NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2019
ISSUE 14 | Pages: 294-327 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2019-9023
Introduction. Fin de Cinema? The Irish Screen Sector in 2018.
In July 2018, the Irish Film Board announced that it was changing its name to Screen Ireland. It was done with relatively little fanfare or media attention and indeed still has to fully work through: as late as January 2019 Irish films were being simultaneously released into cinemas bearing alternately the Irish Film Board or Screen Ireland logos. Was this the year in review’s defining event or simply a timely re-branding? Either way, what might the change tell us?
In announcing the change, a PR release explained that the new name reflects the agency’s “redefined, broadened remit, which has been driven both by the changing and diverse nature of the industry and audience content consumption. Screen Ireland is responsible for funding and promoting Irish film, TV and animation internationally, for skills development, and for promoting Ireland as a film location.” However, the wider remit also reflected the influence of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Audiovisual Action Plan (discussed by Roddy Flynn elsewhere), published a month earlier, which emphasised the need to augment support for film with a wider focus on television drama production and – potentially – digital games development as part of a decade-long strategy to develop Ireland as global hub for media production.
The roll-out of Screen Ireland was timed to coincide with the Galway Film Fleadh. This is not surprising. The popular and widely attended event is now a venerable cultural institution and central event in the Irish film calendar; a deadline towards which indigenous filmmakers work in the hope of securing a prestigious premiere amongst their peers; a setting for pitching new ideas through the film market, an unrivalled opportunity for on and off-screen talent, producers and programmers to network and party.
The Fleadh has come a long way from its establishment in 1988 when industry pioneers Lelia Doolin, Bob Quinn and others hatched an idea to create a dedicated platform for a fledgling and struggling Irish film industry: “a post colonial film festival, which meant we could be subversive and narky and provocative . . . all the things you’d want to be”. It’s first iteration sought to find an audience for Joe Comerford’s like-minded feature debut Reefer and the Model, an off-beat road movie set off the coast of Galway and centring on Reefer, a former IRA man and the pregnant Teresa (“the Model”) “who has abandoned a life of drugs and prostitution in England”. Along with other misfits “Spider” and “Badger” the group become involved in the armed robbery of a post office and are consequently pursued by Free State forces of law and order.
In tandem with friend and future political ally Michael D Higgins (Ireland’s first Minister for Culture) the Fleadh was to prove a key contributor in the establishment (and re-establishment) of the Irish Film Board. The largely unremarked change to Screen Ireland in the summer of 2018 reflected not simply “the reality and diversity of the sector” (a necessary step, particularly in relation to animation) but also a shift from an ambition for Irish film as a politically charged expression of “post-colonial” and “narky” artistic sensibilities to a rubric of “content consumption”. Arguably then, the Screen Ireland moniker also reflects the globalization of Irish ‘creativity’ in the age of ubiquitous screens.
This is, perhaps, as it should be. We have, perhaps, been too introspective for too long… too focused on cultural production imagined in relation to other, seemingly more “United” Anglophone influences (US and UK) than our own. Over the past decade, having weathered the storms of the crash (when abolition of the IFB was mooted, if only half seriously), the industry has diversified and matured to an almost ungraspable extent. Today we have an increasingly fragmented sector in terms of production (inward and indigenous for large and small screens), content, formats, audiences and distribution. These tendencies seem likely to accelerate: as the Olsberg/SPI/Nordicity-authored “Economic Analysis of the Audiovisual Sector in the Republic of Ireland” report published in June 2018 noted, Ireland stands poised to benefit from its proximity to a UK production industry operating at capacity. The expectation that some projects will overspill into Ireland – Brexit or no – saw both Troy Studios and Ashford Studios announce expansion plans in September 2018 and January 2019 respectively. Troy Studios plan to add a fourth stage adding 33,000 square feet to their existing 350,000 foortpint. Ashford are even more ambitious, planning to spend €90m to creating four new studio spaces with an average size of 40,000 square feet (thus overcoming the current situation whereby Vikings – which wrapped is sixth Season 6 in Dec 2018 – essentially occupied the entire facility for 8 months of the year. Thus while, as noted below, we can anticipate an ongoing increase in the output of low/no budget indigenous features, the clear expectation is that these will be paralleled by an expanded presence of large-budget international productions along the lines of AMC’s Into The Badlands and Disney’s CIA drama Quantico (which shot three episodes here in Spring 2018).
With such fragmentation – an enlarged variation of the question of national representation emerges: What stories are being told and for whom? In an era of digital production and distribution, production may still hold centre stage for scholars (as it long has in textually-led analysis) but distribution will increasingly hold more significance in terms of analysis and policy. This tension between the production of content and addressing an audience will, we suggest, be crucial to balancing the endeavours of Screen Ireland.
Although it is becoming increasingly less consequential as the primary employer and financial generator (excluding inward and post-production activity) within the Irish audiovisual sector, the feature film remains the favoured cultural barometer of “Irish Film”, despite its recent demotion to one format among many within “Screen Ireland”. Counting the number of Irish feature films produced in a given year was relatively easy until recently. Not so anymore. Counting the number of films released alone suggests a tally of 40 feature film in 2018 [films which attained a at least a week-long engagement in cinemas]. As ever we find a handful of standout titles within a corpus of output of varying quality and budgets, many of which rapidly disappear. The “top six” in terms of Box Office offer a revealing picture of the state of Irish film “as film” (with Irish BO in brackets) : 1. Black 47 (€1,579,961); 2. Damo & Ivor: The Movie (€291,748); 3. Dublin Oldschool (€240,282; 4. Michael Inside €188,581; 5. The Little Stranger (€154,942; 6. Rosie (€115,000).
Black 47 (directed by Lance Daly [Kisses, Life’s A Breeze)] was the most popular indigenous film of the year by far, taking over half the total box office for Irish feature production, and fulfilled most the criteria traditionally required of an Irish film: story, production company, director, settings/landscape, nationalist viewpoint. Its success as well deserved by its talented director and tenacious producers who spent years trying to bring it to the screen. Such a combination proved highly attractive to Irish audiences, though less so, to those outside of Ireland where the film did indifferent business despite its story being framed within the widely recognized [Hollywood] conventions of a period revenge drama and US distribution by the respected IFC. Coinciding with the large Coming Home exhibition of famine era paintings (Dublin Castle, Skibbereen, Derry), Declan O’Rourke’s “Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine” CD collection and Jack Reynor’s directorial debut with the short film Bainne (Sky Arts) the film’s success suggested that there is a renewed interest in the famine and an urgent sense that it is time to tell its stories.
The numeric gulf in audiences between Black ‘47 and other Irish releases in the top 5 (of 40!) is both striking and revealing if we locate the emphasis of a national cinema on audiences. Despite sizable audiences – relatively speaking – Damo & Ivor: The Movie and Dublin Oldschool will have passed by many critics and scholars of Irish film. Such audiences seem likely to be largely drawn from the under-35 age bracket which was attracted to both on the basis of familiarity with popular existing source material: the long running RTE 2 comedy series Damo and Ivor (2013-2018) and writer/director Emmet Kirwin’s successful stage play “Dublin Oldschool” (winner of the Stewart Parker Award) as well as his viral poetry short film Heartbreak (2017).
At the bottom end of the top six are two respected Irish auteur directors working with material by well-established writers: Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger was a highly anticipated period drama starring Donal Gleeson from Sarah Water’s novel and while Paddy Breathnach’s Rosie – pitched as “the most important Irish film of the year” boasts a script by Roddy Doyle. Both were skillful directed and critically well-achieved works. Despite well-orchestrated publicity campaigns, the relative indifference of Irish audiences to both must have been disappointing for their respective filmmakers.
Breathnach’s would seem to epitomize the cultural function of Irish cinema, but in truth its scope – claustrophobic, intimate – would have been better suited to TV – a format where Doyle scored significant success years ago with ‘Home,’ a four part BBC mini series. Additionally, despite its clear and urgent social resonance the subject has been well aired in other media outlets for some time notably the 2016 Prime Time programme “My Homeless Family”. (Gerard Barrett also made a similar film Limbo in 2017 but it quickly disappeared after a screening in the Galway Film Fleadh).
The disappointment of Abrahamson’s film (interrupting a continuous upward trajectory) is more complex. It’s setting (post war England) and central theme (class ambition) seem unlikely to have ever endeared it to Irish audiences in significant numbers, even with Gleeson’s success with Brooklyn – another post war drama – did last year. But one suspects that its producers Element had a similar audience in mind to their other major film this year – The Favourite – when they embarked on the project, and with the latter they were spectacularly successful. Certainly it was mistakenly positioned as a horror by its US and UK distributors and while it has moments of suspense, it is more of a literary than a genre work. One wonders why wasn’t more prominently positioned as a Lenny Abrahamson film, given the success of Room?
If the Box Office fate of The Little Stranger contrasts vividly with The Favourite, the films offer striking cases from an Irish production context. Both were produced by Dublin based Element Pictures and reveal a production company spreading risk – and opportunity – across a slate of productions and activities (in contrast to the one-off model that has characterized Irish film for so long). As noted both clearly aimed beyond Ireland for their audiences (attempting to access such audiences on the back of popularity British period dramas) and anchored in long-term relationships with directorial talent.
The Favourite is Element’s most successful film to date in terms of Awards and international box office (approx. $80 million), and re-writes Irish film history in the process. The extent to which it might be judged Irish at all is of course open to debate (on the basis of subject matter, cast and writer/director) but there is no questioning Element’s long-term ambitions to position itself as a transnational production entity working in tandem with financing and distribution partners across Europe and the US. While Element purchased the screen rights to The Favourite over a decade ago, its development and success builds on the experience and reputation gained through Abrahamson’s and Lanthimos’ respective Room and The Lobster. Element’s audience is now a global one and the company’s recent decision to scale back on their domestic distribution wing (established to distribute The Guard), along with the non-Irish settings of several recent films, indicates an increasingly outward-looking producer. It will be interesting to see the extent of Screen Ireland funding for this strategy and what impact, if any, it may have on wider industry behavior as producers come to terms with ever lower returns and exponential competition for audiences.
More Films than Screens?
As noted there were many other Irish films for audiences to choose from in 2018 and indeed, some might argue too may. Between fiction and documentary, Screen Ireland now support approximately 20-25 films per year with a similar number being produced independently or by other means; an impossible level of output for the three Irish distribution companies to cope with. Furthermore, the continuing decline in the cost of accessing production equipment means that an increasing number of film-makers can make work without recourse to Screen Ireland aid: the last 12 months saw the completion of: Robbie Walsh’s S.P.L.I.T. which, channelling the Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog (1992) follows the quotidian existence of two Dublin gangland hitmen; Dub Daze, IADT and DIT alumnus Shane Collins’ self-financed triptych of youth-oriented stories set in Dublin which premiered at the Dublin International Film Festival in February 2019; Cathal Kenna’s For Molly, a cancer-themed drama shot over five days on location in Navan with a shoestring budget and; Tradition, Damien O’Callaghan’s apparently self-financed €150,000 budget GAA courtroom drama shot in Killarney which premiered at the 2018 Kerry Film Festival. Similarly, Alan Mulligan’s The Limit Of, set during the Celtic Tiger and made for €30,000 was set to receive an Irish cinema release in April 2019.
Among other titles we note in passing but don’t have space to develop upon were Kissing Candice, a visceral coming-of-age drama written and directed by Aoife McArdle, Liam O Mochain’s whimsical feature film Lost & Found (acquired Film4 for the UK and Gravitas Ventures worldwide) and Frank Berry’s sober and affecting drama Michael Inside (reviewed in these pages last year but only finally released in April). We also enjoyed Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe’s debut feature The Delinquent Season starring Cillian Murphy and Andrew Scott (despite its staginess, which earned it a corruscating review in The Irish Times) and the equally talky We Ourselves, a low-budget independent film, written and directed by Paul Mercier, starring Aidan Gillen along with Catherine Walker, Declan Conlon and Seána Kerslake. Also worth mentioning is the docu-drama Citizen Lane directed by another veteran figure of Irish film Thaddeus O’Sullivan, with the drama written by Mark O’Halloran and starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Hugh Lane. Producer Morgan Bushe’s The Belly of the Whale was less successful both at the box office (having received a cinema release in December 2018) and critically despite a competent cast (headed by Pat Short and Michael Smiley) and Arthur Mulhern’s suitably gloomy cinematography. Notionally a (very) dark comedy, a less-than-coherent narrative appeared to leave audiences cold.
Within Irish film production, Horror is by now a well-established genre, not least because it continues to offer attractive distribution prospects. Following its positive reception for its Sundance Premiere in January 2019, the Lee Cronin-directed The Hole in Ground again with Seána Kerslake was immediately acquired by renowned distributor A24 (The Lobster, Ladybird etc.) for the US market. This was followed by a deluge of global right acquisitions and at time of writing the film was set for release across Europe (the Baltic States, Germany and Austria, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Poland and Russia), Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and India) the Middle East; the Philippines and Latin America. Indeed, The Favourite aside, The Hole in The Ground may well end up being more widely seen than any other Irish film this year, a function not merely of its genre but the inherent quality of the film itself.
Such films come with a variety of budgets and artistic ambitions, working as straight-on genre efforts or more often providing filmmakers with the opportunity to explore or take advantage of themes and narratives structured around repression and the Irish psyche. Such critiques of historic occlusion have been particularly skilfully deployed in Spanish horror cinema in relation to the longterm consequences of the civil war and two Irish films this year – Cellar Door and The Devil’s Doorway adopt comparable methods in their approach to Irish Catholic institutions, notably the Tuam mother- and-baby home and the Magdalen laundries. Written and directed by Irish American Michael Tully, Don’t Leave Home is another film centred on the legacy of Irish Catholicism (featuring Lalor Roddy who also plays a priest in Devil’s Doorway) and centred on a young female American artist who visits Ireland. The Cured is a zombie horror starring Oscar-nominated Ellen Page (Juno, Inception) along with Sam Keeley and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as a cult-leader which makes less use of it Irish setting for social or allegorical purposes but offers, nonetheless, another compelling central performance from one of Ireland’s most gifted actors.
David Gleeson’s Connemara-set Don’t Go deals with comparable themes of trauma and missing children (one might link it with Abrahmson’s Little Stranger in this regard also) but feels derivative (Don’t Look Now) and clunky in its execution while its casting of Stephen Dorff means that despite the wild Atlantic surroundings the film deliberately eschews being read as ‘Irish’ in any meaningful way. Such a lack of specificity is a common feature of Irish genre and art-house cinema (see, for instance Hole in the Ground or Mammal) and while it presumably aspires towards attracting an audience beyond the national/local, all too often it can rob a film of cultural traction and engagement.
It is worth noting that of all the films discussed above, just two – Aoife McArdle’s Kissing Candice and Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway – were directed by women. Some inroads towards addressing this massive imbalance will, however, have been made by Screen Ireland’s female-focused POV scheme which, having received 65 applications, in September 2018 announced the six projects chosen for the development and mentorship phase preceding the final selection of three projects for actual production.
Small Screen Production and Gender Participation
That concern with gender is at partially mirrored with regard to TV production, even if, as the survey below indicates that the relatively few examples of home-grown drama broadcast and produced this year already have a strong female orientation. Having seen its first season acquired for US audience’s by Netflix, the Channel 4 hit Derry Girls returned for a second season in March 2019 to increased ratings in the UK earning creator Lisa McGee the sole female award nomination as a comedy writer for the Royal Television Society awards. South of the border, RTE’s drama output was noticeably characterised by female leads. Having headlined in RTE’s high profile straight fiction “Striking Out” for two seasons since 2017, Amy Huberman not only returned for the second series of Stephanie Preissner’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope alongside Seana Kerslake and Nika McGuigan but took the titular role in the comedy Finding Joy which she also wrote. Generally well-received and earning respectable audiences, Finding Joy’s disarmingly bawdy tone was clearly marked by the influence of Sharon Horgan’s expanding body for UK (Motherland (2018) and Catastrophe (2015 -) and US (the Sarah Jessica Parker hit Divorce (2015 -). Horgan was also behind RTE’s second comedy series of the Autumn Season, Women on the Verge, starring Kerry Condon, Eileen Walsh and Nina Sosanya ’s work. Though perhaps not quite matching the high standard of her other work – perhaps understandably given that on top of writing three shows simultaneously (with a fourth in development for Amazon) she continues to appear in front of the camera – Women on the Verge was good enough to suggest the possibility for a second series. In the event, both Finding Joy and Women on the Verge were somewhat eclipsed audience-wise by the testosterone-heavy television adaption of The Young Offenders which earned average ratings of 400,000 over its initial six week run and more than that for its Christmas special.
Although, Resistance, Colin Teevan’s follow-up to the critically-panned Rebellion (2016) was arguably the best-resourced RTE drama production of the year, it again failed to draw in audiences concomitant to its budget, averaging 270,000 viewers over the month of January 2019. This was perhaps a response to its somewhat flat narrative, at least relative to the actual historical drama of its War of Independence setting. Indeed it was somewhat eclipsed by Taken Down another female-led drama from the Love/Hate team of writer Stuart Carolan, producer Suzanne McAuliffe and director David Caffrey. Though its focus on female characters – Orla FitzGerald and Lynn Rafferty’s Garda detectives and Aissa Maiga’s Nigerian immigrant – was welcome, the decision to shine onto the experience of living in Direct Provision in Ireland was arguably much more significant marking an – admittedly belated – expansion of the Irish television drama’s understanding of which and who’s stories count as local. This was, to a lesser extent also true of Death and Nightingales, writer/director Allan Cubitt (The Fall (2016 -) adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s novel about a young woman living in the late 19th North of Ireland seeking to establish an existence independent of her domineering stepfather. In passing, Taken Down’s focus on female detectives will be extended later in 2019 with the broadcast of Dublin Murders, the BBC/Starz adaptation of Dublin-based crime writer Tana French’s first two novels centred around Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene).
2018 saw TV3 celebrate 20 years in existence by rebranding itself as Virgin Media One, reflecting its changed corporate ownership. Though mainly looking to sporting content as audience tentpoles, the channel has used the substantial resources of its corporate parent to dip its toe into local drama production. The Bailout, the John Kelleher-produced two-part adaptation of Colin Murphy’s dramatization of the near-bankrupting of the Irish state in 2010 made little impact. However, the channel’s other drama foray, Blood, screened in October 2018 drew in solid audiences of 150,000, a decent result for Virgin Media and on a par with established series like Emmerdale. A family drama built around a daughter (English actress Carolina Main) returning to her family home in Meath after the suspicious death of her mother (possibly at the hands of her father – Adrian Dunbar), Blood’s €4m budget made it by far the most expensive drama undertaken by the channel in its 20-year history. Clearly designed with a view to international sales, the show was also – incidentally – marked by unusually extensive female participation in key behind-the-camera roles. Written by Sophie Petzel, the six-part series was directed by Lisa Mulcahy and Hannah Quinn and photographed by Kate McCullagh. Female involvement extended to editing (Isobel Stephenson), production management Geraldine Daly, and even – in a possible first for Irish television – stunt co-ordination (Eimear O’Grady).
The new emphasis on female-led content clearly owes something to the ongoing impact of the WakingTheFeminists movement on funding structures in Ireland. Having previously introduced a gender criterion to the Sound and Vision scheme from its 30th round on – Blood notably benefitted from Sound and Vision funding to the tune of €475,000 – in January the BAI announced that it would place a particular emphasis on female-driven stories for Round 33 of the scheme. Yet while the gender rebalancing was doubtless welcomed by Heads of Drama sensitive to contemporary identity politics (including RTE’s Jane Gogan who announced in October 2018 that she was departing that post after 12 years), it is worth noting that the locus for determining what television drama does and does not appear on Irish screens appears to be drifting beyond the borders of this island and thus outside the exclusive gift of Irish broadcasters. As the Audiovisual Action Plan noted, the impact of the post-2008 economic crash on RTE’s commercial finances in particular saw the channel severely curtail its non-soap drama output. If that appears to be confounded by the productions listed above, it’s worth recalling with regard to Women on the Verge, Death and Nightingales, The Young Offenders and Dublin Murders that, though benefitting to some extent from RTE funding, all were commissioned outside Ireland by UKTV (the jointly owned BBC/Discovery suite of channels) and the BBC directly. Virgin Media’s Blood was largely financed by All3Media International, a London-based distribution entity half-owned by Virgin Media’s parent Liberty Global. Thus the series immediately appeared on Virgin Media UK on-demand service and was sold by All3Media to the UK’s Channel 5 for live transmission. North American audiences also gained access to the series after it was acquires by Acorn Media Enterprises which operates a streaming service in the US built around UK and Irish content. In addition to acquiring both Blood and Finding Joy for the US on-demand market along with RTE’s 2010 Edna O’Brien adaptation Wild Decembers Acorn has begun directly commissioning Irish-themed work such as the Lords and Ladies cooking show. Blood’s casting illustrates the implications of this for Irish content in its deployment in the main Irish role of Carolina Main, an actress familiar to UK audiences for roles in Unforgotten (2017-18) and Granchester (2014), and Adrian Dunbar who, though obviously Irish, is currently a bona fide UK television star after recurring roles in the acclaimed Line of Duty (2012 – ) and opposite Sean Bean in Jimmy McGovern’s Broken (2017). In other words, the influence of external forces on television drama production in Ireland is not limited to high profile overseas work such as Nightfliers and Vikings.
Stranger than Fiction: Irish Documentary
The opposite can be said of a genre which has gone from strength to strength in recent times: the feature documentary. “Feature docs” account for a substantial portion of indigenous production – we count approx 10 released in cinemas in 2018. This is over and above the documentaries made for RTE and TG4 (generally with the support of BAI funding). TG4 in particular has a strong tradition in imaginative and off-beat films by local filmmakers passionate about their stories, many of which deserve wider dissemination and recognition.
Although generally considered secondary to feature fictions in terms of “cultural capital” (as well as potential financial return) Irish documentary in 2018 displayed a vitality and sense of purpose that puts it at the forefront of indigenous production and central to the notion of a “national cinema”. Such films shed light on a range of themes – personal, political, scientific, historical – that are largely invisible within the Irish fiction film, offering filmmakers greater freedom of expression on both thematic and formal levels.
We have space to note but a few notable productions, and in doing so identify two dominant clusters of themes. As Brexit rumbles on with potentially dire consequences for peace in Northern Ireland, a group of non-fiction films returned to the setting of the Troubles. They follow the gradual re-emergence of docu-drama / feature fictions in recent years – Hunger, Maze, 66 Days, ’71 – but display a marked shift in focus from events to legacies, from the political to the personal and are all the more poignant and chastening for it.
A Woman Brings Her Son to be Shot; The Image that You Missed; I, Dolours; and John Hume: In America are each important films that bring to light the lives of a range of individuals and their relationship with Northern Irish society since the 1970s. (Lelia Doolin’s 2011 film Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey might be offered as a companion to this group).
Sinead O’Shea’s disturbing film, reviewed here by Eileen Culotty, takes as a point of departure the story of Majella O’Donnell and her teenage son Philly who she brought to be shot (in the legs) in the hope that this would avoid an even worse fate at the hands of local paramilitaries. O’Shea’s film tells the story of one Derry family but through them, attempts (not entirely successfully) to explicate the legacy of the Troubles, the ongoing and seemingly interminable addiction of a society to conflict, to gang dynamics, to violence and overall to self defeating punishment within an already disenfranchised community.
O’Shea deploys VO and POV camerawork to express the abnormal social and psychic predicament of her subjects but also to communicate her intimate relationship with the family whose lives she has been admitted such intimate access. Donal Foreman’s film adopts a similar position but for different motivations. The Image That You Missed is a film Foreman has been waiting to make for much of his (young) life; a poetic investigation of his estranged father, Irish-American filmmaker Arthur MacCaig. Through extracts from MacCaig’s powerful, up-close films on the Troubles, letters to Donal’s mother and the son’s VO musings on his father’s ambitions and his inheritance (genetic as well as his estate of films), the film skilfully and engagingly blends personal and political history, while also emerging as a powerful meditation on the nature of film as a tool for personal expression. Not content with having a limited Irish release at the IFI and various regional venues Foreman has spent much of 2018 finding international audiences for his film, taking self-distribution to new lengths by bringing it to international festivals all over the world before embarking on a tour of US colleges. He has also recently taken to screening it along with MacCaig’s powerful 1979 film The Patriot Game, a steely cinema verite account of urban unrest that recasts the Troubles as class conflict.
I, Dolours is also a deeply personal film that makes ample use of voiceover, but told from a quite different perspective, and brings us to the very heart of the IRA in the years before and following the Good Friday Agreement. Centred around a long interview with former IRA member and convicted terrorist Dolours Price, the film could only emerge after her death: such was her condition for granting it to journalist Ed Moloney. Price was an almost legendary figure among the general public for her unstinting and absolute commitment to the armed struggle, her conviction for the Old Bailey bombing of in 1973, the hardship she subsequently experienced as a prisoner (hunger strike for over 200 days with «180 being force fed» and her stubborn unwillingness to submit to the IRA ceasefire. Rarely however has she been seen or heard. She emerges here as a strikingly intelligent and profoundly principled indivudla who ultimately – as is the case for such people – paid a huge personal price for her beliefs in the form of depression and later alcoholism. (She died in 2013 following an overdose of prescription drugs). The film is both dangerous and disturbing: Price is a compelling subject even as she unflinchingly recounts her involvement in the murder of Jean McConville and the deaths of another three of the so-called “Disappeared” (Joe Lynskey, Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright) and names names (hence her injunction on the interview till after her death); most notably that of Gerry Adams as IRA leader. Director Maurice Sweeney offers visual variety as well as space for the audience to breathe and digest Price’s testimony through effective re-enactments of key recollections, including moving images relating to her childhood, most memorably of lighting cigarettes for an aunt mutilated by a bomb explosion.
Finally, and in quite a different register was John Hume: In America (reviewed here), Maurice Fitzpatrick’s account of a key – and increasingly overlooked – figure in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. While lacking the formal or emotional edge of the preceding films, this documentary is a well-researched and boasts high production values (narrated by Liam Neeson, with a score by Bill Whelan), and provides a worthy testament to its subject. In addition to TV screenings, the film has found a large and appreciative audience on the international Irish film festival circuit (where it is by far the most requested and screened Irish doc of recent years) proving that there is more than one way to define audience reach and success.
A second cluster of recent non-fiction films revolves around themes of people and place, a venerable and foundational motif of Irish identity. Poetic but also political, such films emerge from the fragility of psychic and physical links to place within the context of global capitalism. Following Risteard O’Domhnaill’s The Pipe , The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid [reviewed here by Roddy Flynn], When All is Ruin Again, and The Silver Branch digress from the familiar postcolonial narrative however in offering portraits of individuals often in conflict not with foreign interests, but a government often intent on economic development at any cost. While they have not attained anything like the profile or box office of Black ’47 (which in part explains the higher esteem enjoyed by feature fictions), such films provide valuable companion texts to Lance Daly’s film not only as a means of illustrating the enduring legacy of place on the Irish mindset but also the shifting forces of economic history at play on Ireland as both place and space.
Irish feature docs in 2018 offered a supreme richness of subject matter and storytelling skill. Along with the themes mentioned above we also note Ken Wardrop’s characteristically sensitive Making the Grade, Donal O’Ceilleachair’s epic The Camino Voyage and Declan McGrath’s portrait of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax collecting music in 1940s Ireland 1950s – Lomax in Eireann. Such films seemed to proudly explored the local and national, offering often more rigorous and adventurous storytelling than the homogenous and formulaic approaches that has come to typify increasingly globalized moving image production.
Speaking of global – and its digital derivative – platform capitalism, Netflix continued to exert a growing, if somewhat opaque in terms of economic benefit and audience generation, role on the distribution of Irish originated content.
The platform has been picking up Irish content for some time now, though a map has yet to be draw as to the extent of such purchases in terms of distribution territories (mainly Ireland/UK) and duration (a standard contract was 3 months). The announcement that Cardboard Gangsters was to be added to the platform’s US & Australian sites represented a considerable achievement for Mark O’Conor’s film, but as ever, the scale of audience engagement remains unknown outside the confines of the streaming giant. Netflix also took US distribution rights for Channel 4’s hit TV show Derry Girls, and in an unusual move took Gerard Barrett’s (Pilgrim Hill, Glassland) US set drama Brain on Fire (2015) exclusively for Ireland, thereby completely bypassing a theatrical release for one of Ireland’s up and coming auteurs.
But the platform has also more recently begun to influence production activity. In Feb 2018, Universal announced they were beginning production of the Netflix bound horror-sci-fi Nightflyers at Limerick’s Troy Studios – a real coup for the fledgling production space which subsequently announced plans to extend its already large facility. Although apparently cancelled after its first season, the decision to use Troy further cements Ireland’s place in multi-season, large-scale TV production; an industry within an industry that boasts The Tudors, The Vikings, Penny Dreadful among others.
Netflix have also made inroads into Ireland’s Animation sector, notably in acquiring “global” rights to Brown Bag’s Angela’s Christmas (from a story by Frank McCourt and something of a prequel to Angela’s Ashes). The 30 minute film was released to a 125 million subscribers (with potential for 200 million audience members) in December 2018 which is undoubtedly an unprecedently achievement for an Irish production. Developing upon the tone of Brown Bag’s Give Up Your Ould Sins, the film was not just locally produced but is set in Limerick (1914) and voiced by Ruth Negga and Malachy McCourt.
That achievement must be placed alongside Cartoon Saloon’s success with its Emmy-nominated pre-school series, Puffin Rock which is currently streamed in 25 languages on Netflix. The platform announced it would fund Nora Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s new animated feature film My Father’s Dragon, following Twomey’s Oscar nomination for The Breadwinner at the March 2018 Academy Awards. The Breadwinner – a take of a young girl living under the Taliban in Afghanistan – represented another triumph for the Kilkenny based studio, to the extent that we may take for granted their astonishing success rate: three Oscar nominations out of three feature productions. Continuing this success, Cartoon Saloon/Louise Bagnall’s touching short animation Late Afternoon was nominated in the 2019 Academy Awards).
The Breadwinner did especially well in France during its delayed 2018 release but overall seems to have underperformed, notwithstanding festival and awards success. In another indication of the shifting sands of finance and distribution in the digital age and perhaps as a response to The Breadwinner’s difficulty in reaching audiences, Cartoon Saloon announced that Apple – in a bid to develop its own platform – bought the “global” rights to their new animated film Wolfwalkers (due for release in 2020).
We began by asking if the change in name from the Irish Film Board to Screen Ireland meant in relation to the activities and focus of the industry? Clearly it represents some demotion of the long priveledged status of film as national art form but, as we have seen, works to encompass the broad range of activity that flows into, out of and through Ireland as a hub of audiovisual production within an increasingly globalized industry. This is to be celebrated. The concern for funders, policy and decision makers going forward will be in striking a balance between the needs of inward coming productions with deep pockets, the international outlook of ambitious companies such as Element Pictures, and the producers of films such as Katie, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid, Michael Inside or The Silver Branch . . . local, often formally ambitious, challenging and “narky” films that form the bedrock of public sphere discourse. There are also challenges not only in continuing to get such films made but encouraging them to find audiences. As current events show, an abundance of media does not correlate to an uptick in democratic participation or enfranchisment. A key task for governments in the years ahead will be the protection and stewardship of public discourse (including artistic expression), within which moving images will continue to play a central function.
Documentary as Diversion: A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot (Sinéad O’Shea, 2017)
In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America (Maurice Fitzpatrick, 2018)
Déjà Vu? The Audiovisual Action Plan (2018)
The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid (Fergal Ward, 2018)
Fear, Loathing (and Industrial Relations) in the Irish Film Industry
Searching for Understanding in Alan Gilsenan’s The Meeting