Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: The Randomer

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Eoin O’ Callaghan hooks up with The Randomer, which screened at the Cork Film Festival.

 

What does The Randomer, screened as part of the 61st Cork Film Film Festival, have to say about life in contemporary Dublin? Quite a lot, actually—and much of it points to the bright future of filmmaking in Ireland. The brainchild of students in the Filmbase Masters in Digital Feature Film Production, and written by their established mentor Gerry Stembridge (Ordinary Decent Criminal, About Adam), The Randomer presents a contemporary, sophisticated look at seemingly well-trodden topics: the battlefield of sex, dating and children.

Meg Daly (George Hanover), a college lecturer recently turned the apparently fake age of 39, has, heretofore, spent her nights cruising the bars and nightclubs of Dublin, avoiding talk of the biological clock from her philoprogenitive sister Regina (Caoimhe O’ Malley). However, Meg’s rapidly diminishing thirty-something status, along with renewed exposure to her nieces and nephews, leads her to question the viability of this lifestyle and to sever ties with sleepy boyfriend Teddy (John Lynn). With the help of her neighbours Roberta and Shirley—a lesbian couple played by Siobhán Cullen and Neilí Conroy—Meg plots the means by which she will become a mother; in all probability by cornering the eponymous ‘randomer.’

Refreshingly, The Randomer does not succumb to some of the tired tropes of on-screen dating in 2016. There’s no supposedly ‘trendy’ nods to the emerging role of Facebook and Tinder in meeting people, for example, and Meg’s interactions with the potential randomers—even the misguided hook-ups—are face-to-face encounters, as opposed to the millennial wave of smartphone-heavy portrayals; no Catfish-style antics here. As such, The Randomer is unlikely to feel dated, years from now: it’s pleasingly technology-free, lending it a maturity often lacking in films of this type. The Ireland depicted elsewhere is, however, firmly planted in 2016: it’s broad-minded and modern. Meg’s lesbian neighbours have a child of their own, and her primary objective in the film is to attain single mother status. Independence, and a career, are positive, forward-thinking motivations for a female lead in a romantic comedy (particularly in light of mainstream, American output, constantly in search of Prince Charming).

Of course, Meg’s trials and tribulations are convincing, and relatable, because of Hanover’s performance and likeability; particularly in her more subdued scenes with Ray (Daryl McCormack). It is testament to Hanover’s accomplished performance that the film, which never deviates from her perspective (she is almost a permanent fixture on screen), never slows or bores over the course of its 82 minutes, and she ably conveys the lingering doubts—and excitement—that characterise every step of the transition from singledom to pre-motherhood. Other notable turns are those of McCormack and and Lynn—the latter’s somnambulistic ramblings perfectly illustrating the lifestyle that he and Meg had led up until now: blissfully unaware of time’s rapid passing.

Flaws—none of which are glaring—are to be found in some clichéd decisions. The disparity between The Randomer’s ‘timeless yet modern’ look at Irish life and its multiple generic commonplaces is somewhat disappointing: predictably, Meg’s less successful encounters with potential randomers ‘underperform,’ and her endeavours to care for her neighbour’s child are rote, Three Men and a Baby-style misadventures. And even if the lesbian couple are a welcome addition, they conform to at least two stereotypes: that of the agony aunts/comic relief sidekicks, par for the course in every romantic comedy; and the ‘odd couple’ pairing (one’s foul-mouthed and boisterous; the other’s delicate and sentimental). Elsewhere, despite the evocative storyline and diverse characters, the film lacks vibrancy and colour; grey and undersaturated, the look of the film is incongruent with the relatively upbeat and comic proceedings.

None of these problems keep the film from being a success, however (both artistic and financial: the screening at the Cork Film Festival was a sell-out). While marketed as a comedy, The Randomer’s most memorable moments are the dramatic, restrained scenes, and Hanover’s chemistry with her male counterparts is palpable throughout: a late-in-the-day encounter between Meg and previous suitor Teddy is a particular standout for both actors and writers. Oh, and with regards to life in contemporary Dublin, as mentioned in the outset, there appears to be an underlying message about the lack of adequate, affordable accommodation. Meg’s first lines are part of a lecture on housing, and her pregnancy plans—despite a flourishing college career–necessitate a move to a decidedly less grand apartment.

Here’s to this group of Filmbase students, and their future productions—however random.

The Randomer screened on 16th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Know All (Cloud Control: Who Owns Your Data)

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Eoin O’ Callaghan checks his online fingerprints at a screening of Know All (Cloud Control: Who Owns Your Data) at the Cork Film Festival.

Sponsored by the Science Foundation Ireland, and screened by RTÉ both before and during the Cork Film Festival, Cloud Control is an informative/petrifying/encouraging documentary (delete as appropriate). The hour-long analysis, presented by editor of Mashable UK, Anne-Marie Tomchak, explores the potential benefits, dangers and mysteries of so-called ‘Big Data’: that amalgamation of our online fingerprints which we previously thought to be stored in some vaguely defined ‘cloud’ sphere. In a world where such a common belief can be disproved, then, another age-old axiom holds true: knowledge is power.

For better or worse, of course, and certainly Tomchak, herself a vocal advocate of social media and hashtag culture, the analysis showcases multiple examples of Big Data/digital culture working for the greater good. Tomchak’s first case study is that of the family farm in Longford, where Facebook allows for long-distance communication between parents and children. Taken as a method for filling out the occasional online crossword puzzle (and occasionally consulting Google for tips), the ominous Big Data seems a lifetime away. Translated to the rugby pitch, where advanced biometrics have helped Donnacha O’ Callaghan customise his training regimen and track his day-to-day performance, or to Cork University Hospital, where Geraldine Boylan uses data to monitor the health and well-being of premature babies, it’s again difficult to argue with the influx of technology we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. Society is merely using its available tools—tools which they themselves created, mind—to advance itself.

However, with great power comes great responsibility, to drop another power-themed cliché, and ethical considerations regarding privacy are, naturally, a preoccupation in Cloud Control. Dave and Dani Kinsella have taken to recording their children’s exploits on YouTube, resulting in small-time internet phenomenon The Kinsella Bunch (with a not unrespectable 7,382 subscribers at the time of writing). Whether Dave and Dani will be able to reconcile any future dangers/backlash with their upload-heavy lifestyle at present does, however, remain to be seen. Such concerns about privacy and consent are exacerbated by the evolved form of CCTV in operation at Blackpool, where information about demographics, transport and shopping habits are collated on a daily basis, and by the prospect of deliberating online shoppers being ‘nudged’ towards alternative products.

Recurrent throughout these scenes, and the documentary as a whole, is the theme of control: whether our decisions—in the retail sphere, for example—will, eventually, be out of our hands, orchestrated by an Orwellian higher power. In fact, just using social media, as Tomchak indicates, does mean a surrender of at least SOME privacy; and often much more than we know about, as evidenced by Tomchak’s baffled reaction to the wealth of information plucked from her networking trail. Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy activist and victor in a case against Facebook and US-EU data exchange, ultimately emerges as the hero of the piece: he’s not naively resistant to technology’s benefits and advantages, but he remains adamant that Facebook, Twitter, Google et al. need to be law-compliant in their use of data. His tome of Facebook data—relating not only to information that he willingly shared but to that which was derived from his interactions with friends—reminds us that Facebook’s reach extends far beyond those who are actually registered on the site. Some, like Tomchak’s father, are online ‘by proxy.’

Despite Tomchak’s obvious investment in social networking and data, she remains objective and shrewd throughout, sceptical of both the Luddites and the technology-obsessed, and the documentary is, above all, thought-provoking. The Q & A session, which took place after the screening in the Triskel Christchurch, confirmed Tomchak’s commitment to the digital age, even if she acknowledged her increased awareness into the problems of Big Data culture. Audience questions ranged from the remarkably tech-savvy to the thoughtfully threat-savvy: does the use of Big Data remove the ‘human’ element from farming, health care and social interaction? While this reviewer would probably agree to some extent, Barry O’Sullivan (Insight Centre for Data Analytics) and the rest of the panellists (Geraldine Boylan of UCC and Margie McCarthy of Science Foundation Ireland) agreed that the ongoing formulation of a 21st-century ‘Magna Carta,’ which will outline the guiding principles of data ethics, is a positive step in the right direction.

Oh, and that ‘cloud’ data mentioned at the beginning? It’s stored in a series of nondescript, high-security mainframes located worldwide. So now you know.

 

Know All (Cloud Control: Who Owns Your Data) screened on 18th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)

 

 

 

 

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Forever Pure

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Daniel Lynch catches Forever Pure at the Cork Film Festival, an Irish co-production feature documentary about the most symbolic football club in Israel.

 

Forever Pure tells the story of football club Beitar Jerusalem as the ultra-conservative team signs their first ever Muslim players. Director Maya Zinshtein was there first-hand to film and chronicle a bizarre period in Israeli football where right-wing zealotry and hooliganism combined to hold a mirror to a fragile section of society. 

Having never signed a Muslim player, the club was forced to welcome Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev after eccentric owner Arcadi Gaydamak made a business deal to promote relations with Chechen political leaders. The resulting furore shocked pundits and caused a rising team to plummet near relegation. 

Football Ultras ‘La Familia’ were vocal about their disgust and chanted obscene anti-Islam rhetoric while also eventually boycotting matches. They even set fire to the club’s museum destroying their own history in an act of severe literal irony one must only assume was lost on them. 

Speaking of her film, Zinshtein commented how surprised so many people were of the severity of the blow-back from the signings. “Maybe I was naive but I thought football wins”, she stated. This is reflected in the film as pundits on the radio and long-time club legend Itzik Kornfein state a few goals from the new boys and the fans will get on side. However, while the ultras numbered only in the hundreds, when they called for a boycott they did so en masse

It is near impossible to watch Forever Pure and not see a startling parallel to current political climates. Both Brexit and the recent US elections have shocked experts and defied belief as other right-wing parties and movements gain momentum across Europe. The scale and popularity of these movements have been dangerously dismissed but with crushing consistency they reaffirm that are not a niche minority. Zinshtein was at hand to capture a global phenomena in microcosm and her proficiency at disseminating the information and displaying it is exceptional.  

‘Pure’ is an apt word to describe this director’s storytelling. With a background in journalism, it is clear to see the objective chronicler at work. Zinshtein never injects herself or her opinion into the narrative but does what great documentary makers do, and allows the story to speak for itself. She stated afterwards that the biggest compliment she gets is from the ultras. When they say the story is exactly accurate, she feels she has succeeded in her job. 

Forever Pure is a wonderful documentary from a political, social and psychological perspective that serves also as a warning. We who take for granted that we are the tolerant majority must take heed. Insipid hate is a weed, where the flower grows, the roots are much stronger. 

Forever Pure screened on 19th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Crash and Burn

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Aoife O’Neill was in pole position at the Cork Film Festival for a screening of Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne from Dundalk, who, in the ’80s, for a moment was the world’s greatest F1 driver.

 

In the words of director Seán Ó Cualáin, Crash and Burn is one of the most “important sporting stories never told”, until now. The documentary follows the story of Tommy Byrne, a local lad from Drogheda with big ambitions and talent to match. From humble beginnings of driving a mini cooper, he wins every race that is set in front of him and finally gets the opportunity to race for Formula One.

 

However, getting to the Formula One platform was easier than staying there. This documentary is not just a sport film, this is a character portrait of a man’s struggles to come to terms with a career that has passed.

 

Born in the back of a car rushing to get to the hospital, it seems Byrne’s need for speed and cars was there since birth. According to himself, he learnt more from crashing than anything else, even though crashing for Byrne was rare. Driving each race as if it were his last, Byrne often struggled to finance his racing dream. Were it not for the support of friends and family financing his dreams from across the pond, Byrne may not have achieved what he did. His struggles to get from one race to the next adds suspense in the documentary and that audience constantly wonders how Byrne will be able to continue to race against his highly sponsored competitors.

 

Byrne’s, at times, abrasive personality rubbed many of the major names in the world of racing the wrong way. This is in conflict with the audiences appreciation of his blunt character, which makes for humorous viewing and honest critique of the sport. The documentary is comprised of interviews with Byrne’s colleagues and friends who helped with the documentary by supplying achieve footage and photographs of Byrne in his previous racing days. The mix of animation, interviews, live action and archive footage sequences enhances the documentary, with the archived footage giving a vintage, VHS charm.

 

It is through one animation sequence that we see the paths of Ayrton Senna and Tommy Byrne cross, as the once teammates didn’t have the most amorous relationship. Similarly, this film has parallels with that of Senna (2010), both films highlight the dangers and corruption that is involved in the world of racing. Unlike Senna, Byrne struggled to finance his races and didn’t have a choice between winning or not; either win or it is the last race.

 

Producer David Burke explains that the documentary humbly began with a series of emails. Although Byrne was skeptical of the documentary at first, he was told that at least it would be the “best home movie for your grandkids”. However, Crash and Burn is far better than a home movie and a must-see documentary. Byrne’s flamboyant character and good sense of humour is endearing and engaging. Having met him after the screening it is safe to say that he is the same in the real life as he is captured in screen.

 

Throughout the film we get an insight into the highs and lows of his career as he was beaten by the system despite being the “best in the world at what he did”. Byrne’s personality on screen makes for an enjoyable and captivating documentary, ironic as it is the same personality blamed for his career downfall. A documentary cleverly crafted for both an outside viewer and an avid fan of racing. Through interviews we are given a fascinating and unique insight into low-level racing. These interviews explain the sport and race system, ensuring the documentary doesn’t fall into niche markets. A truly riveting documentary, that allows for Irish viewers a look at the best racer probably in the world that came from a local town in Drogheda.

 

Crash and Burn screened on 19th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Between Land and Sea

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Loretta Goff catches waves at Ross Whitaker’s documentary Between Land and Sea, which premiered at the Cork Film Festival.

 

Making its world premiere at the Cork Film Festival, Between Land and Sea follows a year of life in the surf town of Lahinch, Co. Clare. Previously known for golf, the advent of surfing in Lahinch from 2000 provided an economic boon for the town and has been embraced by the community. The documentary begins in January when most of the town has closed for the season and the beaches are quiet, giving locals time for their own surfing before the busy season, full of surfing lessons, kicks off. Easter weekend, and the repainting and reopening of local shops, marks the start of this season, and the influx of people and cars to the community contrasts greatly with the quiet (and sometimes financially difficult) winter months.

Offering a portrait of the community, and capturing its spirit, director Ross Whitaker (Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story, When Ali Came to Ireland) introduces us to local surfers Tom Doige-Harrison (and his wife Raquel Ruido Rodriguez), Ollie O’Flaherty, Fergal Smith, John McCarthy and Dexter McCullough, along with ocean-loving community member Pat Conway. Not only do we see these individuals’ athletics in the water (and their true love for it), we also get an intimate look at their lives, exploring the themes of aging as a surfer, financial ups and downs, family life and planning for a sustainable, long-term future.

Between Land and Sea equally creates a portrait of Clare’s Atlantic coast, capturing both its beauty and power. Shots of serene water reflecting orange-tinted sunsets and sleek, smooth waves are contrasted with stormy waters, huge waves breaking on cliffs and turbulent, frothy whitewater. Stunning local big-wave destinations Riley’s Wave and Aileen’s Wave, at the base of the scenic Cliffs of Moher, feature in the film. These waves attract surfers from all over the world, including surfing legend Shane Dorian who makes an appearance in the documentary, but are home to our surfers from Lahinch who show off their skills here. While Whitaker captures a great deal of the essence of Lahinch, its waters and its people from the land, Kevin Smith deserves special accolades for his visually impressive aerial and water camerawork which provides some remarkable shots. Capturing adventure, athleticism and everyday life, this film will appeal to surfers and non-surfers alike.

Following the sold-out screening, Ross Whitaker, Ollie O’Flaherty, John McCarthy, Dexter McCullough and Pat Conway were present for a Q&A. Whitaker explained that the film was made with a low budget and a small, but very dedicated, crew who put in the time to be there when things happened. Spending hours behind the camera filming surfing took intense concentration in order to ensure that the best waves of the day were captured. Meanwhile, O’Flaherty expressed a sense of pride in what they achieved and happiness that people will get to see the amazing place they live in, a thought mirrored by the rest of the panel. Throughout the film he, along with other surfers, expressed a desire to train up a new generation of Irish surfers to greatness, and this film should help to inspire that.

There are plans for Between Land and Sea to be released throughout Ireland next year as well as continue on the festival circuit.

 

Between Land and Sea screened on 19th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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

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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

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Power on the Box

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Annie Curran checks out  a preview screening of the first episode of RTÉ’s upcoming television docuseries, Power on the Box, which screened at the 2016 Cork Film Festival.

Audience members at the 2016 Cork Film Festival were treated to a preview screening of the first episode of RTÉ’s upcoming television docuseries, Power on the Box. The four-part series, hosted by Irish Times journalist Harry McGee, details the impact of Irish television on politics during the last 50 years.

 

The documentary balances interviews from politicians and journalists, weighing both the positive and negative effects of television on the bureaucratic landscape. McGee provides the viewers with a variety of differing opinions and does not suggest which side of the argument he falls on, stating only that “there’s no denying the power of the box in the corner.”

 

The first episode chronicles the creation of the television branch of RTÉ, which officially premiered on December 31, 1961. As Irish historian and longstanding RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman describes, politicians “weren’t ready to be on screen.”

 

Skeptics of television included Éamon de Valera, who compared it to an atomic bomb and expressed his concern over the harm it could cause. In contrast, Taoiseach Seán Lemass said television could be an “instrument of public policy.” Additionally, former Fianna Fáil Minister Noel Dempsey says that seeing politics on camera is what made him want to pursue his governmental career.

 

The majority of the episode is devoted to detailing the implications of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, which gave the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs the ability to issue a Ministerial order to prevent RTÉ from airing interviews with Sinn Feinn and IRA members. The documentary includes interviews with politicians who think Section 31 was necessary, as well as those who decry the censorship and fault RTÉ broadcasters for cowering to it. The most critical view comes from Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who tells McGee that Section 31 delayed the peace process.

 

One of the most fascinating and ultimately humorous moments in the episode stems from the discussion of how RTÉ was able to work around the limitations of Section 31. The network could broadcast footage of Sinn Fein and IRA leaders if actors dubbed over their voices. McGee interviews famed actor Stephen Rea, who provides an entertaining account of the voice-over work he completed for the network. Adams tells McGee that he thinks the actors’ voices were better than his own and that Rea was his favorite version of himself.

 

McGee also travelled to the U.S. and attended the 2016 Republican Convention. Considering Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the recent election, this footage is even more powerful now, and only further proves the correlation between media attention and political success.

 

The screening at the Cork Film Festival was followed by a panel discussion hosted by McGee. Compliance Committee Member for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Dr. Ciaran Kissane; University College Cork History Department Lecturer Dr. Finola Doyle-O’Neill; and Communications Executive at NUI Galway, Acadamh Dan Dwyer provided fascinating context to information presented in the documentary. For example, Doyle-O’Neill informed the audience that since the Irish were already buying televisions and accessing world news, the state felt it was important to create an Irish network so that citizens would not get all of their information from British or American sources.

 

The panel also raised the excellent point that scripted television shows and talk shows have perhaps influenced public opinion more than television news shows. The first episode does not address this point, and thus perhaps misses the full implication of the power of television. However, because of the confines of a four-episode format, it is understandable that the producers honed in specifically on televisions news.

 

Additionally, the episode featured a major lack of women. This is certainly accurate to the disparity of genders in both politics and journalism, however I hope that future episodes feature more female voices.

 

The first episode of Power on the Box will air on Monday, 28th November at 19:30 on RTÉ1. The rest of the series will delve further into the tensions between journalists and politicians by reliving more consequential moments in the history of Irish television.

 

Power on the Box screened on 17th November 2016

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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

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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

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