Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: One Million American Dreams

Loretta Goff discovers the secrets of New York’s mass graves in Brendan Byrne’s One Million American Dreams.

Brendan Byrne’s One Million American Dreams brings into focus the often unnoticed Hart Island, a small New York City island that is used as a burial ground for the city’s unclaimed dead, and for those whose families cannot afford burial expenses. Byrne’s documentary takes a personal approach to the subject matter, following the stories of four families with members buried here. In doing so, he removes the anonymity of the Hart Island cemetery, reinscribing it with the narratives of these individuals and providing a sort of commemoration for them that is not fully offered on the island itself.

Introducing the film at the 63rd Cork Film Festival, Byrne commented on his own relationship with New York City, from his first visit at age 17, when he was in complete awe, to his multiple returns that have also revealed the city’s tougher edge. When he was made aware of a two-minute recorded news piece on Hart Island he realised it deserved more attention and that he could make a whole film about it. This led to One Million American Dreams, which he describes as “a difficult love letter to the place I’ve had a longstanding love affair with” that takes a “deeper look into the soul” of the city.

Several animated segments in the documentary, along with narration by Sam Rockwell, provide viewers with the necessary historical details of Hart Island, which are expanded upon in interviews with scholars, journalists and politicians. We learn that burials began there in 1869, with over one million individuals laid to rest on the island to date, that it was also used as a Union Civil War camp (amongst other things) and that it is currently run by the Department of Correction, with inmates employed to bury the bodies and no access to the general public. These details are made more visceral with the striking animations that accompany them. One of these, in particular, stands out; it shows layers upon layers of nameless coffins piling up below the island, forming it, but also giving shape to a human head, reminding us that each coffin contains an individual that had a part to play in the story of New York City, and that those who are marginalised should not be forgotten or cast away.

Our attention is turned to some of these marginalised individuals through the stories of the families affected by loved ones’ burials on Hart Island. We meet an African-American Vietnam War Vet whose baby daughter was buried there while he was away, a Cuban family whose father died alone with dementia in the city, a Puerto Rican woman whose stillborn child was due to be buried on Hart Island and the family of a man suffering from drug and alcohol addiction who ultimately ended up there without his family’s knowledge. Through their stories, not only is Hart Island personalised, but we are confronted with the deeper underlying issues affecting New York City and contemporary American culture more broadly—racism, immigration, substance abuse and poverty.

Commenting on his film in a Q&A after the screening, Byrne noted that he used the cemetery on Hart Island, and the stories that emerged from it, as a “frame to confront issues that still face America”, which are threaded throughout the film. We see this in the stories of the individuals that the documentary follows, but also through the film’s carefully crafted cinematography. This captures the beauty of New York City—in the bright lights of Time’s Square, the skyline and diverse groups of people—but also its struggles and darker sides, focusing attention on the homeless sitting overlooked on busy streets and those that exist in the fringes. A particularly striking image follows the ferry travelling out to Hart Island as it, and the island are engulfed in fog. This offers a skillful visual depiction of the islands shrouded nature, cast into the shadows of the dazzling city.

Discussing the process of making the film, Byrne noted that the project as a whole took between three and four years (with 18 months of filming). He commented that it was a process to get the stories of the individuals, but that “without their stories we wouldn’t have the film”. It is the honesty of these that resonates with the audience, offering the documentary’s powerful social commentary.

One Million American Dreams is a timely, well-crafted, poignantly shot and animated documentary that speaks to a number of contemporary social issues neatly encapsulated by Hart Island—the story of which is remarkable in itself.

 

One Million American Dreams screened on Saturday, 17th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival   (9 – 18 November)

 

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: The Belly of the Whale

Cian Griffin enters The Belly of the Whale which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

The Belly of the Whale is the debut film from Irish director Morgan Bushe and stars veteran Irish comedy star Pat Shortt and up-and-coming Scottish actor Lewis McDougall. The film tells the story of recovering alcoholic Ronald (Shortt) and his relationship with young misfit Joe Moody (McDougall) as they plot to steal from local politician Gits Hegarty.

The main strengths of the film are its characters and the performances. The two main characters are extremely relatable but tragically flawed at the same time. Both Shortt and McDougall turn in great performances that make you laugh out loud while also pulling at your heartstrings. Shortt’s performance is especially moving as he departs from his typical over-the-top comedic roots and delivers a surprisingly nuanced and layered performance as a man struggling to come to terms with the blows that life has dealt him. Michael Smiley (known for his work in Luther, The Lobster and Rogue One) also turns in a memorable performance as local politician Gits Hegarty. He is extremely menacing and threatening while also chewing the scenery in every single scene, providing most of the laughs in the film. The cast as a whole are great with strong supporting performances from Game of Thrones star Art Parkinson and young Irish actress Lauren Kinsella as Moody’s friends Lanks and Sinead.

However, the film suffers a bit from some pacing issues. The film takes too long to get to the actual plot, spending the majority of the runtime setting up the characters and their circumstances and at times drags, spending a lot of time wallowing in the misery of the characters. In contrast then, the ending of the film is a bit rushed and clumsy, culminating in a finale that lacks the emotional payoff we have been building up to throughout the film.

In saying that, for a first-time director, Bushe (who also co-wrote the script) manages to find a great balance between humour and tragedy to make a film that is bursting with heart. On top of this, he makes some great artistic choices and the film is quite beautiful, creating a vivid and realistic picture of rural Ireland. Based on his first film, I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Overall, The Belly of the Whale is a charming and endearing film that tells a poignant and at times, heartbreaking story of two flawed characters coming to terms with the challenges in their lives. It’s a touching story of love, loss and friendship bolstered by a great director and strong performances and while it’s not perfect, it is sure to delight audiences while also making them cry.

 

The Belly of the Whale screened on Friday, 16th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival    (9 – 18 November)

Opens in Irish cinemas 7th December 2018.

 

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Maeve


Jack O’Dwyer gets caught up in the fractured narrative of Pat Murphy’s seminal Irish film Maeve, which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

 

In an attempt to describe her state of mind as an artist during the appalling years of the Irish troubles, feminist filmmaker Pat Murphy has posited that the North suffered primarily from everyone trying to shoehorn it to fit snugly into their own system of beliefs. This is a clear starting point in an analysis of her seminal 1981 film Maeve, co-directed with John Davies, which depicts the problematic ways in which personal and political beliefs can coexist within a troubled nation, often leading to layers of conflict which act as further barriers to peaceful resolution. At its core the film portrays a sort of uprising through inaction, a tentative method by which an individual may behave if they feel that they are excluded from the promised land which lays at the end of the revolutionary road. Through its radical aesthetics and characterisation, the film offers a unique perspective on one of the darkest periods in the island’s turbulent history.

The driving force of Murphy’s film is the titular Maeve, seen in both present day 1981 and also in recurring flashbacks to unspecified times in the past. In the present day, she returns home to Belfast from bohemian London, fully embodying the stringent lifestyle of a feminist ideologue. In the past, with these nascent ideals starting to take shape in her mind, she is seen as a young adult who vows to escape from the hostile community which stifles her. Maeve, played with skilful restraint by Mary Jackson, is often a difficult character for the audience to relate to, likely a reflection of Murphy’s acknowledged debt to Bertolt Brecht and the so-called ‘’distancing effect’’ which he utilized in his theatre. Much of her dialogue is heady and intellectual, delivered as a series of feminist mantras which refer to metaphysical ‘’Woman’’ rather than earthly, anecdotal ‘’women’’. Traditional womanhood, devout Catholicism, revolutionary insurrection; Maeve chooses to shun all of these potential paths in an effort to gain her own autonomy and identity. In one scene, Maeve and her schoolmates are being forced to rote-learn a religious commemoration to the victims of the local conflict. Maeve instead stares out the window, demonstrating a conscious decision to shun the milieu in which her peers are enmeshed.

Acting as a traditional counterpoint to Maeve’s personal protest is her sister, Roisin, played by Brid Brennan. One masterful aspect of Murphy’s screenplay is the heightened importance placed upon storytelling, particularly in relation to how it enlightens the characters who take up the role of storyteller. Roisin tells a number of stories throughout the film, usually depicting some form of tyranny inflicted upon the population by the armed British guards who patrol the streets. One such story implies that Roisin and her friend were the victims of an attempted rape by an intruding soldier, but the nonchalance and humour with which it is told does little to convey the potential severity of the situation. Moments such as these subtly paint Roisin as a character who is caught in the flux, unwilling to critically examine her role as a traditional, oppressed, catholic woman. Despite her sister’s warning that marriage ‘’only keeps woman down’’, there is never the suggestion that she will follow in Maeve’s non-committal footsteps. Even further alienated from Maeve is their mother, Eileen, played by Trudy Kelly. A quiet well of frustration with little dialogue in the film, she is a helpless bystander to the rampaging tide of patriarchal nationalism in her nation, serving as the outdated archetype to which Maeve internally revolts. Perhaps the film’s most emotional scene takes place in a room filled with religious relics, designed by Eileen as a place devoted to her daughter’s future courting. Such a traditional fantasy comes off as absurd given the nature of Maeve’s character, with the scene soon devolving into a heart-breaking monologue from mother to daughter recounting the first time that Maeve boarded the plane as she left to London – ‘’You never looked back once to say goodbye’’. Tragically, this marks the only point in the film at which Eileen is given an extended opportunity to speak, with each word driving a further nail into the coffin that is their incompatible relationship.

The most articulate challenger to Maeve’s unique vision of nationalism comes in the form of her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend, Liam, played by John Keegan. Murphy has expressed the importance within feminist fiction of creating authentic, coherent male characters so as to create an equal playing field of debate. In this regard, the character of Liam is a triumph. A committed republican, he matches Maeve both in the strength of his personal convictions and the fierceness of his debate. The film’s philosophical assertions are founded upon a masterful series of scenes in which the two debate each other in various locations, their rival viewpoints clashing together in a captivating stream of insights and insults. Murphy’s idea for these scenes was that the two would cease to be characters for the duration of these debates, instead transforming into unfiltered mouthpieces for their espoused ideologies; a clear admission of her Brechtian and Godardian influences. The first of their debates happens upon Cave Hill, as they gaze upon a deceptively serene-looking Belfast in the distance. Maeve is first triggered into stating her defiant viewpoint as a response to Liam’s praise of lifelong nationalists, those passionate men who have ‘’been able to keep that image together through all the madness’’. Her issue lies in the fact that the romantic image of Ireland which has guided nationalism thus far excludes her as a woman, it leaves no space for her, she is ‘’remembered out of existence’’ as part of its clause. Next, in her rented apartment in London, Maeve speaks of her decision to ‘’withdraw from it’’, to distance herself from the ‘’country’s neuroses’’. To this, an apoplectic Liam castigates the cowardliness of her actions, pointing to the fact that those who have fought and died for the cause have not had the luxury of her aloofness and free speech, warning that ‘’you’re going to have to come back’’. Virtually every line of their gripping debates could and should be isolated and unpacked by viewers of the film; rarely has such a testament to the efficacy of the Socratic method appeared on screen.  Their intellectual sparring culminates near the film’s end as they saunter gloomily through Clifton Street Cemetery, mutually accusing each other of copping out of their ideals. At the argument’s climax, Maeve compares Britain’s treatment of Ireland to man’s treatment of woman, warning that, if Liam and his counterparts should someday be successful in their struggles, then women will ‘’recognize you as the next stage in their struggle’’. In a film which thrives upon exploring the intersection between nationalism and feminism, this stands as perhaps its most radical political expression.

The film’s challenging subject matter is reflected in the austere visual style which Murphy and director of photography Robert Smith choose to adopt. Considering that the film is set in an environment which features constant, often unexpected intrusions into the daily life of Belfast’s citizens, the cagey 4:3 aspect ratio feels suitably oppressive when viewed on a large screen, as if the characters must struggle in order to escape beyond the borders of the frame. This is further enhanced by the usage of a number of internal framing devices, often doorways, which further squash the characters in to fit their surroundings.  During the tense night-time scenes, the camera creeps behind characters or flits about from left to right, suggestive of the widespread paranoia which haunts the streets. Maeve’s increasingly disillusioned father, Martin, played by Mark Mulholland, returns in a series of scenes throughout the film during which he generally tells a story involving the local population, and these are among the film’s most intriguing moments from a visual perspective. In the first such instance, the camera suddenly wheels around to Martin as he interrupts his wife during a story, and frames him in the middle of the boxy screen staring directly into the camera as he completes a long, thickly-accented monologue. These scenes which feature Martin staring into the camera increasingly come to feel as if he is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. The subtle increase in intensity each time this occurs reinforces a sense of desperation and fear which has creeped into his character, culminating in the heart-breaking, quietly fearful words which he tells himself at the film’s closure. The film therefore arises from the lineage of European modernist cinema not only in its bold subject matter, but also in the way it creatively manipulates the filmic tools to give rise to new modes of artistic expression.

Maeve is comparable to Seamus Heaney’s famous ‘’bog poems’’ in the sense that it holds an abstract mirror up to this unspeakable Irish tragedy in a way which seems to shed cognitive and emotional light upon the subject without offering any form of trite solution to what is an endlessly thorny situation. The film is a whirlpool of ideas, of narratives, of memories, described by Murphy as a ‘’political document rather than a film’’. It feels like a political document not only during the war of words and ideologies at its core, but also in its harrowing evocation of a city where children play in the presence of armed soldiers, and searchlights cut through the dark streets like knives. One of the nation’s finest films, Maeve is a brave, important film, whose intellectual honesty and defiant spirit ought to inspire generations of Irish filmmakers.

 

 

Maeve screened on Thursday, 15th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

 

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Town of Strangers

 

Loretta Goff meet the locals in the County Galway town of Gort, in Treasa O’Brien’s Town of Strangers, with a diverse cast, including young Irish Travellers, English New Age hippies, Brazilian factory workers and Syrian refugees.

 

Before the screening of Treasa O’Brien’s new documentary, Town of Strangers, at the 63rd Cork Film Festival, her short The Blow-In (2016) was played. Both feature the town of Gort in County Galway, and those newer residents to the town, considered “blow-ins” or “strangers”. The Blow In is narrated by a French woman who we meet at the start of the film, cleverly framed with an uprooted tree by O’Brien. This woman’s voiceover explains that, as a result of moving around a lot during her youth, she often felt like an outsider and developed a habit of observing people through her windows. This is used as a thread throughout this short documentary as she “looks in” on the lives of several of Gort’s residents.

A narrative thread similarly runs through Town of Strangers, but this time it is the director herself, who interweaves elements of her own life with those of the individuals she interviews in the film, notably drawing together similarities between them. The premise behind this documentary was an open-call film audition O’Brien held in Gort, from which emerged several stories that she felt compelled to follow. In the Q&A following the film, the director explained that she initially had the idea of making an experimental film based off of a script she was working on located in Gort, tackling the subject of changing Ireland and what that meant to a small town. However, she was “very surprised and really moved” by the stories people shared and her experimental film turned into a documentary.

In Town of Strangers we meet individuals from around the world—Afghanistan, Brazil, England, Ireland and Syria—who have all come to call Gort home. As these individuals open up about their lives we are invited to learn about their different backgrounds and unique stories, but what stands out are the commonalities between them (and ourselves) at basic emotional levels. Answering questions about what “home” means to them, about their families and about their dreams, the participants in this documentary reveal their fears, insecurities, hopes and strengths both through what they say and what they don’t. O’Brien subtly catches the whole range of emotions in quiet moments where the camera lingers on individuals’ faces, allowing the audience to read, and connect with, them. Discussing the film, O’Brien said that she was “trying to show empathy in a cinematic way”, and she certainly does.

All of the individuals are presented as different types of “outsiders”—with immigrants, hippies and Travellers among them. However, what emerges throughout the film more than a sense of living between two cultures, though that is evident, is what O’Brien notes as “displacement from the family”. It is through O’Brien’s exploration of this, along with its associated loneliness, that she is able to connect her audience with these “strangers”. Portraying them with empathy and understanding, rather than looking away from difficult stories, reveals just how familiar these individuals really are.

Speaking after the screening, O’Brien said that she “wanted to make a film for our times”. She went on to note the rise in right-wing politics and the fear that is developed by not fully understanding large events, explaining that, with this film, she wanted to bring things back to the personal and focus on connection. Ultimately, she hopes that this documentary contributes to a “shift in your consciousness [in terms of] how you might perceive people”.

Town of Strangers visually challenges perceptions—juxtaposing shots of the Gort Show (agricultural, baking and animal events) with rappers and dancers and Brazilian shops—in order to open up our understanding of rural Ireland, and reinforces this with its interwoven narrative of deeply moving, personal stories. All in all, the documentary offers a sensitive and engaging depiction of human connection, with all its fragilities, and, in doing so, beautifully reflects on contemporary rural Ireland.

 

Town of Strangers screened on Tuesday, 13th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

 

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Free Radicals

 

Vjekoslav Vondra was at the Cork Film Festival to take in a selection of experimental film works screened in memory of Josephine Massarella (1957 – 2018).

 

Using a church as a cinema may be unconventional, but Free Radicals is a selection of experimental shorts which are exactly that and the venue of Triskel Christchurch actually helps the films in leaving a stronger impression. To some experimental film may appear as just flashing imagery and loud noises nonsensically put together and because of that they refrain from watching. Experimental film is by its very nature unorthodox and will always struggle to reach a wide audience. For this reason, I’d imagine that the organisers weren’t expecting a high attendance. Nevertheless they must have been delighted with the respectably high turnout for the Free Radicals programme screened in such beautiful surroundings.

Right of the bat we were presented with an interesting picture, which we got to see twice due to some technical issues, Selfie Test #1 by Sybille Bauer. It depicts two women trying to find the perfect pose for a selfie in black and white followed by ominous music, leaving us with an uncomfortable feeling. During the first screening there were some imperfections on the projection which seemed intentional to everyone seeing the film for the first time and you could say that they actually contributed to the uneasy feeling the film was trying to incite. On the second showing though, another detail could have been noticed that shows the creative ability of the director. The footage was taken with the framerate adjusted so that the camera would pick up the flicker of the lights. Even though this short film is  only two minutes long, it has a great build-up resulting in a relieving climax.

Triskel’s very own head of cinema Chris O’Neill also had a film screened and was present among the audience as well. His piece Fragments was made using out-takes from a project that was shot 16 years ago. We see a woman taking out a cigarette and preparing to smoke it and the film evokes a strong sense of anticipation and a feeling of frustration. After we witness the woman taking the cigarette out of the box it appears as if the same couple of shots are just repeating themselves but the transitions in between each shot help in making them feel different. Additionally, it is hard to distinguish why these shots are out-takes as we would often see them during the credits of comedies so we expect them to be just actors breaking character or forgetting their lines. Here the issues may be technical or visual ones since there are no lines and the character is just standing in place with a seemingly normal face expression.

Another film that left a good impression is Abduction Scars by Jorge Núñez. It was the closest of the bunch to having a mainstream narrative, or at least slightly resembling it. It was also the longest film showed at 21 minutes long and at some points it felt stretched out, but overall it works well because it adds to the mystery behind it. The mystery that we learn more and more about throughout the film revolves around a bed and the man who is or should be in it but is not because of an abduction. This mystery also creates a spine-chilling atmosphere that some Hollywood horror productions could only dream of having, and here the flashing imagery and loud noises are justified and furthermore required to create such a terrifying environment and drag us into it. The editing implies that the character is having trouble sleeping and is tortured by a nightmare but it also makes us feel as if we are the ones who are having this nightmare.

Ultimately, there were certainly a number of films that stood out among the rest. Other films worth noting are: Mark Jenkin’s David Bowie is Dead and Vertical Shapes in a Horizontal Landscape, which feel as if they are the same length, even though the difference is 11 minutes, because of the pace at which the narrator speaks and the pace of the visuals; Mike Hoolboom’s 3 Dreams of Horses, which presents three different scenarios revolving around horses, admitting only one actually includes real horses, accompanied by contrasting beautiful visuals for each one; and 165708 by Josephine Massarella, who unfortunately passed away before receiving the news that her film would be shown at the festival, thus the screening was shown in her memory.

If you already enjoy experimental film, Free Radicals is definitely worth your time, and if you haven’t yet been exposed to experimental film, this is a good gateway.

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Cellar Door

John Finbarr McGarr goes beyond the Cellar Door, which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

Cellar Door is Viko Nikci’s second feature film as a writer (his debut being 2015’s Fading Away) and his first as a director. The film follows a young woman, Aidie, played by Karen Hassan, who is trying to recall the last thing she remembers and soon realises that her child is missing.

Cellar Door is both an interesting and frustrating film simultaneously. Nearly every compliment that can be given to this film can also be seen as a flaw, depending on the person. For one, it lacks the traditional narrative of most films, instead opting for what seems like a directionless montage of disjointed scenes. Simply describing it wouldn’t do it justice as it’s more akin to an experience than a story.

The audience is learning information at the same time as the protagonist is, allowing for one to get into the same state of confusion as the protagonist. The cinematography also plays an important role in this confusion; the majority of scenes are filmed with a handheld camera, giving a sense of disorientation and instability. Cellar Door also lacks any establishing shots, being filmed in either close-up or medium shots. This is crucial, as it makes the whole film feel entrapping and claustrophobic.

However, what makes it frustrating is when watching it (for the first time); one has no idea what is going on. It is also not very clear what is happening to the protagonist, as Nikci plays his cards very close to his chest. Because of this, everyone watching this film would each have their own individual theories as to what the true nature of the film is.

But the audience is not supposed to understand what is being presented on the screen, as stated by producer David Collins in a Q&A after the screening of the film at Cork Film Festival, who also went on to say how much of a subjective experience the film is. Depending on who you are, you may find the lack of tangible answers intriguing or off-putting.

Easily the best aspect about Cellar Door is the editing. Most scenes bleed into the next seamlessly in a dream-like flow. As a result, the film never feels jarring or disruptive, despite the drastic change in setting that can occur at any moment. These smooth transitions are what helps the film succeed; the protagonist hops from location to location so frequently that these transitions help ease the audience to the next scene.

The film borrows some elements from horror films, and I would consider this the least successful part of it. There are multiple jump scares where a character screams or makes a loud noise after a prolonged silence, which happens so often that you could predict when the next one is about to happen.

Regardless, Cellar Door is a great film with interesting cinematography, a solid performance by Karen Hassan and some fantastic editing. It is clear that Nikci and Hassan have put a lot of work and research into the creation of this film, allowing it to get better the more you think about it. While it may not be for everyone, I would recommend this to anyone interested in seeing something weird, different and unique, as it is an intense experience that won’t ever be replicated.

 

 

Cellar Door screened on Sunday, 11th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: The Curious Works of Roger Doyle

 

Loretta Goff goes on a journey through The Curious Works of Roger Doyle, Brian Lally’s documentary about Roger Doyle who, over the course of five decades, has created an impressive body of work ranging from minimalist piano and electronic pieces to orchestral works.

Preceding the screening of The Curious Works of Roger Doyle at the 63rd Cork Film Festival, Roger Doyle himself performed live on the piano. Doyle synched this performance with footage of himself in concert in Beijing six years earlier (in 2012), material that was cut from the documentary. As the onscreen Doyle plays, he is superimposed with images of and from a moving train, visually mirroring the motion of his fast-paced music. This synchronicity was echoed through Doyle’s live performance, creating a synergy between the digital and the human, as well as the old and the new—something that pervades both Doyle’s work and Brian Lally’s documentary about the composer.

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle is framed around Doyle’s 2016 electronic opera, “Heresy”, performed at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, but covers five decades of his career. This intertwining of the current and the previous reflects Doyle’s style as a composer, bringing together classical forms and instruments (e.g. opera and the piano) with electronic technology to create his own style. Interspersed with footage of his opera—from the early stages of its approval and rehearsals to its live performances—are interviews with Doyle’s collaborators over the years, archival footage and several of his past performances. Though dubbed the “Godfather of Irish Electronica”, Doyle’s music has taken him across the world and we see that in the film.

Lally gives space to the music in this documentary, setting aside several sections for Doyle’s performances to play out onscreen. These are often combined with corresponding images that help tell the story of the songs to the audience. For instance, as Doyle plays his song “Chalant” in Paris, shots of the city and its people at night populate the screen. As new faces appear with each beat, a whimsical portrait of the city unfolds. While this shapes our perspective of the song, each musical break in the documentary primarily focuses on the music itself, allowing the audience to become immersed in it and reflect. Doyle’s music invites its listeners to take part in an experience and Lally’s documentary allows for this.

At the same time, we learn about the methods and motives behind the music from both Doyle and his collaborators. Doyle describes the influences behind several of his songs and his use of technology, explaining: “I revise, that’s my process”. Olwen Fouéré, who formed Operating Theatre with him, describes his music as “from the mothership”, noting how their unique styles connected in such a way that allowed them to create musical theatre pieces together for several years.

Equally, several of Ireland’s prominent filmmakers in the 1970s were drawn to Doyle’s music. In fact, Bob Quinn, who collaborated with Doyle several times, also used the composer as a subject of a 1978 documentary for RTÉ. Joe Comerford, who grew up with Doyle, explains that they worked in parallel on the short experimental film Emptigon, simultaneously developing a language of film and composition. A similar sentiment is expressed by Cathal Black, who explains that music creates “a sort of invisible story” in film and Doyle’s was able to perfectly match the film’s narrative in Pigs.

In Lally’s impressive documentary, the story of the music is much more visible and, during the Q&A following the screening, the director expressed that, though he did most of the work on the film, he had Windmill Lane work on the sound mix as that was “quite important” for this project. Equally it was Doyle’s music that inspired the project. Lally became aware of Doyle’s work in the early 1990s but started the documentary in 2005 when he saw Doyle playing goldfish bowls at Whelan’s in Dublin and thought: “this is remarkable, someone should be filming this.”

Describing Doyle as an “avant-garde” composer, Lally explained: “the more I delved into it, the more fascinated I became”, noting that, particularly when he struggled to find funding for the project, “there were certainly points when the music kept me going.” Screen Ireland funding eventually saw the documentary through to completion and the result is a thoughtful exploration of Roger Doyle’s music and career. As Doyle expressed in the Q&A: “I am constantly curious and constantly looking for new ways of doing things.” The Curious Works of Roger Doyle expresses just that, bringing the audience along for the journey.

 

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle screened on Sunday, 11th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Sooner or Later

 

Jack O’Dwyer finds much to like in Sooner or Later, Luke Morgan’s no-budget feature from Galway filmmaking collective Project Spatula.

 

Luke Morgan, standing before a full crowd in the Gate cinema, proclaims that, in years to come, ‘’we’re gonna remember this day when our little film screened in Cork.’’ He is there to introduce his feature-length debut, entitled Sooner or Later, the latest project by an artistic collective from Galway known as ‘’Project Spatula’’, described by Morgan as a ‘’rock band, except for films’’, which is loosely comprised of 30-40 members who move fluidly from film to film, churning out shorts, features and other projects in spite of the complete absence of any solid budget or sponsorship. This film should rightfully mark the point at which Morgan and his band of dedicated players move from obscurity to celebrity; for while the film may be self-described by Morgan as ‘’rough around the edges’’, it is also brave, exuberant and comedically potent throughout the majority of its 95-minute runtime.

At the core of the film are Thaddeus and Sally, two strikingly original Irish characters played brilliantly by real-life husband and wife pairing Aeneas and Anna O’Donnell. Thaddeus is a truly ineffable character, part folkloric hero in the vein of Oisín and part cantankerous lout in the vein of Father Jack Hackett, with a spindly gait like Nosferatu and a leathered face like Mick Jagger. Matching his eccentricity perfectly is Sally, scatter-brained and prone to getting caught up in fads, yet wholly capable of delivering razor-sharp wit in a way reminiscent of the late Carrie Fisher. As an elderly pair who yearn to escape the confines of their retirement home and elope to Kerry in order to commit suicide on their own terms, the couple’s seasoned chemistry bursts off the screen from the first frame. Indeed, the film’s opening scene is an absurdly comedic bathtub sequence, lit primarily by candlelight, depicting an intimate moment between the two lovers being rudely interrupted by a Nurse Ratched-like member of staff at the care home. Featuring full-frontal nudity, hysterical one-liners, and a Lynchian debate about the spelling of a suicide note, the film’s opening is a stunning introduction to a film fuelled by exuberant, darkly comedic brilliance.

Acting as the foil to the mischievous duo is Alice, Thaddeus’s granddaughter, played by Muireann NÍ Raghaillach. She cares deeply for her erratic grandfather, and has remained weary of Sally’s role in his life for the duration of the couple’s six-month long relationship. It is her care and concern for Thaddeus which leads to her being duped into driving the pair to the old family home in Kerry, despite the fact that the residents have no permission to leave the care facility. Once at the family home, Alice discovers the pair’s suicide pact after a commemorative urn is delivered three days early to the house – just one example of how the film’s plot is structured upon well-executed dark comedy set-pieces. From this point in the film, Alice has a troubled scowl upon her face, not aided by the arrival of her hapless ex-boyfriend Nigel, a man ‘’easier to push over than a cereal box’’, played by co-writer Peter Shine. Alice as a character is not as memorable or engaging as Thaddeus or Sally, which is understandable given the difficulty of playing it straight in a world defined by comedic madness. The relative weakness of Alice’s scenes within the film does not reflect upon the talents of Ní Raghaillach, who performs capably in a challenging, emotional role.

Morgan, as well as engaging in all aspects of filmmaking, is also a poet and novelist, noting in the past the similarities between writing a poem and writing a screenplay, due to the exactitude and economy of language that is needed to be effective in both. The script, written by Conor Quinlan and Peter Shine, is infused with this ethos, with great attention paid to the clever turn-of-phrase and cutting, precise punchline. This is particularly relevant in the case of Thaddeus, who speaks in a sort of impactful lilt, sometimes humorous and sometimes empathetic; each line of dialogue, no matter how inane or bizarre, falls from his lips in natural, poetic fashion, which is testament to the quality of the script. After the film’s screening, Morgan explained the unique way in which the script was assembled. The director provided the actors with certain situations and told them to improvise based on their own knowledge of their characters. These interactions were livestreamed to a team of ten or so writers in a different room, who listened intently and took down the most memorable phrases, working them into future drafts of the script. This approach leads to an abundance of memorable lines. “Last time I met my girlfriend’s family, the Soviet Union was still going strong”, “I want to remain a human…not drugged up to me eyeballs in a care home’’, and Thaddeus’s oft-repeated insult “shut up bonehead!”. In addition to such quotable lines, the script contains numerous self-contained scenes of well-plotted, escalating humour. The hilarity reaches its peak during a night-time scene which somehow brings together a daddy long legs, an erection, and a misinterpreted suicide attempt to form a feat of sustained comic brilliance which compelled the entire Cork audience to uproarious laughter. 

As Morgan himself admirably admits, the film is slightly bumpy from a technical perspective. It is far too easy to dwell upon unavoidable faults which plague the film such as inconsistent lighting, uneven sound design, and a conventional mischievous soundtrack which repeats awkwardly throughout the film’s first act. Given the virtual absence of any budget at all, these are easily ignored, especially in light of the inarguable directorial vision and ambition which pervade the film. Morgan’s compositions often convey the tone of a scene before any words are spoken. This is the case in a gloriously mundane scene between Sally and Nigel, wherein the actors’ postures communicate their mutual discomfort more effectively than words ever could. Similarly, a tragicomic shot of a melancholy Thaddeus sitting among party decorations (which he himself had put up in celebration of his own death) is perhaps the most affecting in the entire film. The film’s rural Kerry setting, which also includes locations shot in Galway and West Cork, is evoked vividly throughout the film, especially during two poignant scenes between Thaddeus and Alice that take place on a beach which plays a symbolic role in the family’s identity.

Redolent of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem ‘’Do not go gentle into that good night’’, the film is a courageous portrayal of dying on one’s own terms rather than simply fading away in conventional fashion. This mature subject matter is, in Morgan’s own words, Project Spatula’s latest attempt ‘’to shout as loud as we can’’ until the industry takes notice. If the standard set by Sooner or Later is maintained or surpassed with future efforts, then it cannot be long until the Galway collective’s calls are heard; the film is a sparkling paean to life, death, and all the love and hardships in between.

 

 

Sooner or Later screened on Saturday, 10th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

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