Irish Film and Television – 2016

Roddy Flynn | Tony Tracy
Dublin City University, Ireland | Huston School, NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2017
ISSUE 12 | Pages: 252-279 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7365

Creative Commons 4.0 2017 by Roddy Flynn and 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.

Globalizing the Local: Irish Film and TV in 2016

“Ireland’s presence globally is through its culture, that’s our strongest identifier

Lenny Abrahamson

By any standards, 2016 was an exceptional year of output and achievements for the Irish audio-visual sector which continued to grow in activity, ambition and international acclaim. Alongside headline achievements for feature films such as Room, Sing Street, The Lobster, The Young Offenders there were notable successes in animation, short films and documentary as well as a bumper – and unlikely to be repeated – level of drama and factual programming produced for the small screen as part of the 1916 commemorations. Thanks to such efforts, and despite an increasing tendency towards non-Irish settings and stories in feature film, one of the most striking elements of moving image production in 2016 was the degree to which this range of output balanced cultural and commercial imperatives in an era of increasingly commodified “content”. Having said that, there was irony in the fact that having produced an unprecedented quantity (and quality) of material dealing with the historical origins of an independent Ireland in the early part of the year, the television sector underwent rapid and seismic changes in the second half of 2016 in an apparently irreversible shift towards globalized ownership and formats and a fundamental re-shaping of RTEs role as national broadcaster.

Off-screen, 2016 was also marked by a perceptible advance in gender participation and a range of female-led successes and appointments. Prolific producers such as Rebecca O’Flanagan (Viva, Handsome Devil), Katie Holly (the period film Love and Friendship was one of the year’s biggest and most unusual Irish success stories), Rachel Lysaght (Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, Hostage to the Devil) and Leslie McKimm continued to build business momentum while also being to the forefront of institutional decision processes; Holly and Lysaght were appointed as members of the IFB and McKimm as Project Manager. Within the same organization the confirmation of Dr. Annie Doona as IFB Chair (following the untimely passing of Bill O’Herlihy in June 2016), marked the first woman in the role since Lelia Doolin in the early 1990s. Doona was instrumental in the formulation of the IFB’s “six point plan” in Nov. 2015, “a holistic and integrated approach to achieve real change” around gender equality in the industry. Among its commitments was greater focus on, and transparency around funding decisions, the consequences of which have led to an increased proportion of development funding to projects with female involvement in July 2016 and a female-majority board in March 2017. Another notable appointment was that of Ms. Dee Forbes as Director General of RTE. Having previously held senior roles at Turner Broadcasting and the Discovery channel she is the first woman to hold the role at RTE at a time of enormous challenges to public broadcasting and the first external appointment in almost 50 years.

The March 2016 Academy Awards marked a well-publicized highpoint for the Irish film industry after years of declining state support and offered a timely opportunity (as in 1993 with Neil Jordan’s victory for The Crying Game) to both build international profile and for intensified lobbying of the Irish government to restore capital funding to pre-crash levels. While in Los Angeles for the awards, the IFB worked hard to position Ireland “as a production and innovation destination” for inward US production. Partnering with IDA Ireland to co-host a meet and greet reception with LA based producers and players, such language upgraded the traditional Failte Ireland pitch of landscape, locations and (skilled) locals for the transnational media era. While inward investment is clearly an important part of the mix for Ireland’s globalizing audiovisual sector (and central to the business plans for the acres of new studio space announced in 2016), a feature article in the LA Times also saw Irish filmmakers and funders seeking to leverage their success for the development of the indigenous production sector. As a Best Director nominee for Room Lenny Abrahamson received plenty of press attention and used it not only to speak about himself but to pointedly remark that “The Irish government has treated the arts as an afterthought . . . They love when we do well, but they haven’t really taken it seriously. What has to happen is, we don’t just need to return to pre-recession levels of funding, we need to have a much bigger vision than we’ve ever had.”1 Soon after his return from LA Abrahamson capitalized on his public profile to secure a meeting with the Minister to push the case. This pressure was sustained through a series of flattering articles in the American trade and lifestyle press about Irish film throughout the year. Industry bible Variety quickly picked up the integrated discourse of art and business by claiming that “Ireland has become a capital of filmmaking as well as a thriving business site for established industry pros and entrepreneurs alike,” whose “creative resurgence is benefiting not only the local film industry, but also world cinema at large.” Forbes magazine similarly contained a feature article on “Ireland’s Film Entrepreneurs” (a new word for producers). All this had a discernable if initially unspectacular effect: the 2017 Budget included €2 million increase for the Irish Film Board and, in a manner which continued the linguistic shift away from treating film as cultural artifact noted in 2011’s “Creative Capital” report, the commissioning of an economic analysis of “Ireland’s screen-based creative industries”. Under CEO James Hickey, the IFB has kept the pressure up, producing in July 2016, an ambitious Five-Year Strategic Plan entitled “Building on Success” which again called for “the immediate restoration of €20 million in state funding.”

The strong and sophisticated blend of talent showcased in Los Angeles through films such as Room, Brooklyn and Viva (which missed a nomination but drew plenty of attention), the short film Stutterer (which won the Academy Award) and actors like Saoirse Ronan and Michael Fassbender demonstrated the depth and confidence of the sector and the distance it had travelled from a position of peripheral nation mythmaking. (In several interviews after the Oscars, producer Ed Guiney noted how many people he met in LA did not know that Room was Irish – though that text’s complete eschewal of Irishness surely made this forgiveable). Across 2016 a similarly eclectic slate of productions competed for critical and commercial attention, with mixed fortunes and increasingly diverse channels of funding and distribution. Compiling information from IFB and other sources we note approximately 18 Irish fiction feature film productions and co-productions made with local talent and/or funding; a remarkable figure in the context of population and funding levels. Additionally we count some eight feature-length documentaries (made outside of TV structures), and a variety of fiction and non-fiction productions aimed at the small screen. The short form, while relatively invisible to a majority of cinemagoers, continues to be a vital testing ground and showcase for emerging talent. Output in this format has grown exponentially over the past decade with many festivals running multiple “new Irish shorts” programmes to accommodate four IFB funding schemes (documentary, animation, live action and micro narratives), various local and regional initiatives (e.g. Galway Film Centre, Filmbase etc.) and untold numbers of young filmmakers – inside and outside of formal education settings – who produce films that find recognition at festivals around the world. Notwithstanding the importance of the IFB Short Film Channel, this area of production remains largely under-celebrated and under-researched. Perhaps just as peripheral in terms of perception and discussion is the zone of experimental and essay films. While a number of filmmakers have made this area their own, funding remains restricted, with the largest contributor being the Arts Council’s Reel Art scheme. In 2016 the scheme produced two fascinating films: Further Beyond (Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor) and We Are Moving – Memories of Miss Moriarty (Claire Dix). It would be remiss not to note also the ongoing efforts of the Experimental Film Society, a highly productive and proactive cooperative of filmmakers who maintain a busy schedule of screenings around and beyond Ireland.

While the sheer quantity of production makes easy summary impossible, a number of projects are worthy of note. The year’s breakout film was undoubtedly The Young Offenders, a micro-budget comedy centred on local laddish characters and accents, a shoot and script that was shaped on the hoof around the availability of actors and a development-to-release schedule lasting just 18 months. While such elements are not typically the stuff of critical or commercial success, from its first screening at the Galway Film Fleadh it was clear that Offenders was a film that had achieved what many long-forgotten Irish comedies with greater resources had failed to: be funny. Written and directed by Peter Foote (making his feature film debut but with a proven talent for contemporary comedy in shorts, sketches and music videos), this caper film transcended its episodic structure through the realization of its central characters (played by Chris Walley and Alex Murphy) and their touching relationship, as well as a deliriously preposterous conceit that reconfigured the hero’s journey for a couple of “langers” from Cork city. Strong reviews and word of mouth (crucial for a film like this) built momentum at the domestic box office, where the film’s distributors had gone for the widest released of any Irish film last year, passing the symbolic €1 million Euros in October. This was perhaps predictable but it then gained international attention, picking up a number of awards (notably at the Los Angeles Film Festival) and distribution from Vertigo Releasing (UK) and Carnaby International who placed the film in a number of English-speaking markets (Australia, New Zealand etc.) where the film’s backstory, setting, nor one imagines, its strong accents would not be immediately recognizable. In late 2016 it was acquired by Netflix (UK/Irl), lengthening the life and reach of the film considerably and securing a follow-up project.

Drawing influence from American independent and European art-house cinema A Date from Mad Mary (Sept 2016) displayed impressive maturity and skill behind and in front of camera. It has been widely reviewed elsewhere but suffice to repeat praise of lead actor Seana Kerslake’s performance in an all-too-rare young female role of depth and complexity and writer/director Darren Thornton who balanced emotional complexity and raucous humour in an original and involving story about a recently released young convict. The just returned home narrative set-up bears comparison with Donal Foreman’s Out of Here which also focused on a young protagonist recently returned home to find himself adrift in a world he grew up in. Thornton’s film excelled not only in the confidence of the performances but the directness with which he and his actors explored themes of guilt, sexuality and social conformity. Rebecca Daly’s Mammal was also generically art-house and also centred on a female protagonist coming to terms with the past, this time a mother (Australian actor Rachel Griffiths) who abandoned her son (and his father) years earlier and is now confronted by his sudden disappearance. At the same time she develops an unusual and sexual relationship with a young man she encounters on the street (Barry Keoghan). Daly’s second film had many of the strengths and some of the frustrations of her debut, The Other Side of Sleep, namely an interesting central character, strong performances and distinctive tone but also an underdeveloped narrative and sense of place that substituted mood for story. This ambiguity is characteristic of several recent Irish films which, along with inarticulate or marginalized characters alienated from traditional structures and spaces of home, makes for a notable trend in post Celtic Tiger cinema.

The buzz around The Young Offenders may have soaked up audiences for another comedy, The Flag, which despite the credentials of writer Eugene O’Brien (Eden, Pure Mule) and director Declan Recks, and a cast that included Pat Shortt (Garage) went largely unnoticed. Or perhaps it was simply centenary fatigue that made this story of a fellow in search the flag his grandfather flew over the GPO in 1916. More likely however it was because its comedy seemed forced and flatfooted and no amount of perceived topicality could make its Shortt-led “what the feck” feel relevant. At some future time it will undoubtedly live on as part of an academic study of the copious commemoration output that spanned genres, approaches and audiences. Such a study will no doubt highlight the influence of intended audiences and markets on content and historical perspectives (an influence directly linked to budget). At the top end (in terms of budget) was the glossy 3-part documentary 1916: The Irish Rebellion, voiced by Liam Neeson (of course!) and funded by the University of Notre Dame with the intention of producing an authoritative account in the Ken Burns style of Irish History’s pivotal moment. It was what the occasion called for: rich in archive and production values, and filled with expert opinions. The series was screened across 120 PBS affiliates in the US as well on public television in Australia, France, Spain, UK, Vietnam and elsewhere. No one else could afford, nor needed to compete with it, leaving space for a range of lower budget and more adventurous productions. Among the factual films that caught the eye were two developed from personal preoccupations: Joe Duffy’s affecting Children of the Revolution (a development of his best-selling book) and the no-budget Rebel Rossa, a charming road movie made by two of O’Donovan Rossa’s American male descendants who come to Ireland to find out more about their famous grandfather. Whether they are quite so naive as they seem is open to question (it begins with the director looking through an archive box of original materials he has never had time to look as a historian explains nineteenth century Irish history) but their lineage allowed them entry to some extraordinary moments and situations, culminating in the reenactment of the famous funeral which sparked the Rising, the ownership of which was in the process of being contested between Sinn Fein and a then hesitant, not to say ambivalent (this was 2014) Irish government. Their respective status in these events as representatives and reminders of the violent strand of Irish republicanism was fascinating.

The dramatic programming for the commemoration also displayed a variety of approaches that reflected a correlation between budgets and audiences. RTE’s lush five-part mini-series Rebellion might be seen as the dramatic counterpart of 1916 and was intended by the state broadcaster to have “long-lasting legacy and a similar impact to Strumpet City. Produced for a very modest budget of 6 million and scripted by Irish playwright Colin Teevan, it attempted to capitalize on the popularity of interclass historical fiction (notably the Downton Abbey phenomenon) against the backdrop of the Rising. Widely anticipated, its opening episode had a sense of event and drew large and eager audience of 661,000 in early January 2016, a figure that dropped by approx. 60,000 by its finale. Making rich use of iconic locations, the drama was set amongst “ordinary Dubliners” of various classes and backgrounds and while this was a commendable effort to move away from stuffy “official” history, the degree to which the series invented characters and excluded real ones undermined its hoped-for “legacy”. While RTE clearly intended to recoup some of the production budget through foreign sales, other producers opted for quirkier engagements aimed squarely at the domestic market. TV3 offered Trial of the Century: a three-part dramatization of Padraig Pearse in the dock. If that doesn’t ring a bell its because it didn’t happen, but the conceit provided a highly cost-efficient means for Pearse (convincingly portrayed by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) to defend the actions that changed the course of Irish history to a jury of “well known” Irish public figures. While the proposition was arguably daft, it was an inventive attempt to bring dimensionality to a historical figure and ideals that had fossilized for many. TG4’s Wrecking the Rising went the whole hog with a Michael Collins meets Back to the Future “time travel comedy caper” in which three contemporary Dublin lads travel back in time and accidentally wreck the Rising before it begun. Along with the sharp and satirical The Rubberbandits Guide To 1916, it took an irreverent approach to the most scared event and provided a welcome shift in perspective and tone that may have attracted an otherwise indifferent audience. Finally – and perhaps most usefully for educational contexts – was the IFB funded After ’16 project: nine fiction and documentary short films selected from hundreds of applications which were screened at festivals and on RTE and have recently become available in the IFI player.

Perhaps as a consequence of being English-speaking but cinematically peripheral (not to mention a post-colonial capacity for introspection) Irish filmmakers have long demonstrated a taste and talent for documentary; a form conspicuously supported in recent years through IFB funding schemes for long and short films and three dedicated festivals (Guth Gafa, Stranger Than Fiction, Dublin Doc Fest). As one of Ireland’s most singular non-fiction voices, a new Ken Wardrop film is highly anticipated and Mom and Me was a long-time coming by the time it reached Irish screens in late summer. Clearly imagined as a companion piece to his tender and highly regarded His and Hers (2010) (itself a development of his justly celebrated short Undressing My Mother), it represented a development of the director’s canvas in being set in the American mid-west (Oklahoma, to be exact). After respectful reviews that noted Wardrop’s signature intimacy with his subjects and DOP Kate McCullough’s superb images, the film was released on DVD and On Demand, with the overall impression being that it did not really find its audience. While it is now commonplace for a number of feature documentaries to attain their “Irish” label through finance or talent rather than subject matter, 2016 was notable for a range of strong films developed from local circumstances and issues. The standout film in terms of vision, urgency and technical values was Richie O’Donnell’s distressing eco-doc Atlantic. O’Donnell came to widespread attention with The Pipe, a wide-reaching examination of the political turpitude and corporate bullying underpinning the development of the Shell pipeline controversy in Rossport, Co Mayo. Here he takes on a related theme, through the evidence of a whistle-blower who describes in detail how the German factory ship he was on carried out illegal dumping of fish in Irish and Scottish waters in order to maximize profit. The film explains the largely invisible workings of the fishing industry and how Ireland has surrendered its resources to a rapacious and ecologically indifferent industry and the policing of its waters to the Common Fisheries Policy. Crowd funded (for a tiny budget of €30,000)2 and self distributed the film is the very essence of citizen journalism, with O’Donnell remarking that “the lack of broadcaster or official fund support has been a blessing in disguise, because we have been forced to engage directly with the people whom this documentary will affect, and those who will form its eventual audience.” He subsequently spent many months screening the film to interested groups around Ireland before it received an airing on RTE. It continues to be screened at international festivals as well as in schools and colleges.

At first sight, Brendan J. Byrne’s Bobby Sands: 66 Days seemed a film that had perhaps arrived a decade late, particularly in the wake of Steve McQueen’s deeply affecting Hunger (2008). Not so. It set box office records in its opening weekend and its initially limited release was extended to an additional 16 cinemas, a considerable achievement for a documentary on a difficult and, for many, distant topic. This is testament to ongoing fascination with Sands’ political commitment and the context within which it took place – a curiosity that may have deepened in the post-Good Friday era – and Byrne’s thorough and moving treatment of his subject. Counting down through Sand’s 66-day hunger strike and including a wide range of archive and interviewees, it made for compelling viewing. Watching it, one could not but be moved by recollections of that awful period, the violence visited on others and self and feel deeply grateful to all those who worked to bring about peace. (Sinn Fein, on the other hand, expressed deep dissatisfaction at the airtime afforded Fintan O’Toole and the exclusion of a broader context in which the argued hunger strike was the only option). In the wake of Brexit and talk of Irish unification this history takes on added topicality and significance.

Other films demonstrated the rich and commodious nature of the documentary form. Colm Quinn’s Mattress Men belongs to the sub-genre of offbeat individuals that delight and inspire. Here it is Michael Flynn, who attempts to save his struggling furniture business during the downturn by reinventing himself as an online personality “Mattress Mick”. He makes a series of YouTube videos and wears a mattress costume. While this charming character study lacks the weight and resonance of films such as Atlantic or Bobby Sands, it captures an era and character in vivid, engaging and deeply human terms. At its core Mattress Men is a variation on the classic Sayles’ documentary Salesman. Transcending the local is the ambition of every documentary maker and Colm Quinn must have been gratified by the fact that his quirky film was picked up by Element and the increasingly influential Virgin Media to be shown across a range of its online platforms in Ireland and UK.

Netflix also extended its reach in Irish distribution by acquiring Sing Street, Brooklyn and The Guarantee in 2016 and wholly funding The Seige of Jadotville – Ireland’s first “war film”. Additionally in December 2016 Netflix became “seamlessly” available via Virgin Media’s Horizon box platform (for six months) significantly expanding the reach of the service into approx. 350,000 Irish homes. The on-demand market was further expanded when Amazon (which commissions Dublin-made Ripper Street) made its Prime streaming service available to Irish customers. The wider context for such developments is that since 2015 all of the main commercial TV channels in Ireland have changed ownership. Having acquired TV3 from Doughty Hanson in summer 2015, cable giant Liberty Media (owner of Virgin Media) moved to acquire the struggling UTV Ireland which was subsequently rebranded as the “female orientated” Be3 in January 2017. Meanwhile, in December 2015, in a bid to expand its modest TV subscriber base (of approximately 45,000 customers) Eir acquired Setanta Sports, subsequently rebranded as Eir Sports. These acquisitions came at bargain basement prices; having acquired UTV for £100m in October 2015, UTV Ireland was sold to Liberty Global for just €10m. Eir paid a reported €20m for Setanta, something of a steal for a company valued at somewhere approached €1bn in 2007. However, these prices reflect the still depressed nature of the Irish television advertising market (€343m in 2016, still well behind the €416m figure for 2008) and the fact that although average per day television viewing minutes have increased since 2005, those minutes are now divided amongst an ever-growing number of channels.

This is in turn tells us much about the nature of mainstream TV shows in Ireland (if such a thing still exists). The relative absence of drama on RTE in particular (Rebellion aside) is not because the genre is unsuccessful: Love/Hate attained the single greatest drama ratings in the station’s history averaging audiences within touching distance of 1 million viewers per episode. However, drama is expensive and even Love/Hate’s viewing figures may not have been sufficient to justify the (cheap by international standards) €3m price tag for the final (2014) series. Faced with a collapse in its combined licence fee and commercial revenues (from €441m in 2008 to €334m in 2015), RTE appears to now be looking at strategies successfully employed by TV3 from 2007; “shiny floor shows” such as X-Factor simulcast with ITV and localized reality TV. Compared with TV3, the schedules of which have been loaded with Irish versions of Come Dine With Me, The Apprentice, Take Me Out and Bake-Off, RTE’s more tentative resort to shows like Dragon’s Den had seemed more in keeping with its public service ethos. However, things are not what they used to be: if hiring Today FM’s Willie O’Reilly as Group Commercial Director in 2011 pointed to a perception that RTE needed to take the commercial side of its revenues more seriously, the appointment of Dee Forbes suggested a desire to have one’s cake and eat it. Her previous employer’s (Discovery Networks) factual programming was a good fit for a public service broadcaster while, on the other, her career began in sales and marketing, rather than programme-making. Her statement in February 2017 that RTE was “reviewing everything we produce” followed on the announcement that the hitherto sacrosanct Children Programming Department was being entirely outsourced to independent production. Thus, coincidentally or not, RTE placed its chips firmly within TV3 territory by commissioning Screentime Shinawal to produce Dancing With the Stars, a localized version of the BBC’s wildly successful Strictly Come Dancing.

Since going on air in January 2017, Dancing With the Stars has been the most watched show on Irish television. The Late Late Show, for decades the most watched show in the country, now finds itself third-ranked behind both DWTS and Room To Improve which appears just an hour after DWTS on the Sunday schedule. DWTS success is not hard to fathom; sports commentator Des Cahill and the hitherto “outrageous” comedienne Katherine Lynch. “Dancing Dessie” quickly stood out as the hands-down weakest link but his wider popularity and the show’s initial reliance on phone-in votes saw him plough on whilst more agile but less familiar faces fell by the wayside. Katherine Lynch – best known for creating sexually aggressive comic characters in a succession of eponymous RTE sketch shows – exemplified the ugly-duckling-to-a-swan transformation narrative such shows are built on as she exuded genuine enthusiasm but also a degree of pathos as she “found herself” through the various quicksteps, sambas, foxtrots etc.

But the localization ceases with the individual characters: everything else is constructed in line with the strict rules of the format book. Although the set does not incorporate the live band of the BBC’s original, the layout is otherwise identical while the presenters – the steely professional Amanda Byram and former Westlife member Nicky Byrne – tightly scripted repartee allows little room for local spontaneity. Even the Judges appear to have been chosen for the manner in which they echo the UK originals.

In last year’s editorial we noted the increasing deterritorialization of Irish cinema (a concept borrowed from Deleuze, Guattari

[1972]) in films such as The Lobster, Room or Tomato Red. A year on, and a century from a violent revolt driven underwritten by a belief in a culturally specific Irish cultural identity circumscribed by national space, Irish television is an increasingly ephemeral concept within a globalized media sphere.
  1. Rebecca Keegan. “Irish Film Board has growing ambition for its industry after 2016 Oscars”. Los Angeles Times. March 26th, 2016. []
  2. http://fundit.ie/project/atlantic []