Steven Galvin catches up with director Tony Donoghue, whose short film Irish Folk Furniture is currently screening at Sundance. Irish Folk Furniture uses stop-motion animation to breathe life into the disregarded pieces of furniture that frequently lie rotting in Irish barns and sheds, showing the process of renovating them and returning them to the homes they once inhabited. The short is directed by Tony Donoghue and produced by Cathal Black under the IFB ‘Frameworks’ animated short film scheme.

This interview appears in the current Winter 2012 issue of Film Ireland magazine, which is available now.


Tony, you’ve created a beautiful film that is quite unique – can you tell us about its genesis.


Elsie Hogan owned a beautiful pub in my home village of Ballinderry, Tipperary. It had been in the family for about 150 years and it was one of those pubs where you had to walk through the family kitchen to go to the bathroom. In that kitchen was a big old painted dresser so laden with Willow pattern dishes that it always looked like it would collapse under the weight at any moment. When Elsie retired and sold the pub, she brought all the elegant Victorian furniture with her to her new house – but not the dresser.


That fine old dresser after 150 years in that one spot was relegated to the shed by the new pub owners. I was horrified so I immediately started photographing and recording the stories of the people of my parish with their traditional folk furniture.


As someone who had lived away for 20 years and had seen so little traceable furniture in either the UK or the USA I could see it was really important to try and increase the appreciation of this much undervalued cultural legacy.


Irish Folk Furniture was pitched as a Frameworks project to explore the history and integrity of Irish rural furniture. Like all documentary work the real structure came out through the process of making it. It has ended up being a propaganda type film – an absolute unapologetic celebration of the beauty, integrity and downright excellent honesty of Irish hand-made furniture.


The film looks beautiful, and there’s a particular stunning shot of a dresser and chairs in a frosted outdoor environment – can you tell us a bit about the shoot and the equipment you were using?


We are permanently surrounded by things that in themselves are interesting but sometimes those same things have to be isolated out for us to see them properly. That’s what this film has tried to do. We have tried to separate out items of old Irish folk furniture so we can have a good look at them as individual items and then again look at them in a modern domestic context.


When screening a film about inanimate objects it’s very easy to lose an audience’s attention so we did put a lot of time into compositions and lighting that an audience might find interesting. We didn’t use any artificial lighting at all just the crazy lighting that this mad climate of ours throws at us. The down side of that was that it did mean sitting around for days on end waiting for that right moment.


The film was shot on an old Nikon D70 stills camera that cost just €150 on eBay.

This camera isn’t particularly good in low light but one of the great advantages of shooting single frame is that you can choose very long exposures. A long exposure can bring in a lot of soft richness and small detail that wouldn’t be there with fast shutter speeds.


This film, like your previous short, A Film from My Parish 6 Farms, was made in a green and environmentally-friendly way – obviously this is something that is important to you.


At film school and afterwards I was horrified by the ridiculous waste I saw on film shoots and especially on TV commercials. This included everything from exotic locations to excessive lighting and equipment. I decided it was important to try and make this film with as small a carbon footprint as possible. This is the second Frameworks film we have shot in one parish. The hope here is to encourage local filmmaking about local subjects and in a way that is also feasible for a community. In this instance we used the €150 second-hand stills camera I mentioned before, a Minidisc recorder, a bicycle and a basic tripod.


David Kitt did the music – how did he get involved?


David had seen the previous film and liked it. I had heard a lot of his music and loved it. I really wanted to use David’s dreamy voice in the film, but for the film to work we ended up using an instrumental piece.


The film recently garnered the Special Mention at Galway, has screened in LA and is about to screen at Cork. And A Film from My Parish 6 Farms went down very well on the festival circuit.


VIMEO and YouTube are great and instant ways of distributing visual content. However, their success must not be allowed to take from the absolutely crucial place film festivals play in the exploration and development of film language. Just as good curation is essential to a good museum fine art show, so too is good curation at the heart of every great film festival. Festivals bring intellectual analysis to the curation and cross-referencing of film and film genres.


Were it not for experienced curators and programmers, such as Mick Hannigan and Una Feely at the Corona Cork Film Festival, Dan Brawley at Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina and Annegret Richter at DOK Leipzig in Germany this film and many others like it would sit at the bottom of the box indefinitely.


Can you tell us a bit about using animation as documentary?


Animation as documentary is really opening up and cross-fertilising now. The animation scene in Ireland has grown largely out of the commercial sector. This means that for most people animation is seen as either light entertainment or children’s programming. Animation is one more form of communication that can be used in any number of contexts. All documentary filmmakers know they can influence their audiences with their choice of shot, of lighting, of edit, of music. Single-frame filmmaking is just another option within that available filmic catalogue. Since 1957 the German documentary film festival DOK Leipzig has been a major venue for the exploration of documentary film language. Leipzig has for 16 of those years (since 1996) been running annually an exploration of animated documentaries called Animadoc.


You say that in the course of making the film, 16 pieces of rural furniture were restored and returned back into daily use. So the film extends beyond its telling and back into the lives of the people involved.


It was very important to me that the filmmaking process didn’t just go in and take something from the community; I wanted to be sure that it gave something back. The original film commission was for the documentation of the restoration and return of two pieces of folk furniture. Those two pieces of 19th century furniture were viewed by locals as exceptional pieces of furniture, rather than the norm, and the local people just didn’t get the message that all their old folk furniture, given a bit of love and attention, still had a potential life back in the family home. That was why we ended up restoring and returning home 16 pieces of furniture in total. I hope now the message is clear that all old Irish folk furniture is indeed restorable and loveable.


It is also very important that Irish people realise that there are very few countries left in the world where the whole 100-year history of a piece of furniture is totally interwoven with and associated with only one family. Seldom will even the finest pieces of Victorian or Georgian furniture have the family-specific history that individual pieces of Irish hand-crafted furniture have.


Hopefully the long-term legacy of the film will be that people will see it and realise that their old dresser, flour bin or settle bed is a fine thing and worth repairing.


What were the locals’ responses to being asked about their furniture?


At first people were surprised to be asked about their Irish furniture. Patrick Cahalan, the third narrator in the film, is pretty much representative of what I encountered. Patrick was a farmer and a carpenter. Yet, when I asked to see his furniture he took me through his front door, turned right and into the parlour to see his mass-produced brown English furniture. I wanted to turn left into the kitchen and talk about his hand-made red dresser, matching red bread bin, matching red table and matching red cupboard and red mug rack. He just couldn’t see how furniture so simple and functional could be held in higher esteem than Victorian furniture with ostentatious decoration.

Steven Galvin

This interview appears in the current Winter 2012 issue of Film Ireland magazine, which is available now.

Irish Folk Furniture is available to view online for the duration of the Sundance Film Festival


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