60 years of the Cork Film Festival

The Cork Film Festival is in its 60th year. Ahead of its launch next Friday, Marjorie Brennan pays tribute to the country’s longest-running film festival.

WHEN Berlin was only a baby, and long before Redford rode into Utah with Sundance, Cork gave Ireland its first film festival, this year celebrating its 60th outing.

Founded in 1956, it was originally part of An Tóstal, a cultural initiative to bring tourists to Ireland. It became a week-long festival held in May in 1957 and officially became the Cork Film Festival the following year. It was a groundbreaking enterprise for the times.

“The 1950s were a fractured and conservative time and the festival was very innovative,” says broadcast historian and festival board member Finola Doyle O’Neill.

Founder Dermot Breen was a huge influence on the development of the festival, but had to walk a fine line in a time when Irish culture was strictly monitored by the Church. “Breen was well aware of the politics involved and that he had to keep the Catholic church on side,” says Doyle O’Neill.

“It was ironic that he would become the film censor himself in 1972, when he was festival director. Philip Oakes, writing for the Sunday Times, described it as like appointing a butcher to head a society of vegetarians.”

However, Breen didn’t always toe the line, standing his ground on many occasions.

“In 1959, A Town Like Alice, which was about a Japanese POW camp, was withdrawn from Cannes Film Festival for diplomatic reasons but it was shown in Cork which was a huge coup,” says Doyle O’Neill.

“It was also contrary to the image we had abroad of being censorious, and the organisers were commended by many,” she says.

In 1969, Bishop Con Lucey objected to the opening gala film of I Can’t, I Can’t, which featured contraception as one its themes.

“His attitude was that the festival was constantly knocking the Church. The film went ahead, which showed the authority of the Church was waning, that the festival was willing to flout its displeasure,” she says.

Breen died suddenly in 1978. In his final year as director of the festival, he stood his ground in defending another controversial film.

“He refused to censor or ban Midnight Express which was shown in full, even though there were strong objections from the Turkish ambassador in Ireland who described the film as ‘malicious’,” says Doyle O’Neill.

The 1970s saw more of an input from Irish film-makers — the so-called First Wave of Irish film-makers came to the fore, including Pat Murphy, Joe Comerford and Neil Jordan, whose film Angel was shown at the festival, but the 1980s presented a set of

new challenges such as rising emigration, unemployment and the arrival of multiplexes.

“It was getting harder to produce an exciting programme,” says Doyle O’Neill. Censorship was now a non-issue, except for one event in 1988 — the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

“About 100 people protested which gave huge publicity to the film. Interestingly, about half the audience walked out, not because they were offended but because it was so boring,” she says.

The 1980s also saw the setting up of the film board by Charles Haughey only for it to be disbanded a few years later.

“Most of the woes of the festival in the 1980s were financial ones,” says Doyle O’Neill.

However, the festival got a new lease of life in 1986, with Mick Hannigan, then film officer at the Triskel Arts Centre, and writer Theo Dorgan taking the reins as joint directors.

The festival’s fortunes had declined to the point that the Arts Council had taken back possession of the main projector, which it owned.

“The festival was run by enthusiastic amateurs, as it were,” says Hannigan. “There were no paid staff, or a full-time office, and it suffered as a result. What helped was the opening of an office in the Triskel, and the appointment, at least part-time, of Theo and I. That paid dividends in the organisation, the marketing, and the programme’s richness.

“We also moved to the Opera House, and the chairman Charlie Hennessy had secured significant funding from Ford Ireland.

“They were about to close but they sponsored us, and in that first year it took off again. People responded to the glamour of the Opera House. We developed the programme immensely, and there was a full illustrated festival catalogue. We did very well that year, we were driven by enthusiasm,” he says. Hannigan and Dorgan also reconfigured the now renowned shorts element of the festival.

“We saw that there were some good short films coming through. Since the start, there had always been two short films put on before a feature.

“We decided to put all of those shorts into a separate programme. By doing that, we made Cork a welcoming place for shorts.

“I can’t claim we had big audiences the first year, but we grew them and then made a reputation internationally for putting on short films,” he says.

Hannigan and Dorgan were also conscious of making the festival a more welcoming one for the wider public.

“Being honest, prior to 1984 I never went to the festival, as I perceived, rightly or wrongly, it was not for me. I went with my father but we and the greater population of Cork stood outside and watched the limousines pull up. Right up to the mid-1980s, people were still attending in dress suits, which sounds bizarre in retrospect. We had no truck with that.

“There was a section of Cork society, it seemed to me, who weren’t that interested in the film but liked to be there for the social occasion. For us, film had to take priority.

“If we weren’t honouring the art of film it was a pointless exercise,” he says.

For Hannigan, this approach, and its success, was crystallised in one encounter in Waterstone’s: “This young lad, very diffident, came up to me.

“He said, ‘You’re involved with the film festival, aren’t you? Please keep showing those strange films.’ And he walked off.

“I don’t know precisely what he meant, but emotionally I knew. And that became our motto, that we had to keep showing those ‘strange’ films.

“And that’s what a festival should do, it should show the strange and unusual, because those styles then become the mainstream,” he says.

However, Hannigan wasn’t immune to the spell of some movie-star glamour himself: “Anjelica Huston came one year to introduce a movie. She was stunning, straight out of Hollywood. She was supposed to go off for a meal straight afterwards, but she stayed for the film and then went to the bar.

“I was protective of her, as I didn’t want her harassed — but people were very polite and she stood in for every photograph and signed autographs.

“We went up to the Arbutus later, where Declan (Ryan) had left out a huge spread of salads and cold meat — it was a ‘turn off the lights when you go home’ kind of thing.

“We were expecting lots of Hollywood gossip but we just sat down and chatted away about Irish history and our environmental laws. She was a very forthright woman but lovely,” he says.

The next morning Hannigan’s colleague Una Feely was walking down Patrick’s Hill into town when a limousine pulled up.

“It was Anjelica, who said: ‘Una, thanks for a lovely night, we’re off now’.” Hannigan, who founded the Indie Cork festival with Feely after they were controversially let go in 2013, rates his championing of new film-makers as one of his greatest achievements.

“I’m particularly proud of establishing Cork internationally as a festival for young and emerging film-makers.

“There are times when endurance is success. The festival was handed over in good shape in terms of its finances and international reputation. We built it into a pretty efficient machine.”

A vital part of that machine is a panel of programmers who decide what is screened at the festival.

Senior feature film programmer Don O’Mahony has been involved in the festival since 1999. What does he think makes the Cork Film Festival special?

“It definitely has a particular sensibility, partly because we have supported short films. So many short films are made with the idea that this is a sales pitch for a feature film rather than something that exists within its own space, be it two minutes or 20 minutes. You can do very strange or weird things in a short film that you couldn’t sustain in a feature film.

“There are also feature films that offer different kind of viewing challenges or experiences,” he says. He’s also seen how technology has transformed the film industry.

“When I started, films came in on reels, then DigiBeta, now it’s a USB stick or FTP files. It’s bizarre. I love the idea of actual film but that’s the way it’s going.

“This year, one of the films we are showing is Tangerine, which was completely shot on an iPhone. I definitely think it will be one of the hits.”

O’Mahony also pays tribute to the supportive role the festival has played for budding talent.

“The festival has nurtured a lot of film-makers over the years. We’ve got to know them as short film-makers, sending their films to us, building a relationship with us and coming back with their features,” he says. The festival is also strengthening its links with local film.

“You have the recent reinvention of film in Cork and the Cork screen commissioner, Rossa Mullin, who has made films in Cork and about Cork subjects. He produced a film in the festival by a Cork director, Padraig Trehy, called Shem the Penman Sings Again, which will have a special screening in the Everyman Palace Theatre, where it was shot with Cork actors.”

When I meet James Mullighan, the Australian-born creative director of the festival, he gives off a palpable sense of relief, having put the festival brochure, ‘the book’, to bed.

“Getting the book off to print is harder than the festival itself,” says Mullighan, who has a few treats in store for the 60th edition.

“As part of our partnership with RTÉ, we have truffled around in the RTÉ archives and found lots of nice footage of Cork during previous film festivals.

That content will be available online but we will also turn them into digital cinema prints and put them in front of some movies without telling anyone where they’re going to go. It will be a nice surprise.”

The festival will also feature RTÉ Concert Orchestra playing a live accompaniment to David Lean’s Brief Encounter in the Opera House. “That has given me the excuse to also play Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago in the Opera House,” says Mullighan.

He is conscious of walking the line between upholding the festival’s strong track record in showing arthouse/independent fare while also attracting a wider audience with more mainstream offerings.

“I don’t apologise remotely for screening a Frozen singalong — that will delight 1,600 people and expose children to the cinema and cultural venues. I know there is a core group of cinephiles in Cork who try to to get six movies a day or take the week off work for the festival and we do programme for those people.

“Bless them, if only their number was triple, but economically I can’t run a festival just for them. I like the difficult black-and-white Romanian goat-herding documentaries but I know that’s not for everyone.

“There’s room for Frozen and Brief Encounter but at the core, the Cork Film Festival stands proudly along with the San Sebastians and the Karlovy Varys as a serious global repertory arthouse cinema experience.”

One of the films that will have broad appeal is Steve Jobs, the much-anticipated biopic of the Apple founder, which will have its Irish premiere at the festival. Mullighan went after the movie because of Apple’s strong links to Cork.

“It was good of Universal to give us the movie. It would have made sense for them to have had the Irish premiere in Dublin,” he says. They’re always working to improve the festival. This year there were launches in Cork, Dublin and London, but Mullighan also hopes to increase local attendance numbers.

“We tore just under 20,000 tickets last year and fingers crossed, we’ll do another 5% or so on that this year. The capacity is there, the movies are strong but I’d say we could do double. The number of times people have said to me ‘I used to love going to the film festival’.

“What’s changed there? People get older and become parents and the only time they get to go to a movie is Transformers because that’s the one the kids want to go to see. Where’s the new people to take their place?

“We’re doing a lot of outreach work with St John’s, UCC and CIT to find the film junkies of the future. We’re fighting against cheap huge TVs which plug into the internet. You can watch anything instantly, there’s no scarcity anymore. But there is scarcity of experience.” Mullighan knows that one of the festival’s greatest assets are the people of Cork and the friendly atmosphere they help create.

“We’ve got some good new embassy partnerships this year and they pay for their filmmakers to come here. I just say to your readers, watch out for slightly confused-looking people with lanyards, they may be visiting from Mexico, Germany or Norway — say hello and show them that we’re the best hosts in the world.”


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