The flag carrier

 

Mick Hannigan, director of the Murphy's Cork Film Festival, is not given to overstatement. But he is prepared to say of the festival, now in its 43rd year, that it will open on Sunday with David Caffrey's Divorcing Jack, a black satire set in post-Troubles Northern Ireland some time in the future - "some critics have already called it the best film of 1998". Another highlight is the Irish premiere of Shekhar Kapur's costume drama, Elizabeth.

Over the years, the festival has had many premieres and several coups - including in 1987 when Babette's Feast received a standing ovation; such was the interest in Bob Quinn's Budawanny "people were fighting for tickets and I'm not being colourful, there was actually a wrestling match at the door" - it had to be screened four times. It introduced a new dimension to the term "by public demand".

In 1989 the festival secured the first Irish screening of The Crying Game: "It was a special experience for the audience but also for Neil Jordan - it gave him a chance to see how an Irish audience would respond given the subject matter - sexual politics and national politics. We all emerged from that screening on a collective high. We realised this was special."

Obviously, it is an international festival, but Hannigan agrees there is also a strong emphasis on documentary and shorts. "Since its inception, we have always aspired to serve as a showcase for Irish film-making and this year we are delighted with the strong Irish presence. The festival does actively encourage young film-makers to enter. Most short films are made by young film-makers. It is a useful forum for young film-makers to met their peers from across the world. The British Council is very supportive."

So is he obsessed with cinema? Pause. Hannigan's reply is characteristically careful, "yeah, sure, I suppose so". Unlike many arts administrators Mick Hannigan, now in his fourth year as festival director, is given neither to dramatic gestures nor statements. Concerned, serious, he seems to have avoided the intimidatingly trendy aura which usually goes with such jobs.

Dressed in black, he looks weary, a natural 'flu victim just waiting to be caught by whatever germs happen to be passing. The atmosphere is the office from which he and his team have been organising the festival is quiet rather than chaotic. About 1,000 films from all over the world, including 826 short films, 94 features and 77 documentaries were submitted for consideration - "we watched them all," he says, leaving no doubt that it is more pleasure than chore. During the eight-day programme, an expected audience of some 20,000, will watch more than 200 films - including 43 international and 11 Irish features at one of three venues; the Cork Opera House, the Kino and the Triskel Arts Centre. Of the 30 documentaries on offer, five are home-produced: 90 international shorts and 45 Irish will be screened.

Hannigan's family had no specific interest in the arts. "My father was a line compositor. When you think, he had gone through a seven-year apprenticeship to learn his trade and nowadays you can put an entire book together on a desk-top computer. I can remember my father reading newspapers, pointing out the typographical errors as he went." Born in 1953, and raised in the Blackpool district of Cork he is an only child. Having grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, he is old enough to remember the Ireland that was, while also young enough to appreciate the social changes. "Ireland of the 1960s was on the one hand a bit provincial, on the other there was this sense of new possibilities. My generation was aware of what was going on in Paris, and the anti-Vietnam movement in Berkeley. Of course it was less extreme for us. But it was all about change and it was an exciting period. It affected the way we thought."

Even in the half-hearted drizzle and in the grip of a worsening traffic problem, Cork with its subtly undulating topography remains Ireland's most beautiful city. Hannigan has worked away enough to be able to appreciate his home town. "You can walk everywhere in Cork - I don't drive. Cork has a great geography. It's also a city of interesting views. We've more bridges than London," and he refers to the attractions of having two channels of the Lee traversing the city. Cork is currently flourishing, having its share of the new prosperity - "we have our trendy, Temple Bar-like restaurants and the city is becoming an increasing attractive place to live". It is a good place for artists: "There is a strong sense of an arts community, artists and arts workers are not isolated here. I think there is a good support structure at an official level. Cork Corporation seems to be actively supportive and to recognise the importance of the arts. On a day-to-day level, you can talk to politicians about an arts project and you no longer have to make a case about the contribution of the arts. There is a recognition here. The arts is as important as a road system."

It was very different for the younger Hannigan who wandered about the city with his pal, the poet Theo Dorgan. Hannigan recalls investigating a Robert Ballagh exhibition. "I was about 14. It was Pop Art. They were large paintings of cream cakes. He was taking common objects and presenting them in a different way. It was liberating and enlightening. We were wondering what to make of them; Theo was a lot louder, more confident. He challenged everything. I was curious but uncomfortable. I was working class and the arts belonged to a different world. Anyhow we - Theo and I - went about, to poetry readings and exhibitions, to bookshops."

Hannigan was becoming interested in books "and the Penguins and Pelican paperbacks were affordable on pocket money".

Many bookshops did not encourage the young browsers. "I remember going into a bookshop with Theo and we heard the assistant being told by the owner `keep an eye on them two there' - and said loud enough for us to hear it."

His schooldays were spent with the Christian Brothers, at the North Mon. "There is always this code," he points out. "If the school name includes the word `school', that means it's working class, if it says `college' it's for the middle classes." Of his performance there he says, "I was never top of the class. I didn't work very hard, I have an abiding lazy streak - but I did okay." Up until the introduction of free education in 1968, his mother paid the £17 a year tuition fees. It was not until fifth year that he even considered going to university.

Did he enjoy school? His reaction is one of mild disbelief. "It's difficult to have fond memories of an environment where you saw people being beaten, assaulted and humiliated. Whenever I hear someone come out with that old line `it did us no harm' it infuriates me. The fact is, in Ireland, it was for a long time legally and socially acceptable to hit children."

Although he had little interest in sport, Hannigan did as a teenager play soccer in the streets, "something you can't do nowadays, you'd be hit by a car". From school he went to University College Cork and studied English and philosophy. He dropped out after two years. "I didn't fit in very well at that time. I suppose I wanted some experience of life."

London seemed to be the right place. "It was exciting and I did various jobs and went to the cinema, as well as plays and concerts. It was a great cultural environment."

Residential social work brought him to Buckinghamshire. Rural England proved a revelation. "It was a school for `maladjusted' children. It was tough work but it was an idyllic setting - village fetes, cricket matches and country pubs." He spent four years there. "In Cork, I'd spent all my time in the city. Now I was in the countryside, it was wonderful."

Throughout his life he has been committed to causes. "I'm a flag carrier," he says, "I've been in many marches." Social injustice has always outraged him. In 1979, he returned to Ireland and, belatedly, to college. It would be some years before he completed his degree - there were many distractions: the film society, a wealth of visiting lecturers - poets, politicians and philosophers . . . Hannigan also served as president of the Students' Union in 1980-'81.

When he finally did graduate in 1982, he truly merited the status of a mature student. Exam pressures and the emphasis placed on careers has, he feels, undermined rather than enhanced education. "There is so much pressure. I always thought the best thing about going to university was being presented with a reading list. I think it should be about teaching students to think. If nothing else, you should leave a university being able to use a library. I'm not saying it's good, but it is useful."

During his lengthy sojourn at university Hannigan had become increasingly interested in film and joined the UCC film society, having acquired the habit of going to the movies when he was in London. In 1985, shortly after the Triskel Arts Centre was founded by Robbie McDonald, Hannigan was asked to set up the Triskel Film Club and his first season was a success - "we made a £300 surplus - as you know in the arts there is no such thing as a profit, it is always a surplus". Encouraged by his success he then organised a Latin American programme of "politically engaged films" - and lost the entire £300 in a weekend. It seemed like the beginning of a healthy time for cinema in Ireland. But disappointment came when the government announced it was dissolving the Irish Film Board. "It was a time of cutbacks in public expenditure. It was a soft target; it was also seen as not making a contribution to the economy.

"I was appalled at the decision - it seemed incredibly short-sighted. So little money was being spent on it. Yet the benefit to Irish society more than justified the money. Irish film-makers were struggling to make films then. In 1985 Irish films opened and closed the Cork Film Festival - one being Cathal Black's Pigs, and the other Pat Murphy's Anne Devlin. People's careers were put on hold. It was 10 years before Cathal made another feature.

"Currently the situation is much healthier. I remember going to the Berlin Film Festival the year after the Film Board was abolished, I was the only Irish person present. Now, when I go to Berlin or Cannes, the place is awash with Irish film-makers. They are out there doing business."

The more he talks about cinema, the more his opinions become clear. Opposed to censorship in any context, Hannigan believes film censorship is redundant here. "I think it is lamentable that Irish adults are denied the opportunity of seeing films that are available to European audiences and to subscribers of satellite TV. Why issue certs when everything can be seen on television?"

Film in Ireland currently looks quite strong but he says he would like to see more films being made here - and would particularly like to see film activity in Cork. He feels the new Arts Minister, Sile de Valera, is genuinely interested in cinema. "Of course, it is hard for her having to follow Michael D. Higgins. But she has instigated a think tank charged with advising the Minister on developing the Irish film industry."

Committed to art house film, he founded the Kino Cinema in Cork in 1996, having spent two years at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. He still laments the loss of the capital's Lighthouse Cinema which introduced so much outstanding European cinema to Irish audiences.

"I was a bit high-minded about popular, commercial cinema when I was younger: I still haven't seen Jaws," he admits. "I love American cinema of the 1970s - like Bonnie and Clyde and Two-Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider and Badlands." He praises the contribution of Quentin Tarantino's post-modernism. "I delight in the language he uses. For all its violence Reservoir Dogs is superb for its structure, the way he tells the story. People criticise him for violence but his films are less violent than most big blockbusters. Violence is not the issue in his films, he plays with our awareness of cinema, the references. Pulp Fiction shows how the form draws on itself. I also love the work of Sam Peckinpah, his films are elegaic. They have a majestic quality. I think at its best American cinema is terrific.

"Other favourite directors are Jean Renoir, Fellini, Melville, and I love Buster Keaton, he was a genius. The way he structured and directed his films - they are just so clever."

Mention Woody Allen and he smiles and says: "It seems as if he is always doing the same thing, but he also manages to be different. I think he is very clever. He creates a particular Manhattan world and we are familiar with this world but - what's that American phrase? - he pushes the envelope. He has made a lot of movies but he is still inventing."

Warming to the subject of cinema, Hannigan points out that despite the popularity of cinema it is poorly served by critics. "There is no Robert Hughes-type critic writing about it. I admire David Thomson and Gilbert Adair for their cultural overview." Film, he feels, is denied its rightful status among other art forms. High art/low art distinctions are still attached to cinema. When the Cork Film Festival was founded by the late Dermot Breen in 1956 it was part of a wider cultural/commercial festival called An Tostal, a series of national events intended to promote Ireland. Hannigan first became involved in 1986 at a time when it was flagging. Until Hannigan and Theo Dorgan took over it had been run by a voluntary committee. "It was the turning point. There is no doubt about it. We had an office. We worked on it year round. It was professionalised." It became easier to raise funds and to sustain interest.

Film has long since become more than a job to him. Still reluctant to describe it as an obsession, he does admit he enjoys movies. "I love the delight of being in a darkened room, and the whirl of the projector, the flicker of light on the screen and being transported into a magical world - a place created by the director."

The Murphys Cork Film Festival runs from Sunday, October 18th to Sunday, October 25th.