The long and short of Irish film


Ireland’s success with the film short has received international recognition in recent years, but what of the feature film? Are we simply too small a nation to compete with Hollywood gloss?

WHEN NEWS emerged last month that Michael Creagh’s The Crush, a lovely film about a schoolboy’s infatuation with his teacher, had secured an Oscar nomination for best live-action short, the complacent punter could be forgiven for reacting with a happy shrug. In recent years Ireland has been disproportionately conspicuous in this corner of the Academy Awards. Seven Irish shorts have been nominated since 2002, including Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, Give Up Yer Aul Sinsand Fifty Percent Grey.In 2004 Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter,a characteristically bloody entertainment, won the award.

Begrudgers might wonder why Ireland hasn’t delivered more internationally acclaimed features. When it comes to the novel – the short story’s burlier cousin – Irish writers have always performed in the premiere league. To extend the analogy to breaking point, with James Joyce we offered the world a long-form master to compare with Orson Welles or Jean Renoir. Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan have significant standings. But neither is (with the greatest respect) in the first flowering of youth, and both have done much of their recent work overseas.

The question is, of course, unreasonable. To write a novel you need free time, some form of writing equipment – teenagers may be surprised to learn that a pen will do – and significant reservoirs of determination. We have, it’s true, moved on from the time when to deliver a feature the director required an army of clipboard bearers, at least five buses and enough track to construct a transcontinental railroad. As Irish pioneers such as John Carney, the director of Once, and Tom Hall, the co-director of the even cheaper November Afternoon, have shown, relatively cheap and reasonably powerful cameras now allow the budding film-maker to shoot movies for peanuts.

Do not forget, however, there was only one Blair Witch Project. (Okay, there was also one Paranormal Activity. But never mind that.)

The vast majority of low-budget masterpieces will play only to a limited, specialist audience. Good luck flogging your camera-phone drama about badger baiting to the local multiplex. Shooting, post-producing and marketing a feature film still takes a significant amount of hard cash. With that in mind, and considering Ireland’s population is relatively tiny, the Irish film industry has done a good job of gaining attention for its recent features.

Speaking at last year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Simon Perry, outgoing chief executive of the Irish Film Board (James Hickey, the media lawyer, was announced as Perry’s successor on Thursday), commented on the challenges facing Irish film-makers. “You have to remember,” he said, “that whatever sort of film we make we are, as far as the outside world are concerned, making art films.”

The point is well made. Even if a young Irish film-maker delivers a genre piece – take as an example Brendan Muldowney’s recent Savage, an effective revenge thriller – the overseas viewer, pondering its foreignness and its lack of Hollywood gloss, will reasonably regard the film as somewhat recherché.“That’s right,” Perry says. “Even something like Savage, because it doesn’t sip at the trough of Hollywood film-making, will be seen as rather eccentric.”

Consider, looking northwards, the recent version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.Despite being based on a staggeringly successful book, this unashamedly populist entertainment never quite clocked up mainstream figures in Anglophone territories. It’s in Swedish, you see. (Expect David Fincher’s upcoming take on the book to eat the box-office alive.)

All this considered, Ireland should celebrate the significant achievements of its feature directors over the past few years. Often taking advantage of low-budget initiatives from the Irish Film Board (the Catalyst scheme, for example), the industry has delivered an impressive stream of high-quality pictures.

The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, which begins next Thursday, will show a diverse range of films, including Carmel Winters’s searing domestic drama, Snap;David Keating’s old-school folk horror, Wake Wood,made for the venerable Hammer Films; and Juanita Wilson’s As If I Am Not There,a story of the Bosnian War. Wilson’s film, the most nominated picture at tonight’s Irish Film and Television Awards (Iftas), follows an Oscar nomination for her short film The Doorlast year – proving success in the short form can translate to feature films.

Looking back over the past decade, the strong critical receptions and healthy overseas per-screen averages of such quirky films as Once, John Crowley’s Intermissionand Steve McQueen’s transcendent Hungerhave made Irish film-making even more robust.

Older cinema professionals will be impressed with the simple fact that films are getting made at all. When, back in 1979, the veteran producer Morgan O’Sullivan, honoured with an award for “outstanding contribution to the industry” at this year’s Iftas, set out to make Cry of the Innocent, a thriller starring Rod Taylor, his contemporaries thought him insane.

“Oh yes,” he says. “The difference between then and now was like night and day. There was no college to go to. We were making documentaries. We were making newsreels. But we just hadn’t tackled drama.”

The furore that surrounded the release of The Courierin 1988 gives some sense of how things have changed. Why was everybody so excited about this (let’s be frank, indifferent) thriller starring Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Bergin? Simply because it existed. That’s why. Certain brave independent film-makers plugged away, but an Irish feature film was still nearly as rare as an Irish aircraft carrier.

So much has changed. It would be unwise to ignore alterations in the wider cultural and economic landscape. Notwithstanding the current fiscal embarrassment, there is still a great deal more money around than in the barren years. Increasingly liberal attitudes towards the arts also helped to free budding film-makers from their shackles. But certain specific initiatives played a significant role.

The actions of individuals such as O’Sullivan in bringing major productions to Ireland – Braveheartand Saving Private Ryan, to name but two – offered Irish crews opportunities to hone their talents. Intermittently endangered tax breaks, featuring sexy names such as Section 35 and later Section 481, also helped nudge the industry along. The establishment and, following dissolution, re-establishment of the Irish Film Board offered a source of funding and promotion.

And then there is the good work being done at the National Film School at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, of which Ken Wardrop, whose documentary His & Herswon at Sundance and became a significant domestic hit, is a graduate.

None of which is to suggest there aren’t problems. (Too many bad Irish films have, for instance, got inexplicable theatrical releases while perfectly decent pictures sat on the shelf.) But the country is, in cinematic terms, starting to punch above its meagre weight.

At the most recent Sundance Film Festival, John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, a comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, was sold to a multitude of foreign territories. But what’s this we hear? Certain American critics are demanding subtitles.

“It’s well on its way to having a great career with Sony Pictures Classics,” says Perry, who helped develop the film. “But I bet you anything that because that film is about an eccentric guard in Connemara who speaks ‘funny’ and has a certain kind of humour that comes from ‘somewhere else’, that film will become a successful ‘art film’. But it will undoubtedly not be seen as a mainstream film.”

Look at us, America. We’re avant garde.