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Experimental Conversations (2006)

Written and directed by Fergus Daly.

Featuring Nicole Brenez, Philippe Grandrieux, Maeve Connolly, Gerard Byrne, Malcolm le Grice, Vivienne Dick, Vincent Deville, Jackie Raynal, Raymond Bellour, Olwen Fouéré, FJ Ossang, Augustin Gimel and Maximilian le Cain.

Funded by the Arts Council and the Irish Film Board.

Halfway through Experimental Conversations, a quote appears on screen which boldly situates Fergus Daly’s film in opposition to almost all other documentary explorations of Irish cinema. The quote, from Irish filmmaker and critic Maximilian le Cain, declares: “Since there is no worthwhile commercial cinema in Ireland, all great Irish films come from experimental cinema.”

From its outset, Daly’s film seems to implicitly endorse this position — but rather than using it as the basis for a reductive partition of Irish cinema, this narrowing of focus is taken as an opportunity to open up the discussion in other ways, as Daly suggests links, parallels and exchanges between Irish experimental cinema and its international counterparts, particularly in France. Divided into broad thematic chapters, the film uses interviews with an array of Irish and French filmmakers and critics to explore various aspects of experimental film practice. French critic Nicole Brenez sets the tone with a working definition of experimental cinema: while “the so-called standard cinemastandardises emotions, sensation, perception and belief,” experimental cinema “re-opens the entire field of experience”. It’s the “exploration of all possible conceptions, which don’t pre-exist the exploration itself.”

“All possible conceptions” may sound like pretty expansive subject matter for a two-hour documentary, butExperimental Conversations strikes an engaging balance between narrative cohesion and discursive looseness. Not forcing his featured filmmakers too tightly into generic categories, Daly at the same time allows their thoughts and experiences to parallel and intermingle under shared headings, and, by focusing on the specificities of their own work, prevents the discussion from becoming too unwieldy to manage. The selection of artists covers a broad (if mostly French) spectrum, ranging from cult arthouse directors Philippe Grandrieux and FJ Ossang through established avant-garde figures like Malcolm le Grice to lesser known independent figures such as Augustin Gimel. The Irish contingent encompass a somewhat narrower range, with most (such as Gerard Byrne, Clare Langan, Grace Weir) working on film within a fine art context. Interestingly, the least recognisable of the Irish filmmakers featured, Vivienne Dick and Maximilian le Cain, are the only ones who began working independently, outside of the fine art world.

The dialectic between the singularity of each artist and their commonalities emerges as one of the film’s main thematic concerns. Daly has described “the ethics of the experimental filmmaker” as entailing a simultaneous commitment to working in relation to a tradition of experimental practice, while at the same time constantly seeking out new and unexplored formal possibilities.1 The film exhibits that same double commitment. So, while ample time is taken to discuss, for example, the unique qualities of Grandrieux’s cinematography or Langan’s technique of hand painting lens filters, there is a repeated movement between this kind of specificity and a contextualisation of their work in relation to other artists and cultural milieus. Vivienne Dick and Jackie Raynal are dealt with in terms of their interactions with the New York art scene of the late ‘70s; Ossang discusses the impact of futurism and rock ’n’ roll on his work; Byrne talks about his engagement with the detritus of US pop culture. The particular exchanges between French and Irish culture are highlighted by French critic Raymond Bellour’s lecture on James Coleman, an Irish artist whose work straddles the border between cinema and photography, and a defining influence on some of the younger Irish artists, despite having a much stronger reputation in France than Ireland.

Although its basic building blocks  film clips and talking heads — are ubiquitous within TV and documentary, there are no real reference points for a film like Experimental Conversations within Irish cinema. There has been a surge in arts documentaries in recent years, but almost all have been single-artist studies, and to my knowledge no-one has ever attempted the kind of cross-cultural reflection Daly does here. One can see some precedence, however, in Daly’s previous documentary, Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living (co-directed by Pat Collins, 2003), which, while fitting the single-artist mode, had an unusually strong focus on critical and conceptual analyses and structured itself around such discussions. Daly’s work as a film critic obviously feeds into this; he has written for Film WestCahiers du Cinema and Senses of Cinema, co-authored a book on Leos Carax, and has often focused on formal and philosophical parallels between films across an international spectrum (the influence of Gilles Deleuze on his work in this respect is worth noting).

But in a broader Irish context, Daly’s film is perhaps most usefully seen in contrast to Irish Cinema: Ourselves Alone?(1996). Directed by Donald Taylor Black and written by Kevin Rockett, now two presiding figures in Irish academia as heads of the National Film School and Trinity Film Department respectively, Ourselves Alone? is probably the defining documentary account of Irish cinema. Taking a broad and linear historical view,  the film charts the development of indigenous filmmaking in Ireland since the early 20th century. The development is framed mainly in terms of the many false starts of indigenous industry, hampered by unsympathetic government policy, with the success and recognition of ‘90s Irish cinema positioned as a final flowering of a long-stunted aspiration. Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, as the figureheads of this culmination, are the star interview subjects, with First Wave filmmakers such as Bob Quinn, Joe Comerford and Pat Murphy given supporting roles as the pioneers who laid the foundations for the ‘90s filmmaking boom. There is, however, little focus on questions of style and no mention of experimental cinema or non-industrial forms of filmmaking.

Daly’s approach is implicitly oppositional to Black’s in many respects. First of all, apart from a passing reference to Thaddeus O’Sullivan, Daly deals with ‘70s Ireland solely through the lens of Vivienne Dick, the only First Wave filmmaker completely ignored by Black. As Maeve Connolly, one of the few Irish scholars specialising in experimental cinema (and the only one to feature in Experimental Conversations), has written, “Within Irish cinema studies, the period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s has been historicised in terms of the emergence of an indigenous industry.”2  Daly’s focus on Dick rejects this historicisation, as unlike her Irish contemporaries, Dick’s work (mostly shot on Super 8) has never so much as flirted with industrial production. It also indicates that Daly is as uninterested in national identity as he is in national industry, as Dick is significantly the Irish filmmaker most formed by and engaged with international currents, having begun working in the New York “No Wave” scene and later working with the London Filmmakers Co-Op.

Implied in these contrasts is the most pivotal difference between the two films. Black builds a picture of a body of work called Irish Cinema — not homogenous or static, but still identifiably corporeal. Although the Le Cain quote mentioned at the beginning may suggest a desire to build an alternative body — that of Irish Experimental Cinema — Daly undermines such an image from clearly emerging. Concerning itself much more with the creation of links than boundaries (Daly’s narrative doesn’t even limit itself to cinema; theatre, photography, fine art and science all emerge as interconnected disciplines at various points), Experimental Conversations is in many ways an experimental work in itself, and the conversations of its title — conversations between different cultures, arts, generations — are central. As Daly puts it, “This ability to experiment in a conversational situation is analogous to what experimental film and video artists do in their daily practice: to push forward without pre-conceived idea or prepared answers.”3 Rather than offering an alternative history of Irish cinema, Experimental Conversations in fact offers an alternative discourse; a different way of thinking about cinema in which Irish Experimental Cinema isn’t something one can formulate in isolation.

There are weaknesses to this approach. As in the Kiarostami documentary, Daly is much more interested in a non-linear tracing of influences and concepts than with material facts. As a result, cinema is almost never discussed by the interviewees in terms of their personal background or social or economic situation, for example. Arguably such avoidance reinforces the misconception Connolly criticises, “that avant-garde practice constitutes a transient process of ‘experimentation’ rather than a critique of the industrial apparatus and the institutions and structures of production and reception.”4 Stimulating as Daly’s focus on conceptual and formal thinking may be, the issue arises of how useful it is in terms of addressing or assisting experimental cinema’s current situation in Ireland.

Before answering, it’s worth briefly outlining that situation. After many years of invisibility, experimental cinema is enjoying an increasingly stable and supported position as a discipline within fine art practice in Ireland. In galleries and graduate shows, film, mainly in the form of video installations, is becoming ubiquitous. This seems natural, given that the fine art world, in contrast to the relatively confined parameters of the film industry, provides an attractively open, multi-disciplinary, and international base in which to work (the international question emerges inOurselves Alone? only in the pragmatic guise of how to negotiate Hollywood’s global hegemony). The place of experimental cinema within film culture, however, is increasingly negligible. Despite the First Wave’s mix of industry and experimentation, all its members have either effectively “dropped out” (Dick, Comerford) or gone the industry route (O’Sullivan, Cathal Black) — and there is now little interaction between the world of “film film” and “fine art film”; their audiences, for example, tend to rarely overlap. It doesn’t seem insignificant that Dick and Le Cain have recently moved towards the gallery5 , but it’s also worth noting the stifling effect this separation can have on fine art filmmakers, leaving them without a foothold in the international avant-garde film scene that operates outside of fine art. Daly seems aware of this situation when, opening his film at a bookshop event in Paris which brought together “not only filmmakers and critics, but also composers, photographers, painters, actors…” , he states that “such a gathering confirms my belief that Paris is the only place in which to ask ‘What’s at stake in the new wave of Irish artists? What’s the international context for their sounds and images?’”

Daly argues that “for Irish artists thinking more conceptually has meant thinking more globally”6 and this film is the beginning of a discourse in those global terms. His emphatic forging of links with France (where film and fine art seem quite healthily entwined), seems to imply that such a discourse is currently lacking in Ireland, but the very making of the film suggests a desire to initiate it. It also explains the film’s more tenuous associations; for example, the argument that French playwright Antonin Artaud’s 1937 trip to Ireland “tied us irrevocably to the French avant-garde” seems more like wishful thinking than historical reality — but it does tell us something about the way Daly’s film works. The relevant question seems to be not “did Artaud really influence Irish culture?”  but rather  “what can be gained for Irish culture now by imagining that influence and contemplating its implications?”

This is what problematises Experimental Conversations as a documentary and what makes it all the more significant as a cultural provocation; on the one hand its refusal to acknowledge that which it does not believe in (commercial cinema, for example, or the economic context of experimental cinema) and on the other hand its supposition of links in a way that encourages a re-imagining and re-contextualisation of Irish experimental cinema. As a work in itself, Conversations is clearly less interested in being a record of connections than an active means of forging them; by placing Irish artists and critics within an international context, Daly is encouraging an exchange and expansion of Irish cinema rather than a definition of it. Whether there is an audience willing to follow Daly’s lead isn’t clear yet — the film has only been screened once in Ireland7 —, but there have been a spate of recent cultural events which seem to be advocating a likeminded international and cross-medium expansion of how we view experimental cinema: for example, the Darklight Symposium, the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival and Esperanza Collado’s film screenings at Thisisnotashop gallery, as well as visual arts events such as Tulca in Galway and Mamuska in Limerick.8

Perhaps Paris will not be the only place to ask these questions for long.

  1. Daly, Director’s Notes, http://www.corkfilmfest.org/2006/exp-con.html  []
  2. Maeve Connolly, “Sighting an Irish Avant-Garde in the Intersection of Local and International Film Cultures” inboundary 2 31.1 (2004), http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/boundary/v031/31.1connolly.html  []
  3. Connolly, “Sighting an Irish Avant-Garde in the Intersection of Local and International Film Cultures” in boundary 2 31.1 (2004),   http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/boundary/v031/31.1connolly.html. Daly’s approach also leaves out questions of arts policy and its importance as a means to support, or marginalise, experimental cinema — as well as what we might learn from France on the matter.  []
  4. Daly, Director’s Notes, http://www.corkfilmfest.org/2006/exp-con.html  []
  5. Dick’s last film, Excluded by the Nature of Things (2003), was her first gallery installation, and Le Cain exhibited(…from a dying hotel), a site-specific installation, last year.  []
  6. Fergus Daly, Film Synopsis (emailed by author)  []
  7. The film premiered at the Cork Film Festival and has since been screened only one other time, at the Alternative Film/Video Festival in Serbia. Two clips from the film can be viewed on YouTube athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itmZstYeudo  []
  8. For more information on these events, check out http://www.deafireland.com; http://darklight.ie/pages/talks.htm;http://tulca.ie and http://thisisnotashop.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/esperanza-collado-zero-degree-the-new-image-of-thought
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