Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Old sod, new sod

Okay, one more week going on about the Galway Film Fleadh. And then I will stop. I promise. And did I mention how nice everyone at the Fleadh was? I just can’t emphasize that enough. It was one of my best film festival attending experiences in a while, and that is saying a lot because I have never attended a film festival without really, really enjoying it.

There is a little thing I like to do after Irish film festivals. It is sort of a (in a phrase that I remember from the corporate world, in all its charm) post-mortem. Since a film festival represents a chance to see several new Irish films all at once, I like to review all those films collectively and make generalizations about what they say about the current state of Irish cinema. Now, there is absolutely nothing scientific about this. In fact, it is downright un-scientific. For one thing, the number of Irish films involved is a very narrow, and thus unrepresentative, sample. I mean, really narrow. It’s not just the films that happened to be programmed at that particular film festival in that particular year, but it is even narrower than that. It is the films that happened to be programmed at that particular film festival in that particular year that I happened to see. And there are always several that I don’t see.

For example, for various reasons I failed to see such new Irish feature films as Brian Launders’s Bitterness, Tom Collins’s Kings, Ross Whitaker’s Saviours and Marian Quinn’s 32A, which took the Fleadh’s prize for best first-time directing effort. (Second prize in that category went to Boston director Dave McLaughlin’s On Broadway), which pleased me because I very much liked the film and because I had the chance to chat with McLaughlin on the last night of the festival and he seemed like a really nice guy.) But I did see several films that were categorized as new Irish cinema, including not only Bob Quinn’s Cré na Cille (actually in the Irish language) and Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage (winner of an award at Cannes) but also Brendan Grant’s Tonight Is Cancelled (even though it was actually filmed in Kosovo) and Puffball (even though the director was English: the legendary Nicolas Roeg). So what can we discern from this odd little sampling of new Irish cinema? (Besides the fact that filmmakers should strive to avoid The Curse Of The Framing Love Story, cf. Tonight Is Cancelled.)

Well, the thing that jumps out at me is that three of the four films in question (i.e. omitting the one that was shot in Kosovo) dealt with life in rural Ireland. Now, this makes me sit up and take notice because, you see, for a Yank, I actually know a little bit about rural Ireland, having resided in the country’s rural west full-time for nearly half a decade by now. I have my own impressions of the place, albeit with an outsider’s view. Cré na Cille exists to tell us something about rural life in wind and rain swept Connemara as it was six decades ago, which is to say, how it has been for centuries. Garage tells us something about one small community and how one of its less advantaged members fares in the modern world. And Puffball, oh my, warns outsiders about the sorts of earthly and unearthly forces that interlopers may encounter if they brazenly try to make themselves part of the place, with all its history and spirits. I’m not sure that any of the three would work well as a real estate agent’s tool for selling home sites in Ireland’s rural hinterlands. But then, we can reasonably assume that such a use of these films was easily one of the furthest things from the minds of all three filmmakers.

Now as an interested observer, I have noted a couple of things over the past several years. One is that, as Ireland has encouraged a homegrown cinema, as opposed to merely being a location for shooting by filmmakers from other countries, Irish cinema has followed the lead of other countries in concentrating on urban stories. Since much of modern cinema in general is taken up with themes like crime and social displacement and drugs, so Irish cinema has done—pretty much dictating that many contemporary Irish movies would be set in Dublin. Such notable recent films as About Adam, Agnes Browne, Evelyn, Flick, The General, Goldfish Memory, Headrush, Intermission and Once demonstrate this. In contrast, when we think back on Irish films with rural settings, we are more likely to think of such quaint or fanciful ones as The Quiet Man or Waking Ned Devine. But something has been insidiously changing about the way movies see rural Ireland. I first took note of it four years ago (at the Galway Film Fleadh, where else?) in a little low-budget movie called The Honeymooners. It was a romantic comedy that involved two people from Dublin who don’t even know each other but who, for reasons too involved to go into here, go on a little holiday together up in Donegal. The way the locals were portrayed was striking for their brutishness. It was a dyed-in-the-wool city dweller’s nightmare of what it must be like to go to the country. Obviously, this was done for comedic value, but it was also consistent with a theme that has been with movies generally for some time. Hollywood has frequently gotten mileage out country yokels yanking the chain of urban interlopers. Sometimes this is done for comedic effect, as in The Egg and I, and sometimes for horrific effect, as in Deliverance or in more recent shock fare as Wrong Turn.

But these three latest film treatments of rural Ireland don’t really fall into that category. Well, two don’t anyway. Roeg’s Puffball actually does fit into the creepy-locals-terrorize-or-at-least-annoy-urban-invaders genre, at least technically. But Puffball stubbornly refuses to conform to any genre conventions. Cré na Cille presents perhaps an even scarier view of rural Irish life than Puffball. But it’s a scariness that is firmly rooted in historical reality. While it is laced with supernatural touches, the cultural light it sheds on its characters are taken directly from real stories and gossip. It’s a ghost story where the ghosts, at least figuratively, are real.

That leaves Garage. It is perhaps the most devastating portrait of rural Ireland. This is because it takes on the real, contemporary rural Ireland. It touches on real problems: social displacement because of economic changes, youth drink culture and the gradual disappearance of a self-enclosed society due to modernization. It’s a world where the weakest members of a community can be looked after by their neighbors but there is nothing to ensure that they don’t fall through the cracks either. If Puffball was largely about a mythical rural Ireland and Cré na Cille was about a rural Ireland that is frozen forever in stories and memory, then Garage is the scariest of all: about a rural Ireland that is changing (and perhaps disappearing) forever.

-S.L., 26 July 2007

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