routine that made it quite comforting. And it was this dull repetition that allowed the narrative to have an impact, because it is in the minor, unremarkable incidents that we see the title character begin to unravel, an unravelling that mightn’t be noticed without the preceding drawn-out focus on the minutiae of her daily routine. I fully expected to be bored and took on this screening because the film is one of those “must-see” works. In fact, it was a really enjoyable film, one of those films that you can really only appreciate by watching in a cinema and I am so glad that I saw it. The performance from Delphine Seyrig, who played the title role, was simply superb and the attention to detail in every aspect of the filmmaking underscores her meticulous creation of this quiet, routine driven character. The final act of violence, therefore, does not shock, but somehow seems a completely logical and natural outcrop of how this woman lives her day-to-day life and it seems to speak to something intrinsically feminine and rarely visible onscreen.

 

Elaine Stritch (Chiemi Karasawa, 2013)

Karasawa’s documentary is not only a compelling portrait of this Broadway and television star but it also presents a complex exploration of ageing. The thoroughly engaging 86-year-old Stritch is shown as she tours a one-woman show of Sondheim songs, from rehearsal to performance, and this becomes a frank and searing portrait of her struggles with ageing, with alcoholism and with diabetes. The documentary uses a combination of fly-on-the-wall type scenes of Elaine rehearsing, in her hotel suite, her visits to hospital and her on-stage performances, alongside interviews (many of them with her celebrity friends) and archives, to present a really enthralling picture of this feisty, difficult but utterly captivating woman. In one memorable scene she berates the camera operator for not following her into her hotel kitchenette and insists on a reshoot. In this way the film makes clear Stritch’s complicity in how the documentary represents her, a very clever device from the filmmaker that manages to let the audience know that here is a performance from an accomplished and astute professional. But this doesn’t take away from the film’s power; it only makes her all the more compelling to watch. Particularly memorable are the shots of her prancing around New York’s streets in a vibrant fur-coat and shorts, a brilliant riposte to the idea of “all fur coat and no knickers”. Overall this film is a vital and forceful portrait of ageing, in a world where older women are pretty much invisible.

The Feminist Film Festival took place Saturday 30th – Sunday 31st August 2014.

 

 

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Interview: Karla Healion, director of Feminist Film Festival

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Eileen Leahy spoke to Karla Healion festival director for the Feminist Film Festival, which takes place on Saturday 30th – Sunday 31st August.

Why organise a Feminist Film Festival, what made you decide to do it?

I guess the thinking behind it was sparked when I visited the charity Sasane in Nepal a few months ago. I ended up meeting the former victims of sex trafficking who established the charity in 2008 in order to train, educate and support other women. They were so amazing, I can’t tell you how incredible they were. And I thought, when I go home I have to do something for them. So I think the first thing for me was to do a fundraiser for those women. And I am also something of a film buff, I love film and I have been active in feminism for many years and very aware of equality – or inequality, perhaps. I think looking at facts and figures, there’s been loads of studies showing that women are still very under-represented, especially in bigger budget spheres, in both making films and as characters in films. We’re under-represented in all walks of life, and the Arts is no exception really. I do think that women are misrepresented on the screen, and that’s a pity, it is the whole Bechdel Test thing where, when you see a woman onscreen it’s usually in reference to a man, she usually has a marital status defined, or is more likely to be nude, etc., or she is not as likely to be the protagonist, not as likely to be the lead. So for me, the more we can do to celebrate women filmmakers, and decent characters, and decent character portrayals of women, and the more we can support that kind of writing in film, etc., the better. There’s still a lot of room for that, until the day when we don’t have to push for it anymore, when it just happens.

 

Who is involved, is there a group?

There are so many people helping, there was a curatorial workshop with a team of people helping to programme and another team reviewing the shorts, so I have two teams where we can bounce things off each other and look at stuff and talk things through. Because if it were just me it would be too much of a vanity project, so although I’m the sole organiser behind the festival, I got together a team of people who are film experts or filmmakers just for that bit of input and feedback to select the films for the programme.

 

Was it difficult to find films?

It was very difficult to find women-centred or female-driven films when you move away from slightly more left-of-centre, underground, documentary or art. Female-made or female-led blockbusters and action films, big budget and the fun, silly films that we all like to watch when we have a hangover on a Sunday, are hard to find. So I desperately wanted to show something that is really popular, accessible and inclusive. We considered things like the Kill Bill or Alien films, classics with strong female leads. And I thought well I only have two days, that’s only five or six feature films, I don’t really want two of them to be completely made by men, with whole male crews, written by guys. I just needed to steer clear of that in the end, with such a short programme. So it was a challenge, especially since this is a fundraiser: I need bums on seats, it’s not arts-funded and it needs to have popular appeal.

 

So what was the rationale for the films you picked?

We had criteria based on things like: if there was a decent representation of women in the crew, or integral crew member, like a director or an editor, writer etc., if there were really well written female leads or characters in it. The more the process went on the more we realised that we really needed to honour those things. There’s a bit of a backlash at the moment against this idea of the strong female lead, I’ve read a few pieces over the last while about that, people saying that it’s not enough to just drop a woman into a man’s role. And the more I thought about that the more that made sense to me. I wanted to tick all the boxes in terms of being made by women, or written by women and have decent characters. Then we sat down and work-shopped it. We thought that we don’t want to simply tick boxes, we do need something that represents non-Western women, we do want something that represents an Irish perspective and we do want to have a decent texture in terms of the programme, aesthetically and tone-wise, that it isn’t all very similar films but that they go well together as a whole. So there was loads of things to consider and each time we reconsidered one element it would have a snowball effect so we were trying to look holistically at the whole programme as something that worked, and I think we got there in the end.

 

So what would you say is the overarching thing that links the films together?

We’ve tried to make sure that the selection is inclusive, supportive of female filmmakers, showing good characters and covering a few angles and different perspectives. And the open call for short films, which got a good response, adds another bit of texture to the programme alongside supporting some independent filmmakers. We’ve had a scoop with the Irish premiere of Elaine Stritch, Shoot Me (Chiemi Karawawa, 2013), which is really exciting but we’re also showing some lesser known gems, like the Dublin community film Bananas on the Breadboard (Joe Lee, 2010) made with the Markets Area community to honour the women street traders of Dublin, full of rich characters and interesting insights into Dublin, as well as experimental films from Vivienne Dick who will do a Q&A with us and of course a range of other well-known and lesser known works from all over the world. There’s pretty much something for everyone, from popular entertainment to cinephilia.

 

Will you be doing it again next year? Will it become an annual festival?

I’d love it to, that’s the ideal, the best-case scenario but it really just depends how the next month goes. My real concern is making a few quid for these women in Nepal – that’s my altruistic motivation. My selfish motivation is that I love film and this is just great fun and I’d love to do it again, so hopefully we can make all those things happen and it will be successful enough to do it again next year, maybe with funding so that it can be more sustainable. This year I just wanted to do it, get it out there and learn from some mistakes but equally do it well so that there’s a decent response.

The Feminist Film Festival will take place on Saturday, August 30th, from 12-5pm and on Sunday, August 31st from 12-9pm at The New Theatre, 43 Essex St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.

Check out the festival’s website, Facebook, & Twitter

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GAZE: Short Film

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Eileen Leahy checks out short film at the GAZE International LGBT Film Festival.

Interestingly, in light of my review of Tru Love, a no-budget short, Me First (Leanne Byrne, 2014), covers very similar territory in a narrative that deals with an older woman starting a relationship with her daughter’s friend. This film is set in Dublin and made by a Filmbase masters student and her friends in their spare time. Although this short does not have the stunning visuals and professional finish of Tru Love, I felt that it presented a more convincing story.

This points to the main problem of the Irish Shorts Programme at GAZE, which is the lack of finance for Irish queer film. With the exception of Anna Rodgers’ beautifully shot I Am (2014) all of the films were no-budget student films, made with borrowed equipment and favours from friends. Therefore it was all the more remarkable that so many of the shorts were watchable.

Standing out for me was the documentary Coming Out of the West, (Cian Tracey, 2014), which created a poignant and intimate portrayal of two young men from a small rural community in the West of Ireland. This short perfectly captured a contemporary sense of being queer in Ireland, where the idea of staying on the family farm is no longer incompatible with homosexuality. At the same time the film showed that the bright lights and many “options” of London remain a mecca for young Irish queers who can find rural life isolating and limiting. Indeed there was a strong regional flavour to the Irish Shorts Programme, with other offerings such as Becoming Kiki (John Corcoran, 2014) and The Usual (Ruth McNally, 2014) broadening out the focus on Dublin as the centre of LGBT culture. Just hearing regional accents and rural turns-of-phrase in a queer context is refreshing in itself, and The Usual uses the idea of stereotypes, not just of hetero-vs-homo sexual norms but also of rural masculinity, to comic effect.

Another strong theme running through this programme was that of Transgender identity, with the aforementioned I Am, a collaborative film about the transgender experience, complemented by the short documentary, Who Am I To Feel So Free, from IADT student Dylan Hennessey that presented an interesting look at female-to-male transitions, but was unfortunately too long and repetitive with some audio issues.

The Women’s Shorts Programme, which screened just before the Irish shorts, offered a telling contrast that pointed up the lack of support or funding for home-grown talent. The two American shorts, The First Date (Janella Lacson, 2012) and What’s Your Sign? (Leanna ‘Alex’ Slow, 2013) were made through Outset, Outfest’s young filmmaking project where professional filmmakers work with young people to tell their stories through film. Canadian short Stop Calling Me Honey Bunny (Gabrielle Zilkha, 2013) was also made through a filmmaking project, the Queer Video Mentorship Project by Inside Out and Charles Street Video of Toronto. London-based, Spanish filmmaker, Virginia Fuentes, travelled to Cuba to make the short documentary, Mamis: A Family Portrait (2013), with support from development media funding. The other two shorts in this programme, both from France, were professionally made. Bouddhi Bouddha (2013) is by French writer, actress and producer Sophie Galibert and Social Butterfly (2013) is from American director and film professor Lauren Wolkstein.

That kind of support and funding for queer film is sorely lacking in Ireland and unfortunately it showed onscreen, where the poor production values could not possibly do justice to the original and creative approaches to storytelling available from our emerging talents.

 

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GAZE: ’52 Tuesdays’ review

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Eileen Leahy checks out 52 Tuesdays, which screened at the GAZE International LGBT Film Festival.

The closing film of GAZE 2014 was the Australian drama 52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde, 2013), a coming-of-age story, filmed every Tuesday over a year. 16-year-old Billie’s close relationship with her mother is put to the test when she discovers her mum’s transgender identity and is asked to live with her father for a year while her mother undergoes gender reassignment treatment. Mother and daughter agree to meet every Tuesday, hence the central theme of the film which explores the changes Billie, played beautifully by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, undergoes in her own life, mirrored by her mother’s transition from female to male.

The gender-transition storyline is a useful lens through which to explore the separation of mother and daughter, bringing to the foreground that period in both parent and child’s life when the bond begins to stretch for each of them and thus paints a compelling portrait of mother(as well as daughter)hood. Billie’s mother, Jane, becomes James, but does not stop being Mum thanks to a powerful performance from Del Herbert-Jane, who manages to be utterly convincing as a male without sacrificing the believability of her deep maternal love for her child. And moving alongside this story, almost unnoticed, is a beautiful rendition of a daughter’s relationship to her father, in a perfectly understated performance by Beau Travis Williams playing Billie’s dad, Tom. The fact that Billie’s mother being a man takes nothing from her father’s masculine presence in her life, suggests that parental connections, rather than being based on gender, are, in fact, relationships built over years.

There is so much that is interesting in this film. Issues of representation, the relationship between filmmaker and subject, along with ideas of power and control, for example, are broached in the mirroring of James’ video diary of his transition by Billie’s video art project detailing her sexual experimentation with two friends, Jasmine (played by Imogen Archer) and Josh (played by Sam Alhuizen). The videos, in both hiding and revealing secrets, also manage to show the complex layering of intimacy and autonomy at the heart of this story, and serve as a means by which both mother and daughter learn the boundaries of their changing relationship to each other.

The film has picked up a number of awards, including at Sundance (for director), Berlin (best film) and Melbourne (audience award), and boasts a range of qualities that make it particularly interesting: the collaborative approach of its production, experimental techniques in its scripting and performance, its use of a non-professional cast and, as a first feature from director Sophie Hyde, new work from an emerging star. It is well worth watching beyond the confines of the LGBT circuit for its portrayal of complex family dynamics, its treatment of a variety of issues central to cinema and as a powerful work of cinema in itself.

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Sodium Party

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Eileen Leahy takes a look at Michael McCudden’s debut feature Sodium Party, which recently screened at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, following on from its premiere at the IndieCork Film Festival.

Sodium Party, the debut feature from Michael McCudden, is an independently financed low-budget film whose ambitious scope is expertly realised through its visually arresting cinematography and accomplished performances. Its minuscule budget of €7,000 (which is probably less than the catering costs alone of most of the films we see these days) attests to the massive accomplishment the filmmakers achieved – and it manages to avoid the usual low-budget, artisan or guerrilla look and style.

 

This is an experimental film with an emphasis on the visual and aural elements over a cohesive narrative. It is a coming-of-age story involving a young girl who witnessed a tragic event and was subsequently cloistered by an over-protective and over-bearing mother. The death of her mother allows the grown-up Claire, played by Slaine Kelly, to leave her childhood home for college in the city, where she discovers romance and the kind of exciting nightlife that a modern city has to offer (and Dublin here becomes a stylish modern city – of coffee shops, bars and clubs – beautifully shot with a universal feel). All, of course, is not what it seems and her journey to independent adulthood becomes threatened by psychological distress – perhaps initiated by the re-emergence of her imaginary childhood friend or bought on by a degenerate paramour.

 

Sodium Party’s non-linear narrative creates a surreal drama from what could have been a typically Irish story of childhood trauma. This approach is a fresh departure from our national cinema’s working and reworking of themes involving the grip of the past over the present. With its nods to the female gothic and rootedness in melodrama genres, replete with all the psychological tropes of mental anguish, doubling and paranoia, alongside the strong characterisation of a female protagonist who is isolated from the social world and under the spell of some past trauma, this film creates an intriguing mix of classic stylisation and surreal experimentalism that demonstrates the influence of surrealist filmmakers such as David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet) and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko). Somehow this approach detaches the story from its potential as national stereotype or cliché and gives it a universal flavour. The effect of found footage (in old Super 8 home-movie clips) features quite heavily, thus tapping into trends in contemporary visual art where found footage work has been in vogue over recent years – a trend that has been migrating to cinema (seen for example in Carmel Winter’s 2010 feature Snap). In addition the film plays with horror genres, with the horror staple of a troubled young woman confronting demons from her past, and speaks to indie/hipster cinema with its focus on Dublin’s urban party scene.

 

The film’s experimentalism makes for an uneven viewing experience and it is aimed at a particular audience who are already fans of this genre, although to my mind this is a film that could reach a mainstream audience. Sodium Party is full of disorienting flashbacks, fantasy and dream sequences. The precise era of the flashback sequences seem unreliable, which creates a temporal and spatial discontinuity and contributes to the film’s sense of unreality. As a result the narrative is continually under question and audiences can either approach it as a puzzle to unravel or as a psychological exploration, according to individual preference. In many ways this is the strength of the film: that it can engage on a variety of levels and remain open to interpretation. On the other hand, in some respects the ambiguity of the narrative and confusion as to timeframes produce a lack of authenticity that prevented this viewer, at least, from immediately entering into the world the film created. For the first half I found it too difficult to really believe in Claire and was distracted by the make-up, costume and settings, I wondered if the casting was wrong, surely the actress didn’t look the part of an ingénue emerging from a sheltered life. Then I realised that this just might be the point, it’s not a straightforward story after all. At the same time the flashbacks and fantasies were so visually arresting that they threatened to overwhelm the plot progression. But as the film came into its own over the second half such qualms and quibbles retreated into the background and I started to enjoy the experience. This makes me wonder if this is purely a personal foible as regards film style, or if it might be an issue with pacing. At any rate if you feel this film is not gripping you, give it a chance: it will grow on you as you watch.

 

 

 

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Cinema Review: The Swell Season

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DIR: Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis • PRO: Carlo Mirabella-Davis • DOP: Reed Morano • ED: Nick August-Perna • MUS: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová • CAST: Catherine Hansard, Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová

This documentary will be unlikely to disappoint music-lovers and fans of either The Frames or Swell Season, or the solo artists behind these groups, as it is an accomplished film of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s world tour, after their 2008 Oscar win for best original song with ‘Falling Slowly’ from the film Once (John Carney, 2006). The Swell Season has all the essential elements of any music documentary, good sound and beautiful camerawork, plenty of live performances and backstage footage, combined here to create a storyline detailing the romantic relationship, and its decline, between this folk-rock duo.

The film might also be of interest beyond these musicians’ fanbase. The rockumentary has become pretty much essential to any established rock band these days and often functions as one of the tools that promote the star-image essential for commercial success. By providing access to live performances, backstage and behind-the-scenes action – the rockumentary can affirm a band’s authenticity within a monolithic industry that separates commercially focused “popstars” from pure rock and indie “artists”. The Swell Season is such a documentary, which places folk-rock duo, Hansard and Irglová, firmly within the indie end of this scale.

The filmmakers, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, rely on a direct cinema style by marrying the live performances with extensive backstage footage, through black and white cinematography, and with a number of talking-head interviews peppered throughout, including some wonderful contributions from Hansard’s parents. There are direct and indirect similarities to Dont Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker’s iconic 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan’s England tour. But this is a different era and a different paradigm and folk-rock singer-songwriters just don’t have the massive cultural and political impact now that they did then. For this reason the question of hubris cannot be avoided, and one can’t help but wonder to what extent the musicians are complicit in this construction of Hansard as another Dylan. For just one, out of many possible examples, the film is littered with shot after shot of Hansard with his guitar standing onstage, alone, in a pool of light and facing an indistinct audience (these shots use almost exactly the same type of lighting and framing as similar shots of Dylan in Dont Look Back). While this is something of a convention in rockumentary, the reference to the Pennebaker film seems rather heavy-handed here because the backstage social and political debates that dominated the Dylan film are completely absent from this one. It is a way of creating a particular type of image for Hansard that puts him centre-stage in this film. We always, for example, see him going onstage alone to resounding applause, whereas Irglová seems to slink on quietly a few moments or even minutes later, sometimes even after Hansard has seemed to invite her there. Such shots are just one of many techniques the filmmakers use to construct Hansard as the primary individual creative agent behind Swell Season. This is a fairly typical trope of music documentary, in line with a male-centric tradition in which musicians are talented-but-tortured men, who rise to fame solely through their unique charisma and exceptional talent. In this respect the film just narrowly avoids becoming a hackneyed platitude wherein the tortured male singer-songwriter has transcended past hardship to achieve widespread acclaim…

What actually saved this rockumentary from such formulaic cliché was Irglová’s unassuming and reticent presence throughout. The film in general positions her somewhere between backing singer and Hansard’s girlfriend, she is shown predominantly in a supporting role, slightly more of an active participant than as the artist’s muse, but only just. In the opening scenes she cuts his hair and later we see her sweeping up the hair from the floor with a towel, so that she is introduced to us in the role of a domesticated wifely carer, his helpmeet. Her presence appears to be calm, whether edited as such or as a faithful record of the tour, it is impossible to tell. Their “argument” for example is a quiet and calm discussion, unlike any argument that most nineteen year olds would have, and indeed she often comes across as the most mature of the pair. Otherwise the camera mostly follows Hansard as the frontman, as is the rock tradition, and we see Irglová following behind, catching him up or waiting on the sidelines. Although we see their collaboration in song writing the focus is on him as her mentor and the main creative force behind their work. Backstage we see her isolated among groups of men, looking mildly bewildered or struggling to be heard. Her resistance to playing the part of celebrity seems to be largely dismissed by the group of men around her, we hear of her youth and inexperience in contrast to Hansard’s years of experience as a musician. Yet in spite of all of this she prevails in her resistance to playing this part that is laid out for her, and her presence in the film is very definite and very strong.

Whether intentionally or not this documentary did inspire some thought about the place of women in the music business, especially women artists and performers. Irglová is not your typical female music star, which is very refreshing and interesting to see, particularly in the light of recent deliberations about women performers (apropos open letters to Miley Cyrus among other current debates). Although the film proposes a number of contrasts, in which the jaded rock ‘n’ roll male ego makes space for a youthful anima, where celebrity and creativity are understood in terms of strife and drama or alternatively as a simple pleasure to be sincerely celebrated, it does not travel far enough. There is a sense that this romantic relationship could have prompted some critical exploration of how both male and female artists struggle to find a place within this behemothic entity that is the music industry; and I can’t help but feel that the filmmakers missed an opportunity to explore a very relevant and very current story.

Eileen Leahy

15A

89 mins

The Swell Season is released on 6th December 2013

The Swell Season  – Official Website

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Interview: Alex Fegan, director of ‘The Irish Pub’

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The Irish Pub takes a look at traditional Irish publicans. Eileen Leahy pulled up a barstool to have a chat with director Alex Fegan about his feature documentary

 

What were the main aims for the film?

Well we just wanted to hold a mirror to this institution and see what came out of that. The other aim was to try to tell the story about a country by using this institution that reaches out to a broad section of people. It encompasses all of the facets of Irish culture that are interesting and loved, the songs, the characters, the literature, the religion. I suppose when I started I didn’t really know what would happen, I was doing it in my own time.

 

How long were you shooting it then?

It took the good part of a year. I might have done it in a month but I was just going to a couple of pubs a week in my spare time.

 

How did you choose the pubs?

I was looking for pubs that had been in the same family for a few generations, ones where the owners were behind the bar. I only interviewed the owners and I wanted them to know the history of their pub. The other criteria was they had to have an aesthetic quality. I didn’t want to be filming pubs that could be anywhere in the world, Irish pubs have a particular look and feel and atmosphere. But what it really came down to was the people and the characters.

 

Did you find it difficult to find a lot of pubs to meet your criteria?

No actually. I found a lot more than what we filmed. I know the general perception is that these institutions are dying but there is a surprising amount of these great pubs sprinkled all over Ireland. Every little village in Ireland has a gem.

 

Who did you see as being the audience for the film?

I was just really making it for myself so I don’t know. It’s very rare that you get to see a movie where you see some people and then the next day you can go to these places and the environment will most likely be exactly the same.  I like to think it has a broad audience, anyone interested in this side of Irish culture. But it wasn’t something I thought about as I made it.

 

I was surprised that the film didn’t go too much into the changes that are happening to pubs in Ireland; it felt more nostalgic.

 

Well I suppose the idea was to hold up a mirror, and when we brought these issues up with a lot of the publicans they were like, well we’re staying where we are. So if it didn’t come out then it’s because they didn’t feel like it is the end of it. So it’s a hopeful film in a way. I also didn’t want to dwell in truisms, like these changes and things like the cigarette ban, there was no point in retracing those steps.

 

Was there nonetheless a feeling of wanting to capture this before it’s gone?

Maybe, subconsciously, there was. Definitely in the beginning a motivating factor was, ok there could be this starbucksiasation of these pubs where all there is behind it is this highly trained smile and not much soul, and I wanted to capture these pubs before they were gone. I hope that maybe a film like this could act as a wake-up call, not that I was on any kind of social crusade or anything like that.

 

With Guinness having one of the biggest pub franchises, did you think about approaching them with ideas for funding?

I did think about it but I didn’t want this to become one big ad, and also it was never about the alcohol for me. Many of the pubs I went into people were drinking tea and coffee and what they’re interested in is the chat, it was all about the people.

 

Where would you like to take it from here?

The hope would be that we find someone over in America to distribute it. We’ve actually had a lot of emails from people over in the States who love the film and I can understand that. I lived abroad for three months and even after that I was completely home sick, you just miss the accents and the sense of humour.

 
Eileen Leahy
 

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Cinema Review: Mister John

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DIR: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy  • PRO: Fran Borgia, Alec Christie, Joe Lawlor • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy • DES: Steven Blundell, Daniel Lim • Cast: Aidan Gillen, Claire Keelan, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas

This noirish drama from Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (aka Desperate Optimists) is a UK, Irish and Singaporean co-production, and a beautifully made, compelling film that will quietly and steadily possess you. The stunning visuals, shot on 35mm by Ole Birkeland (a collaborator on almost all Desperate Optimists’ films), music from Stephen McKeon and a slowly developing narrative combine to provide the Molloy and Lawlor signature characteristics of their debut feature Helen (2008) and their Civic Life series of short films (2004-2010). Mister John, however, takes these filmmakers from artist cinema into more accessible mainstream territory without compromising any of the quality or complexity that they have been known for.

An apparently simple narrative belies a multifaceted treatment of big, universal ideas. It involves a fish-out-of-water story where London businessman Gerry Devine (played by Aidan Gillen) travels to Singapore on the sudden death of his brother John, which comes at a crisis in his own relationship back home. The plot provides an opportunity for the protagonist to either deal with this turning point, or to avoid it entirely. In Singapore the bereaved wife, Kim (played by Zoe Tay), and her daughter, look to him for solace and even as a replacement – a theme that plays out through the repetition of a Chinese myth that a water spirit holds the drowned soul in the water until another arrives to replace him.

At the same time Gerry is plagued by memories of the rupture in his own relationship so that the assumption of the mantle of his dead brother (literally by wearing his clothes) provides him with an escape route from the turmoil his wife’s infidelity has caused. This idea of a divided self, and “the double” as a solution, becomes sexually charged through varied suggestions of enhanced virility and sexual freedom throughout the film. Gerry seems poised to take on his brother’s business, “Mister John’s” – a hostess bar that offers sex to its clientele and is now bereft of a man at the helm. Kim’s steady and gentle seduction goes beyond the sexual, however, by providing a parallel but opposite family to the one Gerry has left in London, and by suggesting the possibility of redemption and the restoration of his fractured masculinity. None of the narrative strands are overworked or very obvious, all are open to individual interpretation, which makes for a very satisfying viewing experience, one that stays with you even after the film itself has faded.

The performances are uniformly excellent, although Gillen has to stand out as having crafted a remarkable and finely tuned character study that allows as much to be unsaid as is overtly stated in the film. This combination of narrative, visual style and performances creates a richly layered work that is distinctly contemporary in tone, while at the same time suggesting age-old archetypal themes of ritual catharsis, symbolic rebirth and mythical doubling that provide a compelling and nuanced study of fluid identity in a shifting, globalised world. See it for its beautifully lush photography, the quality of its production values and its very modern reworking of eternal themes.

Eileen Leahy

15A (See IFCO for details)

95 mins
Mister John is released on 27th September 2013

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chzFHPSf_3o

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