Southern spotlight on home movies


The 55th Corona Cork Film Festival offers a warm refuge from a cold economic climate, but it also illuminates the wealth of filmmaking talent on our doorstep

IT’S DARK. It’s cold. We’re all about to be sold as galley slaves to the International Monetary Fund. Thank goodness for the Corona Cork Film Festival. Now charging into its 55th edition, the southern event, which plays until Sunday, is, by some margin, the longest-running major film festival in the nation. The jamboree’s position in the calendar does it no harm. Having recently moved back a few weeks, it now sits in otherwise unoccupied territory in the days before Advent, which starts Sunday November 28th. The big events in London and Venice are over. The pre-Oscar shindigs have yet to begin. If you want to inhale a draught of cinema, then this is the place to be.

Mick Hannigan, director of the festival since (gasp!) 1985, gawps at the milling crowds and allows himself a moment of celebration.

“What surprises this year? A few very pleasant ones,” he muses. “The big surprise is the degree of support being shown for Irish films. We are an international festival, but the hot tickets have turned out to be the Irish productions.”

The Pipe, Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s red-hot documentary on the Corrib pipeline controversy, easily sold out a sizeable venue. Also doing well were Paul Fraser’s My Brothersand – a big winner at the Galway Film Fleadh – Ian Power’s The Runway. Garret Daly’s Who is Dervla Murphy?, a charming documentary on the esteemed travel writer, was such a draw that it had to be moved to a larger auditorium.

Daly’s film does an excellent job of communicating both the guile and the spikiness of its legendary subject. Parked beside a pint of beer, a happy dog curled up in her lap, Murphy, who turns 79 this month, expounds upon her life and travels with the ease of a woman who now cares little what others think. The overdue celebration of Murphy’s life should send audiences back to such key works as Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycleand Wheels within Wheels.

Also of interest among the domestic documentaries are Neither Fish nor Fowl,Fiona Murphy’s investigation of a Protestant family from Mayo, and Sé Merry Doyle’s Dreaming The Quiet Man.Screening tonight in The Cork Opera House, Doyle’s picture attempts a new understanding of John Ford’s durable – but still problematic – exercise in creative re-imagination. Since 1952, when The Quiet Manemerged, Irish viewers have attempted to balance the picture’s undeniable charm against its cavalier approach to reality. Narrated by Gabriel Byrne, Dreaming The Quiet Manbrings such figures as Martin Scorsese and Jim Sheridan into the conversation, but has most fun with the indomitable Maureen O’Hara. The veteran actor, due to attend the premiere, remembers Ford with a combination of affection and terror.

“I knew what great actors and directors were like, but he was the best – really the best,” she says. “But he was also the meanest. He could kill you. He could hurt you.”

The festival is also unveiling mainstream features such as Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go,a version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s unsettling novel, and Anton Corbijn’s The American, featuring George Clooney as a resting assassin. So far, so diverting. It is, however, reasonable to ask what sets Cork aside from the other festivals. The event has always had a reputation for focussing on short films, but, while acknowledging that heritage, Hannigan is cautious not to open any pigeonholes.

“It’s a good question. It’s one we always grapple with. On the one hand there is an urge to – to use the modern language – offer a ‘unique selling point’. It is tempting to specialise. We could narrow our range and just show short films. But my own taste is broad-church, so it’s important to offer films across the board. There are different audiences to be addressed.”

Hannigan goes on to bemoan the recent loss of the Kino Cinema. When the much-loved arthouse venue closed last year, it changed the character of the festival and of Cork’s wider cultural landscape. “People stop me in bars every day and say they miss it and wonder if there is any chance of it coming back. There does seem to be a gap in people’s cultural lives.”

At any rate, the Cork Film Festival does still do excellent work in putting new short films before impressively large audiences.

Ploughing through the international selection, one encounters such delightful oddities as John Smith’s Flag Mountain, a mildly avant-garde treatment of the huge Turkish flag that glowers from a mountain at the citizens of Nicosia, and José Miguel Ribeiro’s Journey to Cape Verde, a delicious heterogeneous animation relating travels in seas off West Africa.

It is, however, the Irish shorts that generate the most intrigue. Look hard. Is the next domestic auteur lurking somewhere among the charming experiments and over-ambitious first steps? Well, Domhnall Gleeson, already well-known as an actor, makes good use of his dad, the mighty Brendan, in a precipitously black comedy entitled Noreen. Somewhat reminiscent of Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter– which also starred the elder Gleeson – the picture, a tale of two foolish policemen, takes a bracingly blasé approach to evisceration and annihilation.

There was also original thinking on display in David Quin’s Mister Heaney, A Wee Portrait:stop-motion versions of Seamus Heaney, Jedward and Garret Fitzgerald share unlikely screen-space. Anne Maree Barry’s Rialto Twirlers,another off-beam, playful piece, did interesting things with a dance troupe from North Dublin.

For this writer, however, the highlight of the new Irish shorts was unquestionably Cathy Brady’s Small Change. The scenario could hardly sound more grim – a single mother struggles with an addiction to slot machines in a border town – but, energised by truthful performances, sumptuously fluid photography and a disciplined, unhurried script, the film boldly, loudly announces the arrival of a striking new talent.

Brady certainly profits from the contributions of Nora-Jane Noone, tormented as the mum, and from Rocchini Luca, her cinematographer. There is, however, no denying the dominance of the young director’s distinctive cinematic voice.

Brady’s arrival promises great things. Michael Dwyer, the late I rish Timesfilm correspondent, to whom this year’s festival is dedicated, would have been greatly encouraged. It’s dark. It’s cold. But the future looks a little less menacing.

The Corona Cork Film Festival runs until Sunday