Living in the past?


IN the mid 1980s, during the first sustained wave of indigenous film production backed by the Irish Film Board in its first incarnation, Irish film studies came of age with the work of academics like Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hilt, who provided an intellectual underpinning for the work of contemporary independent film makers. They argued for the importance of a critical, diverse national cinema, and pointed to the work of Cathal Black, Joe Comerford, Pat Murphy and Bob Quinn as an indication of what could be achieved.

Cinema And Ireland, the book published by Rockett, Gibbons and Hill in 1987, remains the Bible of Irish film studies, the first port of call for students both here and overseas who want an overview of the issues surrounding Irish film. The authors made no bones about their purpose; the preface states: "By putting on record the history of Irish film production and the issues which the resulting films raised, and by raising questions about how the Irish have been represented on the screen and with what political and cultural consequences, so it is intended that the book should be able to contribute to ongoing debates about the future direction of Irish film making. Insofar as it assists the building of a revitalised indigenous Irish film culture the book may be deemed a success (my italics)."

The objective was clear: this was no rarified academic tome, but part of the ambitious project of creating a national cinema. Rockett, Gibbons and Hill's narrative the story of Irish film from the very first screening in Dan Lowry's Star of Erin Theatre of Varieties in 1896 was free of the self referential jargon of many modern critical texts. It told of the innumerable setbacks, false dawns and blighted hopes in the history of Irish cinema, and it traced the dominant modes of representation of Ireland on screen, most of them produced by Anglo American film makers. Perhaps most importantly, it codified and contextualised films like Anne Devlin, Pigs, Reefer And The Model and Budawanny, legitimising them as exemplars of a New Irish Cinema.

Ironically, in the same year that Cinema and Ireland was first published, the Film Board was closed dawn by the new Fianna Fail Government, and the film makers championed in the book found it extremely difficult to continue working. The situation has improved dramatically, of course, since 1993, with more Irish film being made than ever before. At the same time, media and film studies courses have proliferated around the country, and there is increasing pressure on second level schools to incorporate an element of media studies within their curricula. Both UCD and DCU also offer postgraduate degrees, in Film Studies and Communications respectively.

In addition, the Film Institute of Ireland, which in the 1980s was barely surviving financially, now receives substantial support from the Arts Council and is housed in the handsomely appointed Irish Film Centre, with control of two cinema screens, the Irish Film Archive and a growing education department. There now exists an established critical and academic infrastructure, a miniature industry, born originally in the arguments and energy of the 1980s.

But for the more recent breed of film makers, those who made their first films in the 1990s, the academic establishment appears - to have grown into a sedentary middle age. At a time when more - films are being made than ever before, the complexities and tensions of Irish cinema in the 1990s don't seem to be addressed by the critical establishment.

One might have imagined that the output of the last seven years, ranging as it does from Far And Away to the huge amount of short films made by students and young directors, would be worthy of critical analysis. But in the conference on Irish film held in Charlottesville, Virginia, in May, for example, there was little or no reference to Paddy Breathnach's Ailsa or Gerard Stembridge's Guiltrip in the papers read. One wondered if some of the academies had even seen these films low budget, independently made contemporary dramas made by first time directors the very kind of production lauded 10 years ago.

THERE was little reference, either to the unprecedented range of films, excellent, bad and indifferent, which have been produced in a variety of different circumstances since 1988: My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The Playboys, The Commitments, Into The West and many others were barely mentioned, even though they constitute the most extensive representation of Ireland ever seen on screen.

Some of the newer breed of film makers, many of whom were attending their first event of this kind, were less than pleased by what they saw as their exclusion from the "canon" in the keynote addresses by Luke Gibbons and Kevin Rockett. It's not so much that they were looking for praise as some sort of recognition of their existence, although it was Rockett who came under the most sustained criticism from filmmakers with his implication that recent films are de politicised" in comparison with their predecessors.

Rockett's two most recent books, The Irish Filmography (1996) and Still Irish (1995), are developments on his assertion in Cinema and Ireland that: "A tension exists between the dominant international view of Ireland with its stereotypes usually located in the rural idyll and the attempt by indigenous film makers to bring to the fore alternative versions of Irish history and society, an interaction with contemporary issues and an interrogation of these stereotypes themselves."

Both the filmography, with its nine to one ratio of "foreign" to Irish made films, and Still Irish, a tellingly juxtaposed collection of promotional photographs from films of the last loo years, reinforce the point, but the stern invocation of the "indigenous" filmmakers objectives make depressing reading for anyone interested in such unprogressive notions as pleasure or entertainment. There's a whiff of old fashioned socialist puritanism - about this approach, reminiscent of the theories of the 1970s and 1980s which have led to the emptying of so many arthouse cinemas across Europe.

Film making is an industry and a business as well as an art form, and the tension between the commercial and cultural elements forms an integral part of its production process. In the 1980s, the academics were instrumental in arguing against a purely economic approach. It seems strange that now, at a time when that argument has been partly accepted by the State, they are not addressing the changed cultural and political environment in a more coherent way. The exception is the work emanating from the Media Studies Department of the University of Ulster in Coleraine, with books like Border Crossing (1994) and Big Picture, Small Screen (1996) raising interesting questions about national identity and the impact of new technology on received notions about cinema.

IN November, the IFC will be the venue for a three day conference, Projecting The Nation: National Cinema And Contemporary Culture, which aims "to bring recent developments in film and media studies to bear on questions of national cinema in Europe and in developing societies, with a particular emphasis on the problems facing film culture in small countries such as Ireland." The conference features leading international cultural critics like Frederic Jameson and Meaghan Morris, and promises discussions on such subjects as Film And Irish Identity and The Question Of National Cinema.

Among the questions due to be discussed is whether a national cinema is possible at all against the backdrop of an intensified global culture and the emergence of new media conglomerates, and whether cinema itself is becoming obsolete in the face of new technologies. These are broad questions, and the organisers envisage that two publications will ensue, one entitled National Cinema In An International Frame, and the second, Projecting Ireland, dealing with Irish cinema. Is it too much to hope that in Projecting Ireland in particular, we might begin to see some analysis of recent Irish cinema, rather than yet another reiteration of the dusty nostrums of 10 years ago?