Irish Film and Television – 2017

Roddy Flynn | Tony Tracy
School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland | Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2018
ISSUE 13 | Pages: 238-268 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2018-8468

Creative Commons 4.0 2018 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.

Waking the Film Makers: Diversity and Dynamism in Irish Screen Industries 2017

Women have to fight really, really hard to get support to do a feature film … If you just take for example, the [Irish] Film Board, they’re aware of it, they’re kind of ashamed of it after Waking The Feminists … They know damn well that they fund all these films by young lads that are the same kind of film: horror films or crime fiction. Do we need to see another one of them? Are they that interesting? No, they’re not. They’re actually really boring – I think. There’s other kinds of films out there but they can’t get their heads around it. Maybe if they had a few more women on the panel, things might be different.
Vivienne Dick, October 2017, “93% Stardust” retrospective at IMMA

That we live in a time of cultural and political flux seems undeniable. Underlying assumptions within liberal democracies – the inevitability of globalization, structures of access and governance, the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a relatively narrow set of elites – have clearly been upset in recent years, accompanied by a sometimes reactionary but almost always populist wave of political figures. Trump, Macron, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India etc. have cumulatively inaugurated a new dispensation, one which established cultural institutions and in particular the mass media have struggled to adjust to. Even in Ireland, the far more fluid post-2011 distribution of political power has rendered politics and the public sphere a far more unpredictable arena than at any point in the history of the state, complicating the “sense-making” role of the media institutions in the age of disruptive (anti) social media.

Yet this flux is not exclusively driven by the forces of populist reaction. The #MeToo movement raises the prospect of not just a long awaited rebalancing of cultural, economic and political power amongst genders, but embodies a progressive assertion of an identity politics which goes far beyond. In Ireland, less than a generation after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, a popular plebiscite endorsed Marriage Equality in 2015 (poignantly captured in Conor Horgan’s documentary Queen of Ireland, 2015). Although anti-choice campaigners would disagree, the current moves to repeal the 8th amendment to the constitution can be characterised as an extension of that progressive impulse. Both globally and locally, we are living through a moment of intense ideological struggle where even the epistemological basis on which statements about reality can be made are up for vigorous debate.

That culture – and more particuarly the culture industries – are themselves crucial sites where ideological struggles are thrashed out is evinced by the recent and rapid changing attitudes to gender inequality by Irish cultural institutions, heralded and initially prompted on a local level by #WakingTheFeminists protest at the Abbey Theatre’s Waking The Nation 1916 centenary programme. Structural inequities within Irish arts organisations that have favoured male artists, administrators and world views have come under intense, sustained and overdue scruntiny since and increased in pace during 2017. In our 2015 article reviewing IFB-supported fiction features between 1993 and 2013, we noted how fewer than one fifth of those films were directed by women, a situation which contributes to an understanding of cinema as not just dominated behind the camera by men, but as being for and about men at a textual level (an imbalance neatly demonstrated by a recent Facebook meme relating to Best Picture nominees).1

#WakingTheFeminists prompted IFB chair Annie Doona to announced a six point plan to address gender inequality in Irish filmmaking and screen content in December 2015. Aiming to achieve gender parity in Irish screen industries, this ambition took on greater substance at the Galway Film Fleadh in July 2017 when the IFB laid out a range of initiatives which, while clearly primarily motivated by considerations of gender, more broadly acknowledge the need to enhance a greater diversity of Irish screen talent whether understood in terms of ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc. These include the establishment of a Gender Equality and Diversity subcommittee, a move to ensure gender parity with regard to projects receiving development support and the opening of dialogue with industry partners (including production companies) to inform the development of a strategy to raise the profile of female talent within the industry.2

Although IFB funding decisions over the past several decades appears to support assertions such as those voiced by Vivienne Dick above, it is worth noting that the organisation today itself is far from being a bastion of male authority. While the Chief Executive is the fourth successive male to hold that pivotal role, James Hickey is one of just four men who work there. The other 21 employees, including key decision making areas of Production, Development and Distribution, are all women.3 70% of the seven member board Board (Annie Doona, Rachel Lysaght, Katie Holly, Marian Quinn and Kate McColgan) are also women. If this suggests that, contra Dick’s assertion, there are already “women on the panel”, it lends weight to the IFB argument that the issue is not so much that it is hard for applications from women for funding to succeed but rather that it is hard for female creative talent to reach a point where they feel they can credibly apply for such funding in the first place. In 2017, of the 34 applications for Irish feature film production funding received by the Board, only five (15%) had a female writer or director attached (though 50% had a female producer). Hence the Board has introduced two further incentives in the past year targeted at actively encouraging applications from female film-makers. In September 2017 the Enhanced Production Funding scheme offered to €100,000 in additional funding to fiction features creatively lead by women. In February 2018, the IFB announced details of its new “POV” scheme which will award development funding to six projects lead by female director/writer/producer teams with a view to fully funding three features each with budgets up to €400,000.

The issue of gender has clearly also been a key consideration in RTE’s recent decisions around drama production. Its two highest profile shows last year were Stephanie Preissner’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope – a RTE2 dark comedy strarring Seana Kerslake and built around a friendship between two co-dependent young women (picked up by BBC 3 and Netflix in the US and UK) and the Amy Huberman legal drama Striking Out. Both were recommissioned for second seasons. Furthermore, the outstanding Irish screen hit of the year was unquestionably Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls for Channel 4, a comedy built around four young female leads in a context (the Northern Irish Troubles) not always associated with absurdist humour.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note wider issues of diversity in access and representation in Irish film and TV. According to the 2016 census, nearly 10% of the Irish population are today constituted by Traveller, Black or Asian ethnicities but those voices and faces are largely absent from Irish television screens (not to mention from creative and decision-making roles). This was thrown into sharp relief by John O’Connor’s incendiary speech at the IFTAs in February 2018 on receiving the Best Actor award, critiquing not just a “reptilian psychopathic government”, but also the IFB (for its failure to support Cardboard Gangsters) as well as the industry more broadly (“I can’t get an agent to represent me and no filmmakers or casting directors will look past the fact that I am a traveler”).

If the general zeitgeist and institutional structures are moving in a direction which might pay more attention to issues of diversity, the highest profile Irish indigenous fiction releases of 2017 also – perhaps suprisingly and coincidentally – often shared a concern with “others”. That these were almost entirely male provokes further reflection. John Butler’s Handsome Devil explored the difficulties of stepping outside normative masculinity – defined as artistically inclined or gay or both – within the homosocial confines of a middle-class private boarding school. Though oddly dated in setting and characterization – assuming a milieu that was more common in the 1980s, devoid of mobile phones and social media – Handsome Devil nonetheless suggests that, Marriage Equality or no, alternate identities still have to negotiate a space to exist within the sometimes oppressive norms of the mainstream. Frank Berry’s second feature Micheal Inside (winner of the ITFA Award for best Irish film in 2017) is entirely different in themes and tone but also focuses on an isolated central character struggling to cope with dominant constructions of masculinity, here working-class criminality. Developed within the community it portrays through extensive discussion and workshopping, Berry’s film is a welcome reminder of the often overlooked role of class in contemporary identity politics as its sensitive and often scared central character (Daffyd Flynn in a performance that brilliantly compliments and balances that of Jordan Jones in Berry’s last feature I Used to Live Here), struggles to find his own way within an overbearing social context. Unlike the more priveledged milieu of Handsome Devil, there is no inspirational teacher to offer him example and assistence. Finally, Conor McDermottroe’s Halal Daddy (from Mark O’Hallorhan’s script) is perhaps most notable for how whilst the ethnicity of its lead character (a British-Indian Muslim seeking to evade his father’s influence by hiding out in Sligo) is critical to its premise, it nonetheless proceeds on the basis that tolerance and multiculturalism are well established even outside the metropolitan centres of the Western world (but, interestingly, not western Ireland which stands in as an opposing space to the xenophobia underpinning Brexit in a similar way to The Quiet Man over 50 years ago).

Away from themes of gender, sexuality or ethnicity, diversity on Irish screens in 2017 was marked by several notable engagements physical and intellectual disability. Having overcome complete paralysis to direct his own screenplay My Name is Emily in 2015, Simon FitzMaurice was the subject of the affecting and inspirational It’s Not Yet Dark (directed by Frankie Fenton and narrated by Colin Farell), an unsentimental memoir of his struggle with motor neurone disease, released shortly before he passed away. Nick Kelly’s often very funny The Drummer and the Keeper (an audience favourite at the Galway Film Fleadh) focuses on odd-couple male protagonists with bipolar disorder and Asperger’s. Inspired by Kelly’s personal experience as a parent to a child on the Autism spectrum, the film actively engages in a debate around the extent to which such individuals are disabled by their social context as opposed to characterising disability as fundamentally innate or medical condition (and thus exclusively the problem of) to those individuals. In a similar vein, Alan Gilensan’s inventive Meetings With Ivor – a huge and unlikely hit in its theatrical release across Ireland – focused on maverick psychiatrist Professor Ivor Browne’s belief that traditional psychiatry and, in particular its reliance on anti-psychotic drugs, denies the capacity of the individual mind to heal itself (both films are reviewed here in this edition).

Of course, the transformed context for film-making in the digital age mean that films which engage with current social debates can emerge without IFB Support. Having made his debut with the emigration-themed Trampoline for less than €1000, Tipperary filmmaker Tom Ryan’s second film Twice Shy bravely engaged with the hugely divisive abortion debate without ever feeling like a by-the-numbers rehearsal of the pro and anti-choice positions. and deserved a far bigger audience than it has thus far achieved.

The indigenous films which did make a mark at the box office in 2017 tended to be based around more conventional, genre-based narratives. As noted in Denis Murphy’s review of Cardboard Gangsters, which took €550,000 at the Irish box office, the Darndale-set exploration of Dublin’s criminal gang milieu ultimately fails to transcend the limitations of its origins in the crime genre. By contrast, the best-performing Irish film this year, Stephen Burke’s Maze (£UK764,000 across Ireland before going on release in the Britain), is arguably at most effective when it consciously identifies with the conventions of the prison-break thriller.

In previous years we have pointed to the emergence of what we might now confidently describe as a “third wave” of Irish film, characterised by a shift away from a national towards a transnational mode. We have cited the works of fiction film makers like Lenny Abrahamson and Paddy Breathnach in this regard noting how their more recent works (e.g. Frank, Room and Viva) are set in contexts textually disconnected from Ireland (Abrahamson’s new film, The Little Stranger, though starring Domhnall Gleeson confirms this trajectory, set in postwar England). In what we have elsewhere defined as the second wave of Irish film (1993-2003), Irish filmmakers (and IFB funding) sought to find Irish narratives which could nonetheless appeal to international audiences: to make “the local universal” (My Left Foot being perhaps the iconic example). This paradigm seems today to have been eroded by a number of factors: a highly open Irish ecomony and workforce; globalization; a gathering sense of collective environmental crises (the “Anthropocene”). This is particularly evident in this year’s Irish animation and documentary output. CARTOON Saloon pulled off the incredible feat of seeing The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey, secure the company’s third successive Academy Award nomination since 2010. But whereas their earlier nominations were for explicitly Irish texts (The Secret of Kells, 2009, and Song of the Sea, 2014), The Breadwinner (based on Deborah Ellis’s novel) centres around Parvana, an 11-year-girl strugging to survive in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. Superficially at least, the narrative may seem light years away from Ireland, yet its core conflict – namely the suppression of women by a theocratic patriarchy – has obvious points of contact and empathy for the Irish experience, even in the 2018.

Further support for this third wave/transnational hypotheses emerges from a survey of this year’s feature documentaries, a constantly imaginative if often disparate and (thus) overlooked category of Irish screen output. While works like Neasa Ní Chianáin School Life (a year in the life of Ireland’s only primary boarding school) and Feargal Ward’s award-winning The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid (a David and Goliath’ tale of an Irish farmer from Kildare who takes on the might of American computing giant Intel) demonstrate that there remain fascinating local stories to be told, it is striking how outward-looking Irish documentary has become (indeed Ward’s compelling and poetic depiction of the David and Goliath struggle between bachelor farmer Reid and the forces of international capital, and their local proxies, the IDA, clearly connects the local to the global). The recent output of a figure like Paul Duane is emblematic in this regard – having completed four feature docs since 2011, up to and including 2018’s While You Live, Shine all around extra-territorial subjects, his career is a striking assertion that being an Irish documentary filmmaker does not necessarily equate with mining Irish subjects. That philosophy is clearly embraced by others. Having examined bee population collapse (a genuinely global concern) in Colony (2010), Dublin photographer/film-maker Ross McDonnell collaborated with Tim Golden on Elian, a film centred on a five year Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez smuggled out of Cuba in 1999 to become the centre of an international dispute between the US and the Castro regime. Dundalk-born filmmaker Niall McCann’s Lost in France traces the generation of Glasgow bands that emerged in the 1990s as they regroup to celebrate a key 1997 concert in Brittany. Even when characterised by more overt connections with Ireland, recent Irish docs reach out beyond our borders. Andrew Gallimore’s It Tolls For Thee recounts the experience of Mary Elmes, a Dublin businesswoman aid worker credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish children in France during the war. Gerry Gregg’s similarly themed Condemned to Remember traces the journey of the remarkable Tomi Reichental, the Dublin-domiciled Holocaust survivor as he travels to confront SS Camp Guard Hilde Michnia but also to embrace victims of modern day atrocities in Bosnia and Syria. But perhaps the most ambitious outward glance in 2017 was Emer Reynolds’s superb The Farthest. A masterfully told story of literally cosmic dimensions, Reynolds latest work as a director recounts the story of the Voyager space exploration missions of the 1970s combining archive footage, interviews with key players in the mission (with a notable and welcome emphasis on female participants) and CGI visualisations of the Voyager planetary fly-bys all set against a contemporary soundtrack. While potentially a dry subject for science-buffs, The Farthest demonstrates strong storytelling skills and a sharp intelligence capable of blending a sensitive perspective on people’s lives with complex historical and scientific data.

Beyond this, the industrial-scale of international TV production, noted in these pages since the advent of The Tudors in 2006, has also continued apace. The BBC’s luminescent adaptation of Little Women was shot at Ardmore, providing high profile work for Irish crew. AMC’s hit post-apocalyptic/fantasy/martial arts/sci-fi mash-up In the Badlands (prominently featuring Irish actors Sarah Bolger and Orla Brady) continues to roam Dublin and Wicklow locations where, it perhaps occasionally crosses path with the History Channel’s sixth series of Vikings which began filming in Autumn 2017. None are likely to encounter another George RR Martin television adaptation Nightflyers (for the SyFy Channel and NBC Universal) given its production in the new Troy Studios in Limerick.

Overall then, the underlying condition of the screen production in Ireland remains very healthy. For decades, the primary question of screen policy was much more existential: can we establish and maintain a film sector at all? That this question is no longer asked, and that we can almost take for granted the routine production of work ranging from transnational big and small screen production to the specific and experimental is a remarkable transformation. In recent years, the work of Pat Collins, in particular, exemplifies this latter course and it is with his latest film Song of Granite that we close this year’s review. Working with relatively low budget, Collins has managed over nearly 20 years to evoke a vision of Ireland in which place shapes culture and people (rather than the other way around). In this beautiful and unconventional biopic of seannós singer Joe Heaney, he gives us a portrait of a man who brought a deeply centred sense of Irishness with him no matter that he lived in London or New York, resisting the homogenizing affects of late capitalism and modernity. In this regard his work to date can be read as a richly productive, if fundamentally conservative, assertion of Irish identity. That such work can be not merely supported but increasingly a higher and higher profile, offers the opportunity for Irish artists to make a contribution to the fundamental debates invoked in our opening paragraphs.

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  2. https://www.irishfilmboard.ie/about/gender. []
  3. Source: Irish Film Board Production Catalogue, 2018. []