Irish Film Review: Sanctuary

DIR: Len Collin • WRI: Christian O’Reilly • PRO: Edwina Forkin • DOP: Russell Gleeson • ED: Julian Ulrichs • DES: Sonja Mohlich, Eleanor Wood • MUS: Joseph Conlan • CAST: Kieran Coppinger, Charlene Kelly, Robert Doherty, Michael Hayes, Emer Macken, Paul Connolly, Frank Butcher, Patrick Becker, Jennifer Cox, Valerie Egan

Len Collin’s Sanctuary is one of the most ambitious, innovative and deeply moving Irish films of recent times. Featuring a cast composed mostly of intellectually disabled actors, Sanctuary explored with compassion, understanding and at times considerable humour challenges faced by intellectually disabled individuals in Ireland today, particularly when they fall in love. The achievement of this film is all the more impressive when one considers how rarely intellectually disabled actors have featured prominently in fiction film, with rare exceptions including Jaco Van Dormael’s Le huitième jour (The Eighth Day, 1996) and Marcelo Galvão’s Colegas (Buddies, 2012).

Screenwriter Christian O’Reilly (whose previous credits include the story for disability themed feature Inside I’m Dancing (2004)) adapted Sanctuary from his play of the same name produced by Blue Teapot Theatre Company between 2012 and 2014. Director Collin and his collaborators (in particular Petal Pilley, CEO & Creative Director of Blue Teapot) wisely maintained the same cast from the original stage production who have clearly established a strong and convincing rapport. At the centre of the narrative are Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly) who want to spend unsupervised time together in order to develop their relationship. However, as intellectually disabled individuals they are legally forbidden from developing a sexual relationship unless they are married leading them to bribe their care worker Tom (Robert Doherty) just so they can book a hotel room for several hours. Tom arranges a room for the couple during an outing to the cinema of the intellectually disabled group to which they belong. While Tom brings Larry and Sophie to the hotel, their friends leave the cinema unaccompanied to explore Galway city in scenes that reveal each character’s need to find their own sense of independence and personal expression outside the controlled confines of their day-to-day life.

Sanctuary cleverly and unobtrusively brings the viewer through the complexities faced by intellectually disabled people wishing to start a relationship – the relevant law [repealed in May of this year] is mentioned once in the narrative but its introduction is neither forced nor disruptive to the developing diegesis but rather a necessary part of understanding the rationale for the actions of the film’s lead characters. Furthermore, the film does not treat its subjects as objects of either pity or deserving of our sympathy; these are independent and remarkable individuals who offer fascinating perspectives on the world around them. The scenes in which the group members escape from the cinema to explore the city, its shops, markets, and pubs are particularly impressive in this respect. Each character engages with his/her surroundings in what may be considered unusual ways (as when one character puts a chain on a security guard and hugs him) but they simultaneously alert us to aspects of the world we inhabit but may have become blind to through over-familiarity.

This is an auspicious debut feature as a director from Len Collin, a graduate of the MA in Production and Direction at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway, and an experienced screenwriter for television in England, including writing credits with “EastEnders”,”Casualty” and “The Bill”. Films such as Sanctuary have a crucial role to play in our culture today; they open a dialogue and hopefully prompt debate of issues that should be of serious concern in any healthy society. To do so with the humour and compassion evident in Sanctuary is an achievement that will be appreciated by audiences across Ireland, and I expect, internationally.

Seán Crosson

87 minutes

Sanctuary is released 7th July 2017

 

This is an edited version of Seán Crosson’s original review published after the film’s premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh in July 2016.

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Irish Film Review: In View

In-View

With the release of Ciaran Creagh’s “powerful and unsettling” feature In View, we revisit Seán Crosson’s review from last year’s premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh.

The themes of depression and suicide are among the most challenging to portray cinematically. They certainly don’t fit easily within  mainstream cinema today, with its focus on action, escapism and ‘entertainment’, probably the most overused word in cinema parlance. However, challenging narratives engaged with this topic are probably more necessary today in Ireland than at any point in the recent past given the unprecedented numbers taking their lives each year, now exceeding 500 per annum. As In View’s director Ciaran Creagh remarked following the film’s premiere in Galway, “There is an onus on us to bring these issues forward”.

In View is a powerful and unsettling depiction of one woman’s battle with depression and the circumstances that can surround taking the traumatic decision to end one’s own life. It is a production clearly built upon extensive research which informs the detailed account given of the lead character’s decline.

The film features Garda Ruth (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who is confined to desk duty. She has lost her husband and child, and is unable to deal with the huge loss and guilt she feels, blaming herself in particular for her husband’s suicide following her affair with a colleague. Her days are spent drinking or hiding in her office, unable to move on or overcome the deep depression which constantly follows her. Despite attempts by her co-workers and her father-in-law, she can see no way out. A visit to a local support group would appear to only remind her of her own guilt and much of the last third of the film chronicles her preparations for her own suicide. There is no redemption for either Ruth or the viewer here; director and writer Creagh (screenwriter of Parked (2011)) does not back away from the very dark and tragic reality of suicide.

Creagh is ably supported by the excellent and patient cinematography of David Grennan – indeed much of the film is dependent primarily on the visual with dialogue often to a minimum. The acting is also generally strong throughout, with established figures of Irish stage and screen featured, including  Gerard McSorley as Ruth’s father-in-law, and Ciarán McMenamin as her former lover Denis. There is, however, at times an overuse of incidental music evident where silence might well have been more effective – this becomes increasingly the case as Ruth’s mental state worsens. While no doubt included to compliment her condition, it ultimately detracts from what provides the core and backbone to the film as a whole; the performance of Caoilfhionn Dunne, probably best known to Irish audiences for her role as Lizzie in the RTÉ crime series Love/Hate.

Creagh revealed in Galway that the script was originally written with a male lead in mind; the decision to switch the gender was inspired and adds to the general sense of alienation throughout the narrative as Ruth navigates a primarily male world in search of normality: ‘I just want to be normal,’ she remarks at one point. Given the challenging subject of the film, In View is not easy viewing but it is Dunne’s extraordinary performance as Ruth that principally keeps the viewer’s interest throughout the narrative.

 

In View screened on Thursday, 7th July as part of the 2016 Galway Film Fleadh.

 

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: Sanctuary

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Seán Crosson reviews Len Collin’s debut feature, which closed this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

The Galway Film Fleadh closed this year with one of the most ambitious, innovative and deeply moving Irish films of recent times, Len Collin’s Sanctuary which received the award for Best First Irish Film. Featuring a cast composed mostly of intellectually disabled actors, Sanctuary explored with compassion, understanding and at times considerable humour challenges faced by intellectually disabled individuals in Ireland today, particularly when they fall in love. The achievement of this film is all the more impressive when one considers how rarely intellectually disabled actors have featured prominently in fiction film, with rare exceptions including Jaco Van Dormael’s Le huitième jour  (The Eighth Day, 1996) and Marcelo Galvão’s Colegas (Buddies, 2012). Screenwriter Christian O’Reilly (whose previous credits include the story for disability themed feature Inside I’m Dancing (2004)) adapted Sanctuary from his play of the same name produced by Blue Teapot Theatre Company between 2012 and 2014. Director Collin and his collaborators (in particular Petal Pilley, CEO & Creative Director of Blue Teapot) wisely maintained the same cast from the original stage production who have clearly established a strong and convincing rapport. At the centre of the narrative are Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly) who want to spend unsupervised time together in order to develop their relationship. However, as intellectually disabled individuals they are legally forbidden from developing a sexual relationship unless they are married leading them to bribe their care worker Tom (Robert Doherty) just so they can book a hotel room for several hours. Tom arranges a room for the couple during an outing to the cinema of the intellectually disabled group to which they belong. While Tom brings Larry and Sophie to the hotel, their friends leave the cinema unaccompanied to explore Galway city in scenes that reveal each character’s need to find their own sense of independence and personal expression outside the controlled confines of their day-to-day life.

Sanctuary cleverly and unobtrusively brings the viewer through the complexities faced by intellectually disabled people wishing to start a relationship – the relevant law is mentioned once in the narrative but its introduction is neither forced nor disruptive to the developing diegesis but rather a necessary part of understanding the rationale for the actions of the film’s lead characters. Furthermore, the film does not treat its subjects as objects of either pity or deserving of our sympathy; these are independent and remarkable individuals who offer fascinating perspectives on the world around them. The scenes in which the group members escape from the cinema to explore the city, its shops, markets, and pubs are particularly impressive in this respect. Each character engages with his/her surroundings in what may be considered unusual ways (as when one character puts a chain on a security guard and hugs him) but they simultaneously alert us to aspects of the world we inhabit but may have become blind to through over-familiarity.

This is an auspicious debut feature as a director from Len Collin, a graduate of the MA in Production and Direction at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway, and an experienced screenwriter for television in England, including writing credits with  “EastEnders”,”Casualty” and “The Bill”. Films such as Sanctuary have a crucial role to play in our culture today; they open a dialogue and hopefully prompt debate of issues that should be of serious concern in any healthy society. To do so with the humour and compassion evident in Sanctuary is an achievement that will be appreciated by audiences across Ireland, and I expect, internationally.

Sanctuary screened on Sunday, 10 July 2016 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: Crash and Burn

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Seán Crosson zooms in on Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne, who, for a fleeting moment in the early ’80s, was the world’s greatest driver.

The sports documentary has become one of the most familiar and popular documentary genres in recent years. While well-established as a part of TV schedules, films such as Dogtown and Z-boys (2002), Step into Liquid (2003), Riding Giants (2004), Murderball (2005) and Senna (2010) have also had considerable success in cinemas internationally. The prominence of sport in Irish life has also been reflected in the documentary form with some of the most successful theatrically released Irish docs over the past ten years focusing on sport, including Saviours (2007) and Waveriders (2008).

Seán Ó Cualáin’s Crash and Burn, focusing on the world of motor-racing, is the latest addition to this genre. It concerns Drogheda-born Tommy Byrne who briefly drove in Formula One after a stellar career at lower levels of motor- racing. However, this is no Senna (though the Brazilian makes an appearance at several points); this is a story that challenges the familiar upward trajectory of the sports film (whether in fiction or documentary), tracing the journey of a driver who had all the talent and more of his contemporaries but lacked the background, social graces, and particularly the money required of those who control Formula One.

Nonetheless, the respect with which Byrne was held by his contemporaries is evident in the prominent interviewees featured in Crash and Burn, including former Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan (who regards Byrne as ‘the best of them all’), and former Formula One drivers and current TV commentators Martin Brundle and David Kennedy. Byrne’s story is remarkable, from his rivalry with Ayrton Senna at Formula Ford and Formula 3 level to his final years as a driver for corrupt gangsters on the Mexican Formula 3 circuit.

Director Ó Cualáin claims not to have seen Senna and his documentary provides, in important respects, a more complex depiction of the world of Formula One than Asif Kapadia’s entertaining though rather superficial documentary. Crash and Burn shares with Senna, however, a dependence on archive footage, much of it captured on VHS by friends of Byrne’s. Where footage was not available, Ó Cualáin  makes good use of animated sequences. Despite the low-quality of the original material, considerable work has been put into bringing consistency across the footage (both filmed and archival) in the final film. The archival material is intercut with interviews with Byrne who recalls his own journey from Drogheda to Formula One, offering in the process a fascinating and frank perspective on his sport.

Despite having been the fastest driver at all levels below Formula One, and proving himself the fastest when given an opportunity in the best car at that level, he was ultimately excluded from the sport, his life subsequently declining into excessive drinking and drug-taking and periods spent at the lower rungs of motor-racing in the US and Mexico. This is not, however, a tragic story despite Byrne’s failure to realise his own Formula One dreams. As he remarked in conversation at the end of the screening in Galway “life is pretty good right now. I just lost out on about $100m”. These words sum up a theme across Ó Cualáin’s film; Tommy continues to be unhappy with how he was forced out of the sport but nonetheless he has rebuilt his life and now works as a driving instructor in the United States.

Whether you have an interest in Formula One or not, Crash and Burn is an engaging, and at times moving account of an extraordinary life.

 

Crash and Burn screened on Sunday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.

 

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Interview: Mary McGuckian, ‘The Price of Desire’

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“The stress test is truthfully most women’s experience”-  Seán Crosson In Conversation with Mary McGuckian

 

Mary McGuckian, whose most recent film The Price of Desire is currently screening in Irish cinemas, has directed 12 films to date, an impressive figure when one considers the challenges female directors in particular have faced in the male-dominated world of cinema.

She was interviewed by Seán Crosson in the Irish Pavillion at EXPO Milano 2015, as part of a seminar on Irish cinema organised by the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS) and following the screening of The Price of Desire at the Milano Design Film festival in October 2015.

 

Seán Crosson: Could I begin by asking you what it is that draws you to the films that you direct?

Mary McGuckian: You need to feel it… it’s a very organic holistic thing. You need to feel that the perspective or the point of view, the subject matter, the underlying thesis of it, and the kind of zeitgeist or the l’air du temps are all meeting. When you find that, you know it and you know that you can make that… every artist is always looking for that. And that was my kind of discovery.

The things that impressed me most about Eileen Gray were her work ethic, her disregard for the results of her work. Above all, she was very authentic and had great integrity about the act or the craft, and was very conscious of being on the forefront and constantly studying and keeping up to date, and very spiritually true to what she was doing. I found that phenomenally impressive and something of an inspiration. Filmmakers are odd people, we’re not kind of brilliant at anything, we’re just okay at a lot of things. We just sort of manage everybody else. The trick is to collaborate in a way that brings the best of the people you are working with.

 

Could you talk a little about your own background as an Irish filmmaker?

Growing up, we had a paucity of film, we didn’t really have a film culture. I mean, the likes of Pat Murphy was just a one-off that wasn’t part of a movement. She was just a phenomenally tenacious young woman. There wasn’t a film culture, there wasn’t a film style, there wasn’t an interest in film. But there was this great literary and theatre culture that is our strength as a nation. One funny thing that nobody ever mentions is that there was a theatre for those of us that came through the theatre  – but again there wasn’t even a theatre school when I started. But we did have strong university groups and there was an alternative theatre. If you didn’t work in the Gate, and that was the snobby theatre, or the Abbey, which was the national theatre, there was the Project. There was another little theatre company called Focus Theatre and that was the nearest we had in Ireland to some form of international training theatre.

We had a slowly emerging film culture that came out of theatre. If you notice, our actors who have travelled were all male and have a certain style. We had a very specific and separate theatre culture. So those of us who were women grew up in a theatre culture in Ireland, which is a very strong culture of theatre for women but it wasn’t a performance-style that translated to cinema or translated internationally. In my mid-twenties I remember Joan O’Hara in the Abbey saying the guys travel… and she was right. There was one swarthy fabulous looking Irish fella after another, starting with Pierce [Brosnan] and Liam [Neeson], Daniel [Day Lewis] and Stephen [Rea]. They all had a quality that there was a place for in international cinema. There were no women since Maureen O’Hara until Saoirse Ronan. British cinema culture is quite established. It’s very sure about what it’s about. And we’ve depended on that to a great extent and for a period when the Irish Film Board began and European co-production, European media foundation started, we struggled as to whether we should be part of the posh filmmakers of Europe or leaning towards America and interestingly the films that have leaned towards America have tended to be more successful. Inevitably, I suspect because of the English language.

 

Things have changed greatly since the 1980s and the period you describe…

It’s phenomenal what has happened in a very short period of time. I was away for a long time. Like a lot of people, I had to leave the country and recently have come back. When I first started making films, we didn’t have a film culture, we didn’t have film support, we didn’t have any sort of industry, which was kind of good for us in that we could go anywhere basically. But now it’s great to come back and find post-production set up. When we used to shoot something we’d have to send it to London. We’d get our rushes back four days later.

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Robert De Niro in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

You’ve worked with an extraordinary array of actors including Donald Sutherland, F. Murray Abraham, Robert De Niro, Samantha Morton, to name but a few as well as many leading Irish actors from Richard Harris to Gabriel Byrne and in your current feature Orla Brady. How do you approach working with actors in your work?

I’ve been very lucky with actors, very lucky. And I think that comes from those who came through theatre culture, and Jim Sheridan, he’s brilliant with actors. And Neil [Jordan] is too, though Neil is probably more visual. And he’s more of a literary storyteller. But we did all emerge out of theatre and as actors, to some degree or another. So storytelling is a character-driven process for most Irish filmmakers, I believe it comes from that background. So, inevitably we write for actors. If the material is good enough, when we approach actors they agree to work with us, they respond to the material, they respond to the process.

I’ve played a lot with the acting processes, I’m very interested in how actors emerge, and how characters develop and all of those things. I’ve made a lot of films, quite a few films that are quite experimental in terms of their approach to the responsibility of the artist or the actor as an interpretative but also as an editorial participant in the making of the film.

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The Making of Plus One

One of those experimental films was The Making of Plus One (2010), set during the Cannes Film Festival. How did that film come about?

It came about as a bit of a joke in a way, after The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004), which was a tough experience, having such an extraordinary cast, and, funnily enough, I’m about to spend the winter in Ireland recutting that film and doing a director’s cut, because it was taken away from me and recut in a way that had very little to do with the original script  – and that was a horrendous experience. I discovered the bigger the budgets got and the bigger the crews got, the further away the actor was from what you were trying to achieve and this linear process that had been in place since 1910 was still operational and nobody had done anything to improve or change it.

Around that time, in about 2005, right at the beginning of digital filmmaking, I went on a crazy experiment over a trilogy of three films, to bring together a company of actors and crew; not to improvise films in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way but to reinvent the process for bringing a story to the screen, partly using the digital processes but also – they weren’t necessarily any cheaper, they were just different – to give actors more responsibility for their participation. We had a very structured storyline, like a traditional script, but the actors improvised – I did a workshop with them for weeks on-end prior. They developed their character and then they were able to perform as characters without dialogue. We did three of those – Rag Tale (2005), Intervention (2007) and Inconceivable (2008). It was only ever meant to be a trilogy but by the end the lunatics had taken over the asylum, and they were going ‘well what’s next’? So eventually after each one of those films being on the short list for Cannes but never selected, we decided to go to Cannes and make The Making of Plus One, which we did as a group. It was quite fun and it was funny and it was an obvious statement about the nature of what the whole festival scenario and what the role of an actor in the making of a film has become.

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Inconceivable

The improvisational style you describe is quite reminiscent of the work of John Cassavetes. What directors have influenced your approach?

I did go to drama school in the UK and France subsequently and one of my teachers was Mike Leigh. Mike was very good to me. He has his way of improvising – he uses improvisation to create material, whereas I try to use improvisation to drive character to take the material to the screen. So, in a funny way, what I came up with doing, thanks to him, was almost the exact opposite or reverse of what he does, which is a fantastic process, and one I still apply to material even if its scripted or partly scripted. I think actors like it, which is why they seem to want to come and do movies with me because I work in a different way.

 

So how did the Eileen Gray project develop?

Filmmaking has changed a lot. It changed very very quickly over a ten-year period where I was very fortunate. I think I got to make 5 or 6 movies over ten years, during that period. I guess there were contemporary issues again… I was always trying to drive female issues but I was having to mask them constantly in something else.

For a long time I wanted to make a film about Eileen Gray but I couldn’t. I suppose for three main reasons: I was struggling to find what the essence of the story was – a biopic lends itself more to a documentary. and secondly, I really needed to feel passionately that the world would want to see this movie, and what might it be about, the underlying thesis. And thirdly, it needed to be an Irish film and how could I get back to Ireland and make the film that could call itself Irish.

I had known about Eileen Gray as an Irish artist. I always thought of her as the founder of – I don’t know where I got this idea – as the founder of minimalism. I’m a bit of a minimalist myself and I’ve always been very interested in the turn of the century, those displaced independent Irish women who found themselves in politics, in literature and in the arts. It’s an interesting thing, because out of periods like that – and they are very rare – emerge women of impact. And then suddenly post-1922, the country closed down and there were no more women of impact – what happened? What seemed to happen was what led to Virgina Woolfe’s A Room with a View. There were a small group of women who were neither Irish in England nor English in Ireland who were educated, of means, and they had all of that going for them and able to decide to follow their path which was not a liberty or a privilege that most Irish women had. But they did do that with some integrity, some of them, including Countess Markievicz and, in particular, Eileen Gray. She followed her path that brought her as an artist through her own journey, emerging very autodidactically.

It’s just a fascinating story that she achieved so much and I wanted to understand more about what she’s about but I knew that a film as a biopic wouldn’t be that interesting. So then you wait until you find the kernel of what’s important. And I guess that was the controversy that emerged around the house e.1027 [the modernist villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin which Eileen Gray designed and built from 1926-29], which is kind of the centrepiece of the film and is very much the apotheosis of her life’s work. It’s very interesting that a lot of women who have an impact in whatever field they are in, it seems to me, tend to reach that later in life than their male counterparts, often in their fifties. At the age of 52 she designed and built the first modernist house – and what makes it a great female story, not necessarily a male story, is that she was not recognised, she lost the right to be recognised as the author of her work. In a French environment where the droit morale is in your DNA, you can’t give away your droit morale. To have a house which she actually lost ownership of is a great visual metaphor. So it seemed to me I had found a key to that story.

Telling it from Eileen Gray’s point of view was very hard to finance, so it had to become a dialogue between herself and Le Corbusier [the Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of modern architecture].

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Alanis Morissette and Orla Brady in The Price of Desire

There are two levels of outcome to The Price of Desire, the film as a piece of art and the film as the story of Eileen Gray – when you view the film now, how do you judge it? Are you satisfied with it as a work of art or are you satisfied as having successfully told a story?

I am pleased with it. It never set out to be a traditional narrative film or a particularly commercial film. It was clearly a prestige piece. So how it looked was very important to me as an art piece. I think it looks very beautiful. As a story, it’s innately flawed in its own right when you tell it truthfully, so we were always going to struggle with that. But in terms of driving it through character and having Le Corbusier telling the story – that kind of odd device that is used in it – I’m quite pleased that with the dialogue, Eileen Gray has the first word and the last word, Le Corbusier gets to say his piece, and then the cinematic licence is taken when we allow him to forgive himself.

 

Are there any parallels between the experience of Eileen Gray as a female artist and your own experiences as a female director? What kind of changes have you seen in the film industry since you first started making films, particularly in such a male dominated industry?

Ireland has emerged not only with a film business and a film industry but with a cultural voice – there are young filmmakers emerging and this year in particular there have been a couple – Room, etc. – of voices emerging, very strong pieces of Irish cinema, that are culturally Irish. And it’s not just the odd film. Every year there are a few important films coming out, but there are very few women emerging. But that isn’t particular to Ireland, this problem is deeply disappointing to me that every year I am contacted as one of the 7% of directors/writers that are women – ‘did you notice that only 7% of films over the last year were made by women’, and that number, I don’t know why it’s 7%, it has stayed 7% for twenty years. It’s very very disturbing.

This in a way is what really spoke to me from the Eileen Gray film… it wasn’t that she suffered, it was never going to be Erin Brokovich story, it wasn’t one big legislative event, but it was a lifetime – and she had a long life – and this is, I would have to say, most women’s experience – a lifetime of tiny omissions, forgetfulness, odd remarks, and slights, whatever you want to call them. None of which are evil, none of which you can legislate against. I used to use an analogy, because I came from engineering, mechanical/civil engineering and my final thesis experimentation was a thing called Shot peening – it’s a way of measuring force which is, when you’re trying to experiment on the strength of materials, you’re trying to just measure the force of the material as in what it would take to break it, you just thump it until you get a combination of the speed and weight at which you’d thump something to make it break. That’s force. But what’s much more interesting and much more – and they do a lot of it now with trains and runways and things – is the fatigue or the stress level of the material, what does it take to break a material if you’re just doing tiny little taps, and over what period of time and at what frequency does it take. In a way, Eileen Gray’s life started to remind me of shot peening as distinct from force – if Erin Brokovich is the force test, then Eileen Gray is the stress test, and the stress test is truthfully most women’s experience. It is the universal female experience that over the lifetime of a career you just have these constant little put-downs, not quite included, sort of omitted – nothing you could ever complain about but as a combination in aggregate there’s a moment where the stress test breaks the material, causes the crack. She was Victorian so she wasn’t a self-promoter in the way that Le Corbusier was, but that was part of her integrity as an artist. She survived as an artist because she wasn’t looking for acclaim but at the same time the lack of recognition sadly had a great negative influence on a century of architecture and design. She had some very important things to say about the way in which we live in the world and how we construct, and the habitats that we inhabit.

 

Given the continuing low percentage of women directors involved in film, what initiatives do you think could be taken to address this?

I don’t know how to break it. It has to be from both ends, international distribution has something to do with it, but practically, women often need an invitation, they are not good at bashing through doors so maybe we need to start inviting young women into the film industry in a more positive way. I ended up studying engineering, being one of three girls in a class of 120, but I remember why. The University did a kind of an outreach, they went round all the girls schools to say don’t limit yourself. Why can’t you do engineering? Think about doing architecture? So maybe we need to do that, I think it might just take an invitation.

 

The Price of Desire is currently in cinemas

 

Dr. Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

 

 

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Review: I Am Belfast

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DIR/WRI: Mark Cousins • PRO: John Archer, Chris Martin • DOP: Christopher Doyle • ED: Timo Langer • DES: Shane Bunting • MUS: David Holmes • CAST: Richard Buick, Simon Millar, Shane McCaffrey, Helena Bereen

Personifying places and indeed the entire island of Ireland as a woman has been a recurring trope in Irish literature and culture for many centuries, including seminal texts such as W.B. Yeat’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Pearse’s Mise Éire. Mark Cousins’ I am Belfast provides an innovative updating of this trope in the figure of a 10,000 year old woman (Helena Bereen) who claims to be the city itself and takes the filmmaker on a journey through time and space, recounting its historical development while travelling through its distinctive streets and landscape. In the process, Cousins offers one of the most innovative studies of an Irish city; his film is partly a paean to its people, language and culture, partly an impressive rendering of the distinctive colours and shapes one finds while walking the streets of Belfast, and partly a hopeful song to a future without bigotry and division.

Cousins is fortunate to have collaborators such as acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer David Holmes who visually and aurally complement Cousins’ own refreshing and engaging dialogue with the elderly woman as he travels across the city and into its past. Few previous films have managed to render the distinctive architecture and colours of Belfast as effectively; there is also a patience to the film’s pacing that allows for the viewer to fully appreciate the film’s aesthetic achievement. Cousins even manages to find a peculiar beauty in the play of light and colour on the ‘peace walls’ that continue to divide communities across the city – more now even than during the height of the Troubles.

Belfast is unfortunately still primarily associated in film and television with recurring generic depictions of the Troubles and its aftermath; and Cousins, despite his own stated reluctance, does not shy away from confronting the legacy of Belfast’s traumatic and violent past. Indeed, he engages directly with some of the most disturbing events, including the horrific bombing of McGurk’s Bar in 1971 in which 15 civilians were killed and a further 17 seriously injured.

I am Belfast includes archive footage to incorporate events during the Troubles into its narrative; however, the film’s principal focus is on Belfast today and the hope that may lie in the future. Cousins films the mock-up of McGurk’s bar created under a Belfast underpass in 2011 and ponders the possibility of a different encounter between ‘salt and sweet’, Protestant and Catholic, beyond the traumatic legacies of the past. He personifies this evocatively in the imagined funeral of the ‘last bigot in Belfast’, and an upbeat funeral procession is featured towards the film’s close.

At a time when filmmakers have been hesitant to engage with the difficult legacies of Belfast’s past, Cousins provides a timely intervention while pointing to a future where all the city’s inhabitants could take pride in the spaces and places they inhabit.

Seán Crosson

84 minutes

I Am Belfast will screen at the IFI on Wednesday, 20th April 2016
at 18.30

 

This review was originally written for the film’s screening at the Galway Film Fleadh.

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema(Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland(Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)

 

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Galway Film Fleadh: Touch the Light (Tocando la Luz)

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Seán Crosson reviews Jennifer Redfearn’s inspiring documentary Touch the Light (Tocando la Luz), which had its European premiere at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Touch the Light is an inspiring, sensitively shot and moving depiction of the lives of three blind women in Cuba. The film had its European premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh in June, where it shared the award for Best International Feature Documentary. Galway was a particularly appropriate location for the European premiere and important for director Jennifer Redfearn as her great-grandmother Sabina Hernon grew up in the Claddagh and emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. The film is dedicated to Sabina’s daughter Margaret, Redfearn’s much loved grandmother, who sadly passed away during the making the film.

Redfearn and producer and DOP Tim Metzger were fortunate to find such extraordinary women for their production, made over a period of three years. While focusing on the three central female subjects, the film also touches upon Cuba’s turbulent history and finds resonances between personal and political struggles, featuring photos and other archive from the Cuban revolution intercut with contemporary commentary from the women depicted. This is particularly evident in the film’s focus on one of its older subjects, Maragarita, who became involved in the revolutionary struggle through her membership of an army battalion of blind recruits and who is now finding her own personal independence after the death of her husband. Metzger and Redfearn have described Margarita as ‘a kindred spirit’ of Redfearn’s grandmother.

The film’s other subjects include Mily, a young black woman who lives at home with her over protective parents and Lis, a talented singer who supports her family through her art, but doubts her own ability. Each is grappling with personal crises as the film develops – Mily wants to marry and have children, but may not be able to do so, while Lis is unsure (despite her obvious talent and success) that she wants to pursue a career as a singer. The film offers no simplistic resolutions to what are complex familial and personal challenges but patiently documents the lives of all three women and their relationships. A particular strength in all of this is that the documentary is largely told from the perspective of each of the blind women featured; it is their voices we hear on the soundtrack (no ‘voice-of-God’ narration here) and it is primarily they who bring us into the various challenges they face in their lives in contemporary Havana.

As well as providing insight into the lives of the women featured and contemporary Cuba, Tough the Light also foregrounds (perhaps surprisingly for a film concerned centrally with blind people) the important place of the cinema today in Cuba. A crucial cultural program that brings the blind community of Havana together is a cinema club for the blind, which screens Cuban films with audio-description. Over the course of Tough the Light, Magarita attends the cinema several times, watching classic Cuban films such as Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968) and Fernando Pérez’s Clandestinos (1987). Significantly, each film foregrounds the Cuban struggle for independence, a recurring theme within the film itself in its meshing of the personal and political. For Margarita in particular, the cinema provides her with one of the few outlets for independence; as she remarks ‘As a blind person I depend on other people to do many things. But in the cinema, for a moment, I feel completely independent.’

Touch the Light is perhaps all the more important given the changes Cuba is undergoing today; in its rendering of what may well be the final years “Castro’s Cuba”, it is an important documenting of a unique and extraordinary society and its people.

Touch the Light screened on Friday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: I am Belfast

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Seán Crosson heads North in Mark Cousins’ documentary I am Belfast, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Personifying places and indeed the entire island of Ireland as a woman has been a recurring trope in Irish literature and culture for many centuries, including seminal texts such as W.B. Yeat’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Pearse’s Mise Éire. Mark Cousins’ I am Belfast provides an innovative updating of this trope in the figure of a 10,000 year old woman (Helena Bereen) who claims to be the city itself and takes the filmmaker on a journey through time and space, recounting its historical development while travelling through its distinctive streets and landscape. In the process Cousins offers one of the most innovative studies of an Irish city; his film is partly a paean to its people, language and culture, partly an impressive rendering of the distinctive colours and shapes one finds while walking the streets of Belfast, and partly a hopeful song to a future without bigotry and division.

Cousins is fortunate to have collaborators such as acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer David Holmes who visually and aurally complement Cousins’ own refreshing and engaging dialogue with the elderly woman as he travels across the city and into its past. Few previous films have managed to render the distinctive architecture and colours of Belfast as effectively; there is also a patience to the film’s pacing that allows for the viewer to fully appreciate the film’s aesthetic achievement. Cousins even manages to find a peculiar beauty in the play of light and colour on the ‘peace walls’ that continue to divide communities across the city – more now even than during the height of the Troubles.

Belfast is unfortunately still primarily associated in film and television with recurring generic depictions of the Troubles and its aftermath; and Cousins, despite his own stated reluctance, does not shy away from confronting the legacy of Belfast’s traumatic and violent past. Indeed, he engages directly with some of the most disturbing events, including the horrific bombing of McGurk’s Bar in 1971 in which 15 civilians were killed and a further 17 seriously injured.

I am Belfast includes archive footage to incorporate events during the Troubles into its narrative; however, the film’s principal focus is on Belfast today and the hope that may lie in the future. Cousins films the mock-up of McGurk’s bar created under a Belfast underpass in 2011 and ponders the possibility of a different encounter between ‘salt and sweet’, Protestant and Catholic, beyond the traumatic legacies of the past. He personifies this evocatively in the imagined funeral of the ‘last bigot in Belfast’, and an upbeat funeral procession is featured towards the film’s close.

At a time when filmmakers have been hesitant to engage with the difficult legacies of Belfast’s past, Cousins provides a timely intervention while pointing to a future where all the city’s inhabitants could take pride in the spaces and places they inhabit.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)

 

 I am Belfast screened on Sunday, 12th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: Older than Ireland

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Seán Crosson scores a century for Alex Fegan’s documentary Older than Ireland, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Among the most anticipated productions premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh was Alex Fegan’s Older than Ireland, which had already sold out by Wednesday afternoon. Based around interviews with thirty Irish centenarians, Fegan’s film – produced by Gary Walsh – was one of the major successes in Galway, receiving two standing ovations and eventually the award for Best Irish Feature Documentary.

In a work reminiscent stylistically of Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers (though in other respects a superior production), Older than Ireland evokes the full range of emotions, from laughter to tears, in an ultimately inspirational film. Particularly striking is the candour and frankness of the individuals featured, both men and women, as they recount their views on life, love and Ireland. While Fegan was blessed with extraordinary subjects, the direction, cinematography, editing and accompanying soundtrack all perfectly complement the interviews included and contribute greatly to the achievement of the film. Fegan’s direction, and the cinematography of Colm Nicell, patiently captures the testimonies of those featured – there is no rush here to move on and the space provided allows for moments of genuine revelation.

The interviewees featured come from counties across the island – from Antrim to Cork, Dublin to Galway – and each has a unique perspective to share from their lives. Their memories encompass the revolutionary period, and the emergence of the state but also reflections on a very different Ireland of modest means and limited opportunities where emigration was often the only option for many. The oldest woman featured, 113-year old Kathleen Snavely (who sadly passed away shortly before the screening), spent most of her life in the United States after leaving Clare in 1921. ‘I was happy but lonely’, she poignantly recalls.

While the interior set-ups are reminiscent of Wardrop’s work, a distinctive aspect of Fegan’s film is how often he follows his subjects outside of the home space and the insights this provides into their lives. This includes scenes of subjects playing golf, gardening, driving (including in one of the film’s funniest moments on a drive-on lawn mower), and walking. It is in his rendering of these seemingly ordinary moments that Fegan manages to capture most affectingly the extraordinary individuals depicted.

Among the film’s most memorable interviewees is 103-year old Dubliner Bessie Nolan (who was present in Galway for the première), who provides very frank reflections on her life and relationships. She is also filmed walking from her home to the local shop for her groceries, including her daily box of Superkings. While hardly an example of healthy living (another interviewee talks about her dislike for vegetables), Bessie’s depiction, in common with those of other subjects throughout the film, is more concerned with affirming her dignity and the significance of her insights and perspectives. This is perhaps the most important message of Older than Ireland, particularly at a time when Irish society has successively diminished and marginalised the role of the elderly, as evident in recent scandals involving care-homes, and centenarians left on hospital trolleys for several days.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

Older than Ireland screened on Friday, 10th July  as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: A Turning Tide in the Life of Man

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Seán Crosson delves into the waters of Loic Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the Life of Man, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

The islands off the West coast of Ireland have been the subject of many books, paintings and films. The lives of those who inhabit these often neglected areas have provided the inspiration for such seminal figures as W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and documentarian Robert Flaherty. However rarely has the perspectives of islanders themselves (before the advent of TG4) been the central concern of film work, particularly work that has emerged from outside of Ireland.

French director Loic Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the life of Man, which includes TG4 among its funders, goes to considerable lengths to foreground the challenges faced by islanders off the West of Ireland (and indeed across Europe as a whole) in a work narrated by an Irish-speaking fisherman from Inishbofin (off Donegal), John O’Brien. O’Brien has been engaged in a campaign for almost ten years to save his livelihood as a fisherman against the imposition of laws by both the Irish state and the European Union hampering his efforts to do so.

Watching Jourdain’s documentary, I was reminded of a line from John Doyle in Cathal Black’s Korea (1995): “We impoverish the fishing for the tourists”. In Black’s film, based on a short story of the same name by John McGahern, Doyle is the last to fish his local lake in county Cavan for his living before his licence is taken away to preserve stocks for the increasing numbers of tourists arriving to Ireland in the late 1950s. Similarly, O’Brien finds his own livelihood as a fisherman threatened as the government places increasing limits on what salmon he can fish, in order (it is claimed) to save stocks for visiting anglers to Ireland.

However, a core focus of the film is the close connection between fishermen such as O’Brien and his local environment, a connection that is informed by generations of fishermen who have learned to fish sustainably and responsibly from their local environment. This includes rotating the fish caught each season to avoid overfishing a single species, unlike the massive factory boats that plunder the fish stocks close to Inishbofin. However, as a consequence of Irish and EU policies, O’Brien is forced to overfish single species throughout the year given the limitations placed on his work. Unsurprisingly, most coastal fishermen are forced to leave their livelihoods behind, with O’Brien (like Doyle) one of the very few left still trying to make a living from fishing on Inishbofin.

In a beautifully shot work, Jourdain follows O’Brien’s campaign for recognition of the needs of coastal communities from Inishbofin to Brussels. He also visits other European island communities, from islands off Bittanny to Corsica, as part of a campaign to build a significant lobby group to save the fishing livelihoods of coastal communities. One is struck in watching the film by O’Brien’s sincerity and humanity; his journey to Brussels and growing understanding of the political and bureaucratic systems that decide his own livelihood is also our own journey.

In this respect, the film is one of the most accessible and informative studies of the role the EU now plays in our lives – often largely ignored or misunderstood – as O’Brien grows to understand the importance of making common cause with other island communities across Europe and with a non-governmental organisation to support his lobbying efforts for recognition for the rights of coastal communities. He does eventually achieve some recognition, following meetings with the EU fisheries commissioner and an address to the European Parliament. However, the film closes on a pessimistic note; it seems further EU regulation on natural environments may make all the gains made irrelevant.

In the context of the continuing fallout from the Greek crisis, A Turning Tide in the Life of Man is a sobering reminder of the disconnect between the political and bureaucratic institutions in Brussels and the needs of communities on Europe’s periphery.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

A Turning Tide in the Life of Man screened on Saturday, 11th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: ‘An Náisiún’ & ‘Deoch an Dorais’

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Seán Crosson takes a look at two TG4-commissioned documentaries that screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh – An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) and Deoch an Dorais (Name Your Poison).

 

Since its launch in 1996, TG4 (or TnaG as it was then) has rightfully developed a considerable reputation for the excellent documentaries it has commissioned and the Galway Film Fleadh has provided an important forum for the premiere of many of these works in recent years. An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) and Deoch an Dorais were two further impressive examples of TG4’s súil eile approach in its examination of the experiences of Irish people at home and abroad.

In An Náisiún the subject is the Irish civil war, and particularly that part of it fought out over Limerick city and its hinterland. Narrated by Macdara Ó Fatharta, the doc features impressive archive footage and photographs that are beautifully rendered to bring the viewer into the lives and tensions of the period considered. The most affecting aspect of the work is the director’s – Andrew Gallimore – decision to offer most of the commentary from the perspective of participants involved in the war itself, on both the Free State and Irregular sides. Arguably no war is more brutal or more poignant than a civil war and the words of those involved, whether from letters, memoirs or interviews, make this all the more apparent.

 

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Set slightly later in the early 1930s, Deoch an Dorais (Name Your Poison) examines the legend of Mike Malloy (nicknamed “Rasputin of the Bronx” or “Durable Mike Malloy”), an Irish emigrant to New York at the time of prohibition. Malloy was the unwitting subject of insurance fraud when a policy was taken out on his life by an Italian-American New York gangster and speakeasy owner, Tony Marino. However, despite repeated attempts to collect the policy by killing Malloy in a manner that would suggest a natural death – from poisoning him with drink and food, to hitting him with a car and dumping his soaking body overnight in freezing weather – Marino and his accomplices were unable to collect.

The documentary is presented by All-Ireland winning Donegal captain Anthony Molloy, who also reflects on his own struggle with alcoholism and the larger story of Irish emigration to the United States of which Malloy was but one of many examples. Incorporating contemporary footage of New York and interviews with a range of scientific and academic commentators (including historian J.J. Lee), Deoch an Dorais also includes reenactments of the events from the 1930s involving Malloy, Marino and his co-conspirators (including undertaker Francis Pasqua); the scenes in Marino’s speakeasy offer a convincing rendering of the period, with the lighting particularly impressive. Under Paddy Hayes assured direction, Deoch an Dorais is an engaging and thought-provoking account of an extraordinary story.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

An Náisiún screened on Thursday, 9th July & Deoch an Dorais screened on Saturday, 11th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

 

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