Tony Tracy
Huston School, NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2011
ISSUE 6 | Pages: 191-224 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2011-2119

Creative Commons 4.0 2011 by Tony Tracy. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Introduction

In 2010 Ireland’s reputation as a modern, progressive economy reached a nadir unimaginable even a year ago. Over the past twelve months, increasingly negative assessments of the country’s political and economic acumen became commonplace in the national and then international media.1 At official levels, Ireland’s resilient cultural activity – often spurned or taken for granted in the years of the Celtic Tiger – emerged as a ‘gold standard’ of national identity and a key instrument in forging internal cohesion (in the absence of the Catholic Church which had another annus horribilis), creating jobs, and rehabilitating our international reputation. In January 2011, Culture Ireland launched Imagine Ireland, a year of Irish Arts in America (http://www.imagineireland.ie). Clearly an outcome of the Farmleigh Conference discussed in these pages last year, the initiative can be read as an attempt to ‘monetizing culture’ (as Dermot Desmond put it then), and while we might express reservations about the ideological underpinning of such exploitation, few would argue against a modest €4 million outlay that will give a variety of Irish artists international profile and employment and perhaps counterbalance the negative and regressive depictions of the Irish in American mainstream media.2  One element of the programme is a modest series of (twelve) screenings at MoMA, New York that take as its point of departure The Quiet Man – a film concerning a returned emigrant, struggling to understand the ways of his native land. Ford’s stage-Irish stereotypes continued to cause embarrassment into the 1990s until, coinciding with the first stirrings of economic emancipation, it was re-read as a ‘saturnalian’ (excessive, escapist – i.e. not realist) romance. As we embark on another era of apparently prolonged exile for thousands of Irish, the film moves unexpectedly towards another reading; a cyclical reminder of the loss of familial and communal ties for the (approx. 30,000) Irish emigrants who moved abroad in 2010. In a year of mind-boggling numbers, this is the year’s defining statistic.

One such migrant is Irish Film Board CEO Simon Perry (interviewed for Estudios Irlandeses near the start of his tenure: http://tinyurl.com/69tk76n), who, after five years in the job, did not have his contract renewed at the end of 2010. That his successor is James Hickey – an entertainment lawyer with no experience as a film creative (there is talk of the appointment of a ‘Creative Director’) – tells us something about the direction the board sees its work going in the next decade. A recent letter from the IFB to Irish production companies says as much:

. . . in the year ahead we anticipate a substantial increase in the focus on sectoral and industry development. We see this as essential if we are to ensure that filmmaking and the audiovisual production sector as a whole benefits from the emerging focus and support for Ireland’s Creative Industries. We believe that Irish filmmaking and the broader production industry will continue to be at the heart of Government policies for growth and job creation for as long as the case is successfully made and measurable results can demonstrate the success of such policies.3

The key emphasis here is an understanding of film as part of ‘Ireland’s Creative Industries’. The rhetoric of earlier eras (from the formation of the first film board in 1987 onwards) sought state support in order that the Irish represent themselves to themselves in the first instance, and then to the world. That has given way to the concept of ‘creative industry’, a bedfellow of the vaunted ‘smart economy’; buzzwords that follow the orthodoxies of transparency and accountability, providing ‘added-value’ in a globalised, digital era of monetized culture and intellectual copyright. The backdrop to the IFB letter we suspect is the last election in the UK which ushered in an era of ‘austerity’ in which such terminology is central; one of the first acts of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was to abolish the UK Film Council in July 2010.4  A similar move was proposed here in the 2009 McCarthy (‘An Bord Snip Nua’) Report.

As a producer whose career has been shaped by the subsidised paradigm of national cinema (in Ireland and earlier, the UK), Perry’s departure marks the end of an era, as well as a tenure, during which he initiated a wide and varied range of initiatives that sought to imaginatively respond to the changing conditions within which Irish cinema operated at a time of unprecedented public funding. Looking back, it is probably fair to say that he did a good job of managing the complex (and often competing) demands of a local cinema in a global marketplace– even if Irish cinema seems less visible to most people than before – and made imaginative use of public funding that seems certain to be cut. 2010 is, then, a snapshot and indeed summation of Irish film and cultural policy at a crucial juncture.

One is struck by a number of features of this year’s output. Firstly, by the sheer volume of productions. This is difficult to quantify given the fragmented pattern of distribution, but we can offer a general summation on the basis of film festival screenings. We counted eleven IFB funded (or part-funded) feature films at the Galway Film Fleadh this year: My Brothers (Paul Fraser), Come On Eileen (Finola Geraghty), The Looking Glass (Colin Downey) Rewind (PJ Dillon), Snap (Carmel Winters), Sensation (Tom Hall), Outcast (Colm McCarthy), The Runway (Ian Power), Five Day Shelter (Ger Leonard), Between the Canals (Mark O’Connor) and All Good Children (Alicia Duffy). Other titles were the made for TV film Jack Taylor (Stuart Orme), Fergus Tighe’s long awaited second feature Seaside Stories (his first since Clash of the Ash in 1987) and the feature version of TG4 mini series Na Cloigne (Robert Quinn). There were also a number of documentary features including The Pipe (Risteard Ó Domhnaill), Burma Soldier (Nic Dunlop, Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern), Counting Sheep (Dieter Auner) and A Prayer for the Windhorse (John Murray). The Dublin International Film Festival added to this tally with the horror film Wake Wood (David Keating), the Bosnian war-set As If I Am Not There (Juanita Wilson), and the creative documentary, Connemara/An Ear to the Earth (Pat Collins). Following a pattern established last year, we anticipate many of these receiving a general release this spring (The Pipe has already had a successful nation-wide release) and will therefore review them in our 2011 edition. In total we count an impressive roster of sixteen fiction features and five documentary features. Added to these are several programmes of short films across categories of animation, fiction and documentary. Additionally there is considerable TV output, notably the RTE drama features When Harvey Met Bob (starring this year’s rising Irish actor Donal Gleeson), the Edna O’Brien adaptationWild Decembers, and the mini-series Single Handed (6 x 60 mins.) and Love/Hate (4 x 60 mins.). Love/Hate was a (disappointing) contribution to RTE’s contemporary drama output that has produced the likes of Bachelors Walk, Pure Mule and Prosperity with a script by playwright Stuart Carolan and a ‘star’ cast of young Irish talent that included Aiden Gillen and Robert Sheehan. Finally, Ardmore studios took up where it left off with The Tudors in hosting the shooting of the first season of sexed-up period drama Camelot (using many of the same support and creative personnel), a ten-part TV series for US cable network Starz. All in all, the amount of activity in the sector in 2010 defied Ireland’s dire economic predicament – though we must balance that observation by noting that development and production budgets would have predated the worst.

An associated feature of Irish audiovisual production this year is its growing diversity – from animation through feature fiction and documentary – with a growing sense of competence and confidence across all formats, and some productions competing at the very highest levels. Notable successes included five Oscar nominations in 2010, including a win for Juanita Wilson’s short film The Doorhttp://vimeo.com/9758104 – and a range of festival awards. His and Hers was the Irish box-office phenomenon of the year (earning over €300,000 – an Irish record) and enjoyed similar success on its subsequent DVD release; no mean feat for a creative documentary.5 The funding of feature documentary production and distribution was a Simon Perry initiative and while director Ken Wardrop is a singular talent, whose work might have emerged regardless, an exciting range of talent is evident in films like The Pipe (which proved to be something of a phenomenon itself), Pyjama Girls, Colony and Off the Beaten Track (aka Counting Sheep), all widely different in style and content.

The last of these, Dieter Auner’s evocative Off the Beaten Track (a recent ‘must see’ from the Rotterdam Film Festival) follows a small family of shepherds in northern Romania over the course of a year, capturing practices and a community unchanged for hundreds of years, on the brink of tumultuous change. Its presence here points up a third feature of Irish film production in 2010 –its growing internationalization and the consequences of that reorientation for content and for a definition of national cinema. It was not unique. Burma Soldier tells the story of Myo Myint, a former soldier turned peace activist while A Prayer for the Wind Horse follows a family of Buddhist yak herders on a two–month odyssey through the Himalaya. The development of co-production relationships was another of Simon Perry’s distinctive contributions to funding policy and its results have been varied and sometimes baffling. In certain instances it has extended ideas about Irish identity in films like Come On Eileen (a UK co-production) but many other projects are less driven by thematic connections. As if I Am Not There is set in a Bosnian rape-camp during the war, was shot entirely in Macedonia and justifies its Irish funding by the fact that it is written and directed by Irish director Juanita Wilson (and co-produced by an Irish company). A similar logic is at work in the Russian thriller The Weather Station directed by Johnny O’Reilly but made entirely on location in Russia with Russian talent. Essential Killing, a post Afgan war drama with no apparently Irish connection beyond an Irish co-producer, features an American actor and Polish director. Why is Irish money involved with these films? Simon Perry has argued that limiting funding to a small indigenous talent and audience base simply doesn’t make sense in the current era; that the Irish audio visual industry needs to recognize, from the ground up, that it is operating in an international marketplace. The logic is that by retaining some rights from these films, which may or may not repay investment, Ireland positions itself in such an environment. Yet this argument is harder to sell as the basis for funding than the traditional one regarding self-representation. While in animation for instance – largely ignored by academic or cultural commentators (unless there is an Oscar nomination) – this has always been the norm, when it comes to live-action drama we require a higher quotient of cultural integrity. In any case it will be interesting to see where this initiative goes. In a Film Ireland interview before he departed, Perry admitted that such deals required a great deal of personal contact and investment across international networks to come to fruition.

Similar questions, of course, might be asked of the €13million that the Irish taxpayer contributed– through section 481 and subsidies – to the production of Leap Year in 2009, a lamentable Hollywood romcom that re-cycled clichés of primitive Ireland and Irish whimsy that would have looked tired in 1960. Here, we might expect the argument that a sizable portion of that film’s $30 million budget was spent in Ireland. This is the case put by IBEC in its 2010 review of film and TV production which claims that last year was a record one in the total Irish expenditure of €225 million, of which half came from non-Irish sources.6 IBEC has been to the forefront of defending section 481 but with tax breaks in other sectors coming under intense scrutiny in the current economic climate, it will become harder to defend on its own terms. If it is to survive I expect it will be articulated as part of a wider strategy relating to the ‘creative industries’ mentioned above.

As a kind of watershed, 2010 shows us that when the next chapter of Irish film history comes to be written (following the work of Rockett, Gibbons, Hill, Barton et al), it will encounter an increased number and array of productions that complicate the earlier dichotomies of format (feature film/TV), genre (rural/urban; the ‘Troubles’; adaptation; Irish history etc.) and the paradigmatic framework of national cinema as it has been so-far charted. Nevertheless, for all the growth in production, the fragmentation of distribution and the growing internationalization of funding, Irish cinema, as it has been traditionally understood, is still pursued by many filmmakers. Productions like The Pipe, Pyjama Girls, The Fading Light, Savage, Na Cloigne, Snap, Moore Street Masala (all discussed here) and many more demonstrate a keen and ongoing engagement with national identity  – even as that concept is stretched and loosened – in various forms and tones.

  1. The most recent example of which is the Vanity Fair (March 2011) article ‘When Irish Eyes Are Crying’ http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2011/03/michael-lewis-ireland-201103 []
  2. Including, for instance, the portrait of Taoiseach Brain Cowan as a ‘drunken moron’ on the Jay Leno talk show: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2010/09/27/videobrian-cowen-on-the-tonight-show-with-jay-leno []
  3. Released through Ted Sheehy’s blog: http://www.irishfilmportal.blogspot.com/ []
  4. http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/abolition []
  5. Interview with the director: http://vimeo.com/12461264 []
  6. http://ibec.ie/IBEC/Press/PressPublicationsdoclib3.nsf/vPages/Newsroom~2010-set-to-be-record-year-for-tv-and-film-production-15-12-2010/$file/AF+Review+2010.pdf []