Irish Film Review: Katie

DIR: Ross Whitaker • PRO: Aideen O’Sullivan

Ross Whitaker lands another knockout with this comprehensive character study. Katie is a beautiful, complex piece of cinema, as nuanced and fascinating as the superstar herself.

In a world fueled of vapid hubris, where 19 year-olds release autobiographies, reality stars flog lipgloss liners and careers have been launched via snapchat, Katie Taylor is an unboundedly refreshing figure. You won’t find her spewing casual racism or throwing railings through bus windows, Katie’s motivation is, and always has been, fuelled by her love of boxing. At an age when most people’s career highlights would be a pay rise or successfully sneaking naggins into their college nights out, Katie was changing the entire world of women’s boxing. In fact, she was instrumental in getting this sport in to the Olympics, and through diligence, faith and a quiet self belief she continues to make her mark today.

A fantastic piece of cinema, Katie is the classic comeback story. The narrative kicks off in the aftermath of Katie’s disastrous and heartbreaking defeat at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. That devastating loss, teamed with the estrangement of her father, coach and mentor, Pete, has Katie on the proverbial ropes. This feature tracks her career, as Katie takes on the monumentally difficult challenge of turning her hand to professional boxing.

Director Ross Whittaker torments the audience with tension. National sports victories are few and far between; you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who isn’t following Katie’s career as if they’d been boxing aficionados all their lives. Nevertheless, this feature has you reliving her wins and losses as if they were happening in real time. While this documentary hits all the satisfying emotional highs and lows you’d expect from any decent sports film, what really sets it apart is the heart behind it; Katie Taylor is an introverted, spiritual, unstoppable force and during these 89 minutes we, as an audience have absolutely no choice but to fall in love with her. Whitaker does a fantastic job articulating her journey – sometimes on her behalf – as she grows from a fierce, young upstart into an articulate, inspirational woman.

Gemma Creagh

89 minutes
12A (see IFCO for details)
Katie is released 26th October 2018

 

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Ross Whitaker: What I Learned Making ‘Between Land and Sea’

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Photo by Kevin Smith

 

Between Land and Sea, which chronicles a year in the life of the big wave surf community in Lahinch, Co. Clare, has been touring Ireland for the last two months. The surprise hit has been critically acclaimed as well as attracting sold out audiences around the country. As it prepares for its last few screenings (at the Mermaid, Bray on May 15th and IFI, Dublin on May 16th) in Ireland and for its international market bow at the Cannes Film Festival next week, Ross reflects on the experience of making a surf film from the perspective of a complete outsider. (Screening info via BetweenLandAndSea.com)

 

When I was approached to direct Between Land and Sea by the producers at Motive Films, I was excited but very scared. Excited because it was something completely new with a blank page to work from (after about six years working on my previous film!) and because I knew that I would be filming in a spectacular place. And scared because I knew nothing about surfing and because I knew I’d be working from a low budget in a genre where films are rarely less than spectacular. Indeed, hadn’t there already been a brilliant surf film made just a few years ago, Wave Riders? And the director of that film, Joel Conroy, was a surfer himself who knew the world inside out.  Still, I figured it was too great an opportunity to dismiss and decided I’d just have to learn how to make the film as I made the film.

 

Here are some of the things I learned making the film.

 

1. Know what you do and don’t know – one of the most daunting but ultimately helpful aspects of starting this documentary was realising that I had very much a blank page in front of me. I knew very little about surfing, so I tried to turn that into a positive in two ways. Firstly, by making sure I played to my strengths, chiefly to try to make my characters comfortable enough to be themselves on camera. And secondly, I kept an open mind to everything and everyone in Lahinch, who could educate me about surfing, and tried to use that information to portray the surfing world as they saw it.

 

2. Find someone who knows the world you’re in – as I started the film, the producers (Anne McLoughlin and Jamie D’Alton) said to me, “it would be great if you could find a local person who could work with you on the ground.” Thankfully, this happened and I was very lucky to meet Kevin Smith, a brilliant young filmmaker living in the area who was happy to collaborate on the film. I had to overcome my instinct to want to make the on-the-ground creative decisions myself and open myself up to the expertise, knowledge and connections of a locally based person. The rewards, in terms of what we were able to capture with a small but dedicated team, were massive.

 

3. Adapt your style to what’s in front of you – while Between Land and Sea maintains many elements of my previous films (I hope it has a sense of character intimacy and is interested in some of the same themes), I wanted it to also be specific to its environment. After a little time there, it struck me how different and special the light is in the west of Ireland and I wanted to get this across at all times, so I decided that everything should be naturally lit and that we would use no lights in the making of the film. I hope this gives the film a more natural light and reflects to some degree what it feels like to be there. Another thing that struck me in Clare was how it sounds very different to the east coast, so in the edit we tried to bring that to the film too. The pace of the film also tried to reflect the pace of life in the town. While a lot of surf films attempt to be high octane, the day-to-day life of coastal towns really isn’t like that, so that’s another thing we tried to reflect.

 

4. Explain what you plan to do and then do that – the people who I filmed in Lahinch were hugely generous with their time and energy and increasingly so as filming went on. I came to understand that people in surfing communities are well used to outsiders coming along and filming them but that they have also grown a little tired of this, particularly when people make promises that they don’t keep. So, from quite early on, I tried to be clear about my intentions and how I thought things would pan out. I think as people saw that I was serious about what I was trying to do, that a mutual respect developed and this was key to being able to capture people naturally.

 

5. Work with an editor who gets it – the editor of the film is Andrew Hearne and I really wanted him to cut the film, not just because he’s a wonderful editor but because he also grew up in a seaside surf town. Andrew grew up in Tramore, a great surf town in Waterford, so when he was cutting the film, he really understood the rhythms of life and the motivations of the characters. He contributed a huge amount to getting the feel of the film right because he had lived in a similar place.

 

6. Don’t underestimate the potential reach of the film – despite being a low-budget, obscure film and not in position to get distribution (with broadcasts coming soon and without Irish Film Board support, we were not an attractive proposition for distributors!), the film has surprised us in how it has managed to find an audience. I must remind myself in future that audiences do want to see honestly made films about other human beings and throw in some lovely landscapes and surfing and you might be amazed at what a film can achieve. Facebook has been key for us in getting the word out and a good trailer can spread the word fast about a film. Since my last film, Unbreakable, was distributed two years ago the media landscape has shifted and social media has become even more important. In addition, there are more media outlets than ever and if you cater to their needs, a film can get a lot of exposure even without a publicity budget. Finally, I’ve learned that a good local story can have international resonance and we’ve been delighted by the response of international sales agents who really seem to get the universal themes of the film.

 

The film will screen at the March du Film at Cannes Film Festival and we’ll soon find out just how far this little film might travel!

 

 
Mermaid Wicklow Arts Centre, Bray (with Q&A)

Monday, May 15th @ 20:00 (Buy Tickets)

Dublin: IFI Cinema (with Q&A)

May 16th @ 18:30 (Buy Tickets)

Ennis: glór

June 1st plus BBQ @ 18:30 (Buy Tickets)

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‘Between Land and Sea’ Gets Limited Cinema Release

 

Ollie Rileys

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Ross Whitaker (When Ali Came to Ireland, Saviours, Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story), Between Land and Sea is a year in the life of an Irish surf town at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean.

This observational feature – at times intimate, at times epic – embeds itself in the Big Wave surf community to present a thoroughly engaging and visually stunning portrait of the ever-changing life at land’s end.

Against the backdrop of Ireland’s stunning west coast, this film digs deep into the day to day lives of the surf community, taking the audience beyond the bluster of the typical adrenaline fueled film to create a very real portrait of those who choose the surf lifestyle.

Directed by Ross Whitaker and featuring some of the biggest waves and best surfers in Ireland – as well as a thrilling cameo by Hawaiian legend Shane Dorian –Between Land and Sea succeeds in being exhilarating while giving a moving, humourous and thought-provoking account of the ocean-going natives of West Clare.

Ross Whitaker said, “I’m delighted to be bringing Lahinch and its folk to screens around Ireland as I found it to be a surprisingly special place. I set out to make a different kind of surf film, one that went beyond the hype of some surf films to find the quiet truth of what it means to choose to be a surfer, how it impacts your entire life in myriad different ways. Living at the edge of the Atlantic in Ireland’s wild west is hard – rain is heavy, winds are strong and waves are monstrous. But for the right person it’s a cold paradise living along that incredible coastline.”

 

Ticket and venue info will be available from www.betweenlandandsea.com

 

VENUES –

IFI – from March 5th

Garter Lane, Waterford

The Model, Sligo

Eye Cinema, Galway

The Glor Theatre, Ennis

University of Limerick

The Gate Cinema, Cork

Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Theatre, Bray

University College Dublin

 

 

 

 

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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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InConversation with Ross Whitaker

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In this episode of InConversation, we speak to Ross Whitaker, writer, producer and documentary filmmaker.

Ross Whitaker’s first feature film, the self-funded Saviours (2008), was selected for theatrical release in Ireland and acclaimed as one of the “100 Best Irish Films of All Time” (Sunday Times).

Ross’ award-winning short documentaries include Bye Bye Now (2009) and Home Turf (2011) and he has been involved in many successful TV projects, including the the epic television documentary Blind Man Walking and the Prime Time political documentary The Bailout.

Most recently, Ross’ film Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story enjoyed a successful Irish release in 2014 and is being released in the UK.

Ross is currently working on his latest film – a year in the life of a seaside town, Lahinch, on Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast.

 

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Irish Doc ‘Unbreakable’ Gets UK Release

Mark Simone Corridor (1)

After a successful Irish release in 2014, the Irish documentary Unbreakable is to have a limited release in the UK from October 9th, including screenings in London at Picturehouse Central and Manchester at the Irish World Heritage Centre. Unbreakable will be released by True Films in conjunction with Picturehouse and the Cinema Partnership and will be available on VOD and DVD from October 23rd.

A tragic fall left blind athlete, Mark Pollock, paralysed. Unbreakable is the story of how he found his courage again.

Directed by award winning filmmaker Ross Whitaker (When Ali Came to Ireland; Saviours), Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story follows the almost unbelievable tragedies that life has thrown at Mark and his resolve to move beyond them. Unbroken by blindness at 22, Mark was a Commonwealth Games medal winner and competed in ultra endurance races across deserts, mountains and the polar ice caps and, ten years after losing his sight, he became the first blind person to race to the South Pole; a race that allowed him to finally put the demons of blindness behind him. But then, just four weeks from the day of his planned wedding to fiancée Simone, a fall 25 feet from a second story window left Mark near death and paralysed from the waist down.

This film brings the audience to Mark’s bedside in the acute ward of a spinal hospital – blind, now paralysed and broken. Six years in the making, it tells the story of Mark’s eventual rehabilitation and his mission to find and connect people worldwide to fast track a cure for paralysis, a mission which gives the audience a glimpse of the frontiers of robotics and medical science.

Unbreakable also documents how Mark and Simone have funded their cure exploration through Run in the Dark. This year over 25,000 people will join this global fundraiser at one of the official events in London, Manchester, Belfast, Dublin and Cork or at one of the 45 pop-ups that take place from Sydney to San Francisco.

 

 

About The Mark Pollock Trust

“We believe that the cure for spinal cord injuries simply requires enough of the right people having the will to make it happen. It is our mission to find and connect those people worldwide to fast track a cure for paralysis.”

To find out more go to www.markpollocktrust.org

 

 

Director Ross Whitaker tells Film Ireland 5 things he learned making Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story

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5 Things I Learned Making ‘Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story’

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Ross Whitaker’s latest film, Unbreakable, tells the story of Mark Pollack’s rehabilitation from an accident that left him paralysed from the waist down, his search for groundbreaking cures in the worlds of robotics and science, and his unbreakable spirit.

 

Here Ross shares with Film Ireland some lessons he learned making the incredible film.

 

Taking this film from start to finish was a six-year struggle and I learned a lot of things along the way:

 

Love Rejection
I’m going to call bullshit on this straightaway. Rejection is horrible and who could ever love it? But in this game there is plenty of it. This film was rejected by funders a number of times before it was financed. It has been rejected by festivals and left unreviewed by newspaper critics. It’s a punch to the gut every time you don’t get what you need to make your film work out and it’s extra work to figure out what to do next. So, you must accept rejection and keep going and don’t let it drown you. Stay creative and stay committed to making your film as good as you can because…

 

The Audience is Everything
The response to this film from audiences has been overwhelming and surprising. I think it might be because the audience is maybe starved of real, truthful experiences at the cinema. Maybe filmmaking has got a little too slick. Maybe that’s why Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers was such a giant and deserved hit – simple, beautiful storytelling. We’re finding that audiences are really connecting to this story. The most important relationship is between the audience and the film and if you make something real and truthful then audiences will react positively. And the amazing thing is that an engaged audience will tell their friends and act as your best publicity. The boundary between audience and filmmaker is smaller than ever because…

 

The Internet has Changed Everything
My first feature – Saviours – was released in 2008 and back then Facebook was still really in its infancy and Twitter didn’t exist. The world has changed immeasurably since then and the fact that you can speak directly to your audience makes a big difference. Also, your audience can talk directly to each other and recommendations on Facebook, Twitter and through email are very helpful. In addition, if you’re not getting the newspaper coverage you want, maybe it’s time to start thinking a little differently. Online publishers like The Journal and RTE Ten actually have a massive audience and can be extremely useful in getting the word out. It’s important to have a strategy and to go as wide as you can. When we released our trailer we had a call to action for people to go ahead and buy a ticket and we put it out as far and as wide as we could. Within a few days our opening night was pretty much sold out, which in itself created buzz.

 

Hold On To Your Kitchen Sink
Watching the film now on the big screen, I’m glad to have had such a good editor in Andrew Hearne. There were times in the edit when I wanted to throw the kitchen sink at it, hire copter cams and do timelapse shots but Andrew felt it was better to keep things more focused on the story and not distract the audience with unnecessary visual flourishes. There’s a constant pressure to ‘be cinematic’ but there’s nothing more cinematic than a good story that sustains the duration of the film and keeps you engaged. So, sometimes it’s best if you don’t throw everything at it.

 

The End is Just the Start
“The end is just the start” is a line from the film but it could also describe the process of finishing the film and then beginning the new job of getting it out there into the world! It’s not easy and we’re learning a lot but I think the big thing is having a plan and implementing it. Our plan was to really get out there and meet people and hope to create enthusiasm around the experience so that the audience would get involved and recommend it to their friends. We are touring the country and doing Q&As almost every night. We’re meeting people and talking to them about their experiences and their lives. And we’re being extremely open with people about our experiences and the background to the film, giving them a unique understanding of the story and our motivations. It seems to be going well and it provides audiences with a real, tangible experience. At a later date we’ll reflect on what we’ve done right and wrong but for now we’ll just keep moving on to the next screening and Q&A. Maybe we’ll meet you somewhere along the way.

 

Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story is currently screening in the Light House Cinema in Dublin and touring the country. Screening information at www.markpollockfilm.com/screenings

 

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Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story

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DIR: Ross Whitaker • CAST: Mark Pollock, Simone George

Struck by blindness at the age of 22 in 1998, Mark Pollack went on to become an elite athlete, winning bronze and silver medals for Northern Ireland in the 2002 Commonwealth Rowing Championships and running six marathons in seven days the following year with a sighted partner across the Gobi Desert. In 2004, he completed the North Pole Arctic Marathon and succeeded in becoming the first blind man to reach the South Pole. Such achievements themselves make for a remarkable story, but in this case they are the background to an even more astounding story of achievement.

In July 2010 Mark was left paralysed from the waist down after he broke his back in three places falling from a second-story window. Ross Whitaker’s latest documentary takes its lead from here on in and follows Mark’s arduous road to recovery as he rebuilds his life and battles to walk again.

‘Inspirational’ is a word that gets bandied about as a one-size fits all adjective about stories of human endeavour but in this case it is deserved – Mark’s courage and conviction is truly something to be in awe of as he ploughs a route towards spinal cord injury recovery through aggressive physical therapy and robotic technology. There are moments of incredible insight into his essence as a human being such as when he talks about his wanting his recovery not to be about him and sets out on a mission to campaign, educate and promote research into spinal injury recovery.

Director Ross Whitaker has weaved six years of work into a spellbinding narrative that is driven along by Mark’s incredible fight against the odds and the steadfast support and love of his fiancée, Simone. As a director Whitaker lets the subject become the film rather than the film be about the subject. It is to the director’s credit that his role as messenger makes for a particular level of contact between subject and audience that opens up the experience of the viewer to the everyday struggles that Mark faces. Rather than ramp up the storytelling with predictable big narrative moments it is the minutia of the everyday that makes this film so compelling. It is in this small detail that the story is crafted and a hero is made.

 

G (See IFCO for details)

86 minutes

Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story is released 3rd October 2014

Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story  – Official Website

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ovMHiql5EE

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Talent Talks at Galway Film Centre

 

Galway Film Centre copy

The Galway Film Centre’s Talent Talks series continues this season with a talk with documentary-maker, Ross Whitaker. Ross will discuss the lessons learned from the documentaries that he has made over the last ten years. The session will be hosted by Documentary-maker and GMIT lecturer, Donal Haughey. Having worked across feature-length documentaries, short documentaries, sports films, current affairs and formats, Ross has insights into all aspects of factual filmmaking and will talk about:

  • accessing funding
  • differing approaches to documentary-making
  • interview techniques
  • self-shooting
  • visual storytelling
  • festival strategies
  • choosing the right type of distribution.

Filmmakers will be welcome to ask questions and discuss their own projects. Ross’ past films include Bye Bye Now, Home Turf, Saviours and When Ali Came to Ireland. Ross’s new feature documentary, UNBREAKABLE, is due to be released in October 2014.

Date: 1pm -4pm, Saturday October 11th, 2014.

Cost: €10.

 

Web: http://www.galwayfilmcentre.ie/training/4319/

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Audio Interview: Ross Whitaker, IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival Programmer

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In this interview, Donnchadh Tiernan talks to Ross Whitaker, the Festival Programmer of the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival, which takes place September 25th – 28th.

This year’s festival includes the world premiere of Ciarín Scott’s In a House That Ceased to Be as well as premieres for other Irish films, including Blood Fruit, Showrunners and It Came from Connemara!!.

The international programme includes Irish premieres of Steve James’ Life Itself about the film critic Roger Ebert, Kim Longinotto’s  Love is All, Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei – The Fake Case and Amir Amirani’s We Are Many. 

The festival also welcomes Amir, Kim and Andreas as guests to the festival, along with long-time Werner Herzog producer André Singer, who presents his new film Night Will Fall.

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6 Reasons You Should Go to Sheffield Doc/Fest

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Well, a qualification first, the ‘you’ I’m speaking to is a documentary maker who hopes to make funded documentaries for widespread audiences. Sheffield Doc/Fest is coming around again in June and if you’re serious about documentaries it could be time to start planning your trip. Here’s why:

 

1.     IT’S EASY – it’s cheap and easy to get to from Ireland, with direct flights to Manchester often costing less than 50 euros. And Sheffield, not being a major capital like London or New York, has pretty reasonable accommodation if you book in advance. Like, now!!

 

2.     INSPIRING WORK – big festivals are the place to see many fantastic films that blow your mind and fill you with motivation to make your films as great as possible. The film programming at Sheffield is second to none and there are more brilliant films there than you’ll ever be able to fit in.

 

3.     ACCESS – I’ve been to a number of festivals and Sheffield is certainly one of the best in getting you access to the people you want to meet – whether it’s broadcasters, sales agents, distributors or potential collaborators. There are so many commissioning editors there and the atmosphere is more relaxed than some of the more high octane North American fests.

 

4.     PARTIES – Every night at Sheffield there’s somewhere to go and, again, the atmosphere is really relaxed, which is great for those who are reasonably new to festivals or not blessed (for these kinds of occasions) with a super extrovert personality (maybe most filmmakers aren’t?). You can easily get talking to any number of people just by being in the room. One word of caution, the pub is not the time for the hard sell but it’s a great opportunity to make a good first impression and get to know people.

 

5.     THE KNOWLEDGE – Alongside the movies are masterclasses, panels and workshops with some of the best and most knowledgable documentary people in the world. Last year there was a phenomenal Q&A with John Battsek, the Oscar-winning producer who seems to be attached to so many of the best documentaries being made these days.

6.     THE PROGRAMMES – Sheffield Doc/Fest is involved in a number of brilliant educational programmes that will increase your skills but also help you to build connections and contacts. The bigger ones are Devise to Deliver, for interactive projects and Fast Track to Features, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

 

The 21st Sheffield Doc/Fest runs 7-12 June 2014

 

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What’s the Point of Film Festivals?

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Director Ross Whitaker, who recently programmed this year’s IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival, writes about two experiences that reminded him why festivals are so special.

 

It’s not unusual for filmmakers to question what exactly a film festival can do for them and whether or not they should engage with festivals.

 

The festival circuit can be tiring and even tiresome and that’s for those who have made successful films (with competition so strong these days, rejection from festivals is the more regular experience). And one often notices producers and directors travelling less with their second and subsequent films than they do when drinking it all in (literally and figuratively) the first time around. Filmmakers can get a little jaded.

 

But two experiences recently showed me exactly why festivals are great. It was attending film festivals that made me interested in filmmaking in the first place but I maybe needed a little reminding of the good things about the festival experience.

 

Firstly, I was lucky enough to programme the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival this year and while it was my second time programming it this year, it was the first time under my short watch that I felt that it really came together as a fully fledged festival. Over the course of the weekend, over thirty filmmakers were involved in some capacity with the festival, whether that was by presenting films, hosting Q&As or taking part in panels.

 

A festival is not just about filmmakers, though, the event is as much about the audience, but funnily enough it seems that the proliferation of guests correlated with audience numbers increasing on the previous year. And having great audiences at the festival certainly put a spring in the step of the filmmakers who felt like their work was being well received. The festival really worked and the audience fed into the filmmakers and vice versa. For both contingents it was clearly an enjoyable experience and filmmakers were learning about their own work while audiences were learning about them. There were brilliant Q&As and at least one standing ovation.

 

The other positive effect of participation was the little conversations that were happening at the side of the festival. One filmmaker took the opportunity to interview another guest for a future documentary and there were at least two commitments to consider further coproduction opportunities between Irish and international filmmakers. Just by being at the festival, opportunities were presenting themselves.

 

The Stranger Than Fiction experience really fed into my following weekend when I changed roles and flew to New York as a filmmaker. Kindly supported by Culture Ireland, Aideen O’Sullivan and I went to New York to present our film When Ali Came to Ireland at New York Irish Film. There were great opportunities in travelling to New York as there are so many people working in the industry there but the best moment of the festival came during the Q&A for the film.

 

We had put the word out about the screening and two people came along who we weren’t really expecting. One was experienced boxing promoter Don Elbaum who had been in Dublin for Ali’s fight in 1972 and the other was Thomas Hauser, Ali’s brilliant biographer. We asked them would they join us on stage for the chat after the film and they required little prompting.

 

What transpired could only be described as a kind of entertainment show as Don and Tom batted back and forth stories about Muhammad Ali that fully showed what a special and funny man the great boxer had been. The biggest laugh was for Hauser’s story about Muhammad Ali on a plane. When asked by the stewardess to buckle his seatbelt Ali responded, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The stewardess gave Ali a look that could kill and responded, “But Superman don’t need no plane. Buckle up honey.” Everyone laughed.

A special event like this could only take place at a film festival and it makes a festival screening a completely different experience to a regular screening at your local multiplex. There is something a little special about film festivals and while it can be easy to forget that, sometimes a little reminder goes a long way.

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Irish Documentary ‘Home Turf’ To Tour US

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Award-winning short documentary Home Turf is about to take off on tour, screening at a number of cities around the United States.

 

As part of programmes run by two separate film festivals, the tours will take Irish turf-cutting to the American masses as the film plays over 20 dates across the US.

 

Both Mountain Film Festival in Colorado and Rural Route Film Festival in New York State choose ‘best of’ selections and a programme of short films then travel to schools and cinemas nationwide.

 

The turf cutting film will play at venues as diverse as Durango, CO, Watercolor, FL and South Royalton, VT as well as more familiar venues like the Lincoln Center in New York.

 

“It’s amazing to think that a little film about turf-cutting resonates with audiences internationally. We tried to make the film about more that turf-cutting and touch on themes like the unexpected impacts of progress and how rural life and a certain type of manliness has been negatively changed. That really seems to have touched audiences everywhere. We’re delighted that it will be seen by so many people as part of these tours,” says co-director Ross Whitaker.

 

Home Turf is a fascinating visual celebration on the ancient art of cutting turf by hand in Co. Kerry, Ireland. Following a band of turf cutters from North Kerry throughout the cutting season from April to September, the film gives insight into a way of life that will soon be forgotten.

 

The short film produced and directed by Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker for True Films is part of the Irish Film Board Reality Bites scheme and won awards at the Kerry Film Festival and Lessinia Film Festival in Verona, Italy.

 

 

 

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From the Archive: Graham Linehan – Master of Comedy

Graham Linehan Open Interview 15

How does comedy writer extraordinaire Graham Linehan do it? An IFTA ‘In Conversation With…’ interview gave Ross Whitaker the low-down

It’s probably fair to say that despite the mightiness of our craic and the seemingly bottomless pit of successful Irish comedians pulling faces on channels at home and abroad, we probably couldn’t really consider ourselves to be masters of television comedy.

This nagging feeling isn’t helped by the close proximity to us of a country that has produced some of the finest panel, sketch and situation comedy in the history of television. In recent times, what have we produced to rival the likes of Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show, Have I Got News For You, Only Fools and Horses or The Office? We haven’t even come close.

There have been good moments, no doubt. Back in the day, Don’t Feed the Gondolas had its moments and I, for one, was highly impressed by the recent rté sketch show Your Bad Self and was sorry to hear that it won’t be returning. Still, the success stories have been few and far between.

There’s one shining light, of course: a superb sit-com about priests, created by Irish writers and starring Irish actors that proved to be massively successful. Father Ted was no less than a phenomenon. And despite our poor tv comedy record, pretty much the only thing not Irish about Ted was that it was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4.

By now, everyone in Ireland knows that the brilliant duo of Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan somehow fused their substantial talents to create a work of true genius. Father Ted is up there with the best of them, a complete classic that will no doubt be repeated on the small screen time and time again for many years to come without ever getting tired.

Since then, Linehan has gone on to create the outstanding comedy series Black Books with Dylan Moran and, more recently, The it  Crowd. It would be fair to say, he’s cracked it, so it was with great interest that I attended the recent ifta event, In Conversation with Graham Linehan.

Linehan was in Ireland for the making of a definitive Father Ted documentary to be directed by Adrian McCarthy of Wildfire Films, one he hopes will dispel a lot of myths that have grown up about Ted.

The biggest, he says, is that Father Ted was first offered to and refused by rté. Linehan and Mathews had already been working in London and developing relationships with broadcasters for a while when they came up with the idea of Ted, so pitching it in the uk seemed like the sensible thing to do.

‘We didn’t do it with RTÉ because we were in England and we had a career there, so it would have been strange to go back to Ireland and start from the bottom in  RTÉ, a company that never really made a successful studio sitcom. Because there was no infrastructure in Ireland for those kind of studio sitcoms, it would have been crazy to give it to them.  RTÉ did many great things but studio sitcoms was not one of them.’

 

Linehan had started out as a music journalist and film critic in London and seized his chance to move into comedy writing when Mathews decided to also move to the UK. They ended up living together for four years and developing a close writing relationship.

‘Me and Arthur had this thing – because Arthur has an incredible sense of humour – and we were able to translate our conversations onto the page and it was just a good mix.’

‘We took turns. Arthur would write two pages and then I’d sit down and read it and I’d laugh and I’d have an idea for fixing something, so I’d edit it and then I’d write on a few pages. We used to have Magic Eye pictures and basically one of us would be writing and the other would be staring at a picture trying to see a rabbit.’

This ability and desire to edit their own work seems to be central to their success as writers. Linehan explains that he and Mathews were always happy to redraft their work if they felt it would make it better and suggests it’s something more writers might embrace.

‘We were very happy to throw out a scene or a plotline if it didn’t work. Writers can sometimes be defensive about notes but we would be happy to take it away and create a new plotline and ten pages that were totally different. I love that.’

‘To me, the first draft is always a horrible, unpleasant grind but the second draft and the third draft I love because you can see the story, the jokes are getting better and bad plotlines are being squeezed out by the good stuff and then you get to a stage where the script is in such good shape that you’re literally just talking about full-stops and commas and that’s a nice place to be and that’s when the really funny one-liners come in.’

‘I do find that a lot of writers still don’t understand how important rewriting is and how your first draft is just notes for the main draft. I see it as a bunch of notes, potentially funny ideas, jokes and situations that might work or might not. The first draft is just there so I have something to work from for the second draft where it really starts coming to life.’

Subsequent to Father Ted, Linehan and Mathews created Big Train, a sometimes surreal sketch show featuring Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate amongst others. While it was different from Ted, Linehan prefers not to use the word experimental. The aim is not to experiment but to make people laugh.

‘My thing is that telling a funny story or joke is already difficult enough, so I’m not really interested in pushing the boat out. I just want to be funny and it’s hard. When you hear an experimental piece of music, I think that’s easy to do; the difficult thing to do is create a song that’s around forever.’

While Linehan has also written for sketch shows like Alas Smith and Jones, The Fast Show and Harry Enfield and Chums in the past, his niche really seems to be the family-friendly sitcom that can be enjoyed by all.

‘I think with media now, everything is becoming atomized. Everyone in the family is in a different room on a different kind of media. I think what I’d like to do is try to bring everybody back into the room.’

‘It’s the stuff I always watched with my dad when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the excitement again of dad finally saying, ‘Ok, you can watch Fawlty Towers.’ I’m not too interested in mission statements but I do want to avoid comedy that drives people out of the room. If you’re watching a comedy show and somebody says something about menstruation and your father goes, “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea…” I want to do stuff that keeps you in the room.

Linehan shows a clip from The it Crowd that perfectly represents what he’s aiming for. An escalating scene where one gag leads to the next, each laugh greater than the last.

‘That’s what I’m always trying to do… You come up with a situation that has to be very believable because if it’s not believable nobody will laugh. But it also needs to be the kind of situation that gives birth to lots of other situations. If the situation is good then you’re almost just transcribing what would actually happen next.’

What’s clear listening to Linehan is just how much hard work he puts into making his shows look easy. The amount of thought and effort that goes into creating high quality comedy is mind-boggling and Linehan is certainly a man that all aspiring writers could learn from.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 134 in 2010. 

 

 

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IFI’s Ireland on Sunday screens ‘When Ali Came to Ireland’

Commissioning editor of Film Ireland Magazine Ross Whitaker’s When Ali Came to Ireland is screening at the IFI this December as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday programme. The film, which Ross co-directed with filmmaker Aideen O’Sullivan, will screen at 1pm on Sunday 16th and will include a post-screening Q&A with the filmmakers.

 

When Ali Came to Ireland is the story of how Butty Sugrue, a circus strongman from Killorglin, Co. Kerry, pulled off a massive sporting coup in July 1972 when he arranged a fight in Croke Park between ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali and ex-con Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis.

 

This documentary, presented during the 40th anniversary of the fight, combines a wealth of archival material with colourful reminiscences of people who came into contact with Ali – Eddie Kerr, the hurler who taught Ali hurling; Cathal O’Shannon, who famously interviewed him; the team from Offaly that built the ring and stayed up for the fight; Rock Brynner, son of Yul who was Ali’s close friend – to tell this unlikely tale which is infused with great warmth and good humour.

 

Filmmakers Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

 

For more details and tickets click HERE>

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‘Bye Bye Now’ on RTÉ Two tonight

 

Bye Bye Now screens tonight on RTÉ Two as part of their Shortscreen series.

The short documentary starts at 11:50pm tonight Monday,  24th September

Directed by Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker, the Multi-Award-Winning short is an amusing, poignant documentary about the fate of the Irish phone booth, which has gone from the centre of society to the verge of extinction. The film tells the story not just of the rise and fall of these little concrete boxes but also of the deep changes to an entire society and shows what was lost along the way.

http://www.byebyenowfilm.com/

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IFI Stranger Than Fiction 2012: The Imposter

Recently I was looking up the trailer for The Imposter, our opening film of Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival in the IFI this week and I came across a blogger who had posted on the trailer. ‘Is this the most badass documentary trailer of all time?’ he asked.

I had to laugh.

When have you ever heard of documentaries being described as ‘badass’? What does ‘badass’ even mean in this context?

I think it’s that feeling when you come out of a film that has knocked you for six, and then some. I remember coming out of those early Tarantino films… they had that badass feeling. I remember a filmmaker friend turning to me and saying, ‘Well that’s a fucking masterpiece!’ after Pulp Fiction. How often do the words ‘fucking’ and ‘masterpiece’ go together?

The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger was pretty badass. Terminator 2? Badass. Fight Club? Yep. Scarface? You’d definitely say so. Gladiator? Many people would say yes. But a documentary? You don’t hear it that often. Here’s the news: coming out of The Imposter at the Hot Docs festival earlier this year, I looked at my friend and we had that look on our faces… that badass feeling.

The Imposter is one of those films that makes you go, ‘whooah!’

In The Imposter film noir intersects with documentary to create a thriller with more twists than you’ll find in any other film this year. The film embraces the notion of the ‘unreliable narrator’ and throughout the film it’s hard to know who to trust. The shifting emphasis sucks you in. And the filmmakers navigate all of the intrigue, the uncertainty, the twists and turns with admirable assurance . They never put a foot wrong.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s badass or not but I definitely think it’s a masterpiece.

Ross Whitaker

The Imposter is showing as part of the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Festival 2012, Dublin’s Documentary Festival. 

Director Bart Layton will be in attendance.

Check it out here:

http://www.ifi.ie/film/the-imposter/

Click here for details of the screenings at this year’s Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival in the IFI

Keep an eye filmireland.net on for coverage of the festival as it happens.

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Kerry Film Festival announces partnership with access>CINEMA

(BYE BYE NOW one of  Kerry Film Festival’s winning shorts from 2010, which will now screen at film clubs across the country) 

Kerry Film Festival (KFF) have announced it has partnered with access>CINEMA in a new initiative that will see ten of the best Irish Short Films from Kerry Film Festival 2010 screen at locations throughout Ireland.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to partner with access>CINEMA and look forward to a selection of brilliant Irish short films finding an audience across Ireland . This partnership further cements Kerry Film Festival’s growing reputation as a launch pad for young up-and-coming Irish Film Makers,” said KFF Director, Sarah Smyth. “One of the hardest things for any filmmaker is to find an audience for their film but KFF has proved especially adept at it. We’ve partnered with a number of International Film Festivals and have been delighted with the reception Irish films have had abroad, with films from KFF 2010 playing in numerous destinations in the US, in the UK and right across Europe. Two of our films will even screen in New Zealand ! While all that international success is great, this partnership with access>CINEMA is a new departure for us and will ensure that our filmmakers find a wider audience at home.”

“We’re very excited to partner with Kerry Film Festival on this new initiative,” said Maeve Cooke, director of access>CINEMA. “access>CINEMA has been at the forefront of finding an audience for quality independent film in Ireland and has had particular success recently with Irish features such as HIS & HERS. This new initiative will allow us to expand our offering while also promoting the work of indigenous film makers.”

access>CINEMA works with a wide number of film clubs and associated members that are located across the country from Kerry to Kildare and from Donegal to Dublin . It has been a valuable resource to these clubs for more than 30 years and provides everything to the clubs from assistance in setting up through to providing the clubs with film prints and publicity materials.

The various venues affiliated with access>CINEMA have expressed delight at the partnership and at the quality of the films selected. “We’re delighted with the Kerry Film Festival access>CINEMA partnership as we now have an extended list of fresh new films to choose from,” said Ian Wieczorek of Linenhall Film Club, Castlebar. “There is a large and growing number of film clubs across Ireland  affiliated with access>CINEMA and we have a great appetite for all things film. This partnership feeds right into that and it’s wonderful to see such a selection of indigenous short films made available. We’d like to thank access>CINEMA, Kerry Film Festival and, of course, the filmmakers involved for allowing us to screen their work. The future of the Irish film industry is certainly in safe hands with such talented young filmmakers working in the country!”

Sarah Smyth echoes that last sentiment, “While this partnership with access>CINEMA is hugely important to us, it’s essential to give the real credit to the film makers. The quantity and quality of Irish films submitted to KFF has improved massively over the years and the ten short films selected here would happily grace any festival or distribution slate. We’d like to express our thanks to all the filmmakers involved and to further thank the Irish Film Board, RTE and other funders who are brave enough to support these unique artists. We’re just happy to be associated with such wonderful little films.”

The films selected for the top ten Irish Films from Kerry Film Festival 2010 are:

GETTING AIR

Ireland    2010        8 min       Colour

‘Getting Air’ is an urban basketball drama about three teenage friends struggling to connect with each other and the adults in their lives. When they meet two members of the police, relationships with their family and the law take a turn.

Director: Mark Noonan

RUNNERS

Ireland    2009       15 min     Colour

For eighteen-year-old, Derek, running drugs isn’t a big deal, it’s just a job. But juggling a relationship, family and his ‘career’ isn’t easy. Something’s gotta give!

Directors: Ronan & Rob Burke

COLD TURKEY

Ireland    2009        11min 6 sec            Colour

‘Cold Turkey’ follows the misadventures of a frustrated Foley artist, curious children and petrified poultry!

Director: Gavin Keane

THE POOL

Ireland    2010        11 min 45 sec         Colour

The Pool is a drama about three teenage boys who break into their school swimming pool one night in order to stage a macho breath holding contest. But as the night goes on the loud, brash Charlie begins to tease the overweight, child-like Sam.

Director: Thomas Hefferon

NOREEN

Ireland    2010        18 min     Colour

Two policemen learn life lessons on a house-call in rural Ireland . Frank is young and heartbroken. Con is middle-aged and weary. They’re both alone. And they’re both idiots!

Director: Domhnall Gleeson

MOORE STREET MASALA

Ireland    2009       5 min       Colour

Shop Clerk, Baba, falls for the sexy estate agent across the street. When he sells her lunch, she steals his heart. There is only one way their love can make it!

Director: David O’ Sullivan

BYE BYE NOW!

Ireland 2010 15 min Colour

An amusing and poignant documentary about the Irish phone box and its move from the centre of society to the verge of extinction. Bye Bye Now! is a bitter-sweet tribute to the phone box, a historical document and a barometer of how much we’ve changed!

Director: Aideen O’ Sullivan & Ross Whitaker

CHRISTMAS SWIM

Ireland    2010        4 min       Colour
While for most Christmas day is about warm fires, steaming turkey, and mulled wine, locals in county Kerry, Ireland dust off the cobwebs of Christmas eves forays by stripping down to their briefs and facing the freezing Atlantic seas for the annual Christmas Swim.

Director: Keith Mannix

CROSSWORD

Ireland    2010       13 min 13 sec         Colour

Heather is on the verge of turning 40. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and has nothing in common with her younger colleagues. She’s single and alone with very few friends except for the bar maid in the pub she visits after work. Heather doesn’t let it grind her down. Instead she takes comfort and solace in the small pleasures in life, particularly the daily crossword which she attempts each day, religiously.

Director: Vincent Gallagher

DÚN CHAOIN

Ireland    2010       7min        Black & White

Non-narrative documentary exploring the work and methods of the renowned Irish artist, Maria Simonds-Gooding, who is based in Dún Chaoin, Co. Kerry. The film features a poem by award winning poet and writer, David McLoghlin, and is narrated by Dominic West.

Directed By: Lanka Haouche Perren

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Irish Shorts To Screen in Los Angeles Next Week

(Photo: Bye Bye Now)

The award winning Irish shorts Crossing Salween, Bye Bye Now and Pentecost have all taken the festival circuit by storm and LA audiences will now get a chance to see them when they screen in the Laemmle Theater in LA next week.

Brian O’Malley’s beautiful short film Crossing Salween follows a young girl making the journey through the Burmese jungle to the Salween River and the safety of Thailand beyond and was shot entirely in Thailand.  It was officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival and the Generation 14Plus competition at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.

Bye, Bye Now which was co-directed and co-produced by Ross Whitaker and Aideen O’Sullivan.  Since premiering at the Corona Cork Film Festival in 2009 where it picked up the Audience Award for Best Irish Short film, it has gone on to scoop Audience Awards at the IFI Stranger than Fiction Festival in Dublin and the AFI Silverdocs Festival in the U.S as well as accolades including Best Short at the Edinburgh International Documentary Festival, Best Short Documentary at the Dallas VideoFest, Best Editing at the DocUtah Documentary Film Festival and received a Special Mention at the San Francisco Irish Film Festival.

Peter McDonald’s light hearted film Pentecost tells the story of a young altar boy who is forced to serve at an important mass and has to make a difficult choice: conform to the status quo or serve an extended ban from his passion in life…. football.   The IFTA-nominated short, was officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and picked up the Best Irish Short Film at the Corona Cork Film Festival last year.

Bye Bye Now, Crossing Salween and Pentecost will screen in the Laemmle Theater in LA on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th August.

More About CROSSING SALWEEN
Written and produced by Gary Moore for Red Rage Films, as part of the Bord Scannán na hEireann/the Irish Film Board’s Signatures short film scheme, Crossing Salween also received a Special Mention in the Best Irish Short Film category when it premiered at the Corona Cork Film Festival last year.

More About BYE BYE NOW
Bye, Bye Now is a poignant documentary which follows the proposed removal of a number of phoneboxes from around the country which sparked many fond memories in the lives of the rural communities. In a loving tribute through a series of interviews and live footage, this charming film acknowledges how the phonebox has gone from the centre of Irish life to the verge of extinction with the advent of modern technology.

The film was produced by True Films and was financed through Reality Bites, the IFB short documentary scheme.

More About PENTECOST
Pentecost was produced by Eimear O’Kane for EMU Productions. It was funded by the IFB Signatures scheme which focuses on the making of live-action, fiction films that aim to encourage strong, original storytelling, visual flair and production values appropriate to the big screen.

 

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How to Make an Epic Documentary For 25k

Mark Pollock in 'Blind Man Walking'

To coincide with the screening of Blind Man Walking this Sunday at the IFI at 13.30 as part of its Ireland on Sunday programme, director Ross Whitaker explains his own particular journey getting the funds together to make the film.

Well, first things first: if you want to make money, go into sales. If you put your head down and push yourself you can really make a good living. You’ll probably even get a free car if you’re on the road and each year a few weeks paid holidays.

If you want to make documentaries, you probably won’t have any of those things. Not for the first few years anyway.

When I started out, I tried hard to get a project commissioned. I submitted scripts to all of the normal funding rounds and documentary proposals through established production companies to broadcasters. It seemed to be one rejection after another.
Before long, I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. I got a loan, bought a camera and started filming. The idea was to make films and sell the finished work to broadcasters afterwards. The revenue from selling the first film would fund the next and so on. It was a great plan. But then I learned that nobody wanted my early work and even if you could sell the films it wouldn’t be for much.

A few years on and things have changed. A little. With a few documentaries in the bag, it’s slightly easier to get an audience with commissioning editors but that doesn’t mean they’ll fund you.

Still, when Mark Pollock asked me if I’d be interested in making a documentary about him, I knew we had a task on our hands. I always felt that Mark’s story was fascinating. He lost his sight at the age of 22 but refused to let it ruin his life.

He created a niche for himself doing adventure challenges and giving motivational talks to businesses. Then on the tenth anniversary of losing his sight, he came up with an adventure challenge far beyond anything he’d done before. He wanted to prepare for and take on one of the hardest races on earth. Like Scott and Amundsen almost 100 years earlier, he was racing to the South Pole.

From my point of view it would be a challenge too. To do it right, filming should take place for nine months before departure and for close to two months in Antarctica. Anyone I asked suggested that I’d need a huge support crew in Antarctica and the race organisers told me that it would cost EUR50k per person travelling – and that’s before you paid the crew!

Then I got sick. Without getting into the details, it soon became clear that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to travel. And the EUR300k budget wasn’t exactly prompting commissioning editors to reach for their chequebooks. So we created a Plan B. Rather than spending my time searching for funding, I spent it filming the preparations. I contacted the race organisers and a Norwegian crew that would be following the race and they agreed to help me out with footage. Mark’s teammates would film as much as they could during the race and we’d figure out a way of putting it all together when they got back. It would still be a great story, even if this wasn’t the ideal way of telling it.

When they returned from Antarctica I was almost afraid to look at the footage. And when I did, I found a mixed bag. There was some ropey stuff but, thankfully, there was some amazing stuff too. The video diary feel to the footage captured in the tent felt really immediate and powerful. There was definitely something there.

A few months later, I had a meeting with Mairead NiNuadhain in RTÉ Diversity about the possibility of completion funding and she agreed to try to help. A little while later, I got a call from

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Spotlight on 'Pyjama Girls'

Pyjama Girls

Film Ireland talks to Maya Derrington about her debut feature documentary Pyjama Girls

Pyjama Girls is a touching, absorbing slice of Dublin life that has the audience transfixed from beginning to end. Running at a tight 70 minutes, the film draws you into the chaotic life of Dublin teenager and habitual pyjama-wearer Lauren.

Over the course of the film we learn about the challenges that life throws at Lauren – from her addict mother to the disruptive world of the flats – and understand the crucial importance of her friendship with her more grounded best friend Tara. Balancing tenderness with hilarity, Pyjama Girls tracks the explosive micro-dramas of teenage life against the bleak backdrop of Dublin’s inner city flats.

The film has been described as an ‘observational documentary’ and the strongest scenes are those that capture the tension and love in conversations between Lauren and her immediate family members. One scene in which Lauren has her fingernails painted by her little sister is worth the admission price alone.

These observational scenes are interspersed with more stylised interview-based expositional vignettes that retrospectively tell the story of Lauren’s young life. These scenes bring us closer to Lauren and give us insight into her behaviour and temperament.

Derrington decided to make the film when she spotted some young girls on the street in pyjamas and was shocked by the sight.

‘I was inspired to make the film because of my own surprise and fascination with the daytime pyjama phenomenon. I asked myself why an item of clothing would bring out such shock in me because I’d usually be quite laid-back about clothing. Then I noticed that people all over the city were getting riled by the topic. The vitriol it provokes reminds me of the response to punk. I wanted to explore on screen the intensity of being a female teenager: the everyday dramas and the depths that are hidden behind the clothes and the posturing.’

Derrington used the setting of the flats and the pyjamas themselves as visual inspiration when approaching the film.

‘There were two things in my mind as I began, one was the bright softness of the pyjamas as a metaphor for female teenage life and against that the harsh lines of the flats. I was really struck by the architecture of the area which combined brutality and community, so I wanted the place to be very present within the film.’

The project was funded by the Irish Film Board under the micro-budget scheme, which completely funds films up to a total budget of 100k. The film was a big undertaking that took up two years of Derrington’s life and the budget was therefore understandably tight.

‘We put it forward for funding as a low-budget project because we just wanted to get on with it,’ says producer Nicky Gogan. ‘We had pitched it to a few broadcasters at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival and although people seemed interested in it, we felt that if we wanted to make the film that Maya imagined we might need funders who were a little more open and flexible to what it might become. We kept it low-key, often it was just Maya and AP Sinead Ni Bhroin that made up the crew, and that suited the observational approach.’

‘One of the descriptive terms we used throughout preproduction was “micro-dramas”,’ adds Derrington. ‘We wanted to find the micro-dramas of female teenage lives and I think that term in itself would be enough to terrify a lot of commissioning editors. That along with the term “observational”, because any observational work creates big challenges for commissioning editors because you can’t guarantee what will happen.’

One of the great challenges of making an observational film can be finding an ending and Derrington admits that she had some sleepless nights wondering where the film would end.

‘I have to admit that I didn’t think I had an ending. The girls we were following kept joking that they were going to get themselves arrested to give us an ending. It was in the edit that we found the ending. It says something about the open-ended nature of life.’

Judging by the response, Pyjama Girls has plenty to look forward to in the future.

Pyjama Girls is released in the IFI on 20th August

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Not Just Another Bee Movie

Colony

With Colony being released exclusively at the IFI, Ross Whitaker puts the spotlight on this bee-on-the-wall documentary with his interview with co-director Ross McDonnell.

Ross McDonnell – co-director of Colony – meets me in Dublin fresh from the Toronto International Film Festival, where the buzz around his debut feature was great.

Colony may be one of the most aesthetically beautiful documentaries of the season, as well as one of the more urgent and intelligent,’ wrote Variety.

‘The movie constitutes a satisfying addition to the blooming, buzzing field of social issue documentary,’ wrote The New York Times.

In addition to the compliments of the newspapers at Toronto, McDonnell has recently heard that his debut film will also play at IDFA, one of the world’s most important documentary festivals. But, despite these successes, his biggest concern at present is that he is smashed broke – welcome to the world of documentary filmmaking.

One hopes, though, that the financial challenges of making documentaries won’t discourage McDonnell and his co-director, Carter Gunn, from pursuing future projects in the medium. This is a mature, intelligent, informed piece of work from two young filmmakers who clearly have more to give.

Bee Gone
Colony is one of a number of bee movies that are emerging at present. These documentaries are prompted by the clear and present danger facing bees as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) leaves landscapes of empty beehives across America and beyond.

Now, those of you who spent your primary school education getting stung by bees and falling asleep in biology class might be surprised to hear that honeybees are actually quite important. Because they pollinate our plant-life, these noble, industrious creatures are central to our own survival on Earth. Einstein reputedly said that if the honeybee became extinct then man would only have four years left to live.

‘It was actually falsely attributed to him,’ McDonnell tells me. ‘It turns out that a bunch of disgruntled French beekeepers made it up and credited to him. Anyway, I read that and it’s a pretty powerful statement and I read all the statistics about the American beekeepers who ship bees back and forward across the US to pollinate every third bite you eat and I thought it was interesting material for a film.’

Bee keepers

While the film interviews numerous beekeepers, it concentrates mostly on veteran beekeeper, David Mendes, and Lance and Victor Seppi, two young brothers starting out as beekeepers in tough economic times. As Mendes campaigns on behalf of all beekeepers, the Seppi’s try to keep their own business afloat.

The Seppi family is very much the emotional epicentre of this film. The observational footage of the family’s struggles is enthralling and one of the strongest aspects of the documentary. The story of their collapsing business, affected both by the struggles of the bees and the world economy allows the filmmakers to subtly get across the message that perhaps we have more in common with bees than we realise.

‘When we met the Seppis they had seven children, they’re a home-school family and they’re actually really natural environmentalists – they live in the middle of the country, they grow their own food and they eat an almost entirely raw vegan diet. We started to think that they were a colony in their own right. We went with the thought that they were a colony, the United States was a colony and that the bees were a colony and we then looked at ways of interweaving these stories.’

Bee killers?

One of the strengths of the film is its openness to all sides of the story. While CCD could have catastrophic effects on nature and society, nobody is fully sure what has caused the problem. Rather than standing back and pointing the finger at pesticide manufacturers, the filmmakers patiently pursued access to the corporation and let them put forward their side of the story. It turns out they might not be to blame.

Perhaps we are all to blame. One is left with the feeling that bees are more important than we realise, that our cavalier attitude towards them might lead to their demise and that our tendency to undervalue their importance might lead to a reduction in the beekeepers that look after them.

Colony is a tribute to what can be done with time, talent and a little money. Gunn and McDonnell spent the guts of two years immersed in the project, with McDonnell on camera and Gunn taking care of the edit. The film is stunningly shot and the two-man team clearly made the effort to develop the relationships and access necessary to tell the story well.

‘If I can draw a parallel with feature filmmaking, what we wanted was to see the change come from within our characters. We were very lucky that we were given the time and the support to be able to see the change over time in our subjects and in the story. We were fortunate that the Irish Film Board and our producers at Fastnet Films gave us the support to do that. They never said, “where are you going with this?” They were with us the whole way along.’

They all should be proud of this clever, powerful film.

Colony is being exclusively released at the IFI from the 23–29 July 2010, visit www.ifi.ie for details.

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Issue 133 – Documentary Longinotto Style

Kim Longinotto

Ross Whitaker took a trip to Guth Gafa film festival to talk to an extraordinary documentary maker, Kim Longinotto. The director tells us about her unique approach and the difficult decisions she’s made whilst making her films.

Guth Gafa is fast becoming one of Ireland’s most enjoyable festivals. Locked away in the north west corner of the country, it is delightfully small yet perfectly formed and screens some of the world’s most exciting documentary films, always with the filmmaker in attendance.

One of this year’s undoubted highlights was two screenings and a masterclass with Kim Longinotto, whose marvellous films have been gracing festivals around the world for over thirty years…

Kim Longinotto refuses to be unequivocal. She has done these masterclasses before and as she begins to speak to the group, she is just a little careful about what she says. ‘I promised myself I’d never do one of these things again,’ she says with a smile.

But everyone here is glad she didn’t stick to that promise.

Longinotto has a way that she likes to make films and it has served her well. For many years her films have been greeted by critical and audience acclaim and she was given an Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Hot Docs. Major awards at festivals like Cannes and Sundance and a European Film Award prove the world likes the way she makes films too.

No cutaways

Generally speaking, Longinotto doesn’t use interviews in her films, uses little music and rarely uses any kind of voiceover. She never wants to ask her subjects to repeat anything or act in any particular way and she doesn’t shoot cutaways. But she doesn’t want people to think that she is against these things, she just doesn’t want them in her films. She is at pains not to generalise about how films should be made.

‘What we all do is make films that reflect who we are,’ she says. ‘What you make shows so much of what kind of person you are and how you see the world and you just have to go with it really.’

Longinotto’s personality seems reflected in the films that she makes. She seems unassuming, quiet but confident and very open. You can see how the subjects of her films might warm to her.

In her films, she doesn’t tell the audience what to think but instead creates a narrative with complex, human characters. She does all her own cinematography but she is not a fly on the wall, rather she’s another person in the room. The audience becomes a witness in the world she portrays rather than a passive observer.

‘It’s a different kind of information that you’re getting. I remember sitting through documentaries that were on before a fiction film and everyone used to talk through them because documentaries were the boring bit where you were told something and it was supposed to be good for you somehow. What I’m trying to do is make a story where you’re being drawn into a world and you’re watching a story unfold and you stop thinking about what type of film it is and just follow the narrative.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 133

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Issue 132 – Spotlight – One Hundred Mornings

onehundredmornings
Ciaran McMenamin as Jonathan in 'One Hundred Mornings'.

Ross Whitaker talks to Conor Horgan about his award-winning debut feature.

Conor Horgan is a man in a hurry. He squeezes me in for a chat in a Dublin café the day before he is due to fly to the Slamdance festival in Park City, Utah, where his debut feature – One Hundred Mornings – will have its North American premiere.

For his first film to be chosen for Slamdance is a creditable achievement in itself but over the coming days the film makes a substantial impression at the festival, where it receives a Special Jury Mention and is described by Filmmaker magazine as, ‘Achingly humane and stringently observed’.

One Hundred Mornings was one of three films green-lit by the Catalyst Project to go into production with a €250k budget. The other films were the festival favourite Eamon and the as-yet unreleased Redux but the scheme was also responsible for incubating other fine films like His & Hers and Savage, that weren’t funded by the project itself but were developed to the point that production was almost inevitable, and were ultimately successful.

What comes across so strongly in conversation with Horgan is just how much he enjoyed making this intense, moving film. His eyes light up when he thinks back to the process, holed up in a Wicklow location for four weeks.

Bleak film, happy set
‘The film is quite bleak, you could say, but the set was the happiest set I’ve ever been on. Perhaps that was a reaction to the material. We were a group of people doing something that we believed in and believing it was something we could do well. There was a strong feeling amongst the cast and crew that we had the potential to make a good film.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 132.

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Issue 131 – Not Just Another Bee Movie

colony
'Colony'

Ross Whitaker puts the spotlight on Colony.

Ross McDonnell – co-director of Colony – meets me in Dublin fresh from the Toronto International Film Festival, where the buzz around his debut feature was great.

Colony may be one of the most aesthetically beautiful documentaries of the season, as well as one of the more urgent and intelligent,’ wrote Variety.

‘The movie constitutes a satisfying addition to the blooming, buzzing field of social issue documentary,’ wrote The New York Times.

In addition to the compliments of the newspapers at Toronto, McDonnell has recently heard that his debut film will also play at IDFA, one of the world’s most important documentary festivals. But, despite these successes, his biggest concern at present is that he is smashed broke – welcome to the world of documentary filmmaking.

One hopes, though, that the financial challenges of making documentaries won’t discourage McDonnell and his co-director, Carter Gunn, from pursuing future projects in the medium. This is a mature, intelligent, informed piece of work from two young filmmakers who clearly have more to give.

Bee Gone
Colony is one of a number of bee movies that are emerging at present. These documentaries are prompted by the clear and present danger facing bees as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) leaves landscapes of empty beehives across America and beyond.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 131.

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Interview with Niall McKay – Director of 'A Song for Dad'

A Song for Dad

Ross Whitaker talks to Niall McKay, director of narrative documentary A Song for Dad, which airs on RTÉ 1 on Tuesday 4th August at 10.20pm. The film, which premiered in February at the Dublin International Film Festival, explores Niall’s relationship with his Jazz musician father, Jim, who in the 1970s raised his two young sons on his own in Dublin.

In this Film Ireland Web Exclusive, Niall talks about making a film which follows a very personal journey from the depths of suicide and depression to the heights of new beginnings, marriage proposals, and homecomings.

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Visit www.asongfordad.net for more info on the film and to view the trailer.

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Interview With The Makers of 'The Liberties'

liberties-for-web

Ross Whitaker talks to Areaman Production’s Shane Hogan and Tom Burke about their documentary The Liberties which premiered at the Stranger than Fiction documentary festival at the IFI on Sunday 21st June 2009.

The Liberties is a series of 15 short films showing the history, everyday life and the sense of community in this historical area of Dublin. Shane and Tom talk about how the original idea came about, the equipment used on the shoot, the reaction of the people involved to the screening and future projects.

The Liberties will be screened in the IFI on Sunday 2nd August at 1pm and the makers hope to have a 52-minute version broadcast on television in the future.

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Issue 128 – You Won't Be Able To Look Away

Ross Whitaker talks to Brendan Muldowney and Conor Barry about their low-budget feature Savage.

savage1

I don’t mind telling you that I was a little worried when Film Ireland asked me to put the spotlight on Savage, the debut feature film by Brendan Muldowney (director) and Conor Barry (producer).

With low-budget Irish films you just never know what you’re going to get and I hadn’t seen the film yet. In fact, nobody had seen it. Ever. So I was concerned that I was going to end up interviewing the makers of Savage without having enjoyed their film…

They sent me over a screener. I watched it. I loved it. I was the first person to watch the final cut of the film and now the makers of Savage have a 100% record. One viewer, one fan.

Savage is an exploration of violence and masculinity – a story of obsession and revenge, as a man tries to come to terms with a brutal, random attack and its consequences.

Darren Healy plays Paul Graynor, a shy, mild-mannered press photographer who is set upon in an alley by two lads on his way home from a night out. In a hugely powerful scene, Muldowney brilliantly captures the intimidating ‘Look at me! Look at me! Watcha lookin’ at?’ patter that will be all too familiar to anyone who has been caught in that frightening position. It’s an uncomfortable, harrowing scene that will have you squirming in your seat and the gentlemen in the audience crossing their legs. But you won’t be able to look away.

The violent assault leaves Graynor a shadow of his former self, at first cowed but later very, very angry. Muldowney is clearly influenced by films like Taxi Driver and Straw Dogs in depicting a man who is pushed to the edge and contemplates taking the 
next step.

Uncompromising
The film takes you on a visceral, violent journey that is utterly compelling. It’s not for the faint-hearted but then it’s not aimed at the faint-hearted. Indeed, probably the most pleasing element of this film is its unflinching desire to not let the audience off the hook. It is uncompromising but all the better for that. It puts the audience in an uncomfortable but fascinating place, leaving you wondering whether revenge could be acceptable if the initial crime is heinous enough.

‘I wanted to make people feel something and then they could make up their own minds about it,’ says Muldowney. ‘I wanted the audience to understand this character and to almost feel sorry for him despite the violent acts that he carries out. It’s a bit twisted. The whole point was to put the audience in this grey area, so they could see both sides of the story. I was happy to not be didactic.’

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact budget of Savage, it seems to me that they received less cash in hand than is often wasted on an hour of prime-time reality TV. They had just four weeks to shoot the film and ended up with less coverage than they would have liked, though I must admit that I didn’t notice. Barry and Muldowney are also quick to point out that their low budget brought benefits as well as drawbacks.

‘If we’d had more money, I probably would have used CGI to help me depict the violence and bloodshed in certain scenes but in hindsight it became more about performance and using the length of the scene to get me there. I think it works just as well and that it’s just as disturbing and if we’d been more explicit it might not have been as good,’ says Muldowney. Barry adds a crucial point, ‘the other thing about low-budget filmmaking is that it gave us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make.’

Barry and Muldowney originally aimed to make Savage as part of the Catalyst Project – BSÉ/IFB, BCI, TVt3 and Arts Council scheme that aimed to get three low-budget features made – but when it wasn’t picked as one of the final projects, they decided to make it anyway.

Natural progression
‘We didn’t get Catalyst but we had put so much work into it at that point, it reinforced the fact that we really wanted to make it,’ explains Barry. ‘Funnily enough, all of the work you put into trying to get a Catalyst application together, all of the encouragement and meetings and so on bring you on the road towards making your film. It all became a weird, natural progression towards achieving funding for Savage.’

They make no secret of their gratitude to BSÉ/IFB, who strongly backed the project, ‘they put together the model that allowed us to get the film made,’ says Barry. And they commend Filmbase, which was also very supportive. In addition, the team raised money outside of the normal channels by sending an investment proposal to family, friends and, well, everyone they could. It worked.

It’s quite remarkable what they’ve achieved with the budget they accumulated and there are films out there with ten times the budget that don’t look half as good. Using the RED ONE, cinematographers Michael O’Donovan and Tom Comerford have created a stark, monochrome Dublin that is gritty without appearing in any way cheap. Muldowney is clearly adept at using sound and it is employed to great effect throughout the film and, in particular, to build the internal journey of Graynor.

It’s a tribute to the BSÉ/IFB ‘can do’ attitude that so many small, high-quality films are making their way to audiences. But the flipside is that there is increasing competition for berths at festivals even within Ireland. The makers of Savage hope to debut the film at Galway and take it from there.

Beyond Savage, Barry and Muldowney have two more films loaded up and ready to go and they’re just waiting to finalise funding before pulling the trigger. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what they do next.

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Issue 125 – November/December 2008 – (The Documentary Issue)

Film Ireland Issue 125

Nick Fraser on the current state of documentary filmmaking • Mint Productions on the Bertie documentary series • Pitching training event at the STF doc festival • Interview with documentary filmmaker Liz Mermin • Roundtable: The future of creative documentary • Pat Collins interview • Steve McQueen on Hunger • Gideon Koppel interview on Sleep Furiously • Loopline Film’s doc courses • A doctor for docs • Nino Troppiano on Chippers

Film Reviews: Kisses and Hunger
Books: Better Location Shooting Techniques for Video Production by Paul Martingell

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Saviours

Saviours
Saviours

DIR/PRO: Ross Whitaker, Liam Nolan • ED: Bob Caldwell • CAST: Darren Sutherland, Abdul Hussein, Dean Murphy, John McCormack, Jimmy McCormack

Irish documentaries tend, for the most part, to have a hint of the unprofessional about them – talking heads and directorial front-of-camera work belying the seriousness of their subject matter. Saviours, despite a reliance on some heavy interviewing, manages to come across as a natural and startlingly honest portrayal of the St. Saviours Olympic Boxing Academy in Dublin.

The film appeals on a stronger level than through the sport – holding a self-confessed aversion to boxing, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many layers in the documentary that the sport came almost secondary. Focusing on three athletes and their varying fortunes from the academy, their stories are connected by the hilarious brothers who run the gym – John and Jimmy McCormack. Ex-champion boxers, the elderly pair view their charges as sons, and treat them as such – admonishing and comforting them in turn. A view of ‘old Dublin’ that we don’t see much of these days, their attention to their athlete’s personal as well as professional lives shows a caring and love absent from the more sterile and moneyed gyms of the country.

The first story follows Dean Murphy, a shining light in the academy, who is showing much promise in the ring. Coming from the nearby flats around Dorset Street, Dean has been a member of the academy since childhood, and dreams – as they all do – of Olympic gold. Fighting back from injury, and facing into battles he is ill-prepared for, Dean gives more insight into living in today’s inner-city than anything else, and his boxing becomes a metaphor for the rest of his life.

The story of Abdul Hussein, an asylum seeker from Ghana, is more a damning indictment of the Irish immigration system than anything else. Watching his struggle to stay in the country, and his dedication to the gym and becoming an Irish citizen, was the most interesting, and upsetting, part of the documentary. The lack of information, the long waiting, the laws against him – Abdul’s struggle outside of the ring carries more weight than any fight inside of it.

The most famous of the documentary’s subjects is, of course, Darren Sutherland, who recently won bronze at the Beijing Olympics. A hard-working student of Irish-Caribbean descent, Darren shows the most professional ability of all the members of the gym, something John and Jimmy are quick to nurture, and Darren pushes himself as much for them as for anything else. Interestingly, the film shows Darren’s fear of losing – something that holds him back from trying too hard in the ring, until the brother’s disappointment in his lack of effort spurs him into reacting positively.

A documentary less about boxing than about the strength of character that can be built with some nurturing and care – from Abdul’s joking with John about where he is from (Abdul says ‘Galway’, and John replies ‘Ah, you’re a culchie then!’), to Dean’s mentoring younger members of the gym, and fielding compliments from bystanders on the streets.

A truly observational documentary, Saviours focuses more on the people than the sport, but is not the less for that. Probably not destined for a wide release, as the style of filmmaking still lacks the professionalism needed to break into that tough niche that mainstream documentaries labour in, Saviours nonetheless manages to show an unflinching truth, and a true depiction of an academy trying its best to do something positive in an increasingly difficult world.

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