Film Festivals

Changing the Luck of the Irish

1 Apr , 2002  

Written by Rebecca Prime | Posted by:

Boston’s Irish Film Festival showcases the latest trends in Irish filmmaking at the Harvard Film Archive this month.

Until recently, the luck of the Irish has largely bypassed its film industry. After an auspicious start, Irish cinema was left to languish by a conservative Irish state that viewed popular culture with suspicion. However, while the government offered little support to its indigenous industry, it was happy to open its doors to foreign production. As a result, cinematic Ireland has largely been defined by non-Irish filmmakers, drawn to the easy clichés of green fields, stone cottages, and flame-haired colleens exemplified in John Ford’s nostalgic classic, "The Quiet Man" (1952). While local production gathered steam in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t until the surprise Oscar success of Neil Jordan’s "The Crying Game" in 1993 that the Irish government approved radical new policy measures in support of its film industry. Irish film releases have increased from three in 1993 to a record twenty-one in 2000, perhaps the most dramatic reflection of the impact of the new support given to indigenous production.

Yet while Ireland was in the midst of a cinematic revolution, the few "Irish" films that made it to the States were still mostly whimsical comedies like "Waking Ned Devine" — which, in fact, was a British production filmed on the Isle of Man. In 1998, Peter Flynn, a lecturer in Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College and a Dublin native, decided to tackle this dearth of diversity. Along with fellow Emerson professor Jim Lane, Flynn organized the first Boston Irish Film Festival. Although he jokes that he founded the festival "to impress women," Flynn also wanted to redress the inequities of international distribution. "You have this system where everything flows out of America and nothing flows in," he explains. Swimming against the current, Flynn has created an annual showcase for contemporary Irish cinema, offering Boston viewers the chance to catch films such as "Divorcing Jack," "2×4," and "Nora," a handsome period film starring Ewan McGregor as James Joyce that played to strong reviews in Europe.

This year’s festival features a strong line up of ten features and a selection of shorts, including a series of animated and Irish language films. The festival opens with the political drama, "H3," a powerful account of the hunger strikes held in 1981 by young Republican prisoners detained in the notorious Maze prison in Belfast. Co-written by two former H-block occupants, one of whom (Laurence McKeown) was on a hunger strike for over 70 days, "H3" takes pains to show the humanity that persists even under such grim conditions. "Despite everything, it’s the humor and camaraderie that kept us going, and I really wanted to show this," comments McKeown. Ireland’s political troubles are also the subject of "As the Beast Sleeps," which examines the difficulties experienced by a group of trained paramilitary loyalists adjusting to peace following the mid-1990s ceasefire.

Music, the subject of four feature-length selections, emerges as another strong theme in this year’s program. Sarah Share’s "If I Should Fall From Grace" is an aptly-titled portrait of former Pogues frontman Shane McGowan, while "Freedom Highway" gives Bono, Ani DiFranco, Tom Waits, and others the chance to sound off on the role of music in the civil rights movement. "Teenage Kicks" chronicles a late 1980s rock band, The Undertones, whose punk pop songs led them from the war-torn Catholic ghettos of Derry to the top of the British charts. "Aidan Walsh – Master of the Universe" examines another figure from Irish popular culture. Walsh was a one-hit wonder who tried to stretch his 15 minutes of fame. Peering through Walsh’s posturing, the film reveals the insecurities that fueled his need for the spotlight.

Sarah Share deserves a special festival prize for perseverance. Asked to describe working with the notoriously unreliable (and frequently inebriated) Shane McGowan, she launches into a litany that would strike fear into the heart of the most stalwart producer. "I would spend a week ringing his numbers 50 times a day trying to track him down, I would set my alarm for the middle of the night to try to catch him, as Shane is like a vampire and is frequently at his best at 4:00 in the morning. I sat outside his house for 12 hours, with a crew, trying to get him going, I waited around for three weeks with a crew on standby to get some footage—but people tell me he was very cooperative by his standards. It’s all relative, I suppose." Share does admit that McGowan was a difficult subject to interview. "He has particular lines that he has been giving people for years, some of which have little truth in them," she explains, making the candor she was able to achieve all the more impressive.

On a lighter note, the festival also features the Oscar-nominated animated short, "Give Up Yer Aul Sins" and concludes with two comedies, "The Most Fertile Man in Ireland" and "On the Nose." "Give Up Yer Aul Sins" has its origins in a set of 1960s recordings of children reading stories from the Bible, made by a teacher as a learning aid. The recordings were discovered in the 1990s and ended up being broadcast on the radio, which is where they caught the attention of director Cathal Gaffney. Gaffney’s unusual "animated documentary" style, complete with wobbly camera moves, reflects his attempt to visually mirror the crackly nature of the recordings. The catchy title of Dudi Appleton’s "The Most Fertile Man in Ireland" is to be taken literally. Her debut feature concerns a timid young man who happens to be more effective than any fertility clinic, making his services highly in demand. The festival’s closing film, "On the Nose," includes the pickled head with a knack for picking winners at the races, a fair indication of the outlandish course steered by director David Caffrey in what he describes as a "modern day Irish Ealing comedy" whose cast includes Dan Ackroyd, Brenda Blethyn, and Robbie Coltrane.

The cosmopolitan, prosperous New Ireland that films like "When Brendan Met Trudy" and "About Adam" brought to attention last year is curiously absent from this year’s offerings, replaced instead by the more standard political fare and sprightly comedies. In part, this is a reflection of the global nature of the film industry and the fact that most Irish productions still rely to some degree on foreign funding. "Everyone is trying to make whimsical films for under $5 million and have them succeed like ‘Waking Ned Devine’," comments David Caffrey, whose "On the Nose" was funded by a British production company. However, James Flynn, the veteran producer of "H3," does detect a shift in direction among indigenous filmmakers. "There’s more of a focus on genre now — I see a lot of horror, action, thrillers, and so on," a trend he attributes to the growing awareness among Irish filmmakers of the need to attract foreign distributors. "People are asking themselves not just ‘can we say something?’ but ‘can we sell it?’"

Where will this new pragmatism lead? The danger lies is the erosion of cultural distinction; Colin Bateman, a popular novelist and the screenwriter of the festival selection "Wild About Harry," already detects a trend for "safe, romantic comedies that could really have been made anywhere." However, this attraction to genre could also be explained by historical rather than practical factors. "Being Irish can be an artistic burden, particularly in literature and poetry, to a lesser extent in film," Share notes. "I think many of the younger directors are fed up with all the traditional areas of identity. Personally, I don’t want to make a movie about being a south Protestant — just because I am one!" Like many people working in film across the world, Bateman sees the future of Irish filmmaking as lying with the new digital technologies. "If there’s an authentic voice coming, I think it will be through low budget digital video films — I think it’s the only way any fresh talent is going to break through."

The Boston Irish Film Festival runs from April 25-28, 2002, with screenings at the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archives. Please see for more information.

The Boston Irish Film Festival runs from April 25-28, 2002, with screenings at the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archives. Please see for more information.