Projection 37

Absences and (Im)possibilities: Traces of an Avant-Garde Cinema in Ireland

6.30pm / Tuesday 12 November
Irish Film Institute - 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 

Absences and (Im)Possibilities a programme of Irish Experimental Film works commissioned by IFI International, and curated by Esperanza Collado, Aoife Desmond, Donal Foreman and Alan Lambert. The programme features a selection of films from 1897 to 2011, chosen for their relation to the possibility of an Irish experimental cinema. For this screening a selection has been made from the overall programme. This includes work by the Lumiére brothers, Samuel Beckett, Vivienne Dick, Clare Langan, Maximillian Le Cain and Dónal Ó Céilleachair.

When the Irish Film Institute asked the Experimental Film Club to assemble a programme covering the “history of Irish experimental film”, we were both excited and daunted at the prospect. Excited because this would give us an opportunity to bring some of Ireland’s most interesting and underappreciated filmmakers to a wider audience; daunted because, at the same time, Ireland has never developed a strong tradition of experimental and avant-garde filmmaking in the way that countries such as France or the USA have.

One of our programmers, Esperanza Collado, confronted this problem in her programme of Irish experimental film for the 2009 Márgenes festival in Madrid, which is undoubtedly the key precedent to this project. In her programme notes, Collado playfully defined her curation as held together by what it lacks, stating the

of Irish cinema industry,
of Irish experimental cinema,
of thematic concerns common to these works,
of Irishness as a main feature present in these works,
of linking threads connecting Irish experimental films,

Although “inexistence” may be putting it a little strongly, this list nonetheless touches upon some of the key challenges in putting together such a programme. Certainly, from the existing literature on Irish cinema, one would be hard pressed to find evidence of an Irish experimental cinema. An exception can be found in some of the writings of Maeve Connolly, one of the few Irish scholars who has dealt with the term. She has usefully highlighted the long-standing separation between Irish art and film from the viewpoint of academia and funding entities, and how this may have impeded the convergence and recognition of experimental film practice in Ireland. However, within the general discourse around filmmaking and film culture in Ireland, the word “experimental” is occasionally thrown around (as are “avant-garde”, “underground”, etc) but typically in a loose and inconsistent way, and often completely disconnected from the international and historical uses of the term.

Since the Experimental Film Club’s inception in 2008, we have attempted with our screenings to approach the idea of experimental film in a more serious way, curating programmes of important experimental works of the past alongside contemporary works both Irish and international. While in its more bastardised form, “experimental” is often used simply as a stop-gap category for that which is not easily categorised (if you don’t know what it is, it must be experimental) or, perhaps worse, a bonafide genre of film (defined by recurring familiar elements, such as structural archetypes, visual techniques or iconography) – we would like to assert a different meaning, one that is both more positive and open.

Programme overview

The Historical Prologue features a selection of little-known silent works from the early days of cinema. The innocent nature and almost unconscious experimentation evident in these works, provides an uncontaminated vision of the medium, nearly free of the norms and conventions that would dominate the emerging film industry. It begins with two extremely short pieces whose motivation was admittedly commercial: one produced by the Lumiére Brothers in Dublin, and the other by the pioneering animator James Horgan. Nonetheless, side by side they suggest the split in filmmaking practices between documentary and fantasy that emerged early on in the history of cinema. Two longer films from Norris Davidson and Irish Amateur Films follow this, both from 1930. Placed side by side, they also evoke questions of what might have been, if films like these had initiated a spate of cinematic experimentation in Ireland, rather than the isolated fragments they now appear to be. By Accident suggests the influence – or simply an affinity? – with the expressionistic montage of the Soviets, while Screening in the Rain has foreshadows (albeit from within a more conservative social context) of the mixture of theatricality, amateurism and observation that characterised Jack Smith and Andy Warhol’s film work in the 1960s.

Programme One primarily explores Ireland’s First Wave, with a selection of shorts emphasising the more experimental and avant-gardist tendencies of the movement. The exception here is the inclusion of Samuel Beckett’s piece, which comes from a different historical context (a decade before the emergence of the First Wavers of the 1970s). Nonetheless, the literary experimentalism of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre, undoubtedly transferred into Film (1964), and the avant-gardist tradition cultivated by the author, share affinities with the First Wave filmmakers, for example in the form of a common subversion of cinematic forms, or the presence of a conscious critique towards the cultural values established at the time. On the other hand, the question (and the questioning) of Irishness becomes stronger in these works. A question that does not just refer to the fact that most of these artists opted for temporal exile in order to see their work evolve, but the importance that politics, identity and site take in their work at large. It is worth noting that most of the filmmakers that have contributed historically to the emergence of the so-called First Wave of avant-garde filmmaking in Ireland, have restlessly continued to work and keep producing films and film-installations in contemporary times, challenging the limitations of the historical and cultural frames that the present programme suggests.

Programme Two comprises a selection of contemporary Irish and Irish-based filmmakers who began making films since the 1990s. The proliferation of international influences and, subsequently, the effects of globalization – the many exchanges and connections with international and local filmmakers, curators, and programmers that have resulted from increased travel and new technologies – becomes quite significant, and provides a new understanding of film distribution and exhibition. At last, the legacy of international experimental film of which Vivienne Dick’s work constitutes a clear precursor, is felt: sometimes more explicitly, as in Dónal Ó Céilleachair’s piece and its bond with Oskar Fischinger; sometimes more vaguely, as the influence one can sense in Moira Tierney’s work from the filmmaking style of Jonas Mekas. The thriving visual arts scene and the way that it has appropriated/incorporated experimental film is also evident by the fact that many of these filmmakers – such as Maximilian Le Cain and Patrick Jolley – have made site-specific work for gallery spaces as well as for cinemas. The choice of technology among these filmmakers is significant too: although only a few have chosen to work exclusively with celluloid, others, such as Le Cain, Ó Céilleachair and Jolley, combine video and film. On the other hand, the spectre of film’s physicality is ever-present in the video work of Chris O’Neill and Barry Ronan, for instance.

We have chosen to close Programme 2 with four short pieces of our own. Although we have usually refrained from showing our own work within our regular Experimental Film Club screenings, we felt it relevant to do so here as a reflection of the fluid and cross-disciplinary activity typical of experimental film culture, and an acknowledgement of our own participation in the territory we are attempting to map. All four of us were practising artists and filmmakers before we were programmers, and see the curatorial process as the flip-side of that practise – another way of making film culture. It’s a duality shared by many of the other selected filmmakers, such as Vivienne Dick, Maximilian Le Cain and Rouzbeh Rashidi, who have each presented experimental films as part of Live@8, Black Sun and Experimental Film Society events in Galway, Cork and Dublin respectively.

Experimental Conversations (Fergus Daly, 2006), as the only documentary film to have dealt with Irish experimental film (and one that features several of the filmmakers featured here), is an apt epilogue to this programme. It is also notable for its formally unique approach to its subject matter, which can be usefully contrasted with Ourselves Alone (Donald Taylor Black, 1996), perhaps the definitive documentary to date on Irish cinema. Ourselves Alone takes a broad historical view, charting the development of indigenous filmmaking in Ireland since the early 20th century and raising questions of industry, policy and national identity along the way. There is, however, little focus on questions of style and no mention of experimental cinema. Daly’s film reverses this emphasis by ignoring commercial and narrative cinema completely – but more importantly he also rejects the linear articulation of a history. Instead, interviews and clips from a range of Irish and international experimental filmmakers are interweaved under a series of conceptual headings, as a way of exploring the question of, as Daly puts it, “What’s at stake in the new wave of Irish artists? What’s the international context for their sounds and images?”

Film info

Sackville Street, Lumière Brothers, 1897, 1 mins
Film, Samuel Beckett, 1964, 21 mins
Guerrillere Talks, Vivienne Dick, 1978, 24 mins
Glass Hour, Clare Langan, 2002, 8 mins
Mongolian Barbeque, Maximilian Le Cain, 2009, 11 mins
With Wind & White Cloud, Dónal Ó'Céilleachair, 2005, 5 mins

(The above notes and film selection are extracts from the essay written by the EFC to accompany the full programme notes. Full essay/programme)