Irish Film Review: Cellar Door

DIR/WRI: Viko Nikci • PRO: David Collins, Viko Nikci, John Wallace • DOP: Robert Flood • ED: Viko Nikci • DES: Mark Kelly •  MUSIC: Ray Harman • CAST: Karen Hassan, Catherine Walker, Una Carroll

Writer-director Viko Nikci weaves together a fragmented narrative in Cellar Door that is only fully understood near the end of the film. The film follows Aidie (Karen Hassan), who appears lost and/or trapped in time as she struggles with memories of her pregnancy and searches for her baby. The audience is placed in Aidie’s shoes, wading through her key memories as she continuously cycles through them in search of an answer.

The film begins with a fully-clothed and submerged Aidie awakening in a bath full of water visibly confused. As she takes in her surroundings and her condition she asks herself “what’s the last thing you remember?”, setting the tone for what is to follow. The audience is then taken through Aidie’s conversation with her ailing mother, a classroom in which she is the teacher, a dance with her lover which morphs into her pregnant and alone in a Church, and ultimately in an institution with other unwed mothers. The timeline for these events is shaky, and they repeat over and over, with subtle differences as Aidie tries to make sense of them, sometimes guided by other versions of herself.

While these scenes do become repetitious in places, they bleed into one another seamlessly thanks to the strong cinematography, score and editing. These allow the audience to sometimes feel that they are gently falling between or sliding into memories, and other times feel a sense of entrapment and panic as Aidie fights for a resolution.

Cellar Door is difficult to pin down, not only in terms of its narrative but in its elusion of categorisation. There are moments when one might question if supernatural elements are at play and it feels like a horror, and others that resemble a drama. This uncertainty, however, is deliberately carried across the film so that it can perhaps best be described as a puzzle.

The film requires commitment on the part of the audience to make sense of the pieces as they come, and may suffer from some unnecessary repetition or elongation at times, but when its resolution arrives, making sense of what has come before it, it is thoughtful and poignant. Cellar Door tackles the difficult topic of Irish institutional abuse, drawing connections in a thoughtful way and forcing the audience to think throughout.

Loretta Goff

93 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Cellar Door is released 25th January 2019

 

Share

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)

 

Share

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)

 

Share

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)

Share

Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Float Like a Butterfly

Loretta Goff finds a voice to the voiceless in Carmel Winters’ film Float Like a Butterfly, which opened the 63rd Cork Film Festival.

The second feature-film of writer-director Carmel Winters, Float Like a Butterfly was the Opening Gala of the 63rd Cork Film Festival and screened again the following day, with packed out audiences at both showings. Introducing the second screening of the film, the Festival’s Programme Director, Michael Hayden, described it as “highly intelligent” and “full of humanity”. This proved to be true as audiences connected with the story unfolding onscreen over the next hour and forty minutes, laughing, gasping, clapping and crying along the way.

Float Like a Butterfly, set in rural Ireland in the 1960s, follows the story of Frances (Hazel Doupe), a fifteen-year-old Irish Traveller, as she comes of age amidst turmoil and fights back against societal expectations. The film opens with a young Frances sharing a happy moment with her family—boxing with her father and listening to her mother sing. This is quickly shattered with the arrival of Guards demanding that Frances be brought to school. Trying to take the child leads to an altercation that results in the tragic death of Frances’ mother, who is pushed by a Guard, and the arrest of her father, who fights back.

Several years later, we see Frances carrying on her father’s fighting spirit while channelling her hero, Muhammad Ali. She stands strong against the discrimination and vitriol she and her family face, reminding herself that they are “the greatest” (like Ali), and resists prescribed gender roles, focusing on boxing rather than the marriage she is continuously pushed towards. However, when her father, Michael (Dara Devaney) returns from prison as a broken man struggling with alcoholism, Frances’ strength is put to the test as she tries to hold her family together.

Tensions boil over when Michael takes Frances and her younger brother on the road. As the trio begin their journey, they come to a split in the path and, after pausing for a moment, Michael comments that “there’s no wrong way” and allows the horse to choose their direction. This neatly reflects the overall position of the film—that it is OK to follow your own path—and acknowledges the many directions one’s life might take. However, Michael does not seem to follow his own philosophy for most of the film, undermining his daughter’s passion for boxing and her more “masculine” strengths, while scolding his young son for being too “soft”.

The acting in this film is strong across the board, but Hazel Doupe stands out, expressing great emotional depth and variety throughout the film. Several shots focus on Doupe’s face, allowing it to guide the audience through both her character’s experiences and their own emotional responses to the film. Through Doupe’s subtle and nuanced performance, Frances becomes both a strong, determined individual and representative of humanity (and our fears, struggles, hopes and successes) more broadly. The audience connects with her, feels her pain and roots for her. In the Q&A following the film, Winters explained that the “character of Frances drove this… she had a story to tell and she didn’t let me go until I told it.”

Locating this film in the past gives it a mythological quality that softens and romanticises some of the tough issues the film addresses, but these remain affecting and the audience can easily relate to them. In the Q&A, Winters stated: “What I really want is everyone to open their hearts” and expressed that she hoped the film allows audiences to connect with their pain, but also find beauty. She explained: “That’s where I come from as an artist … how can I serve, whatever that might be … I want to give a voice to the voiceless.”

Float Like a Butterfly is a standout film that tells a unique story while simultaneously tackling a myriad of topical social issues relevant not only in Ireland, but across the world. It captures humanity at its best and worst, offering a message of hope throughout.

 

Float Like a Butterfly screened on Friday. 9th & Saturday, 10th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival

 

 

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Photo City

Loretta Goff sends us a snapshot of Photo City, a portrait of photography itself as told through the lens of the citizens of a place defined by the art form. 

With Photo City co-directors John Murphy and Traolach Ó Murchú focus their lenses on a number of photographers from all walks of life in Rochester, NY. This city, the home of George Eastman’s Kodak, was once booming, with Xerox and Bausch & Lomb providing abundant employment opportunities alongside the photography company. Today, a much different picture of Rochester’s economic situation is presented, reflective of Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2012. However, the immense impact of Kodak is still evident in the area through the city’s love of photography and amount of photographers that live there. This documentary explores Rochester’s relationship with Kodak through the unique perspectives of some of these individuals.

Importantly, Photo City examines a range of photographic practices used today, from film developed in a darkroom to the instant accessibility and shareability of digital photography. Kodak’s downfall resulted from their lack of planning for this digital age that has, indeed, reshaped consumers’ and practitioners’ relationship with the medium. However, what emerges throughout this documentary is a sense that several artists remain deeply connected to the full process of photography—the art of developing your image from start to finish. Science becomes part of the art here as a number of individuals drawn to the technical side of photography experiment with creating their own equipment and procedures.

Memory and nostalgia equally emerge as themes attached to the photographic image. While this is made clear through various discussions of older images, both personal and universal, it is particularly evident in an interview with an elderly man who once travelled the world as a Kodak portrait photographer. His house is not only full of his old photos, including one he proudly displays of Walt Disney, but also of old Kodak memorabilia and advertising cut-outs that inspire him to cheerfully reflect on his time with the company.

A photograph gives an impression not only of its subject, but also of the person behind the camera. Weaving together interviews with a variety of photographers—from commercial to artistic and personal, from photojournalists, pin-up photographers and filmmakers to those who are also teachers, engineers and technicians—Photo City delves into their lives and stories as much as it does their relationship with photography. As a result, the documentary also touches on a range of important topics (such as race, marginalised communities, class, economic dislocation, education, illness and addiction) that affect the lives of these photographers and shape their work.

Visually, this documentary creates moving portraits of its subjects, often interspersing their dialogue over images of them working, scenes of the city and close-ups that give an intimate feel to the film. Frequent shots of the iconic Kodak building give it a looming, ever-present feel in the documentary, reminding us of its impact on the city. More interesting, however, are shots of Rochester’s various communities that offer a more complete image of the city, its diversity and clear economic disparities.

Director John Murphy attended the screening of Photo City at the Cork Film Festival and noted in the Q&A afterwards that they wanted the documentary to have an emotional connection, so that viewers would learn about Kodak through the experience of individuals, rather than being an information dump on the history of the company. As photography has become so accessible and part of today’s vernacular, he also was adamant that were “keen to show photography as a church for a broad congregation” and therefore interview a variety of people. As such, they actively searched for different “character types” to fill their diverse array of roles rather than just going after the city’s top photographers. This method works well, making the documentary topical, relevant and interesting for a wide audience.

 

Photo City screened on 16th November 2017 as part of the 2017 Cork Film Festival (10 – 19 November)

 

 

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: No Party for Billy Burns

Loretta Goff rides into town and checks out Padraig Conaty’s film about a shy and awkward, Wild West-obsessed Billy Burns, whose cheerful cowboy fixation masks the scars of a childhood tragedy.

Padraig Conaty’s directorial debut, No Party for Billy Burns, is very much an Irish Western. The film’s titular character, Billy Burns (Kevin McGahern), lives in rural Cavan, but imagines himself a cowboy from the Wild West. Shy and innocent, Billy leads a fairly lonely life with his grandfather (Shane Connaughton), not quite fitting in with the local lads in the pub. It is his imagination that sustains and entertains him.

Like Billy in his hometown, Cavan seems out of place as the setting for a Western. As a result, the film, which captures rural life in a very realistic way, also carries the feel of a fantasy. This is especially evident in its opening and closing sequences which intersperse Super 8 footage of old Westerns with home movies of Billy’s childhood, reflecting a filmic nostalgia. Conversely, Billy’s day-to-day life, and glimpses into the lives of other locals, encapsulate the isolation and frustration felt by many in small communities.

The pub forms the centre of this community as the place where everyone gathers, shares news and kills time. A group of men the same age as Billy seem to spend most of their days here, elucidating a lack of opportunity that perhaps leaves them without many other options. Among them is Ciarán (Charlie McGuinness), whose evident frustration with his circumstances grows throughout the film along with his volatility. Billy, however, remains on the fringes of this scene. He appears to go almost out of habit, ordering a pint and observing the scene, waiting for rare moments to join in.

Billy’s sense of isolation is made even more visceral at home, where the sound of loud, chilling wind often invades the scenes. Amidst this, Billy regularly sits alone in the only lit room of the house performing his own radio show for entertainment. Other than his grandfather, Billy’s only other real companionship comes in the form of Laura (Sonya O’Donoghue), his romantic interest. Unfortunately, Laura does not return his feelings and has been with Ciarán for a number of years, which only leads to complications.

Conaty, who also wrote the film, deals very empathetically with the character of Billy as he searches for his place in the world. In a Q&A following the film’s screening at the Cork Film Festival, the director explained that while the lead role was written for actor Kevin McGahern—who also inspired the character by being the only one to dress up for a Wild West Festival held in their local Cavan—he also drew inspiration from their local community. Equally, McGahern stated that he performed the role based on a number of people he knew growing up—described as “shy country lads” who would never leave the country.

Conaty and McGahern both spoke to the ways that the film reflects their local area, including the general “cowboy” attitude of many locals, who often speak and behave in ways that offer easy comparison to cowboy films. Between the development of characters that reflects this locality and the fact that the film was shot in their hometown in Cavan, No Party for Billy Burns carries an air of authenticity that viewers from rural communities will connect with. However, its themes of isolation and of feeling trapped in a certain life are also universal.

The film, which took six years to complete on a budget of between €7,000–8,000, is a personal project handled with care, showcasing both scenery and daily-life in Cavan through the lens of its shy, observant lead. While No Party for Billy Burns evokes a number of classic Westerns throughout, such as High Noon (1952) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also allows the space for Billy to create his own path in the narrative. Similarly, the film itself is able to avoid certain generic conventions by remaining very rooted in its rural Irish setting, developing its own category as a modern Irish Western.

 

No Party for Billy Burns screened on 13th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival

 

 

 

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: The Lodgers

Loretta Goff gets gothic at The Lodgers, which screened at the Cork Film Festival.

Introducing The Lodgers at the Cork Film Festival, Director Brian O’Malley said that he wanted to make a “beautiful and elegant ghost story” that reflected the script. O’Malley was given David Turpin’s script by producers Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde after they saw his first feature film, the horror Let Us Prey (2014). After reading it and being struck by the beauty of some of the dialogue, O’Malley decided to bring the gothic horror to life.

The Lodgers tells the story of Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner), Anglo-Irish twins who live alone in a boarded up, decaying Big House in rural 1920s Ireland. The two are bound to the house by a family curse, sharing it only with the supernatural spirits that live below, emerging through a hatch in the floor to haunt their nights. The siblings must always be in their rooms by midnight and cannot let anyone else enter their residence for fear of otherworldly punishment. Edward dreads leaving the house at all, feeling “protected” by it in some way, and unravels within it, becoming part of its shadows. Rachel, on the other hand, takes her days for herself, enjoying the freedom of the outdoors, particularly after she meets the recently returned WWI soldier, Sean (Eugene Simon).

As the twins turn eighteen, the presence of the spirits grows heavier, creating a sense of urgency. This is reinforced by the visit of estate manager, Mr. Bermingham (David Bradley), who bears news of their dire finances and demands to appraise the mansion for sale. Amidst this, Rachel becomes more daring and desperate to escape, leading to increased tension with her brother.

Vega and Milner deliver strong performances as the siblings who are at once very alike (often going through the same motions in parallel) and very different (with opposing desires). The actors’ chemistry with one another carries from tender moments to violent, and often uncomfortable, ones. Together they aptly portray a relationship in turmoil, reflecting how being bound together can also tear you apart.

The striking production of this film deserves special attention; from the sets to the costuming and cinematography, The Lodgers looks very good. Under the guidance of O’Malley, who used The Innocents (1961), The Hunger (1983) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014) as references for the look of the film, director of photography Richard Kendrick and production designer Joe Fallover create a sumptuous gothic aesthetic. Loftus Hall in Wexford, itself reportedly haunted, offers an imposing presence in the film as the twins’ place of residence, eerily solid and impervious at the same time, holding the twins in, but also leaving them open to threat (thin curtains blow out an open window that lets in the elements and the otherworldly frequently intrude with their watery presence). The house reflects a fading decadence, replaced by dampness and erosion, that mirrors the weakening grip of English colonial power in Ireland at the time.

Indeed, this film reflects another haunting spectre—that of England’s presence in Ireland. A group of local young men, led by Dessie (Moe Dunford), consider the returned Sean a traitor for fighting in the British Army while they were busy fighting their own war at home. They equally regard the Anglo-Irish twins in the Big House with disdain, reflecting both political and class tensions. Topping it all off is the grave simply marked 1916 in the woods of the estate. Though this marks the burial spot of the twins’ parents, in the context of Ireland it only evokes one thing—the 1916 Rising. Genre films are often criticised as lacking cultural specificity, but that cannot be said about The Lodgers.

Overall, while the film’s narrative does let it down in some places, feeling a bit simplified, this is made up for by its stunning visual style, gothic-drenched atmosphere and strong acting by the two leads. This new Irish horror is definitely one to watch.

 

The Lodgers screened on 12th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival

 

 

 

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Soulsmith

matt-on-mountain

Loretta Goff journeys into Soulsmith, which screened at the Cork Film Festival.

Introducing the premiere of their debut feature at the Cork Film Festival, writer-director Kevin Henry and producer Séamus Waters spoke of two years earlier when they were working in a DIY shop talking about making a film. Soulsmith was a passion project for them both and they, along with the many cast and crew who made the trip to attend the screening, were happy to see the finished product on the big screen.

Soulsmith follows the journey of playwright Ed Smith (Matthew O’Brien) who, once successful in the Dublin theatre scene, has become frustrated with his work, his life and the state of contemporary society, critiquing everything from social media to ineffective politicians. After his father dies, Ed returns home to Mayo, taking this time to clear his head and rediscover his path. His search for meaning is aided by a reconnection with his friends and family, who offer honest conversation, and through solitary time spent reflecting on himself and his choices in the beautiful scenery of Mayo (captured by Stephen Walsh in some stunning shots). Realising he can’t tackle all of the world’s issues in his work, Ed is once again able to meaningfully articulate himself by focusing on those close to him.

Ed’s journey of self discovery in the film quietly confronts a number of issues relevant to modern Ireland. These range from the generation of highly skilled young people who cannot find jobs to a mentality being out for yourself or your own area but not caring beyond that, especially in terms of politics which leave some places and people largely unrepresented. The subject most powerfully dealt with in the film, however, is the association of masculinity with machismo and the inability to express or discuss emotion.

Though Ed is a blunt, outspoken character, much of his frustration stems from his inability to truly recognise and give voice to all of his emotions, particularly regarding his father’s death. The play he writes by the end of the film is a catharsis of this, and the result of his time spent with friends and in self-reflection. By presenting emotionally honest conversations between male characters as beneficial and necessary for moving forward, the film effortlessly breaks down the stereotypical archetype of the Irish man who can’t talk about his feelings. The advice—“don’t ever be afraid of a bad day, we all have them”—during a particularly poignant scene expressing male openness is something that should be spoken aloud more, especially given that the rate of suicide among young men in Ireland is one of the highest in Europe. Soulsmith effectively deals with death, grieving and the feeling of being lost through its characters, normalising emotional frustration and making these acceptable and necessary topics of discussion.

The film feels very observational in nature. From close shots of people walking in Dublin, pigeons, rippling water and characters’ faces to more expansive shots of mountains, lakes, beaches and group gatherings, we are like a fly on the wall throughout Ed’s journey and during his interactions, allowing us to fully relate to what he is going through and also to place our own emotional journeys within the context of the film. Further supporting this is the very natural acting from the entire cast, which deserves recognition, and the seamless weaving together of moments of brevity and seriousness.

Ultimately, Soulsmith takes the simple story of a playwright struggling to find the right words and makes it much more. Ed’s lost path stands in for broader societal and generational searches for meaning, equally reflected in the musings of his mother, friends and locals in pubs. His ultimate articulation and self-reflection is mirrored by the film’s own important reflections, philosophising and subtle commentary on modern Ireland. Soulsmith ends with Ed’s comment, “to me, it’s not about finding the right answers anymore, it’s about asking the right questions”—something which this film does successfully.

During the Q&A following the screening Henry, Waters and O’Brien noted that having the character of Ed be a writer was important as it offered a great way to tackle ideas and reflect on society. O’Brien was mindful of the contemporary situation in Ireland (especially in terms of joblessness) as he acted the role and enjoyed playing a complex character that was able to explore important issues, particularly masculinity. In addition to discussing Ed’s journey in the film, Henry and Waters (who met in college) also discussed the journey of the film itself. Starting out small, the film grew and the story developed with the huge amount of support received from family, the cast and crew, and the community (the film was primarily shot in Mayo, but also Dublin and Roscommon). Soulsmith is an intelligent film with a lot to offer and marks an accomplished debut from the pair.

Soulsmith screened on 20th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: I Am Not a Serial Killer

ianask_njr_8145

 

Loretta Goff is on the hunt for Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, which screened at the 2016 Cork Film Festival.

Deftly blending genres—part thriller, horror, comedy, drama and romance—I Am Not a Serial Killer is a unique film full of surprises. The teenage protagonist of the film, John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), is fascinated by serial killers and has been diagnosed with sociopathic tendencies, leading him to create a set of rules to live by in order to prevent him from hurting or killing anyone. However, when a series of linked murders occur in his small Minnesota town, John becomes obsessed with discovering and understanding the killer, testing these rules.

John works in the family funeral home, helping to embalm corpses, and thus has access to the bodies of the murder victims. Rather than shying away from their wounds, missing organs and limbs, John studies them closely and goes to the crime scenes, working on a profile of the killer. Despite the concerns of his mother (Laura Fraser) and quirky therapist (Karl Geary), and the fact that John doesn’t feel emotion in the normal sense—in fact he is repeatedly labelled as abnormal—he is also a very likeable, and even relatable protagonist.

Director and co-writer Billy O’Brien (Isolation) clearly frames John as an outsider and an observer. Numerous voyeuristic shots through windows, trees, grass and binoculars are all from his perspective, at times innocuously observing the girl he seems to like and family life, and others more seriously tracking the killer. We also see shots from John’s perspective lingering on the blood draining from bodies as they are embalmed and on their wounds. These, and his fascination with serial killers, lend a sinister tone to his character, particularly when paired with close-ups of him slowly cutting chicken meat from the bone during his dinner. At the same time, however, John is repeatedly seen doing the right thing and is a large source of the humour in the film. Similarly, though his reactions and emotions don’t always align with what is “normal”, his emotionless face always appears pleasant.

In part family drama, I Am Not a Serial Killer explores relationships. Within the Cleaver family there is an absentee father, strained mother-daughter relationship, and of course John’s relationships with his family, therapist and people at school, affected by his inability to feel. On the other hand, contrasting with this emotional lack in John, is the abundant love between his elderly neighbours Mr. and Mrs. Crowley, through which the theme of aging is also explored. The key relationship in the film, however, is between John and Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). While the film is well-acted all around, this pair of actors (Records and Lloyd) in particular do a superb job in their nuanced roles.

The film is able to quickly shift between light-hearted, serious and chilling moments, and even blends naturalism with the supernatural as the killer is unveiled. Moments of sudden shock are juxtaposed with slowly built suspense and terror as the film moves into horror territory, assisted by clever editing and a solid soundtrack. The theme of darkness within us is explored  throughout the film in terms of John suppressing his own dark urges, but as the horror in the film grows, this theme also take on a more literal embodiment. In a particularly poignant scene regarding this, Crowley recites William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” as he sits with John in the dark by a glowing fire, contemplating darkness and light rooted in the same source. Ultimately, the film is a rollercoaster of emotion, full of sudden dips and turns, offering a bit of everything, but seamlessly fitting together.

Following the film’s screening in The Everyman, Billy O’Brien and producer Nick Ryan participated in a Q&A. O’Brien spoke about Dan Wells’ novel of the same name, from which the film was adapted, noting that he was attracted to its dark humour. As the novel is very much a first person narrative, O’Brien explained that Max Records’ face filled that role in the film, reflecting John’s perspective. Both O’Brien and Ryan praised Records and Lloyd for their performances, noting their collaboration, dedication and chemistry.

Though the process of funding the film was a struggle, taking six and a half years in the end, Ryan noted the continued support of the Irish Film Board throughout this process, providing a backbone of funding. The film, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, has been doing the festival circuit since and has been particularly well-received by European audiences. O’Brien remarked that I Am Not a Serial Killer is “an American film [set in Minnesota] with a European heart”, and that it offers something different.

 

I Am Not a Serial Killer screened on 17th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: A Dark Song

darksongreview

Loretta Goff is haunted by the lingering horrors of Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song

Trapped by her grief and guilt after the loss of her young son, Jack, Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) leases a remote country estate in Wales and hires Joseph Solomom (Steve Oram), an occultist with his own troubles, to perform an Abramelin invocation, ostensibly to speak to her son again. It is through a blurring of her grief, grounded in reality, and the occult, which is unknown, otherworldly and risky, that the atmospheric horror of A Dark Song slowly builds.

Rather than jumping immediately into horror territory, Irish writer-director Liam Gavin gives proper attention to the process of the ritual, which takes a minimum of six months. Gavin’s measured approach allows us to fully realise Sophia’s determination and feel her sorrow as we see her endlessly write scriptures, and repeatedly face sleep and food deprivation, spirit and body purification, and blood and sex ritual in order to break down the boundaries between her world and the next. Throughout these scenes a sense of unease and discomfort pervades, assisted by a strong soundtrack, but there are no real scares. Instead, the first two thirds of the film follows a more figurative haunting of Sophia by the murder of her son and her struggle to cope with it, linking this to an anticipated haunting of the house as part of the ritual, which is hinted at by unexplained sounds and the disappearance and reappearance of Jack’s old toy.

The tension of the first two thirds of the film is drawn from the oscillating relationship between Sophia and Joseph and the shifting balance between the known and unknown. Once the house is sealed at the start of the ritual, they cannot safely leave its confines until the invocation is finished many months later. Joseph warns that now “everything has consequences”. Sophia must follow all of Joseph’s rules very closely and trust him with both her life and the outcome of the ritual, just as he must trust that she is truthful about her intent and process. However, as the house becomes more isolating and incarcerating (shades are often drawn and we no longer see the expansive sky highlighted in the opening scenes of the film), and the invocation appears to repeatedly fail, the two lash out at one another with distrust and unconfined emotion, revealing deceptions and darker motivations. Excellent performances by Walker and Oram throughout the film successfully add its the dramatic, serious tone.

The traditional horror moments of the film may feel a bit short, only fully occurring in the final third of the film when the ritual finally succeeds and we feel the ultimate danger of the occult (with otherworldly figures and noises in full force), and the film’s ending may surprise horror fans. However, this film does not feel bound by the traditions of the genre, instead choosing to make us ponder moral and religious questions while taking a close look at the power of grief and its drastic effects on us. Rather than relying on spontaneous shocks, the horror of A Dark Song instead lingers with you. Ultimately, the film is a strong feature debut from Gavin and hints at a promising future for the director.

 

A Dark Song screened on 15th November at the Cork Film Festival 2016

 

 

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

Share

Review: 11 Minutes

11_minutes

DIR/WRI: Jerzy Skolimowski • PRO: Ewa Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski • DOP: Mikolaj Lebkowski
Bernard Walsh • ED: Agnieszka Glinska • MUS: Pawel Mykietyn • CAST: Richard Dormer, Paulina Chapko, Wojciech Mecwaldowski

The anxiety-ridden latest film from veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (Essential Killing) takes the audience on a fast-paced, head-spinning ride through the lives of several characters during the same 11-minute period in the city of Warsaw.

The narrative jumps forward and backwards to weave together fragments of the various characters’ lives to their ultimate connection in the film’s final moments of catastrophe. Perhaps the calmest of these threads, and certainly the central one, follows a slimy Hollywood director, played by Richard Dorner (Good Vibrations) auditioning an actress (Paulina Chapko) in his hotel room with plenty of sexual insinuations. We also follow her jealous husband (of one day) who desperately tries to find her in the hotel, an ex-con hot dog vendor (who used to be a professor) outside the hotel, a group of nuns, the hotel window cleaner who sneaks into a room with his girlfriend on a break, a drug courier on a motorbike, a teenage boy attempting to commit a robbery, and elderly painter, a dog and his recently broken-up owner, men monitoring CCTV traffic cameras, and paramedics having a difficult time reaching a pregnant woman.

These characters are cleverly woven together, and their relationships developed (though many are only spatially linked), through background appearances in one another’s central moments, contact with one another, and the repetition of the same events from different perspectives (showing the importance of perception). However, the speed at which we hurtle through the glimpses of their lives before moving frantically to the next leaves much of the narrative underdeveloped. Many questions arise in these fragments which are left unanswered. While it could be argued that these questions are unimportant in regard to the path the film takes, the quick switches between loosely developed narratives can make the film difficult to follow, particularly in the beginning.

Rather than steadily building its pace, the film is frenzied from the off, instead choosing to slightly ease up the pressure for moments, only to plunge straight back in. In this sense it has the feeling of an exercise class, with high intensity bursts followed by moments of catching your breath before another burst. Indeed, the film does leave the viewer with a sense of exhilaration and mental exertion. This pacing lends to the sense of anxiety created throughout the film, both in the narratives of individual characters and in the overall sense of an impending boiling point in the film where all the built up pressure will explode. A feeling that is mirrored by a close-up shot of a floating bubble in front of the city’s skyscrapers which suddenly bursts.

Key to the success of the film’s pacing and dizzying, full-throttle thriller atmosphere are the well-executed sound design and cinematography. Diegetic sounds make up a large portion of the film’s soundtrack, with revving engines, city traffic, sirens, chiming bells, street music, heavy breathing and the dog’s panting often taking an overwhelmingly loud prominence. Particularly significant is the recurrence of a low-flying plane over the city, the booming sounds of its approaching engine punctuating the film throughout, drawing the viewer back to that particular moment across the different characters’ narratives and simultaneously adding to the looming sense of foreboding. Overlaying the diegetic sounds at times are pulsing beats, ticking, and fast-paced music which all serve to increase the film’s tempo.

Despite the opening moments of the film which make use of gritty CCTV footage, shaky camera phones, and webcams, taking a found footage approach, the rest of the film is smoothly and aesthetically shot in widescreen. Still, throughout the film there remains a sense that in today’s world part of all our lives (and stories) are caught on camera, by our choice or not. Particularly drawing attention to this are the shots we see of the director and actress through the screen of the camcorder he has set up in his hotel room, and the shots of footage from a CCTV screen that pull back to reveal multiple screens of relaying images, glances into many lives as they go about their daily business. Meanwhile, angular shots of skyscrapers from below, pulsing close-ups and lighting, and blurred, quick shots all add to the sense of disorientation throughout the film.

Everything slows down in the film’s inevitable final moments, weaving all the frantic threads into a single event that leaves the viewer with the sense that the unexpected can occur at any moment in our lives. While the narrative strands leave something to be desired in this film, many of the performances are strong and its technical composition is very well done, creating an exhilarating, atmospheric film that leaves a lasting impression.

Loretta Goff

15A
82 minutes (See IFCO for details)

11 Minutes is released 4th December 2015

 

 

Share

Review of Irish Film at Cork Film Festival: Deoch An Dorais

Deoch-an-Dorais-Chosen

Loretta Goff reviews Paddy Hayes’ Deoch An Dorais, which brings to life the legend of Mike Malloy, the man who wouldn’t die.

Irish language documentary Deoch An Dorais tells the very unique story of one Irishman in New York City, while at the same time reflecting upon the larger emigrant experience. Mike Malloy, alternatively referred to as the “Rasputin of the Bronx”, “Durable Mike Malloy”, and “the man who couldn’t be killed”, fell victim to speakeasy owner Tony Marino and his friends as part of their plan to make some quick money during the Prohibition and Great Depression era in the Bronx. These men, learning Malloy (who was an alcoholic regular in the speakeasy) had no friends, family, or home in the city, decided to take out a life insurance plan on him and subsequently cause his “natural” death (a plan that had already worked on Marino’s girlfriend). What they didn’t expect was the resilience of Malloy. Between December 1932 and February 1933, they attempted the murder 20 times before finally succeeding, and in the process turned the story of Mike Malloy into a legend of sorts.

After hearing the story in a two-minute segment of comedy quiz show QI, director Paddy Hayes was inspired to explore it further. In his documentary we follow Anthony Molloy, former Donegal GAA Captain, and another Molloy from Mike’s home County (the ‘o’ was changed to an ‘a’ in America) as he travels to New York to speak with a variety of people about the “indomitable” Mike. From academics and journalists to a lawyer, pathologist, genealogist, homeless veteran, and Italian undertaker, these interviews develop Malloy’s story as they take us through the various attempts on his life and speculate on his circumstances. Accompanying these, and weaving in characters as they are mentioned, are reconstructions of scenes from inside Marino’s speakeasy. Though these were filmed in a pub in Galway and use actors from Mayo, they succeed in their 1930s NYC aesthetic and create a more immersive experience for the viewer.

Though there are many comedic moments throughout this tale (and its reconstructions) which are entertaining, they are smoothly woven in with more serious subject matter. Interspersed with scenes of contemporary New York is archival footage of men sleeping on the streets and drinking, reflecting the difficult times experienced in the city and providing context for why people resorted to criminality. Discussion surrounding Malloy’s experience also turns to various struggles he and many other emigrants may have faced, including loneliness, homelessness, and a turn towards alcoholism.

Molloy reflects on his own emigrant experience to New York in the 1980s where he felt a sense of Irish community. He goes on to express his horror and heartbreak at the fact that Malloy’s only “friends” were trying to kill him and questions why he would continue to stick around them rather than seek help. An historian interviewed explained that to many homesick men, bartenders were seen as their only friends, Priests, counsellors or caretakers. In the Q&A after the screening Hayes expanded upon this sentiment referring to the “element of Stockholm Syndrome with drink. You know it’s killing you, but you love it.”

While Malloy’s tale is very bizarre, and often unbelievable, little trace of him remains. Buried in an unmarked grave, the only tribute to him is a mosaic on a lamppost in the city. If not for the fact that the insurance scammers were caught, resulting in a court case which provided the details of Malloy’s death, he could easily have become one of many “unknown emigrants.” Producer Ciara Nic Chormaic, also in attendance at the screening, commented on the amount of research that went into the film and finding people to speak with about Malloy. Discussing her initial trip to Donegal in an attempt to find out more of Malloy’s story she remarked that there is a “bit of private detective work involved in being a producer.” The work paid off here as, in its uncovering of Malloy’s story, the documentary succeeds in being both entertaining and a powerful piece on emigration.

 

Deoch An Dorais screened 14th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)

Deoch An Dorais will air 25th December on TG4

 

Share

Review of Irish Film at Cork Film Festival: Brand New-U

brand-new-u-trlr-1-670

 

Loretta Goff alternates between realities at a screening of Simon Pummell’s sci-fi thriller Brand New-U at the Cork Film Festival.

 

At its core, Simon Pummel’s Brand New-U is an exploration of the choices that go into constructing our identities. Combining elements of science-fiction, thriller, and romance, the film follows Slater (Lachlan Nieboer) as he pursues his girlfriend Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone) across a series of “alternative life spaces” after she is abducted from their home by a professional team that leave a dead doppelganger in her place. It turns out her abductors work for the Brand New-U franchise which helps clients become better versions of themselves by matching them (and swapping them) with “Identicals” that are supposedly living happier lives.

“What do we believe? There’s a better life waiting for us. Who? Somebody else. Where? Somewhere else.” This mantra, repeated in the film’s opening sequence and periodically throughout, is part of Brand New-U’s series of test questions to determine new-life readiness and find an Identical match. After being led to the franchise by a series of mysterious recorded messages, Slater is convinced to undergo this process (his alternative is being charge with his girlfriend’s murder). However, before he progresses to his new life, he must sign a contract. This contract, which states that Brand New-U owns Slater’s new life, also stipulates the franchise’s one rule: he must not bring any part of his former life into his next. For Slater, this proves impossible.

The film essentially contains three worlds. The first of these (shot in Dublin) is the most grounded in reality, albeit one with an otherworldly decaying and sparsely furnished aesthetic. The two worlds that follow resemble slick, futuristic cities, and become increasingly abstracted as we descend further into the world of Slater’s mind. Colours are important in this visually rich film with the darkness of night (during which the majority of the film seems to be set) starkly contrasted by sterile overly-white interior scenes inside Brand New-U headquarters, Slater’s new apartment, and the factory where he now works. At the same time blue and red tonal shots work in tandem with his emotional journey.

Shape also plays an important role in this film, with a particular prevalence of circularity. Despite Brand New-U’s rule of never looking back, it is seemingly impossible to escape 360⁰ imagery or the sense of circular repetition evoked by the film. For one, the lens the Brand-New U agents use to identify potential matches (which we see through) has a circular design in the centre reading information. In the second life space the apartment buildings are of a tubular shape, with repeated circular windows, Slater continually gazes down a spiral staircase with a 360⁰ view on the lookout for Nadia, and the hovering drones that watch him at work are also of a circular design. The use of these devices (most of which are designed for viewing, including the binoculars Slater later uses) along with Slater’s continually searching gaze all contribute to the “Big Brother” sense in the film that there is always someone watching. This is perhaps overemphasised at times with numerous painfully long shots of the characters staring at something.

Both Nieboer and Noone put in strong performances, playing against other versions of themselves that are subtly adjusted to reflect the different life spaces. However, there is a certain detachment felt in both their roles which pervades the entire film. It is as if the characters (who we really know very little about other than Slater’s determination to find Nadia) are just walking through lives chosen for them (rather than finding their promised happiness), only really lighting up in their chemistry together. This feeling, along with the slow pace of the film leaves the viewer feeling a bit detached as well.

Attending the screening of the film were both director Simon Pummel and co-producer Conor Barry, who participated in a Q&A afterwards. Here, Pummel explained that “the project came out of a sense that we live multiple lives these days […]. Over the period of our lives we get to be different versions of ourselves.” He went on to explain his own contemplations of identity after spending time living in three different countries and also witnessing his digital media students managing their dispersed identities online and in person.

While the concept behind this film is both timely and intriguing, it unfortunately falls a bit flat in the film. While Slater does face certain choices along his journey, it mostly feels manipulated by Brand New-U (though perhaps this is a reflection on societal manipulation of our own identities). What really lets the film down, though, are the unnecessarily long sequences and underdeveloped characters which distance the viewer. This being said, the film’s visual effects and style, along with a well executed soundtrack, deserve accolades (particularly with its modest 1.3 million budget) and, as a whole, it does inspire philosophical reflection.

 

Brand New U screened 8th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)

 

Share

Review of Irish Film at Cork Film Festival: Yo Cambio

Yo_cambio-650x290

Loretta Goff reviews Peader King’s documentary Yo Cambio that explores El Salvador’s prison system, which screened at the 60th Cork Film Festival. 

With RTÉ as the new principle partner of the Cork Film Festival during a year where half of the programming consists of documentary screenings, it is fitting that Peader King’s Yo Cambio would see its world premiere here. Part of RTÉ’S 9th series of “What in the World?”, this documentary falls very much in line with the “Ideas” strand of the Festival, designed to provoke debate and raise awareness of global issues.

In Yo Cambio Peader King takes us inside El Salvador’s prison system, notorious for its violence. The director first became interested in the topic of prisons in 2002 while working on a film about the death sentence in Alabama. As the “reputations of prisons in Latin America are brutal, violent, overcrowded, […and] difficult to change”, he turned his focus there with an interest in seeing “how do you assert the rights of those who have been deprived of their liberty.” The documentary explains that El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder in the world (many of which are violent deaths), largely as a result of serious economic inequality in the country which leads to exclusion. Meanwhile, the prisons cannot sustain the numbers of those arrested.

Through a series of interviews with both prison officials and those detained inside we learn about the reputation of these prisons and their poor conditions. One prisoner relates that “as soon as you entered you were told: you see nothing, you hear nothing, you say nothing.” Others had fears entering, knowing only of the gangs, massacres and violence. Though we do not see this violence (nor any victims of it), a series of startling shots do demonstrate the cramped conditions inside where many mattresses line the floor of a single room, personal items are stacked and hung wherever space can be found, and garbage overflows.

However, the documentary offers hope as the focus shifts to El Salvador’s prison reform movement, Yo Cambio (or I Change) which began in 2010. The three main principles of this movement are to make amends, work, and create a better society. This has been implemented in the prisons through classes ranging from reading, writing and English to yoga and dance (some of which are even taught by other inmates), along with a crèche programme, and fishing and farming work designed to ease the transition back to life outside of the prison. Interviews with participants in the programme elucidate the variety of ways it has helped them.

Though prison officials mention the fact that there are two elements inside the prison—one open to the reform programme and one not—we are largely given a one-sided impression from those who do participate. Though this is somewhat unavoidable as partaking in the filming was voluntary, it is the one shortcoming of this documentary. It was surprising to learn afterwards that only about 5% of the prison population participates in Yo Cambio (a sense not given in the film). Ultimately, however, as we are told by one participant, “Yo Cambio is about wanting to change yourself”, and this documentary champions the rights of those inside prisons to be given the opportunity for this change.

Following the screening, a Q&A panel consisting of director Peader King, incoming Cork Prison Governor Patrick Dawson, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust Deirdre Malone, and UCC Law Lecturer Fiona Donson was moderated by RTÉ’s Colm O’ Callaghan to shed further light on the issues raised in the documentary and discuss how they relate to Ireland.

Discussing the filming process, Peader King related that “one of the difficulties was the volatility of the prisons themselves.” Filming had to be pushed back, and was almost cancelled, due to movement on incarcerated gang leaders which created instability inside. Conditions were also set with prison officials in advance, including that no prisoners could be named in the documentary and that any child who was under the age of 12 months had to have their face blurred out. However, despite thinking his camera would be an impediment inside the prison, King said people got used to him being around and he is “always amazed how relaxed people are in front of cameras.”

Deirdre Malone pointed out that many of the issues raised in the documentary resonate with prisons in Ireland and explained that rather than “warehousing” problems in prisons we need to know effective responses to crime. She went on to say that “media values are at odds with criminal justice values.” The media often tends to report on the worst crimes to sell their stories, which leads the public to believe that crime rates are worse than they are. In fact, the statistics on crime are very complex, with Malone reporting that some have gone up while others went down. One statistic she gave was that 9,000 people were incarcerated in Ireland in 2014 for failing to pay court ordered fines.

Patrick Dawson discussed the drain on resources that it is to process these incarcerations, despite most of them being released soon after. He also explained that “communities need to understand how prisons work.” This is something Yo Cambio helps to do at a global level, and the panel, along with similar discussions, do in Ireland. Fiona Donson mirrored this sentiment, explaining that “these types of documentaries are needed to give insights into prisons”, and to show the public that not all prisoners are the same.

In addition to informing the wider community, Dawson noted the importance of seeing how community is built within the prison. He went on to discuss similar developments being made in Irish prisons, including the offering of classes and incentivised programmes designed to encourage good behaviour. He explained that the important thing is to know the people you are working with and adapt the services accordingly.

One sentiment that was mirrored by the entire panel was that “there is no one fix” to issues surrounding the prison system. Reform programmes are helpful and offer hope, particularly in dire situations such as the El Salvadorian prisons, but they are not the panacea. There are many social issues that also need to be addressed. However, documentaries on the subject and community discussion are a good place to begin tackling these.

Yo Cambio will also be shown in Cork Prison followed by a Q&A, and there are hopes to take it to other prisons around the country in order to extend the discussion to include those who are incarcerated. Meanwhile, the general public will be able to watch it on RTÉ on December 1st at 11:15pm.

 

Yo Cambio screened 8th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)

Share

Review of Irish Film at Cork Film Festival: 11 Minutes

fot. Robert Jaworski tel. +48 501 37 22 40
Loretta Goff took time out to attend 11 Minutes, which opened this year’s Cork Film Festival.

The Opening Gala for the 60th Cork Film Festival, 11 Minutes (a Polish co-production with Ireland’s Element Pictures and support from the Irish Film Board), kicked off the week of films with a bang. The anxiety-ridden latest film from veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (Essential Killing) takes the audience on a fast-paced, head-spinning ride through the lives of several characters during the same 11-minute period in the city of Warsaw.

The narrative jumps forward and backwards to weave together fragments of the various characters’ lives to their ultimate connection in the film’s final moments of catastrophe. Perhaps the calmest of these threads, and certainly the central one, follows a slimy Hollywood director, played by Richard Dorner (Good Vibrations) auditioning an actress (Paulina Chapko) in his hotel room with plenty of sexual insinuations. We also follow her jealous husband (of one day) who desperately tries to find her in the hotel, an ex-con hot dog vendor (who used to be a professor) outside the hotel, a group of nuns, the hotel window cleaner who sneaks into a room with his girlfriend on a break, a drug courier on a motorbike, a teenage boy attempting to commit a robbery, and elderly painter, a dog and his recently broken-up owner, men monitoring CCTV traffic cameras, and paramedics having a difficult time reaching a pregnant woman.

These characters are cleverly woven together, and their relationships developed (though many are only spatially linked), through background appearances in one another’s central moments, contact with one another, and the repetition of the same events from different perspectives (showing the importance of perception). However, the speed at which we hurtle through the glimpses of their lives before moving frantically to the next leaves much of the narrative underdeveloped. Many questions arise in these fragments which are left unanswered. While it could be argued that these questions are unimportant in regard to the path the film takes, the quick switches between loosely developed narratives can make the film difficult to follow, particularly in the beginning.

Rather than steadily building its pace, the film is frenzied from the off, instead choosing to slightly ease up the pressure for moments, only to plunge straight back in. In this sense it has the feeling of an exercise class, with high intensity bursts followed by moments of catching your breath before another burst. Indeed, the film does leave the viewer with a sense of exhilaration and mental exertion. This pacing lends to the sense of anxiety created throughout the film, both in the narratives of individual characters and in the overall sense of an impending boiling point in the film where all the built up pressure will explode. A feeling that is mirrored by a close-up shot of a floating bubble in front of the city’s skyscrapers which suddenly bursts.

Key to the success of the film’s pacing and dizzying, full-throttle thriller atmosphere are the well-executed sound design and cinematography. Diegetic sounds make up a large portion of the film’s soundtrack, with revving engines, city traffic, sirens, chiming bells, street music, heavy breathing and the dog’s panting often taking an overwhelmingly loud prominence. Particularly significant is the recurrence of a low-flying plane over the city, the booming sounds of its approaching engine punctuating the film throughout, drawing the viewer back to that particular moment across the different characters’ narratives and simultaneously adding to the looming sense of foreboding. Overlaying the diegetic sounds at times are pulsing beats, ticking, and fast-paced music which all serve to increase the film’s tempo.

Despite the opening moments of the film which make use of gritty CCTV footage, shaky camera phones, and webcams, taking a found footage approach, the rest of the film is smoothly and aesthetically shot in widescreen. Still, throughout the film there remains a sense that in today’s world part of all our lives (and stories) are caught on camera, by our choice or not. Particularly drawing attention to this are the shots we see of the director and actress through the screen of the camcorder he has set up in his hotel room, and the shots of footage from a CCTV screen that pull back to reveal multiple screens of relaying images, glances into many lives as they go about their daily business. Meanwhile, angular shots of skyscrapers from below, pulsing close-ups and lighting, and blurred, quick shots all add to the sense of disorientation throughout the film.

Everything slows down in the film’s inevitable final moments, weaving all the frantic threads into a single event that leaves the viewer with the sense that the unexpected can occur at any moment in our lives. While the narrative strands leave something to be desired in this film, many of the performances are strong and its technical composition is very well done, creating an exhilarating, atmospheric film that leaves a lasting impression.

 

11 Minutes screened 6th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)

 

Share