Culture - Cinema

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Irish cinema currently enjoys a higher international profile than ever before. Films such as Ailsa (dir. Paddy Breathnach 1994), The Crying Game (dir. Neil Jordan 1993), The Snapper (dir. Stephen Frears 1993), The Commitments (dir. Alan Parker 1990); and In The Name of the Father, The Field, and My Left Foot (dir. Jim Sheridan 1993, 1990 and 1989 respectively) have been box-office and critical successes throughout the world. There is a new focus on the increasingly attractive resources for production and on the wealth of film-making talent available. This is a most exciting and vigorous period of growth for Irish film.

The history of cinema in Ireland is a long and colourful one. Dublin had its first public screening of films from the Lumière brothers in April, 1896. In February, 1897 the first filmed Irish subjects were shown by Professor Jolly in Dublin. They included items such as "People walking in Sackville Street, Traffic on Carlisle Bridge and the 13th Hussars Marching through the City". The first dedicated cinema, the Volta in Dublin’s Mary Street, opened in 1909. James Joyce worked there at one stage. Fortunately, one could argue, he was no great success as a cinema manager, and tired of the venture after a short time.

In 1910 Ireland played host to the Kalem company, a touring film company from the United States. Under the direction of Sidney Olcott, Kalem made several short Irish melodramas in Co. Kerry and thereby launched a tradition of great film-makers using Ireland as a back-drop for their work. Notable examples include Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1930); Robert Flaherty’s epic documentary Man of Aran (1934); Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out; Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow (1968), David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970); Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and the films of Irish-American John Huston Moby Dick (1956), The Mackintosh Man (1973) and The Dead (1987). Perhaps the best loved and most widely known ‘Irish’ films are those of John Ford who made a number of highly acclaimed feature films in and about Ireland: The Informer (1935), The Plough and the Stars (1936), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Rising of the Moon (1957). More recently Ron Howard’s Far and Away (1992), John Sayles’s Secret of Roan Inish (1994), and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1994) have exploited the landscape to stunning effect.

Among indigenous film-makers the most important production company from the early days was perhaps the Film Company of Ireland. Established by James Mark Sullivan in 1916, the company made a number of short Irish theme films (all of which were destroyed during the Easter Rising), and the feature films Knocknagow (1917) and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920). These films and Irish Destiny (1926), a love story set against the War of Independence, are important surviving examples of Irish cinema in the silent era. The Dawn (1936), another War of Independence story made by enterprising garage owner Tom Cooper, was Ireland’s first indigenous sound film.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s the National Film Institute (the precursor of today’s Film Institute of Ireland) played an important role in producing many Government sponsored "information" type films dealing with subjects such as health, savings, rural modernisation, agriculture, etc. Gael Linn, which promotes the use of the Irish language, was an active producer in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The Amharc Éireann newsreel series made by Colm O Laoghaire and Jim Mulkerns was the most successful and longest-running theatrical newsreel produced in Ireland. Two documentaries, Mise Éire (1959) and Saoirse (1960), directed by George Morrisson for Gael Linn, were the first feature length Irish language films and were remarkable in that they comprised, almost exclusively, actuality film and newsreel from the period between 1900 and 1922.

The establishment in 1961 of Telefís Éireann, the national television service, provided work for a growing number of technicians and a training ground for film makers. The 1970s saw the emergence of a group of independent film-makers who began to engage more critically with social, economic and political issues than before.

The establishment in 1981 and re-establishment in 1993 of the Irish Film Board facilitated independent film production. Home-grown images of Ireland are now being brought to international screens by Bob Quinn (Caoíneadh Áirt Uí Laoíre 1975, Poitín 1978, Bishop’s Story 1994), Joe Comerford (Traveller 1982, Reefer and The Model 1988, High Boot Benny 1993), Pat Murphy (Maeve 1982, Anne Devlin 1984), Thaddeus O’Sullivan (The Woman Who Married Clark Gable 1985, December Bride 1990), Peter Ormrod (Eat the Peach 1986), Alan Gilsenan (The Road to God Knows Where 1988, Prophet Songs 1990, Between Heaven and Woolworths 1992), Cathal Black (Pigs 1984, Korea 1995), Neil Jordan (Angel 1982, Mona Lisa 1986) and Jim Sheridan (The Field, The Miracle 1990, Into the West 1992 and My Left Foot).

Each year in October, March and July, the Cork, Dublin and Galway film festivals provide a showcase for new Irish and international cinema. Throughout the year the Irish Film Centre, housed in the restored Society of Friends Meeting House in Dublin’s Temple Bar, provides a permanent venue for film producers to show their work. The Centre is home to a number of film-related organisations dealing in production, distribution and exhibition. These include the Film Institute of Ireland, the national organisation for the promotion of film, Filmbase, the Federation of Irish Film Societies, Media Desk and Espace Video Européen. The Irish Film Archive is charged with the preservation of the nation’s substantial film heritage. An important area of the Archive’s work is its coordination of festivals of Irish film abroad. With the help of the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Archive brings programmes of Irish films to foreign venues, thus sharing this valuable aspect of Irish culture with audiences abroad.

The Government has introduced measures to encourage the development of the film and television production industry. The measures apply equally to foreign and domestic investors and have led to a significant increase in film production. While the norm previously had been the making of 2 to 3 films per annum, 1993 saw a dramatic increase with some 12 films completed. In 1994 some 18 feature length films and 11 major TV drama series were commenced and completed. These ranged in size and theme from international blockbusters to many indigenous stories produced on a relatively low budget. The film studios at Ardmore, Co. Wicklow have entered a period of sustained activity with such projects as The Old Curiosity Shop, Scarlett (the sequel to Gone with the Wind) and Braveheart filmed there in 1994.

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by Michael Green
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