Irish Cinema, U.S. Audiences: Irish Film New York and Other U.S. Irish Film Festivals (Web Exclusive)
by Michael Gray
The recent demise of Film Ireland magazine as a fixture on Irish newsstands leaves the nation without a single print publication solely dedicated to the medium of film. Established in the era of the punk fanzine and launched in classic monochrome photocopy style as Filmbase News, the magazine soon evolved into a bimonthly glossy, and would revamp its title five years later to become Film Ireland. A must-read for a quarter of a century for Irish filmmakers, actors, producers, and movie fans, the magazine gave a public forum for robust debate about the nature and direction of Irish cinema, frequently addressing the perennially inflammatory subject of government influence and interference in the film industry. At a time of ever-attenuating distribution opportunities in U.S. theaters for European filmmakers, the extinction of such a long-running platform for film news from Ireland is to be lamented. Film Ireland was predeceased some years earlier by Film West, a Galway-based quarterly covering similar territory. Unlike Film West, Film Ireland will continue in Web-only format.
In the absence of such publications, the best opportunities for American fans of Irish movies to keep up to date on big-screen developments from there remain specialist festivals that focus on the nation’s latest cinematic output. And for European Hibernophile audiences, there are Irish film festivals held annually in London, Moscow and Rome. Many of the U.S.-based festivals are screened in university theaters, and are scheduled in March each year to coincide with Saint Patrick’s Day festivities, when interest in Irish culture is at its peak. Boston College has been hosting the Irish Film Festival Boston since 1999, when it was founded by Peter Flynn, a film-studies graduate from University College Dublin, with a declared mandate to celebrate cinema from Ireland and elsewhere created by Irish writers, directors, and producers. The festival typically presents a mix of fiction features, documentaries, and shorts, and recent schedules have addressed themes as diverse as the plight of immigrants returning to lives of hardship in post-boom Ireland (Darragh Byrne’s Parked, starring Colm Meaney), and the documentary celebration of an extraordinary school in County Derry that has produced such stellar alumni as Nobel Prize winners John Hume and Seamus Heaney (Tom Collins’s The Boys of St Columb’s). Lighter fare included Ian Power’sThe Runway, a comedy-drama exploring the impact of an exotic visitor on a rural Irish village, when a pilot from Colombia crash-lands his plane in the nearby countryside. In a U.S. premiere screening at the Chicago Irish Film Festival (CIFF), Congo: An Irish Affair, revisited the conflict that erupted in that mineral-rich African state after the imprisonment and execution of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. A documentary feature by Brendan Culleton and Irina Maldea, the film examines Ireland’s involvement in the UN peacekeeping mission that attempted unsuccessfully to restore order in the newly independent nation. Five years after joining the United Nations, Irish army troops were sent to assist in UN operations in Katanga province in what would be Ireland’s first major overseas military mission. Underequipped and frequently besieged by far greater numbers of antigovernment forces and mining company mercenaries, twenty-six of their number would ultimately lose their lives in Katanga.
Africa also provides the locus for Paul Rowley’s and Nicky Gogan’s documentary Build Something Modern, screened at CIFF in the same festival series. The stagnation of the construction industry in Ireland in the 1960s, and the conservative taste of the few clients who could sponsor commissions, resulted in frustrated Irish architects exporting their design skills to Africa in search of creative freedom. Their projects, usually developed under the auspices of the then-ubiquitous Irish missionary priests and nuns on the continent, resulted in daring designs and innovative use of materials that they could not have implemented on home turf. Many of the architects worked on designs from studios in Ireland and would never see their finished works. Others made the trip to Africa and spent protracted periods there, overseeing their creations through to completion. The movement in the 1960s towards independence from colonial powers fueled an optimism that resulted in dozens of clinics, schools, and hospitals being built from plans devised by Irish design teams. This optimism all too frequently evaporated as civil strife led to the destruction of these new endeavors. Many of the buildings depicted in the documentary fell victim to artillery fire, looting, and burning in civil wars, and no longer exist outside the vjntage reels included in Rowley’s and Gogan’s fascinating study.
The University of Wisconsin has a broader remit to include in its schedule films from other regions that have cultural connections with Ireland. The UW Celtic Film Festival has screened features and shorts from Cornwall (Andrew Edmonds’s Pymp Gwel, in Cornish), Scotland (Peter Mullan’s NEDS) and Argentina (Marc Evan’sPatagonia, in Welsh and Spanish, a drama that centers on descendants of immigrants from Wales in the eponymous Argentinian province).
In New York City, the NY Film Fleadh was established in 1998 to provide an East Coast launchpad for Irish independent features, but subsequently expanded its scope to include music and comedy performed by Irish and Irish-American artists. As it morphed into the Craic Festival, the emphasis of the programming team switched more to live performance and barroom revelry, leaving a relative newcomer on the NY festival scene to meet the demand for new Irish cinema.
Irish Film New York, founded in 2011, is the newest Irish festival on the East Coast, but it has pedigree. Its founding director, Niall McKay, had previously established Irish film festivals in Los Angeles and San Francisco. McKay relocated two years ago to NYC, to launch an autumn season of new Irish features at NYU’s Cantor Film Center. The IFNY roster so far has included Knuckle, Ian Palmer’s nonfiction film about boxing in the Irish Traveller community; Jump, Kieron J Walsh’s frenetic crime caper set in post-Troubles Derry; and Dollhouse, Kirsten Sheridan’s improvised home-invasion drama. First-time producer-director Palmer became involved in the bare-knuckle fight scene through his work as videographer at weddings of the Traveller community, nomadic descendants of tenant farmers displaced from their lands by the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century. The Travellers are widely dispersed throughout the British Isles, but maintain close ties between extended families. Many of them remain quasinomadic to this day, camping out for months or even years at makeshift halting sites with limited access to electricity, running water, or drainage. Transgenerational disputes among some Traveller clans are settled in illegal bouts held at remote locations in the Irish and English countryside, far from police scrutiny. Director Ian Palmer tracked this shadowy world of bloodied fists, alpha-male posturing, and heavy gambling for twelve years to make his film, getting close enough to the action to risk serious injury himself. Dollhouse, Sheridan’s third feature, is shot in an ultramodern house overlooking the harbor in an upmarket suburb south of Dublin. The ad hoc narrative pitches a group of reckless teens into direct collision with the chrome and glass palace, and the building is doomed to be destroyed during a night of pill popping and alcohol-inflamed violence. Working with a cast of unknowns, from an improvised script, with neither flashbacks nor backstory, Sheridan’s tense film keeps viewers and cast guessing right up to the finale.
IFNY’s upcoming October schedule includes a comedy feature adapted from an Irish TV cult favorite, a necrophilia drama, and further explorations on the theme of boxing. Hardy Bucks: The Movie has its roots in a series of YouTube shorts that quickly attained cult status among hip young Irish audiences around the world. Shot in lo-tech mockumentary style with a cast of non-professional actors, and set in County Mayo in the West of Ireland, Hardy Bucks featured a group flat-broke slackers engaged in a relentless struggle with small-town boredom. The YouTube show morphed into a successful TV series, first aired on Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, in 2009, and, with funding from Universal Pictures, spawned the new eighty-nine-minute feature, which will receive its U.S. premiere at IFNY. Writer-director Mike Cockayne and his cowriter Jerry Greaney successfully pump the slim premise of the original sketches up to feature length without showing any signs of stretch marks, by setting their protagonists off on a trans-Europe road movie. Rustic ne’er-do-wells Eddie (Martin Moloney), The Viper (Chris Tordoff), Buzz (Eddie Colgan), and Frenchtoast (Peter Cassidy) borrow a van and hit the road, traveling from the West of Ireland to Poland. Their destination is the Euro 2012 soccer championship in Poznan, a competition for which the Republic of Ireland had qualified against the odds, and the Bucks feel duty-bound to be there to support the national team. The gormless quartet get into trouble with hashish and hookers in Holland and Germany along the way, finally arriving triumphantly in Poznan with their dignity, as ever, far from intact.
The documentary feature at the October IFNY festival will be Ross Whitaker’s When Ali Came to Ireland. The film is an engaging account of the unlikely but ultimately successful scheme by an Irish-circus strongman named Butty Sugrue to bring Muhammad Ali to Dublin to fight in an exhibition bout in 1972. Sugrue persuaded Ali to take on Al “Blue” Lewis, a convicted murderer and no-hoper from the lower reaches of the world heavyweight rankings, in Croke Park, the crucible of Gaelic games in Dublin. Whitaker’s fifty-minute film opens with Ali’s star at a low ebb, the ex-champ still languishing after his defeat by George Foreman in their first encounter the previous year. Ali would exact his revenge in Zaire at the fabled Rumble in the Jungle two years later, but in the interim he agreed to the fight in Dublin. Captured by the local TV and film crews of the day, Whitaker’s film features George Kimball, Richard Harris, and Ronald Reagan in ringside cameos, and an incandescent Ali exudes all of the charisma that made him such a camera magnet in his prime.
Boxing without the constraints of Queensbury Rules features in Mark O’Connor’s King of the Travellers. Writer-director Connor’s rough-hewn drama mixes flashes of ribald comedy with class conflict and ill-fated romance in a collision of brawn, sinew, and cartilage, set in Ireland’s Traveller community. John Paul Moorehouse (played by newcomer John Connors), heir apparent to the title of champion bare-knuckle boxer of the Travellers, falls for the teenage daughter (Carla McGlynn) from a rival clan suspected of murdering his father, twelve years earlier. Old grudges are reignited and violence escalates between the two camps and neighboring landowners who regard them as trespassers, with catastrophic consequences for the Moorehouse family. A mix of bravura hallucinogenic scenes and brutal realism compensate for the tight budget, improbable ending, and patchy acting from inexperienced and amateur cast members, many of them drawn from the Traveller community. O’Connor crams his compact eighty-minute film with so many references—to Star Wars, Romeo and Juliet, Snatch, and even a spoof Rocky training montage—that he can’t get the lid back on, but his psilocybin-fueled piebald pony ride through silent woods at midnight is a visual highlight that taps O’Connor as a dark visual talent to watch for the future, if he can secure better funding and develop a sharper script.
Darker still is Brendan Muldowney’s Love Eternal, a film based on the Kei Ôishibook In Love With The Dead. The film centers on an introverted and death-obsessed young man, Ian Harding (Robert de Hoog), who suffered the loss of both parents at a young age. Ian rarely goes out, opting instead to spend his time painting macabre murals on the walls of his house. His growing fascination with death compels him to take his own life, by driving to the woods with the intent of parking there and feeding carbon monoxide fumes into his car. His plan is put on hold when he comes upon a family that attempted suicide en masse, and he becomes sufficiently enamored by the beauty of their near-dead teenage daughter that he takes her home for further romantic discovery. This experience leads him to search compulsively on Internet suicide Websites, where he encounters his next paramour, spiky Goth Naomi (Pollyanna McIntosh). Ian soon develops a morbid bond with the virtual community of the death-obsessed that counters his prolonged disconnection from the real society of the living. Muldowney’s beautiful but creepy film makes for challenging viewing and, despite its elegantly shot European locations, retains strong undercurrents of the Japanese source material in the film’s nonjudgemental acceptance of suicide. Love Eternal, filmed in Ireland and Luxembourg, is Muldowney’s second feature, following his highly regarded and confrontational 2010 debut Savage, which examined the dehumanizing effect that an uncontrollable desire for revenge has on the victim of a random violent assault in Dublin’s inner city.
IFNY’s schedule lightens the tone with Run and Jump, a comedy drama about bubbly Irish housewife Vanetia (Maxine Peake) whose family life is devastated when her husband Conor (Edward MacLiam) suffers a stroke. Frazzled by the needs of her two young children and the demands of caring for her helpless husband in a house that is constantly swarming with well-meaning neighbors, she soon has to contend with the constant presence of a bearded and overly serious American doctor, Ted Fielding (Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte, impressively playing against type). Dr. Ted moves into their cash-strapped household on the strength of a U.S. research grant, to write a book on stroke recovery. Vanetia’s heart-on-sleeve emotions clash with Dr. Ted‘s cold clinical analysis and his constant and irritating observation of her family from behind his video camera. But he soon loosens up in the chaotic family atmosphere, and he and Vanetia bond over cheeky late-night reefers and unhealthy snacks. Over time, a romance threatens to blossom at the expense of his professional decorum, and they come to appreciate each other’s contrasting qualities, to the benefit of the recovering patient. A German–Irish coproduction, Run and Jump is directed by Steph Green, a California native active for many years on the Irish film scene, and a 2007 Academy Award nominee for her film New Boy in the Best Live Action Short category.
IFNT founder Niall McKay remains involved in the two Californian Irish festivals since his relocation to NYC, and this continuing link to the more established LA and San Francisco filmfests inevitably lead to cross-pollination in programming between both coasts. Such is the geographical distance between all the festivals listed that the organizers are not in competition for ticket sales, and, aside from vying for the cachet of screening U.S. premieres, there is an admirable camaraderie between the various programming teams, as evidenced by the links on their Websites to each others’ Internet profiles. All of these festivals overtly aspire to presenting the best of contemporary Irish cinema, but the laws of economics dictate that the big names in the industry, Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, are inevitably going to showcase their latest works in the more prominent festivals, Tribeca, Toronto, and Sundance.
Back in Ireland, the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, held in the capital city in March each year, and the Galway Film Fleadh, held in July, are the most important shop windows for new Irish films, and are vital sources for programmers of Irish film events on the far side of the Atlantic. The Fleadh has been running continuously for twenty-five years, and attracts interest from across the spectrum of U.S.–Irish film. The more recently established Dublin International Film Festival is a revival of an earlier and defunct Dublin Film Festival founded in the 1980s by renowned Irish film critic Michael Dwyer, of The Irish Times, and film producer David McLoughlin.
These festivals provide a valuable forum for Irish art films that struggle to find an audience or a screening opportunity in Europe and the United States. Dreamtime Revisited, a documentary codirected by Dónal Ó Céilleachair and Julius Ziz, premiered to a packed auditorium at the JDIFF in 2012, but despite the rapt response to their elegiac tribute to the late Irish philosopher-poet John Moriarty, the film has yet to see the light of a projector bulb in America. Ó Céilleachair and Ziz used as their base material a series of recordings made by the poet in the years before his death from cancer, in order to elucidate his theories on the deep connections between rural Irish people, their rugged mountain landscapes, and ancient Celtic mythologies. The autobiographical recordings are complemented by a fluid collage of archive footage, personal interviews, and breathtakingly beautiful scenery. The perceived difficulty for U.S. audiences in understanding the Irish accents in this film could be overcome by subtitles, thus enhancing its potential appeal for the export market; but the copious wording needed would be an unwelcome distraction from such a visually mesmeric film, and would understandably meet with resistance from the filmmakers.
No such problem afflicts Pat Collins’s Silence, a visually stunning and largely dialogue-free film that also premiered at JDIFF in 2012. Silence follows the journey of an Irish emigrant (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, the film’s cowriter, along with Collins and Sharon Whooley), long resident in Berlin, as he returns to Ireland after a decade and a half in exile. Collins’s protagonist is a sound recordist who readily accepts a commission to field record sounds of the wilderness, far away from the intervention of man. He leaves the clatter of Berlin and his discordant relationship with his live-in girlfriend, and travels to ever more remote locations in the West and Northwest of Ireland, seeking the silence that exists only in barren landscapes devoid of birdcall and wildlife. A humble pilgrim on a vast and windswept canvas, Collins allows his passive protagonist’s journey to unfold slowly and quietly among the reeds and the rushes, as Eoghan confronts complex questions of identity, memory, and his sense of place in the once familiar but now half-forgotten margins of his home terrain. The positive response to Collins’s film at the festival generated enough press to get distribution in Irish cinemas, and the film has subsequently been screened at festivals in Canada and Great Britain.
Irish films closer to mainstream American genres have made the transition from the Film Fleadh to U.S. distribution in specialist cinemas stateside and in the U.K. Ciaran Foy’s urban paranoia horror drama Citadel, screened in Galway in 2012, went on to festival screenings at South by Southwest, and limited New York and London releases, in the spring of this year. Citadel lead Aneurin Bernard plays an expectant father who is trapped in a lift in the rundown Glasgow tower block in which he lives, and can only watch helplessly as his pregnant wife is assaulted in the adjacent lobby by a group of teenagers in hoodies. His wife survives the beating long enough to give birth to their baby, but dies soon after from her injuries. Left to raise the child alone, the young widower must confront the gang and his own uncontrollable fear that the feral teenagers will take his daughter’s life as well. Irish writer-director Foy, whose atmospheric short The Faeries of Blackheath Woods earned him deserved attention in 2006, used his own horrific experience of an assault by syringe-wielding youths to develop the script. Citadel packs a lot of jolts and scares despite its low budget, ill-advised CGI inserts, and undercurrent of class prejudice, and it features an inspired performance from veteran Scottish character actor James Cosmo, playing a demented priest.
A jollier romp in the horror genre, with a dash of sci-fi and a definite tilt towards comedy, is John Wright’s Grabbers. A hit at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2012, Wright’s film doesn’t so much embrace Ireland most sensitive stereotype—that we are a nation of drunkards—as wrap it in a giant bear hug, and then kiss it on the forehead. Wright’s film opens on a stormy night out at sea, off the coast of Ireland. A stealthy alien invasion is underway, and it quickly results in multiple unexplained deaths in a remote seaside village. Each corpse is a dessicated husk and the police are stumped. A pattern soon emerges that, of any given group of people that suffered an attack, the only survivors were invariably roaring drunk. The wisdom of the crowd leaps to the outlandish conclusion that the squidlike invaders are allergic to alcohol, and that the only way to keep them at bay is for the whole village to go to the pub, and stay there all night to get completely hammered. Impervious to the sensitivities of the easily offended, director Wright and his scriptwriter Kevin Lehane go for broke, mining their flimsy one-liner for maximum comedy effect, earning the film theater runs in both NYC and in London.
The 2013 Galway Film Fleadh premiered both King of The Travellers and Run and Jump (which won the Fleadh’s Audience and Best First Feature Awards), bringing them to the attention of Niall McKay’s programmers at IFNY, who signed them up for their next scheduled screenings in October—keeping the lines of communication open between Ireland’s next generation of filmmakers and their U.S. audiences, in the wake of Film Ireland’s demise.
For more information on Irish Film New York, visit www.irishfilmnyc.com/
Michael Gray is film critic for The Irish Echo and author of Stills, Reels and Rushes: Ireland and the Irish in 20th Century Cinema.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine