SOURCE: Film Directions, Vol 1, No 1, 1977, pp4-7


Story so far

A Discussion about the current film situation in Ireland.

Michael Open: It seems to me that the great problem in starting a national film magazine like Film Directions is that it is very difficult to know exactly how much knowledge the readers have of the situation. Firstly, as far as film exhibition is concerned in both North and South the conditions are far from ideal and we want to see an awful lot more films shown.

Mike Catto: I think we would all agree with that!

Ronnie Saunders: In Dublin you have 20 commercial screens and it is alleged that there are not enough films to fill these screens. Yet (apart from IFT and Project) they do not show any subtitled films commercially in Dublin although they are crying out for films. But in the normal commercial sense we have too many screens and not enough films. Recently there has been a restrictive practices examination, into the supply and distribution of films in the Republic of Ireland. [Which stemmed from complaints from some exhibitors who felt they were being denied access to films. Ed.]

Mike Catto: The position in the North is almost the opposite. We have very few screens left, particularly in Belfast. Although in Derry there are still four cinemas, if you count the Strand (which is twinned) as two. But there are films which are backed up for months in Belfast. The New Vic will sometimes bring back movies because they know they will play well rather than showing the first time round and the Avenue Cinema tends for its own reasons to concentrate on a diet of soft porn. So we have the opposite problem. I know of several people who make their outings to Dublin to go to the movies.

Michael Open It is very interesting, Ronnie, that you brought up the notion of sub‑titled films, because people can very easily get prejudiced about them. For example, people forget that both The Last Tango in Paris and The Exorcist were sub‑titled, and as far as the British distribution was concerned they were still the largest grossing films of their year. It only goes to show that if the film has sufficient appeal then subtitles are not such a disincentive. It is largely the cinemas that have this prejudice about showing sub‑titled films.

David Collins Yet cinemas specialising in sub‑titled films have their problems too in devising programmes of sufficiently wide appeal.

M.O.: I think one becomes very much aware of this in programming a cinema which has cultural aspirations where there is a very fine line between showing what is culturally valuable and excluding a large percentage of the population because of non‑familiarity with the works.

R.S.: Well, I don't think that it is as difficult as that because the origins of the reluctance of the people in these islands to attend sub‑titles goes way back to the American domination of the market once the sound film came into being. Everybody since 1930 has been geared all the time towards going to the cinema to listen rather than actually watch. So much of the narrative structure will depend on dialogue rather than visual impact of the films. People have been educated, not in school but by the actual cinema itself, to rely on the visual experience and not reading, but to watch something move and to listen and to hang a plot together and enjoy themselves. It comes as a mass entertainment. The films that we are talking about are not minority interest films in the country where they were made, but are in fact the mass entertainment in that country. So we are not arguing against the cultural value but the fact that people are simply reluctant to listen and read at the same time. We could say that in some countries in Europe most films have sub‑titles.

D.C.: There is this tendency for American films to dominate both in film and T.V. I think that one of the reasons that it does dominate to such an extent is that there is so little native film making. There is perhaps a native visual awareness but there is no familiarity with the techniques; there is no sense of idealism as to what can be achieved through film and T.V., and I would regard Film Directions as in fact another mode of exhibition. But unless we render ourselves intelligible we could find ourselves perhaps, theoretically correct, but without a wide constituency. I think that if the magazine is to work it must try to educate, to be controversial.

M.O.: Yes, I think that the notion of appealing to anything other than the minority has long since past to all but the most all‑embracing type of activity. To some extent I must say my intention is that the magazine will encompass television and video as well as film in fact to make it meaningful to theoretically everybody and certainly I would be interested in lending the magazine as a platform to people who have strong views of television as well as film. Not only I think is television meaningful to a larger population of people, but also it has had less intelligent criticism than the cinema has.

D.C.: There are minorities and minorities but the magazine could focus attention and offer directions, a direction into the darkness, into the vacuum ‑ a lack of film techniques services, a complete withdrawal from the question of film in education, film as a subject worthy of study and contemplation in its own right, the utter lack of provision of directors in this country. I think that it could go a long way perhaps ‑ not towards remedying these deficiencies but at least increasing the awareness that deficiencies exist. We are not in the best of possible worlds. If people read this magazine where there aren't cinemas, we may alert them to the fact that it is possible to start film societies, and without very much effort or expense. This can be done, certainly in the South through the Federation of Irish Film Societies which has already a national network.

M.C.: There is no Northern Ireland Branch of the British Federation of Film Societies. In fact earlier we raised this and asked people running film societies if they would be interested in forming some sort of loose grouping affiliating to the BFFS, and we got a big fat zero in terms of reply. On that matter of expense that you mentioned, I think that it has become more and more difficult to start up a film society unless you can prove that you have a large membership.

R.S.: Once they go outside the boundaries of Britain, films have to be air freighted in and out. Societies will not book a film independently from a distributor simply because it will cost too much to have it sent to and from wherever they are.

D.C.: In the South there is a recently formed Federation of Irish Film Societies which actually has got a grant from the Arts Council to cover part of its administration costs. It works as a co‑operative, with each branch contributing towards an overall programme which is then made available. I think that the key issue here is the creation of a centralised form of co‑ordinating body.


M.C.: Sometimes 16mm prints that we get in the North have British Board of Film Censors certificates at the front and some haven't. For clubs like the one in the Art College, there is no question of censorship. What about this business of you air‑freighting prints into the South? Do you have to submit them?

R.S.: The legal situation here in Ireland has two possibilities, private and public and it defines neither clearly. For the purpose of our film society movement and for the purpose of ourselves and Project, then we are considered to be private. It has not been defined. There is no actual act of law which defines what is meant by private and what is meant by public. Actually what we are considered to be works out very well. Say, if someone else opened up, and concentrated on sex movies, they may not be considered to be private, if there was easy access to such an operation. It is so vague that it has never been defined.

D.C.: In time it may be desirable to seek special legislation in this area. The censorship acts could be re‑written or amended, to make special provision for organisations that were set up in a particular way.

M.O.: Before leaving the subject of exhibition, one point I should like to make on behalf of film exhibitors is that some people are of the opinion that cinemas are anti‑cultural in their basic policy. In fact they are not, they are pro‑profit. If people want a more adventurous style of programming the best chance they have got is to go ahead and ask the individual cinema. Obviously that does not always work but it does mean that the cinema exhibitor is aware of the demand and it is the demand that he is always trying to find.

D.C.: It is not sufficient for alternative exhibitors to pander to an existing demand. In other words if QFT, IFT and Project are turning people away from their doors this will be noted by commercial exhibitors. They can create new demands as well. This may cause commercial exhibitors to revise the methods by which they select films.

R.S.: Well that is the case in the terms of getting back to minorities ‑ why does the minority need to be satisfied? and then we come into the educational area.

M.O.: It seems to me that no matter how committed the film enthusiast is, they can't see everything so they have got to choose what to see. The important thing is that they are in possession of enough facts to know how to make their choice, in a way which is going to give them the greatest satisfaction, a sort of a long‑term enlightenment, from the films that they do see.

D.C.: Would Film Directions be a way of acquainting film goers with these facts? It strikes me that unless the choice exists it is almost pointless educating people to appreciate films which are not going to become available to them on a regular basis. Therefore, I think that education and exhibition are in a sense combined. I am not saying that exhibition alone is a means of educating people. Mere uncritical exposure to a film can leave one simply with a sense of confusion.

R.S.: You are inferring that by getting people to appreciate a certain sort of film which would be provided by certain types of outlet, namely the film theatres, you become more discerning about film in general, the fact that it happens to be in one of the commercial halls, doesn't mean that it is by definition bad!

D.C.: Rather than concentrating on the alternative cinema it is important to make people aware of the existence of good cinema no matter where it is on, but I don't think anyone could argue that a wide enough range is available through the commercial outlets on their own. What I would be talking about would be an expansion of choice. I feel that however well catered for it is in the larger centres of the population particularly Dublin and Belfast ‑ it simply does not exist in the regions. There needs to be a strong, central organisation that can make films available on a continuous basis ‑ I don't mean simply a wide range of films but widely available geographically. One cannot expect or assume that merely by having an IFT or QFT that the rest of the country is being served. This is perhaps what the Federation of Film Societies is aiming for and I also know that the Irish Fibn Theatre has plans subsequently if it can, to develop a network of regional film theatres if the demand is there.

R.S.: If the demand is there and if suitable locations can be found, if one can operate a 240 seater in a city the size of Dublin, once you go to a smaller city you will either have to show less frequently or have a much smaller cinema and even then you have to be sure that the demand exists.

M.C.: I would say that if the education authorities both North and South, and there was a pilot scheme in the North,* did introduce film, television and media studies at the school level then by the time students did leave school they would have some discriminatory thoughts on film or television as a medium. It would also in a sense create an alternative, alternative circuit because education authorities would either hire films to go round the schools or even buy prints of certain films that are found to be the nub of any known film teaching course.

Some of the schools in the North already do operate film and media studies within the parameters of the Art class or the English class or they run a film society outside school hours but they are pressing for this, based at least relatively closely on the '0' level and CSE film studies in England which is expanding year by year. From 1974 onwards in England a great number of schools have joined this scheme and various consortia of teachers are now dotted around England. And Mike, having just returned from England would have more personal experience of this.

M.O.: Certainly the film education scene in England is very much further advanced than it is here. I think it became advanced largely due to the perseverance of a relatively small number of individual teachers. Then the sort of avalanche effect took place. They got a number of other teachers who got another lot of teachers etc., and as time went on the number of courses swelled. It is obviously something that we want to encourage very much.

M.C.: And the Department here in the North is sympathetic towards it, having allowed this pilot scheme to go forward. If it is successful here in the North, one could see it established and commitments with that would be the hire or purchase of these standard film texts that I am talking about which would circulate and would then short‑circuit the business of teachers having to bring them across the water. We are not faced with the financial problems you have in the South. Films are relatively easy to get for schools and certainly teachers can requisition, although in certain areas there are perennial raised eyebrows (when a western is hired) by the local education authority's board meeting who look somewhat askance.

D.C.: In the South the Department of Education has really no conception of the possibility of teaching film as a subject worthy of study in its own right, they see film rather as an educational aid. It actually happened that the Department of Education provided funds to schools for the purchase of projectors. Many projectors are lying around having not even been taken out of their boxes in schools throughout the Republic of Ireland, simply because teachers have never been shown how to use them. This persistent confusion between film education and film as a method for teaching children really reaches its apogee in that particular example.

*[ by which five Belfast schools will take on film, television and media studies as an '0' Level subject.] Ed.


R.S.: There is the same thing e.g. in the Colleges of Art in the South. Apart from one or two individuals who might take upon themselves the making of films but there is no training in any aspect of film making in the Colleges of Art.

M.O.: I have a sort of a theory. The reason why it is so difficult to get film appreciation taught in Ireland and for that matter has been until recently in England, is that there is no actual film-creative cultural background, that the “Irish film industry” hasn't actually found a national identity of its own and that possibly the best way to get film appreciated as an art generally by the population is not to start beating one's head against the proverbial stone wall in trying to get schools to teach film, but to stimulate creatively made films which are going to thrust themselves to the attention of the public to the extent that they will realise that film is a medium worthy of study. In an industrial/cultural context of life in Ireland, film making is not a very highly regarded creative art form and the film industry, as such, has not a very heavy Irish dimension. For example, very few “lrish” films are made at the National Film Studios. It is true in Britain that there are very few British films.

M.C.: To take it down to its real basics, there are very few films being made. We are now almost in a post‑film generation.

D.C.: I would not go that far. Unless Irish films are being made, film study could become merely an academic discipline. The only way in which it will become real and immediate to people in this country, is when they finally see that what they are criticising or appreciating are images that are pertinent to themselves. The more pertinent the image, the greater chance that there would be an impulse to criticise, see or perceive. One of the problems in Great Britain and in this country is that even though both countries have studio systems of various kinds, I think that a studio for itself can only fulfil one particular role. I don't see how a studio per se can be a training ground for new directors. What will define a film as an Irish film finally is that it is made by an Irish director.

R.S.: The argument in favour of film studios will always be that if you have them, you are employing Irish film technicians who will service the productions that come here. This is keeping a corner of the industry going and they will also argue that the cost of making a full length Irish feature is such that you could not have, by definition “an Irish feature”. It would have to be an international feature, that it would have a market abroad, than a film which might pertain solely to an Irish market.

M. 0. I think solely is the wrong word. Badlands, perhaps is specifically an American film and the American Film industry is aware that if it creates films of sufficient interest then other parts of the world will want to see them. Equally that does not exclude them from making films which are of particular pertinence to America. The same thing would go of Irish films as well. For example had The Quiet Man been made by an Irishman it might have appeared to be a very Irish film.

D.C.: It would have been a different film.

M.C.: As would Odd Man Out. You have a situation where you take Badlands as a reasonable example except where you take Badlands you take the American marketing machine. That you can take something as indigenous as Badlands or other films and because of the power of the major distributors, if they can bring a film like that into Britain they find a market for it. Then they might try and bring it into Ireland and they might not find a market for it at all.

D.C.: I think it would be dangerous for native film production to model itself or try to create in this country a pattern of English, French, German, film production etc.

I think that finally this country must disabuse itself of the notion that to become acceptable to the rest of the world we must try and compete in terms of the big, international features, that we must in a sense put all our eggs into the one basket. That sort of argument is based on an inferiority complex. Anything that will develop will develop because people with ideas and with the skill to realise those ideas are given an opportunity to do so. Maybe we should begin in this country by making a lot of low‑budget films, or at least providing directors with the opportunity of making features on 16min and having them shown on television. Before we begin even talking about an international feature, let us at least have a track record ‑ let us at least show that there are people in this country who are able to make films of value.

R.S.: RTE have a reasonably good record but they tend to buy a film if it is in any way half decent, and show it on television. There are a number of film makers who have their work exposed on television.

D.C.: In the past, from time to time, RTE have assisted independent productions, generally with stock and sometimes with processing facilities depending upon the production method which was used. The most concrete example of this kind of television orientated film making is probably the Arts Council's filmscript award, which is operated in association with RTE and the National Film Studios. The Arts Council is giving £7,000; RTE is putting up £5,000 and there are facilities in kind from the National Film Studios so that there is approximately £15,000 available in the South for the making of an independent feature film. Most applicants have submitted projects on 16mm which is sensible, otherwise film makers might lose themselves in delusions of grandeur if they concentrated on large‑scale 35mm features.

M.O.: That may be so but my own feeling is that there is a certain danger in orientating film makers towards a kind of visual syntax which is exclusively appropriate to television.

D.C.: I agree with you entirely. I think that the filmscript award is a stop‑gap. It is one method by which a film can be made. The shame of it is that it is almost the only method by which a feature film can be made independently.

M.O.: What I really mean is that we are going to see the death of the longshot.

M.C.: In the North the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has a budget for making films in the plural. So far (we are in the fourth year of the film committee running) we have not been approached by one person asking for the entire annual budget for a particular film. The annual budget is this year between £7,000 and £9,000.

Whatever the sum it is given for projects on merit. Somebody may ask for £200 to complete a film they have already made and may want to do postproduction work. Somebody may come to the Arts Council without even having done anything on 16mm and ask that a particular project be considered in which case they might be handed £50 to do a test sequence. On the other hand somebody with a certain number of 16min under their belt may come and ask for 'X' thousand pounds, but so far nobody has asked for the whole amount. I cannot think of an occasion when we have been approached to consider funding a feature film. Most of the films have either been documentaries or else there are various kinds of arty films two people sitting in a darkened room just mumbling!

D.C.: The reason why the Arts Council decided to consolidate its film fund was because we had problems in operating a system of grant‑aiding various films in part and even though we did get four completed films for about £2,500 which was pretty good. But over a time the Government will simply have to realise that if they want a developing film industry they will have to pay for it.


M.C.: Has the Arts Council in the South branched out into, say, purchasing video equipment than can be used by people?

D.C.: Clearly if there were a group of film makers that were interested in creating a film/video resource the Arts Council would view that sympathetically. The initiative in these matters can not rest finally with the cultural politicians of either Arts Council, they must rest with the film makers themselves.

For some years, there has been talk of a Film Bill, but there has not been a consensus on what this Film Bill should contain. It is regarded as the answer to all our problems, but there is genuine confusion about aims and objectives, a genuine confusion about what is possible, even if substantial sums of money were made available.

R.S.: I would say that confusion is a rather nice word. Apart from the valiant efforts of a few independent film makers, nobody cares.

M.O.: The magazine could fulfil a function, it could as it were, serve as a focus for attention to film and whether it is done on a very small level of putting low budget film makers in touch with one another, or whether it is put in a much more grandiose sort of level of attempting to high‑light in a very major way, deficiencies in the situation as it exists and to try and point to ways in which the situation can be improved. It will, overall, exist as a mouthpiece for people who are concerned about film, and certainly concerned about the future of film ‑ because the future is really what it is all about. We can only hope that we manage to get through to sufficient people and instil on them the kind of enthusiasm that we all have, and equally the concern to improve the general lot ‑ be it exhibition or indeed the availability of funds for the finance of film production.

D.C.: Exactly, and I think at this stage, whatever the deficiencies in the overall system, I feel that our readers should at least carry away with them a sense of our optimism.

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