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Riding the Irish documentary wave - all the way to Paris

Ruadhan Mac Cormaic - Irish Times

Irish documentaries are enjoying huge popularity both at home and abroad, and a new festival in Paris aims to showcase their common threads – simplicity and good storytelling

IRISH DOCUMENTARIES are going through an odd sort of crisis. Here’s the paradox: budgets have tightened and TV commissions are fewer, yet domestic audiences are growing and the industry has a higher international profile than ever. The rise of feature-length productions has been unstoppable, their success setting new records every year.

The highest-grossing Irish film in cinemas in 2010 was Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers , a charming portrait of women in the Irish midlands; the previous year that elevated perch belonged to Waveriders , Joel Conroy’s trailblazing surfing documentary.

“There is a wave of Irish documentaries at the moment doing really, really well. They’re making it into cinemas with incredible story-telling and incredible craft,” says Vanessa Gildea, a co-curator of View from the Doc, a new festival aimed at showcasing high-quality contemporary Irish documentaries to a French audience. The event, which is being held at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris this week, includes screenings of some of the best-known features of recent years, as well as a selection of shorts.

His & Hers is in there, as is Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s The Pipe , Tim Robinson: Connemara by Pat Collins and Dambé – the Mali Project by Dearbhla Glynn.

Gildea says finding a common thematic thread was not a principal concern when she and her co-curators, Martina Durac and Sheila Pratschke, selected the line-up, but some shared preoccupations emerge. Ideas of community and identity loom large in The Pipe , a treatment of the Shell to Sea campaign against the Corrib gas pipeline in Co Mayo, and Dambé – the Mali Project , in which Irish traditional musicians encounter kindred musical spirits in the Malian desert. The beautiful Tim Robinson: Connemara , in which the acclaimed author and cartographer reads from his work against the beguiling imagery of the landscape, is a film about nothing if not place and belonging.

Then there are some affectionate portraits of some well-established gathering-places. In 40-Foot , a group of bathers form a community who swim at the famous south Dublin bathing spot each morning. Bye Bye Now, another pearl, marks the decline of the phone box as a focal point of village life.

The Irish documentary industry is relatively young, says Gildea, but the recent success of feature-length productions has widened its reach and helped filmmakers make a mark overseas. Just last week, The Pipe got a distribution deal in Australia, “the sort of thing that was unheard of 10 years ago. People have perked up their ears in terms of Irish film. It’s not just an internal feeling that there is this wave of interesting film-making happening; there’s also an awareness outside Ireland that there’s something happening here. It’s not Denmark and the Dogme movement, but it’s a small change in the perception of who we are as an industry.”

All of the films showing at the festival were made in Ireland or have a strong Irish focus. “ The Pipe was an obvious choice,” says Gildea. “It’s a film about this tiny community, but it’s a universal story. It could be any village anywhere in the world. It just so happens that it happened in the west of Ireland. I think it’s beautifully made and told. It’s honest, and it doesn’t glorify the protesters either. His & Hers also has universal themes about women and men, life and love.”

The selection includes a few curveballs – not least Terminal Communication , Michael Fortune’s three-minute film compiled from footage of drivers flummoxed by a confusing road sign at Rosslare Harbour ferry port.

“It’s not a traditional documentary as such; it’s more an art film,” says Gildea of Fortune’s work. “But I liked the idea of asking ‘what is a documentary?’ The lines are blurred. It made me laugh out loud, but I think it says so much about Ireland as well. Our bad signage and mapping. It was so simple, but so smart.”

Indeed, simplicity – however deceptive – is the stylistic signature of the line-up in Paris. Each of the films has a quiet, pared-back quality, shorn of narration or elaboration. The makers of His & Hers fashion a profound and moving film from 70 interviews with women in their living-rooms. Tim Robinson: Connemara consists of a man reading a book against some shots of barren fields and yet amounts to a captivating experience that lingers long in the mind.

“I think it’s easier to craft a film with a booming soundtrack and cuts every three seconds,“ Gildea remarks. “Pat Collins as a filmmaker is one of the best at that: silence and space for you to breathe in the story. It’s much easier to throw a narration on, boom the soundtrack out and bombard the audience with sound and image. It’s much harder to be subtle and gentle.”

Posted Date: 
7 October 2011