Lights, Camera, Action !


The advice, the pressure, the stress, the study, the seriousness of it all. The Leaving Cert, the Grand National of state exams, has finally been given the irreverent film treatment. How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, which went on general release last Friday, deals with our annual exam frenzy in a funny, sardonic and blackly humorous way.

The guidance counsellor, played wickedly by Mary McEvoy, cares deeply about her students. It's the uniform that confuses her and causes her to forget her students' names. She pulls on her cigarette, smoke wafts luxioursly around the room and she gives one of her Leaving Cert students a piece of career advice - "Drama or engineering, that's it," she says with a flash of inspiration.

Making a career choice will be relatively easy after this. When the next student comes in to her office, after a brief discussion, she has another blinding flash of insight - "Botany, botany, botany," she repeats with growing enthusiasm.

The film is about six young individuals who are tired with the system and the advice and the pressure and decide to mastermind a plan to cheat in the State exams. The original screenplay was penned by Graham Jones and Tadhg O'Higgins, both 24, who sat the Leaving Cert in Newpark Comprehensive School, Blackrock, Co Dublin, a few years ago.

The entire film crew are all in their early twenties. The film, which has created its own whirlpool of controversy, was shot over an intensive six-week period, involving up to 35 young professionals who worked for nothing in order that the film could be made.

Such is the confidence of the Irish film industry that a young film crew, average age about 23, being able to produce a film is not all that surprising really. It's probably more surprising that this self-same Leaving Cert exam has evolved and finally embraced film as a bone fide career path and route for academic study.

Film is already a component of Junior Cert media studies and it's a whole course in its own right in some schools at Transition Year. In September 1999, film will be on the syllabus with six films on the Leaving Cert English course. As interest and activity in film grows, the new course will come on stream in the nick of time.

The films to feature on the Leaving Cert English course will appear as a part of a new course called "comparative texts" - comparisons will be drawn between certain themes and how they are treated in novels, plays and films.

A career in film today is "like a dream come true" for young people, says Graham Jones, who directed How To Cheat in the Leaving Certificate. "You get a lot of people around my age who are truly in love with film," he says. "To us it's a very special thing, a very special medium. We absolutely adore the movies and we're very smart about them."

For these young people, film is an art form, like music, which "moves in time". As for himself, "I just always loved movies since I was very, very young. They always made me very, very happy. No matter what was wrong in the world, I could always find happiness in the cinema."

In 1993 there were just under 500 people working directly in film, animation and independent television production. Three years later and this figure had almost trebled. That same year a total of 31 films were certified for Section 35 tax relief. Last year 32 films were sanctioned and, so far this year, five films have been given the green light and financial backing.

"We're gearing up for that," says Tony Tracy, education officer at the Film Institute of Ireland, about the new Leaving Cert English course. The FII aims to develop the subject of film at primary and second level. The response from teachers to last month's FII's Music in the Movies initiative was "enormous, totally unprecedented," says Alicia McGivern, assistant education officer with FII. At this stage there are 1,000 teachers on the FII's mailing list.

Already Reel 2 Reel, a book on film by Gerry Jeffers, of the Transition Year Support Team, offers teachers plenty of material. He looks at form, scriptwriting, cinematic tricks used to tell stories, historical developments and how themes are treated.

And UNESCO has produced a booklet for teachers called Tolerance in Films - Keys to the Language of Motion Pictures in Schools. It's hoped that this directory of 60 films from all over the world could be used to promote tolerance and respect for human rights among students.

Although film is a relatively new programme in schools, film continues to attract an increasing number of young people who want to make their own of the industry. Film is providing a viable career choice for many hundreds of young professionals. Some are so anxious to get started that they don't even wait to finish school.

A group of young second-year media students from Dublin's Liberties College recently set up their own successful company, specialising in the production of music videos and televising live gigs on projection screens. Their latest production is a multimedia play about modern mass media, manipulative journalism and spindoctor scientists. Spooky Action at a Distance goes on release at Temple Bar's Arthouse tomorrow. It's a collaboration about love in our time, as explained by director John Breen, digital artist Blaise Smith and playwright Mark O'Rowe.

"It's an area that young people are just drawn to," says John Fagan, course co-ordinator of the radio and TV production course at Liberties College, which aims to prepare people to be skilled and ready for the workplace. "We're surrounded by the media. It's absolutely everywhere. It's a vibrant area." Students go into a range of areas such as production, direction, technical operations or screen-writing.

The hunger for information was demonstrated earlier this year at the Dublin Film Festival when various aspects of screenwriting were dealt with at a seminar organised in response to demand. Topics included agent representation, copyright, script adaptation and dealing with producers and production companies.

"I think people have become more confident in their ability to judge and make comments," says Tony Tracy. "Film is now a cultural product that we make in Ireland."

The FII has a plan, he says, "to offer a meaningful educational experience. There was a danger that people would think film was a kind of gimmick," but there are serious academic underpinnings to the FII screenings and study guides and workshops, which are developing in line with unprecedented demand from teachers and students.

"We're not only suggesting a cannon of films," says Tracy. "We're also suggesting a methodology, illustrating a particular genre. We preface the film with contextualised remarks, you watch the film, then we take selected extracts and analyse them with regard to form and content. We're not simply sticking films up on the screen."

Siobhan O'Donoghue, chief executive of MEDIA Desk Ireland, the consultancy body which advises people about accessing EU funding and support, believes that the key person in the whole business, after the writing is in place, is the producer. The employment generating factor is ultimately the producer, she says.

"Primarily, it's the piece of writing but once that's in place, it's really the producer who finances the project," she says. Being a producer is a very sophisticated skill, which demands creative, organisational, financial knowhow as well as an appreciation of legal affairs. "It's not the easiest road to travel," says O'Donoghue. "It's quite broad-based . . . we're finding that people are coming in from professional backgrounds such as law and finance and this has proved to be quite a strong background."

Young producers such as Robert Walpole and David McLoughlin who didn't initially plan to go into film are already established and respected within the industry.

Alan Lambert, a young artist who studied at Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design and the NCAD, has found he is increasingly attracted to the film industry, and that his work as an artist in a variety of jobs for film from story-boarding, paintings as props and soundtrack composition, is in constant demand.

Siobhan O'Donoghue says the industry has grown rapidly from the early Nineties. In the past three years the independent film and TV industry in Ireland has generated around £100 million each year in production value alone. "It's an international business and being able to access international training and markets is the key," she says. The role played by an organisation such as MEDIA Desk Ireland is, she believes, central to those in the film industry in providing them with the know-how to be able to generate their own budget outside of Ireland.