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Irish film soars past old limitations

Swell of filmmaking talent boosts local output

In the past few years, Irish cinema has quietly come of age.

A decade ago, Ireland had only two filmmakers anyone had heard of: Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan. Today it can boast more than a dozen directors and writers with significant and growing international reputations.

The country is finally achieving a critical mass of filmmaking talent to match the kind of influence, disproportionate to its small size, that it has always enjoyed in the fields of literature and theater.

Following in the footsteps of Sheridan and Jordan comes a generation that includes such directors as Lenny Abrahamson, Conor McPherson, John Crowley, Martin McDonagh, John Carney, Kirsten Sheridan, Lance Daly, Paddy Breathnach and Damien O’Donnell, and writers such as Mark O’Rowe, Enda Walsh and Mark O’Halloran.

“We now have a list, whereas we didn’t before,” says Alan Moloney of Parallel Pictures, one of the small band of Dublin-based producers who have worked closely with the Irish Film Board to nurture this rising tide.

Carney’s “Once,” Abrahamson and O’Halloran’s “Adam and Paul” and “Garage,” McDonagh’s “In Bruges,” Daly’s “Kisses” and the Crowley/ O’Rowe collaborations “Intermission” and “Boy A” have redefined expectations about the range and quality of work that Irish talent is capable of delivering.

Carney’s sci-fi comedy “Zonad” and O’Rowe’s latest riff on the Dublin gangster scene “Perrier’s Bounty” are among the most anticipated upcoming Irish movies. There’s also another wave of talent coming, including Margaret Corkery, Ken Wardrop and “Perrier” helmer Ian Fitzgibbon.

It’s easy to forget that for most of the 20th century, Ireland had no film industry at all, just a few determined independent spirits such as Joe Comerford and Cathal Black working in glorious isolation.

The refounding of the Irish Film Board in 1993, along with the introduction of a tax break targeted at film production, provided a turning point. It coincided with the modernization of the Irish economy and culture, and the rise of a cine-literate generation as eager to pick up a camera as a pen.

“Until the mid-’90s, there was no opportunity to make movies in Ireland,” says Ed Guiney of Element Films. “Yet there was this spontaneous wave of short filmmaking with no state funding by people like Lenny Abrahamson, Damien O’Donnell, Paddy Breathnach and John Moore, who’s now based in America. That group of people coincided with the re-establishment of the Film Board, and they could move up through that system.

“These people have had the opportunity to take risks and to fail, and over time, their interest in the kinds of films they wanted to make has matured.”

“There is and always has been an awful lot of talent in Ireland,” adds sales agent Carey Fitzgerald, whose London-based company High Point Films has handled several Irish movies in recent years, and who recently opened a Dublin office. “Like a lot of countries when they are just starting out, a lot of Irish films were not very commercial: too parochial and dark. But that has changed recently. Now Irish filmmakers do have international in mind when making their films, and there’s a younger generation of producers who have made the best of being part of Europe. They know how to work those systems.”

Because of the small size of their home market, co-production has always been a necessity for Irish filmmakers. IFB chief exec Simon Perry has accelerated that trend by making it his mission to get Irish producers into bed with as many foreign partners as possible. Danis Tanovic’s “Triage,” a project driven by Moloney and the pic’s star Colin Farrell, is a classic product of the internationalist sensibility that infuses Ireland’s film community.

“We’re not making films about our Irishness or the Troubles anymore,” Moloney comments. “We have finally managed to put that behind us.”

Abrahamson has been part of this trend, getting married to a Polish woman and throwing his energies into developing two Polish projects — “Sole Trader,” a comedy about two Polish builders in Ireland, and “Into That Darkness,” based on Gita Sereny’s psychological portrait of the commandant of the Treblinka death camp.

Daly is developing “Jesus Christ Airlines,” about an Irish priest who ran a humanitarian airlift during the Biafra war.

Ireland’s current financial crisis, arguably the worst in Europe, will test just how robust this flowering of Irish cinema really is. Yet while the Irish government has announced draconian measures to slash spending and raise taxes, it has sheltered the Film Board from the worst of the cuts, and even raised the value of the Section 481 tax break from 20% to 28% of budgets.

The government clearly values what the Irish film industry has achieved, and believes it can contribute to the country’s revival. Moloney, for one, is convinced they are up to the job.

“I’m a film producer, which means I’ve been living in a recession all my life,” he says. “We certainly weren’t the industry that the banks were helping to over-gear, so we may be an industry ideally placed to prosper in the recession.”

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