Krakow Film Festival 2024

«We want to provide the audience with some levity and a range of experiences»

DOCS IRELAND: With the fifth edition now underway, Modern Times Review speaks with its Festival Director Michele Devlin on the legacy of Irish documentaries, the rise in interest of the music do subgenre, the thematic threads of local filmmakers, and more.

Docs Ireland is an industry focussed, all-Ireland international documentary festival celebrating documentary filmmaking and providing a platform for both national and international industries.

With the fifth edition of Docs Ireland now underway, Modern Times Review speaks with its Festival Director Michele Devlin. Here, we speak on the legacy of Irish documentaries, the rise in interest of the music do subgenre, the thematic threads of local filmmakers, and more.

Fine Point Films’ Trevor Birney Eimhear O’Neill and Andrew Tully with Festival Director Michele Devlin.
Thank you

Self-define your role as the festival director of Docs Ireland. I also understand you hold the same position at the Belfast Film Festival. How do you define your core responsibilities and your approach to your role?

Well, I’m one of the organisation’s founders and have been working on it for over 20 years. It was established because there was a notable absence of an event like the Belfast Film Festival or Docs Ireland. We had no money, but we had lots of enthusiasm and loved film.

I volunteered and left a permanent teaching job to fundraise for the organisation. I got a small grant initially and have been building it up since then. I have a real passion and belief in film on the big screen, and growing up in this place, I used film a lot for discussion when I was teaching. It was very useful when you had a room full of polarised viewpoints. People could then project their opinions onto what they had just seen on the screen, and it really helped people talk about difficult things. At that time, we were coming out of the conflict, and I thought film could do something for the broader good. The film festival is more or less the same age as the Good Friday Agreement.

In 2019, we decided to split the documentary content from the Belfast Film Festival and make a new festival. This was inspired by other national festivals we had seen around Europe and the rest of the world. We thought Ireland needed a documentary festival. There was a bit of discussion about the fact that it’s in Belfast, which technically is in the UK. But that was a minor detail for us because people’s identity in this place is forever complex.

People could then project their opinions onto what they had just seen on the screen, and it really helped people talk about difficult things.

There are a couple of things that I would want to ask you based on your answer there. But first, you mentioned the official location of Belfast in the UK. But ultimately, it is an Irish-focused festival, presenting themes and subjects relevant to the people of Ireland by many Irish filmmakers. Practically, how does that affect funding and constructing the festival itself? Are you going through both Irish and UK funding routes?

There is some effect, which I’ve been working on since we set up. We get the bulk of our funding from funders in the north, such as the Northern Screen Agency and our city council. We also get a small grant from Screen Ireland, a screening agency in the South of Ireland, in the Republic. We’ve been building on that slowly over the past years.

COVID, of course, had a big impact because we started in 2019, and then 2020 happened. That was a bit of a rupture in the flow of the development of the event. But this year, we’re really seeing it pick up where it left off and getting back in a strong position. We have another company called Screen Producers Ireland, a producers network. The organisations that give funding in the South are contributing a small amount, but they are interested and engaging more and more. For example, this year, we have 12 Irish documentaries, many from the South, funded by Screen Ireland. We have meetings set up to meet with them and are working on how to make the funding model and co-productions happen more easily. It’s not new territory; it depends on how we carve out an arrangement for spending the money. It’s something that will grow.

How does your approach to your role differ from one festival to the other? Belfast Film Festival is a more open format with fiction, animation, and all kinds of things, while Docs Ireland specifically focuses on documentaries.

My approach is different for Docs Ireland. From an early stage, I have had to make all these industry connections, talk to broadcasters, and engage with the whole industry side, which is new for us. We have our head of industry and marketplace, Roisin Geraghty, working with us. So it is different in some ways, but it’s much the same in other ways. It’s about celebrating great films, and documentary filmmakers are generally easier to deal with. They tend to be less stressed and more people with a strong sense of social conscience. Social justice issues are important to them. They’re a very different type of filmmaking person. But that doesn’t mean everybody in fiction filmmakers aren’t lovely too!

I read a few quotes from your press releases that describe the program and the festival. There’s a strong focus on diversity and inclusivity, but it’s not specifically a human rights-focused festival like others. You also have music documentaries and an Irish focus, which is more about subgenres and the work coming from the country rather than a specific thematic thread. How would you situate Doc’s Ireland within the European landscape of documentary festivals in terms of messaging?

Docs Ireland is a young event, and we’re still finding our way. The pandemic interrupted two editions, so they were not physical events. It was tricky dealing with the availability of titles and other challenges. Human rights films and social justice issues are important to us both internationally and within our own country. We also focus on culture, music, and the Irish language, supporting filmmakers who make films in Irish. We believe it’s important to explore stories from other countries that have experienced similar conflicts. Still, we also include more lighthearted content, such as films about music, landscapes, rivers, and the environment. It’s about balancing and reminding people that there is more to the world than serious issues. We want to provide the audience with some levity and a range of experiences.

Finding that balance is crucial. It’s important to draw awareness to serious issues and offer lighter content for the audience to enjoy.

Speaking of which, I wanted to briefly discuss Irish documentary filmmaking’s legacy and approach. Is there a distinct form or approach in Irish documentaries that you would consider distinctly Irish?

In recent years, I’ve noticed that Irish documentaries often have a poetic and visual quality. They exhibit a strong visual sensibility. For example, The Laughing Boy, a film that won our award last year, beautifully explored the importance of language and culture across countries.

Another film, The Shadow of Beirut, directed by Stephen Gerard Kelly and Garry Keane, is visually stunning despite the harsh reality it portrays. It tells a tragic story while carrying the audience through a visually captivating journey.

A strong visual sense and an interest in international stories are common themes in Irish documentaries. The legacy of war in our country also influences some of the films we produce.

It’s about balancing and reminding people that there is more to the world than serious issues.

What about contemporary Irish filmmakers and the themes or subjects they are exploring in their recent work?

There are films dealing with the past and addressing long-running issues. One example is about the Catholic Church’s abuses within mother-baby homes. There have been a few others about two young children who went missing and the investigation surrounding it. These films aim to put painful issues from the past to rest, so there seems to be a recurring theme in that regard.

Additionally, there are films from emerging filmmakers that bring a fresh and energetic perspective. One such film, Ó Bhéal, explores hip-hop music through the Irish language. It delves into the experiences of hip-hop and electronic artists, including those who are mixed race or black but grew up in Ireland. It’s a captivating piece of work that stands apart from the films I mentioned earlier. So there are these two aspects: films that address important historical issues and films that bring new and vibrant energy, defying categorisation.

It’s always fascinating to explore what interests and drives the filmmakers from a particular region and how their work relates to other areas.

I forgot to mention, but one delightful change I’ve noticed is the improved gender balance in the filmmaking community, especially in documentaries. For the past few years, it has been almost 50/50, and it has happened naturally without us needing to work hard for it. It wasn’t the case when I first started with the festival. We had to make an effort to ensure there was female representation. That’s a positive change.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that Irish documentaries often have a poetic and visual quality.

I’ve observed that music documentaries have gained popularity as a subgenre in recent years, with many festivals curating specific programming and even dedicated music documentary film festivals popping up more and more. The opening film at Docs Ireland is a music documentary about Cyndi Lauper. Please discuss the decision to feature this film as the opening centrepiece and share your thoughts on the resurgence of interest in music documentaries.

We chose to open the festival with the documentary on Cyndi Lauper for a few reasons. Firstly, the production company behind the film, Fine Point Films, is a trailblazer in international co-productions. We wanted to showcase their work.

Secondly, Cyndi Lauper is a cultural icon who was ahead of her time and influenced the concept of girl power. We wanted to acknowledge her role as a trailblazer and highlight where that idea originated.

Lastly, our program has a mix of heavy and light films, and we wanted to start the festival on an upbeat note with high-energy music.

As for the resurgence of interest in music documentaries, Ireland has a deep-rooted love for music, which has been a significant part of our culture. We began with a section called «Shell Shock» that focused on punk music and its ability to bridge divides. It was a genre that brought people together, transcending societal conflicts. Shell Shock Rock was a seminal documentary in this regard, and it set the tone for our ongoing exploration of music documentaries that capture the spirit of that era.

we wanted to start the festival on an upbeat note with high-energy music.

Music documentaries also often have recognisable names and can find wider distribution, thanks to streaming platforms. But the energy and spirit they bring also resonate with audiences.

But what about films that resonate with you? What have been some documentaries or filmmakers who have stuck with you over the years?

Personally, I have been influenced by the works of the Maysles brothers, such as Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Their films leave a lasting impact.

There are many other great documentaries being made, including those on television. In this world with an abundance of content, quality documentaries stand out, and festivals and publications play a crucial role in guiding audiences towards meaningful and worthwhile work. Hopefully, amidst the noise of mediocre content, the truly exceptional documentaries will shine through.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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