A little audience participation


The committed movie-goers at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival have seen plenty to inspire feisty debate, writes Donald Clarke

On the second night of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF), following a screening of Robert Greenwald's spittle-flecked documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, economist and broadcaster David McWilliams - uncharacteristically casual in some sort of windbreaker affair - began a feisty debate by pointing out that the Irish Film Institute, where we were all gathered, was once a Quaker meeting hall. McWilliams sought to remind the audience how Quaker-owned businesses such as Bewley's had shown more compassion for their employees than Wal-Mart allegedly exhibits towards its own euphemistically named "associates". But his comments also encouraged one to muse upon the similarities between a festival audience and the congregation at a traditional meeting of the Society of Friends. Both bodies sit in quiet contemplation waiting for some sort of collective transcendence. Outbursts and vocal affirmations sometimes occur.

On Friday night, during the opening film, Paul Mercier's Studs, the loudest hollers came when the amateur football team around whom the action revolves scored a goal. An adaptation of the director's much-loved play, which opened at the SFX Theatre 20 years ago, Studs features a characteristically complex performance from Brendan Gleeson as the mysterious individual - a cross between The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Yosser Hughes of Boys From the Blackstuff - who seeks to transform the fortunes of failing Emmet Rovers. The ubiquitous, quasi-biblical voiceover is a tad overpowering, but the film does a terrific job of conveying the fury, humour (and eye-watering cold) that comes with non-professional football. Before the credits rolled, Cuan MacConghail, producer of the film with his brother, Fiach, glanced around the Savoy Cinema and proudly announced that Mercier, whose Homeland is still running at the Abbey, now had a play on at the National Theatre and a film on at the national cinema.

The other Irish highlight of the opening few days was Studs's accompanying short, Useless Dog. The mighty Ken Wardrop, already something of a legend for his amusing cinematic vignettes, here delivers a gorgeous little documentary about a farmer and his lazy sheepdog. The picture will support Mercier's film when it opens nationwide on March 16th.

Two other domestic productions unspooled before the congregation as the festival picked up speed. Tom Collins's Dead Long Enough, in which Michael Sheen's glib TV personality brings his brother back to the Co Donegal town where they holidayed as boys, tries to excuse away its twinkly Oirishness by including animated inserts of postcards in the style of John Hinde. The film is pleasant enough, but its comically incompetent gardaí, grimly charismatic Provos and brawls in which bodhráns are forced over tourists' heads combine to create a veritable cyclone of tweeness. That said, Collins's ironic declaration, made before the film began, that "there are a lot of films on and this might be the worst you will see" did his entertainment a disservice.

More innovative was the Derry Film Initiative's version of Hamlet. Though the indifferently delivered verse and low production values do compromise the film's status as a fully fledged feature, this imaginative experiment - modern dress, Derry locations, the most famous soliloquy delivered in Irish - demonstrates that director Stephen Cavanagh has real potential. Another six Irish features will be screened as the festival progresses.

ELSEWHERE, THE USUAL combination of the mainstream and the offbeat characterised the international selection. Each year, DIFF offers punters the opportunity to scrutinise some of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars. Capote, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, the favourite in the Best Actor race, as writer Truman Capote, opens in Ireland on Friday, so little else need be said about it here bar that it is a near masterpiece.

Transamerica, a road movie starring Best Actress nominee Felicity Huffman as a male-to-female transsexual, is less impressive: rambling, implausible, soapy. But it was a pleasure to see the formidable Fionnula Flanagan, who plays the protagonist's mother, spread some glamour about at the screening. She remains a force of nature.

The most controversial nominated film in a year of controversies may well be Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, which is shortlisted in the Best Foreign Language Film category. This tense, searing picture from - depending upon your political inclinations - either Palestine or the Palestinian Authority tells the story of two young Arab men as they prepare for a suicide bombing. The same voices that criticised Steven Spielberg for humanising undeniably human terrorists in Munich may raise objections to Abu-Assad's sober drama, but no sane viewer could view the film as anything other than an argument against extremism. It will spur debate wherever it plays.

Two films featuring veteran performers offered airier, more sentimental drama. Roger Donaldson, director of No Way Out and Thirteen Days, turned up to support The World's Fastest Indian, which features Anthony Hopkins as a Kiwi motorbike enthusiast on his way to Utah to break land-speed records. The film is slightly corny and a wee bit derivative, but, thanks mostly to a charming performance by its star, absolutely irresistible.

Driving Lessons, which arrived in Dublin still wet from the developers, stars Julie Walters as a theatrical dame who befriends a timid teenager played by Harry Potter's Rupert Grint. The irrepressible Walters, who was on crutches after toppling down the stairs while putting out the cat, chatted amiably to Myles Dungan after viewing the film for the first time. If nothing else, Driving Lessons will be remembered as the first film in which one of the Potter threesome gets to have sex (though not actually on screen, thank heavens).

THE MOST SURPRISING experiences came courtesy of two outbreaks of English eccentricity: Dave McKean's MirrorMask and Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Brothers of the Head. The first, a dark fairy story in the style of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, uses a combination of live action and computer animation to conjure up the worlds that McKean and his co-writer, Neil Gaiman, have long been exploring in comic books. Brothers of the Head, a mock- documentary based on a novel by Brian Aldiss, tells the story of conjoined twins who become rock stars in the pre-punk era. Though messy, the film, directed by the men behind the Terry Gilliam documentary, Lost in La Mancha, proves a welcome addition to the cinema of grim English dementia. Ken Russell would love it. Hell, Ken Russell is in it.

Of the more commercial films, the one to watch out for at the enormo- plex is David Ayres's stunning Harsh Times. Ayres's script bears similarities to the one he wrote for Training Day, but Harsh Times is an altogether more impressive piece of work. Christian Bale turns in an astonishing performance as a former soldier driven to dementia by his experiences in Afghanistan. The audience at Cineworld appeared bound in communal admiration.

Back at the IFI, however, Minister McWilliams's Friends were becoming less, well, friendly. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price somewhat undermines its persuasive argument against unthinking capitalism by employing some crude polemic devices: Bruce Springsteen warbles This Land is Your Land while small businesses go bust; sinister Wagnerian chords strike out when Wal-Mart move in.

But the audience still seemed overwhelmingly to support Greenwald's case. Then one man tentatively dared to argue that Wal-Mart's Chinese sweat-shops were marginally less ghastly than the domestically owned alternatives. The angry response he received from a Northern gentleman in the same row was definitely not in the Quaker spirit.

The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival runs until Feb 26. The box office is situated in Filmbase, Curved Street, Dublin 2. Tickets can also be obtained from 01-6728861 and www.dubliniff.com