The year of living internationally

Mon, Feb 28, 2011, 00:00

It was a festival with a strong international flavour, but there was still plenty of work on offer that was a credit to Irish film-making, writes DONALD CLARKE

THE JAMESON Dublin International Film Festival, which ended last night, got a bit more “international” this year. The event has, of course, always welcomed films from around the globe, but the 2011 jamboree celebrated the advance of the international Irish picture.

Take Juanita Wilson’s As If I Am Not There.Wilson, a Dubliner, has taken a book by Slavenka Drakulic, detailing atrocities in Bosnia in the 1990s, and turned it into a hypnotic, troubling drama. The film begins with a teacher being taken by armed thugs and subjected to an ordeal of rape and confinement. Despite working abroad on a limited budget, the makers have produced a film that shimmers with class.

Elsewhere, a number of disparate films set around the world turned out, to viewers’ surprise, to be Irish co-productions. Lapland Odyssey is a wacky road movie that, with its casual surrealism, harks back to previous exercises in Finnish lunacy. Off the Beaten Tracktravels farther south to follow Romanian shepherds as they make efforts to cope with changing economic circumstances. Both films speak of an intelligent determination to seek out talent in remote locales.

Off the Beaten Trackis set in Transylvania, but it doesn’t feature any vampires or monsters. We mention this by way of constructing a fantastically clumsy link to David Keating’s Wake Wood. The latter is the first shot for the reconstituted Hammer Films and remains true to that company’s gothic aesthetic. A kind of folk horror, in which Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle encounter necromancers in the cowshed, the film has the courage of its unlovely convictions.

Nowhere was the wealth of domestic creativity more conspicuous, however, than in the festival’s documentary sections. Barbaric Genius, a disturbing picture by Paul Duane, takes a look at the fall and rise and fall of John Healy, a London Irish eccentric who, after a period of homelessness, shook himself together and became a chess wizard and successful author.

If anyone had felt minded to hand out a prize for the most enthusiastically received picture, Ballymun Lullabywould have been a hands-down winner. Frank Berry’s stirring documentary offers a cheery portrait of Ron Cooney, the inspiring music tutor behind the Ballymun Music Programme.

A behind-the-scenes account of the making of a 2009 EP, the film recreates the area’s famous sense of community, with lively contributions from composer Daragh O’Toole, former Dublin 11 resident Glen Hansard and talented students Tara, Wayne and Darren.

Mention should also be made of Pat Collins’s peculiar, insidiously effective Tim Robinson: Connemara. Calling up memories of Patrick Keiller’s singular quasi-documentaries, the picture attempts (as the bald title indicates) a cinematic transposition of Robinson’s eccentric studies of Connemara and its people. Far from a conventional walk-through, Collins’s picture deals in a kind of spooky magic.

This writer’s two favourite Irish documentaries could not be more different. Men of Arlingtonwent among the London Irish who had, over many years, slept at a near-legendary shelter in Camden Town. The film is touching and (though never patronising) often funny. I particularly enjoyed the confused conversation about an unexpected sighting of Jon Snow.

For the past few years Still Films, winner of this year’s Michael Dwyer Discovery Award, has been delivering singular documentaries on a variety of subjects. Build Me Something Modernmakes a study of those modernist architects who, unable to find work in Ireland in the 1950s, took their schemes to Africa. Paul Rowley and Nicky Gogan have made something fascinating of the material. Employing geometric animations that echo their subjects’ designs, the directors engulf the viewer in the architects’ still-challenging aesthetic. A worthy but different successor to the earlier Still Films offering, Pyjama Girls.

Sprinting from one domestic feature to another, one might easily miss the wealth of (that word again) international delights on offer. Among the films that have had scant exposure elsewhere was an extraordinary thriller from Austria named The Robber. Directed by Benjamin Heisenberg, this taut picture, awarded Best Film at the festival by the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle, tells the true story of a recently released hoodlum who, when not robbing banks, trains as a marathon runner. It manages a near-perfect blend of arthouse austerity and mainstream heart-pumping thrills.

Moving at a more leisurely pace, but at least as gripping, Aleksei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended the Summerwas, bizarrely, the second film in the festival (after Johnny O’Reilly’s The Weather Station) set at a Russian meteorological facility.

What else was on offer? Plenty, as it happened. Jim Loach, son of Ken, made a touching debut with Oranges and Sunshine,while another famous second-generation professional, Emilio Estevez, directed his dad, Martin Sheen, in the soapy, sentimental, but watchable The Way.

Those of us who experienced every day of the event are off for a little lie-down now.

Winners: Dublin Film Critics’ Circle Awards

Best Film The Robber

Best Director Aleksei Popogrebsky, How I Ended This Summer

Best Irish Film Snap

Best Irish Director Carmel Winters, Snap

Michael Dwyer Discovery Award Still Films

Best Cinematography Tim Fleming , As If I Am Not There

Best Screenplay Medal of Honour

Best Short Kathy Brady, Small Change

Best International Documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Best Irish Documentary Men of Arlington

Best Debut Philip Koch, Picco

Best Actor Jacob Cadergren, Submarino

Best Actress Martina Gusman, Carancho

Special Jury Prize Le Quattro Volte