The sickness of the city


There may be more than meets the eye to the choice by Cork's festival director Michael Hannigan of the soon-to-be-defunct British Film Institute Production Unit as the subject of a retrospective this year. The films produced by the Production Unit over the last 25 years mark the cream of non-commercial and experimental cinema in Britain - and in Ireland, as the retrospective programme showed, with films by Joe Comerford and Pat Murphy nestling along the likes of Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies.

As a member of the Irish Film Board, Hannigan would be seen as representing the more "cultural" as opposed to "commercial" elements of IFB policy (yes, it is a ridiculous distinction, but sometimes it's unavoidable), and it seems an appropriate time for a call to arms for the increasingly beleagured notion of backing non-commercial cinema, a point underscored by the IFB's Chief Executive, Rod Stoneman, at a panel discussion on "A Space for Cultural Cinema". As Stoneman points out, the recent "Think Tank" report on the Irish film industry employs the jargon of business development almost to the exclusion of any mention of art, and that it's impossible to have one without the other. Even from the most cynical and hard-nosed point of view, experimental, low-budget, non-multiplex cinema provides the new ideas and talents which will fuel the development of a more mainstream industry.

Flick, the debut feature from writer-director Fintan Connolly, is not experimental in the understood sense of the word, in that it follows a linear narrative and adheres to the rules of classic cinema grammar, but in many ways it's exactly the sort of adventurous work which needs and deserves State support to ensure a vibrant and diverse film culture. Connolly shot his film on a wing and a prayer, and then received postproduction funding from the Film Board, a route which an increasing number of Irish film-makers seem to be taking. It's interesting how many of these no-budget projects - John Carney and Tom Hall's Park, for example, or Owen McPolin's Drinking Crude - demonstrate a far surer grasp of the language of cinema than do the fully-financed, so-called "professional" films.

Flick, set in an evocatively sleazy Dublin of pubs, clubs, parties and back streets, stars David Murray as Jack Flinter, a middle-class hash dealer whose life is beginning to spin out of control. His friend and partner, Des (the excellent David Wilmot) is developing a troublesome heroin habit, and establishing links with a dangerous gang of heavies. Murray's girlfriend has decided to chuck him out, and the film follows him as he wanders the streets of the city, doing small-time deals and hooking up with a young German woman (Isabelle Menke).

Essentially a mood piece, Flick reveals Connolly as a film-maker of considerable talent, with a fine eye for composition (the cinematographer is the aforementioned Owen McPolin). The night-time exteriors, shot presumably on very limited resources, are extraordinarily beautiful at times and there's hardly a badly-judged shot in the entire film. It's also an unexpected pleasure to see and hear an Irish film with a proper soundtrack, with intelligent use of contemporary dance music, and a few U2 tracks (the good ones, thankfully) thrown in for good measure.

The script and performances are a little more problematic - Murray's self-important moroseness becomes grating after a while (there's a thesis to be written somewhere on the mournful male in recent Irish cinema), and there are a few moments where improvisation is given too much rope, and promptly hangs itself. The cumbersome thriller subplot doesn't add a lot to the mix, and the film's portentous last line is hard to take, with its implication of rural redemption after the sickness of the city. The problem here is that the city looks great - sleazy, yes, sick, probably, but great nonetheless. One feels that there's a more ambiguous, possibly more interesting film about urban Ireland lurking in here somewhere, an impression given added weight by the flashes of black humour in the miniature cameos which pepper the story. There's a sardonic voice at work in these vignettes which one hopes to hear more of, because Connolly has clearly got what it takes.

Speaking of new voices, the Short Cuts scheme, jointly funded by RTE and the IFB, has been the main showcase for new film-makers here for the last few years now. Usually, the new crop of Short Cuts gets its premiere at the Dublin Film Festival in the spring but, with a dearth of feature films happening here this summer, the 1999 batch managed to complete production much earlier; hence the screening of five of the six films in the Kino last weekend, one of which - Kirsten Sheridan's The Case Of . . . Majella McGinty went on to win the festival's Best Irish Film Award. Sheridan seems to be making a habit of winning at Cork - she won Best First Film last year for Patterns - but her new film, from a screenplay by Morna Regan, shows why she's regarded as such a promising talent. Set in 1970s Derry, The Case of . . . Majella McGinty is a surreal tale of childhood fantasies about death, leavened with references to such TV classics of the period as Charlie's Angels. The balance between reality and fantasy is beautifully and hilariously maintained by Sheridan, who gets excellent performances from her cast, particularly the children.

Of the other Short Cuts, Ian Fitzgibbon's Between Dreams is a handsomely shot and tenderly acted portrait of a young cancer patient facing death, which perhaps suffers a little from its writer/ director's closeness to the real events on which it draws. Peter Kelly's Mir Friends, also loosely based on a true story, tells of the extraterrestrial friendship struck up between a Donegal CB radio enthusiast and a Russian cosmonaut circling the planet. A gentle, likeable comedy, it probably bites off a bit more than it can chew on such limited resources, but its Ballykissangel-meets-Apollo 13 tall tale is good fun. Karl Golden's Dogsbody is a Dublin crime caper of a sort which is becoming increasingly familiar in the wake of I went Down and The General, and its two protagonists (Peter Caffrey and Simon Delany) handle its comedy schtick with some skill. Anne-Marie O'Casey-O'Connor's Forecourt shows visual inventiveness and humour in its exploration of female adolescent sexuality, although some of its more outrageous gags don't quite come off (limited resources might be to blame again).

Taken as a whole, this year's Short Cuts show a wider range of sensibilities, concerns and styles than their predecessors - the presence of more female directors is certainly a contributing factor - although there's still a curious reluctance to take on real risks, to shock or surprise. One still suspects that the involvement of our notoriously cautious national broadcaster has something to do with it, although this writer has been assured that this is not the case. Hmmmm . . .

Of course, Short Cuts was only one of more than 20 programmes of short films at Cork this year. Regrettably, I didn't manage to see the IFB/TG4-funded Oscailt films, or the Premiere '99 shorts from Northern Ireland, but it was another Northern Irish film, Enda Hughes's Comm-Raid on the Battleship Potemkin, which scooped the prestigious Best European Short Film Award. An ingenious, hilarious and oddly thought-provoking three-minute reworking of Sergei Eisenstein's silent classic, Battleship Potemkin, in the form of a video shoot 'em up game, Comm-Raid on the Battleship Potemkin follows in the tradition of Hughes's other films, the zombie-Troubles movie The Eliminator and the sci-fi showband flick, Flying Saucer Rock'n'Roll, in taking Irish film by the ear and dragging it reluctantly where it never dreamt of going. Give this man a feature budget.

In the other award categories, the Swedish film, Real Men Don't Eat Meat, directed by Maria Von Heland, won Best International Short and Best Black and White Short. Best Black and White Cinematography went to Billy O'Brien's The Tale of the Rat That Wrote, photographed by Robbie Ryan. The Claire Lynch Award for Best Irish Debut Short was won by Brigid Fitzgerald for Love and Other Unspeakable Acts, and the Made in Cork Award by Carol O'Keeffe's Inside Out. There were commendations in different categories for Lisa Mulcahy's Half-Full, Half-Empty, and Clare Langan's Forty Below. The Audience Award for Best Irish Short went to Hugh Farley for his enjoyable culinary comedy, Last Mango in Dublin (had there been an award for best title, it would undoubtedly have scooped that, too).

One of the members of the International Shorts jury, Clare Kilner, introduced her own debut feature, Janice Beard: 45 wpm, to an appreciative audience on Saturday night. Starring Cork actress Eileen Walsh as the eponymous heroine, Kilner's contemporary fairytale, about a young Scottish woman with a Walter Mitty complex who comes to London to work as a temp, was shot in gorgeous saturated colours, and revealed Walsh as a talented, wonderfully quirky film actress. If the whole thing didn't quite add up to the sum of its parts (and it didn't), this was still an admirably ambitious piece of work - a sort of Terry Gilliam with a feminist twist.

Of the rest of the programme, the one film which shone out for me was The City, David Riker's astonishing portmanteau work set in the South American immigrant communities of New York. Filmed in a powerfully minimalist style which echoed the neo-realist films that clearly inspired it, Riker's four interwoven stories managed an increasingly rare feat - blending social polemic with superb story-telling and believable characters without patronising anyone. A fine note to sign off on a solidly impressive 44th Cork festival.