Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera

Jack O’Dwyer was at the Cork Film Festival for Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera, a programme of short films made in and about Cork from the collections of the IFI Irish Film Archive showing Cork city and country life from the 1900s to the 1970s. 

 

This selection of archival footage related to Cork, its history and its people has been compiled by the Irish Film Institute, and screened at the Triskel Arts Centre during the Cork Film Festival. This invaluable selection of footage allows a local and national audience to witness the history of Cork first-hand, and acquire unique insights which cannot be gained by walking its streets.

As an exploration of Cork’s representation on screen over the course of some seventy years, this archival compilation fittingly begins on Patrick’s Street, in 1900. The clip lasts about half a minute and, typical of the period, features a static, flickering image of horse-drawn carts, women in shawls and top-hatted men going about their daily routine, unaware of the camera’s presence. The usual realization that an audience has when viewing such footage – that all those on screen are long dead and perhaps forgotten – is all the more striking and hallucinatory here given the familiarity of the location to citizens of Cork and Ireland. We can remain distant from those in the Lumieres’ films of the period; they are alien to us in distance as well as time. The footage presented here, however, transforms Patrick’s street into a space for both the living and the dead, which is hard to ignore as a local viewer. Just as fascinating is the next piece of archival footage, which shows a crumbled, smouldering Cork in 1920, following widespread fire and destruction during the War of Independence. Disconcerted citizens wander amidst the rubble of more familiar locations such as City Hall and Carnegie library. The images of Cork presented here are almost comparable to World War two footage of levelled cities like Dresden and Coventry, which is shocking to today’s residents, many of whom, myself previously included, are no doubt unaware of this historical chaos in their city.

While these early clips lend an insider’s eye into Cork’s visual history, there are also two pieces featured which are produced by Pathé, whose newsreels were ubiquitous throughout 20th century Britain. The first of these pieces from across the pond focuses on Irish revolutionary icon Michael Collins. It is initially peculiar to observe Collins, one of the most revered yet controversial figures in Irish history, strolling around among the throngs, and engaging in stilted handshakes with camera-shy citizens. He appears almost normal until the second act of this carefully-crafted sequence, when the camera frames him from below as he rallies a sprawling crowd, in a way almost reminiscent of Lenin or Trotsky, his revolutionary contemporaries. Finally, after being depicted as both ordinary man and elevated saviour, Collins is shown as a mourner at the funeral of Arthur Griffith; a piece of film which is doubly poignant in light of it being the last-known footage of Collins, who was assassinated 10 days after Griffith’s death. While this newsreel can be called a sympathetic view of the Irish by Britain, then the other Pathé newsreel featured here – a colour film of Cork men playing road bowling in 1957 – pokes wry fun at their neighbours. The men performing the illegal game are portrayed as recalcitrant rogues, which leads to snide, tongue-in-cheek remarks from the narrator about the mischievous nature of the Irish character.

There are two films in this collection which provide a comprehensive visual account of Cork and its surrounding areas. The first, entitled The Irish Riviera, is a travelogue produced by the Irish Tourist Association in 1936. Featuring the nasally narrator’s voice and gloriously hyperbolic descriptions of similar British newsreels, this journey around Ireland’s south, said to be ’’thrusting jaggedly into the Atlantic Ocean’’, glosses over any blemishes while focusing on the area’s most Edenic features. Beginning in Mizen Head, the camera weaves its way in and around Cork, capturing Cobh’s cathedral and the Shandon Tower in endearingly laborious tilts and pans. As a touristic account of the area, the film is impressively exhaustive given its 14-minute runtime, making trips to Kinsale, Youghal and various coastlines, with each sight doused in saccharine music. At Glengarriff, windows and gates open languidly in a way which seems suited to a Hollywood melodrama, while the narrator enticingly remarks, ‘’the sun is at your window and the sea is at your door!’’. Rhapsody of a River, from 1965, is similar in concept to The Irish Riviera. However, the Louis Marcus-directed film decides to eschew narration in favour of striking visuals and rhythmic, precise cutting accompanied by grand orchestral music. In doing so, it emerges as a dynamic, visual ode to a city in the vein of Berlin: Symphony of a City, Man With a Movie Camera or Koyaanisqatsi, and undoubtedly the highlight of this collection of films for me. From early on, the film can be seen as a visual symphony, with a traffic conductor taking the place of a music conductor as he is intercut with whirring images of Cork city life. Unlike the unchanging music of The Irish Riviera, the music here underscores and magnifies the images with an affecting ferocity. The thunderous images of large industry and the gritty determination of the workers in the background are reminiscent of Humphrey Jennings’ powerful British wartime films such as Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started. There are also a number of fantastic contained sequences in the film. One features a series of Cork’s architectural highlights seen in grand scope from below, which brilliantly conveys their majesty. Another shows old etchings and paintings of Cork transforming into footage of their 1960’s locations, which is truly magical to observe. This wonderful orchestra of images ends with tranquil footage of Cork’s lakes paired with a sentimental ballad about the city; a poetic tribute evocative of Yeats’s ‘’Lake Isle of Innisfree’’.

With the first half of the archival footage having focused on the external features of Cork, the second half focuses more on the domestic life of Cork families. Adoption Day, a short documentary by the prolific Irish catholic production company Radharc, is a brave and charming film made in 1967 which, indicative of its release year, is a strange mix of the old-fashioned and the modern. It details the process by which a Cork family adopts a little girl from a catholic adoption home. Despite some humorously outdated comments from the interviewer – who questions the potentially ‘’unsavoury’’ background of many children put up for adoption – the film treats its subjects with real tenderness and warmth. Particularly touching is the scene in which the family meet their new member for the first time, with a static shot capturing the heart-warming moment with admirable sympathy and respect. The film concludes on a similarly warm note, as the narrator remarks that the baby, shown in close-up, will leave ‘’five broken hearts behind her’’ if she is ever to be reclaimed by her birth mother.

The collection finishes with an equally heart-warming fictional film from 1959 entitled Larry, which is an adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s famous short story ‘’My Oedipus Complex’’. Set in the hazy, working-class streets of Cork, this story of a young boy’s reaction to his father’s return from war and the birth of his sister is uproariously funny and subtly compassionate. Though firmly rooted in its God-fearing Irish catholic setting, the film presents universal truths about the stubborn naiveté of childhood and the carrot and stick nature of parenthood. For Fergal Stanley’s wonderfully spirited central performance alone, the film should be more widely available.

Collections like this are important because they help us to smooth out the rough edges of our perception and cast a fresh eye on the streets we walk every day. The films which reside in the rich, illuminating depths of the IFI film archive bring us closer to our local history and heritage with unique immediacy. That such a small selection of the films available can have such a sobering effect is testament to the continuing power and vitality of the visual archive.

 

 

Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera screened on 12th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Out of Innocence

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Rebecca Graham praises Out of Innocence for bringing thoughtful sensitivity to a difficult moment in Irish history which resonates to this day.

Situated in a deconsecrated church, Triskel Arts Centre is an appropriate setting for the sold-out screening of Danny Hiller’s timely new film, Out of Innocence. Hiller’s second feature film is based on the infamous Kerry babies scandal of 1984 in which a prejudicial Garda investigation led to the wrongful arrest of a young woman, Joanna Hayes, for the murders of two babies. Intensive media scrutiny of the case led to a tribunal which judged the Gardaí to have carried out a deplorably inadequate investigation and revealed Ireland’s damaging and limiting attitudes to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

In Out of Innocence, the protagonist, Sarah Flynn, lives on a farm with her family in Co Kerry. Sarah is having an affair with a married man, Páidí, and together they have a daughter, Una. Sarah is pregnant again but hides this fact until she goes into an early labour. One of the film’s most powerful and lasting images is the solitary figure of Sarah, hunched over in agony among the haystacks in a barn on a cold, dark night. The next scene is of Sarah coming into the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, her long white nightdress covered in blood, being met by her mother’s stern and fearful expression. In the elliptical and stuttering conversations that follow, the family learns that Sarah has lost her baby.

In 1983 a referendum was held to include an amendment to the Irish constitution to acknowledge the equal right to life of the unborn as that of the mother, confirming Ireland’s anti-abortion stance. Early in the film, while the family are at mass, the priest reminds the congregation of the joyous passing of the eighth amendment into the constitution, highlighting the conservative and prudish influence of the Catholic Church on this rural community.

Out of Innocence opens with a shot of the majestic and beautiful Atlantic Ocean and the sounds of waves crashing against the rocky shore. This peaceful vista is soon shattered by the discovery of the body of a baby washed up on the beach. The Gardaí arrive and unceremoniously place the baby in a cardboard box, an unprofessional and uncaring gesture which sums up the attitudes of the Gardaí throughout the film. This sets off an investigation which inevitably leads to Sarah, who has recently been admitted to Tralee General Hospital suffering from the effects of a suspected miscarriage.

In the Q &A after the screening, Hiller said his research into Ireland’s recent past led him to a number of similarly tragic stories about young women and he wanted to uncover those women’s voices. The many lingering camera shots of statues of the Virgin Mary are a stark reminder of the devastating case of Ann Lovett, a fifteen-year-old girl who, on a cold day in January 1984, gave birth to a baby boy at a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Passers-by found Ann haemorrhaging badly and her baby boy was dead beside her. Ann died later that day. Her local community refused to comment on the reasons that might have led Ann to give birth secretly in such a place. Mary, the virginal mother who silently and stoically conforms to the will of God, epitomises ideals of womanhood women were expected to embody in a country where the machinations of state were inextricably intertwined with the morality of the Catholic Church. Discussing the events which inspired the film in an interview with The Sunday Times, Fiona Shaw said: “There were other tragedies it bumped into, so it was a stream of sorrows at that time in relation to women’s bodies. And the fact that’s still an issue in Ireland is very sad.” (13th Nov ’16). This film is a timely intervention into current debates about the eighth amendment, with many feminist and human rights groups calling on the government to address the contentious Irish legislation on abortion.

Out of Innocence gives voice to the young women who have been abused and ostracised by the Catholic Church and the Irish state in its empathetic portrayal of Sarah and her family. The scenes in the Garda station are perfectly balanced to maintain a sense of realism while showing the increasingly forceful and coercive efforts of the investigators to extract confessions from the Flynn family. The skillful camera angles show the investigators, cast in shadows, ominous, omniscient figures, looming over the Flynns, taunting and terrifying the confused and scared family. The Gardaí isolate the family members, twist their words, lie and make threats, until each one in turn believes their only option is to confess to murder.

The makers of Out of Innocence should be commended for bringing thoughtful sensitivity to this important film about a difficult moment in Irish history which resonates to this day. Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s music deserves a special mention. It is powerful and poignant, enhancing the beautiful scenes of Ireland’s rural and coastal landscapes, and underscoring the fraught and turbulent emotional struggles of the film’s central characters. Fiona Shaw is flawless as the devastated, stoic, God-fearing mother who only ever wants to do and say the right thing. Alun Armstrong is convincing as the cold but determined Detective Callaghan. However, it is Fionnuala Flaherty’s measured performance that encompasses the film’s emotional heart. Her subtle and sophisticated portrayal of Sarah inspires deep empathy and compassion for all women who have suffered and still suffer at the hands of the Irish state. Sarah’s Aunt Patsy, complaining about the temperature in their small cottage, neatly sums up the attitudes that women have faced and continue to face in Irish society: “It’s so cold here. It’s always so cold here.”

 

Out of Innocence screened on 13th November at the Cork Film Festival 2016

 

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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