Irish Film and Television – 2009

Tony Tracy
Huston School, NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2010
ISSUE 5 | Pages: 203-255 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2010-2486

Creative Commons 4.0 2010 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.

At the launch of the 2008 annual Irish Film Board Review  —  complete with flowing wine, a lavish publication and complementary DVD compilation (Irish Talent on Film Vol. V)  —  CEO Simon Perry, still recalling the success of Once  —  stated that there had never been a better time for Irish cinema. There had never been so many co-productions in the pipeline, films in development, in production or about to be released. In spite of such ebullience, 2009 didn’t in reality feel like a Golden Age for Irish cinema and we were denied the opportunity to hear the Irish Film Board’s current prognosis of the industry as, in keeping with the new culture of public sector austerity, there was neither launch, publication nor DVD compilation in late 2009. That there is still a Irish Film Board is something of a miracle in itself, for it has been a year of prolonged economic and cultural (not to mention environmental) shocks in Ireland that resulted in unprecedented curtailments of public spending  —  a situation comparable to the one that brought about the premature disbanding of the first Irish Film Board in 1987. To understand why this action wasn’t repeated involves consideration of a number of factors including changes in the globalization of the culture industry and Ireland’s place in it, the cultural and psychic legacy of the confidence engendered by the Celtic Tiger years, the elaborate and extensive infrastructure (education, training, facilities, equipment) that grew up around the audiovisual and cultural sector during the good times, the international success of Irish cultural producers  —  in film, music, drama and literature most notably  —  over the past two decades, and the awareness of the value of an “indigenous” Irish culture in an increasingly multicultural society and open economy. A hugely significant factor however, was how sophisticated the sector itself has become in arguing its own case for sustained state support. 

Too late for inclusion in last year’s review was mention of the 2008 PricewaterhouseCoopers report commissioned by The Irish Film Board “to inform a new landmark strategic plan for the audiovisual content production sector” (http://www.filmboard.ie/files/Final%20AudioVisual%20Sector%20Survey%20Report-1.pdf). The report was valuable on many fronts, not least because it refreshed statistics that were well out of date, but especially because it increased the scope of its findings beyond the bald production data of earlier reports to consider the “real economy” of the industry. Thus we discovered that “the sector is valued at over €557.3 million, employs over 6,000 individuals and represents 0.3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)”. We also learnt that the sector employs 6,905 individuals and that an estimated 567 companies operate comprising production companies, post-production companies and service providers. There is provocative and real detail in the findings on “freelancers”  —  a sizable bulk of the industry: that 90% are under the age of 50 and the majority are male, with earnings between €2,500 and €150,000 in 2006 and 2007. Freelancers are “a well educated group with 59% having achieved either a Degree, Master/ Postgraduate Degree or Doctorate/ Post Doctoral Degree  —  only 2% of freelancers have no formal qualification at all.” For all the emphasis on, and attention garnered by feature film production, the report notes that the area of post-production has experienced the largest growth in recent years  —  with a sizable proportion of employees earning €35,000 per annum. Here then is objective evidence of the much vaunted “knowledge economy”  —  the buzz concept at the heart of much recent Government discussions on education and future growth  —  or the basis of it.

The depth and subtlety of the report was always going to be useful in informing future strategy but as the 2009 progressed it became, literally, vital. In a bid to stop the haemorrhaging of public money in the aftermath of a spectacular collapse in tax receipts, the government appointed economist Colm McCarthy to chair a committee (aka “an Bord Snip Nua”) charged with identifying where savings might be made. The resulting, “McCarthy Report” (published in July 2009 and properly titled “Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes”) was broad-ranging and cold-eyed in its targets. In relation to the IFB it proposed that “… sector-specific agencies such as the Irish Film Board, should be merged within a re-constituted Enterprise Ireland.” It argued that “The discontinuation of Irish Film Board and investment fund” would garner savings of some € 20 millions. The logic of this action was based upon the premise that the IFB was fundamentally an “enterprise activity”  —  along with organizations such as Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Bord Bia (the fish board and food board respectively)  —  that “sold” Ireland at home and principally abroad. It was a daft misunderstanding of the board’s activities but nonetheless its argument for consolidation was one being applied across a range of public bodies and “qangos” (quasi non-governmental organizations), which proliferated in time of financial plenty.

The IFB responded, speaking the language of the economists:

The funding provided through BSÉ/IFB attracts additional finance that today supports an increasing level of private sector employment. The growth potential of the audiovisual content industry, as an essential component of the Smart Economy strategy, represents one of the best prospects of employment for young people seeking jobs in the future. For these reasons we believe it is important, in the context of the immediate crisis in the public finances, to ask Government to consider carefully the economic impact and employment consequences of this particular recommendation.

And consider it, the government did. To the surprise and delight of many, McCarthy’s myopic view of the function, significance and indeed economics of indigenous film was quickly rejected by Minister for Arts Sport and Tourism Martin Cullen, who said that “earmarking the Irish Film Board for closure was an ‘horrific approach’”: He had fought to keep the 100 per cent tax exemption last year because it helped to generate a €150 million industry; Both the IFB and “Culture Ireland”, which promotes and advance Irish arts internationally, generated “far, far greater return” for the State than the money put into it in the first place. Elsewhere, far from simply defending the value and importance of the arts to a society at large, Cullen suggested that the cultural sector would become central to Ireland’s future economic policies:

Culture is really at the centre of what we’re going to do going forward . . . It’s the biggest growth area, in spite of the world downturn, that’s going to come over the next 15 years.

In fact, so foregrounded were economic arguments in defence of the film sector that any trace of intrinsic merit seemed a secondary consequence, at best. Even when the IFB seemed to summon “soft” values in defence of its continued existence,

To be taken into consideration also are the consequences for Ireland if it were to become the only developed country in the world producing no films for the cinema, and thereby losing the most powerful tool available for establishing and sustaining its cultural identity abroad . . .

it quickly reassured the Minister for Finance: “Almost one in two US tourists to Ireland now state that their decision to come was triggered by seeing Ireland in the movies.” Never mind that most of those movies were likely made long before the existence of the second film board. The perception of the IFB as primarily an artistic  —  rather than marketing  —  institution was bolstered by Neil Jordan in a provocative comment that quickly became a rallying point for the wider arts community: “So many institutions have failed the Irish people . . . the banks, the construction industry, the Church

[but] The culture industry, they have not failed, they are perhaps the only success story that remains after the last 20 years.” That comment was made outside Farmleigh House (Phoenix Park) in the aftermath of a diaspora “think-in” proposed by “pop-economist” David McWilliams. A kind of Davos in Dublin, this weekend of behind-doors talking amongst the elite of Irish men and women from around the globe seemed to generate just one specific recommendation to remedy our financial woes. Martin Cullen and billionaire financier Dermot Desmond proposed the establishment of a world class arts and culture university, to better “monatise” (in the words of telecoms businessman Dennis O’Brien)  our national culture. The knock-on of all this enthusiasm for culture as a key provider for future revenue, growth, value to tourism and “brand Ireland” is that the IFB experienced a mere 5% drop in its overall funding; a remarkably benign reduction in the circumstances.
On the face of it, Simon Perry was correct: 2009 was an unprecedented period of activity in terms of feature film completions. We count some fourteen titles: Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel), The Eclipse (Conor McPhearson) His and Hers (Ken Wardrop), Savage (Brendan Muldowney), Occi Versus the World (Conor McDermottroe) (aka Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne), One Hundred Mornings (Conor Horgan), The Wake Wood (David Keating) Eamon (Margaret Corkery), Zonad,Cherrybomb, Perrier’s Bounty, Wide Open Spaces (Tom Hall) Happy Ever Afters(Stephen Burke), and “independent features” (i.e. made without direct IFB funding by Park Pictures) Situations Vacant (Lisa Mulcahy) and Ivan Kavanagh’s Fading Light. Few of these were the straightforward production finance arrangements that used to be the norm of Irish cinema. While all but the Park Pictures films were supported by the Irish Film Board, all are co-productions, with Film Board funding central only to the €150,000 budgets of the Catalyst films (EamonOne Hundred Mornings and the forthcoming Redux) and its various short film and animation schemes. 

There were also a number of other co-productions whose provenance and centrality to a discussion of national cinema is less easy to define  —  films like Danis Tanovic’sTriage (starring Colin Farrell), Vic Sarin’s A Shine of Rainbows (starring Aidan Quinn), Urszula Antoniak’s Nothing Personal (starring Stephen Rea), Mira Fornay’sFoxes  —  all of which are co-produced with east European partners, none of which have been seen here and all of which appear  —  on the bases of supplied synopses  —  to use Ireland opportunistically as a co-production location or production partner. Of course, the casting of Irish actors complicates a reductive reading of these east-west co-productions as simply marriages of financial convenience and time will tell if in them, we find the seeds of an enlarged understanding of Irish cinema.  Finally, the largest budget of any film made in Ireland in 2009 was for the Hollywood “rom-com” Leap Year, the latest in the century old tradition of American cinema to consider Ireland less of a geographical than imaginary entity; a backward idyll where over-worked Americans can escape the pressures of consumer capitalism and recover their inner romantic in a pastoral landscape untrammelled by worldly success. Ironic, given the state of our economy.

However, despite this impressive roster of activity and the dedication to maximizing output by the IFB, this year’s review is somewhat thin in its traditional attention to feature titles since so many films remain unreleased while others have had short releases or been confined to the film festival circuit. While some made it to the traditional showcase of new Irish film at the Galway Film Fleadh in July 09  —  His and Hers, SavageOcci Versus the WorldOne Hundred Mornings and Zonad  —  all have yet to be seen by wider audiences. At time of writing, the biggest indigenous film of the year, Neil Jordan’s Ondine has also yet to find a release. Here, then, are some first impressions . . .

His and Hers is the feature debut of Ken Wardrop, a singular voice in Irish cinema. After its Galway premiere, it achieved international recognition with its acceptance into the Sundance Film Festival (Jan 2010) where it was widely praised in the American trade press and won the ‘World Cinema Documentary Cinematography Prize’; a considerable achievement for a film of its budget and scope. With his producing partner and recent National Film School co-graduate Andrew Freedman, Wardrop has made eleven short films  —  principally “creative documentaries” which have already  —  quite exceptionally  —  been the subject of a retrospective at the Irish Film Institute in 2008. Watching those sometimes slight though engaging films one wondered how Wardrop would parlay a highly individual perspective into a longer format. His and Hers is a convincing and organic extrapolation of his method and style in its delicate realism and deep respect for his subjects. Wardrop may be making documentaries but they are neither the “creative treatment of actuality” specified by Grierson nor the straightforward expository storytelling format  —  however poetic  —  familiar from Irish TV. His sensibility is tuned particularly towards the feminine and the ‘taken-for-granted’ of daily life and this film follows the life cycle of a group of some 70 women from the Irish midlands  —  a middle space in more senses than one and one largely absent in Irish cinema which has tended to gravitate to the coasts in search of the essence of Irishness. This choice of subject and setting marks the film as simultaneously marginal and (geographically, biologically) central and returns us, after the international capitalism of the lad dominated Tiger years, to a more enduring Ireland guided by a feminine animus. The cyclical motif is central to the film’s structure which documents an unidentified group of women across all stages of their lives. A formal restraint cuts across a homely familiarity to produce a generalized, while unmistakably local portrait of Irish womanhood.

An original and promising talent is also on display in Eamon, the debut feature film by Margaret Corkery. This film was one of three funded by the IFB’s innovative Catalyst scheme; a new funding mechanism inspired by the ‘low-fi’ success of Oncethat offers first-time film-makers the comparatively tiny budget of €150,000 (by way of comparison, Leap Year was in the region of $20 million). Despite this, Corkery and her collaborators have produced a satisfying if slight film that looks great and doesn’t feel unduly limited by financial constraints. Eamon shares the mood and ambiance of Corkery’s short Killing the Afternoon in its beach setting  —  an oddly unfamiliar location in Irish cinema given our island status. It centres on the title character, a small boy, and his relationship with his young, selfish and largely incompetent parents as they spend a few days away from Dublin in a holiday cottage. While the material might suggest the style of British directors like Shane Meadows or Lynn Ramsey, Corkery opts for a far gentler approach that both critiques the parents (effectively played by Darren Healy and Amy Kirwan)  —  gently satirizing their inability to progress beyond bodily self-indulgence  —  while offering us a warm and paradoxically nostalgic portrait of summer holidays by the sea. While some might fault the thinness of its plot or the refusal to take its serious subjects more seriously, Eamon has an idiosyncratic tone and strong cinematic voice that makes it distinctive and engaging.

Both His and Hers and Eamon are notable not only for their respective directors’ strongly cinematic voices but to the extent which they deviate from trends in Irish cinema over the past decade: notably the preoccupation with urban masculinity in crisis and genre storytelling. This thematic nexus is found once again in Savage, an unsubtle but revealing revenge narrative which offers a very Irish take on the emasculated white male motif found in American cinema since Dirty Harry (which in turn gave rise to the rape-revenge sub-genre). It follows the transformation of a shy press photographer (played once again by Darren Healy) into a blood thirsty avenger following an assault in Dublin city centre. Characterization is weak and the plot clunky and simplistic in this attempt to reflect changes in Irish society  —  here the exponential rise in knife violence and assault perpetrated by, and against, young men in our urban centres  —  through the filter of Hollywood genre practices. This recurrent tendency clearly reflects a cinematic “education” steeped in American film and an ambition to participate in an international cinematic vernacular based on “indigenous” story elements. While Savage displays an admirable desire to engage with the ongoing “crises” in Irish masculinity, the result is dead-end film-making caught between a dated and obvious genre structure and a screenplay with little originality or skill. Where are all the script editors?

We have mentioned Once on several occasions in this overview and the disproportionate success of that film meant that whatever its writer/director John Carney did next would be greeted with much anticipation and more than likely a decent budget. What was conveniently overlooked in the publicity surrounding theOnce (“the little film that could”) was that Carney had risen the slippery pole of success earlier in his career only to score a misfire when offered the opportunity of a bigger budget and better distribution. Having created a strong impression with his “no-budget” films of the mid-nineties, November Afternoon and Park (co-directed with Tom Hall) Carney went on to make On the Edge funded and distributed by Universal Pictures. It was a downbeat and unappealing story about teenage depressives and following it, Carney returned to his more improvisational style in the loose-limbed and libidinous TV series Bachelor’s Walk (surely the most successful treatment of the “new” Irish male in recent times). This time, no doubt offered all kinds of projects in the aftermath of Once’s success, Carney has instead followed with something completely different. Zonad (co-written with his brother Kieran) is like nothing seen in Irish cinema before: offbeat, lecherous and very funny. An exuberant pastiche of 1950s American sci-fi (with a terrifically inventive soundtrack to match) Zonad feels like The Butcher Boy meets American Pie and will surely find a loyal audience in 15-25 year old demographic when it eventually gets a release. Simon Delaney in the title role (as escaped convict who pretends to be an alien named Zonad) is particularly funny but his deception is sustained by the consistency of the film’s tone across all areas of the production. What is most impressive isZonad’s knowing playing with cinematic history  —  including the ultimate Irish film of a male outsider who pursues the local girl, The Quiet Man  —  without ever pandering to that heritage or seeking to engage with it beyond pastiche.

This year’s review contains entries on a wide range of output: documentary, features, TV as well as Michael Patrick Gillespie’s timely tribute to the late Donal Donnelly. In 2009 the Irish audiovisual sector continued to demonstrate skill and success beyond its borders, notably in the area of animation (an impressive two Oscar nominations in 2010 and discussed below), short films and low-budget feature productions (with festival awards for Eamon and His and Hers). The sector provided employment and vital experience through a vibrant slate of co-productions as well as the large-scale projects Leap Year and the final (fourth) series of The Tudors at Ardmore Studios. With the improvement of terms for the “section 481” tax break during 2009, the sector’s internationalization is only likely to increase. That this is now a cornerstone of Ireland’s “business plan” for the sector is evidenced by the fact that The Tudors Irish producer Morgan O’Sullivan recently unveiled plans to construct a new film studio in Wicklow in order to pursue large-scale international co-productions. The weak spot in this patchwork of activity has been the central, expensive plank of indigenous feature film production which continues to disappoint. Scriptwriting skills remain below par and the IFB must assume some responsibility for not pushing the scripts, and writers they fund, harder. Distribution, as we’ve noted, is also an issue. Irish audiences are still attending the cinema in record numbers but, like their international counterparts, are going to see a narrow range of product at their local multiplexes. While the Hollywood behemoth Avatarbecomes the biggest grossing film in history, Irish films are lucky to get a week on the schedule. This is by no means an issue specific to Ireland and indeed the rollout of digital projection has helped improve matters for some smaller films likeSituations Vacant (a low budget feature entirely funded by TV3) that was released on an impressive nineteen screens. While Government support and commitment to the sector remains strong, the prospects for the production of “indigenous” Irish films above a budget range of €2 million (beyond Jordan or Sheridan) seem bleak, with consequences for story ambitions and production values. For now however, such funds as are available ought to be directed towards the rigorous development of scripts and young writers. There is still much work to be done.