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Documentary Making in Ireland
28 Mar 2001 :
Last month Martina Durac and Sé Merry Doyle of Loopline Films ran a course on documentary filmmaking, which should be earmarked for annual re-runs.

Hosted by the Galway Film Centre and Screen Training Ireland, the event took place over two weekends of intensive residential sessions in Galway. Tutors for the master classes, screenings and mentoring sessions included some of the most illustrious names in documentary making from around the world.

Veteran US Film makers D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegadus were joined by Rod Stoneman, Bob Quinn, Peter Lydon, Liam McGrath, Les Blank, John T. Davis, Philip King, Alan Gilsenan, Sé Merry Doyle and Martina Durac. Jon Bang Carlsen, the Danish filmmaker lectured on his films, It’s Now or Never and How to Invent Reality, both of which were filmed in Ireland. His inclusion with Kim Longinotto’s strictly observational style fuelled considerable debate. A study of her work included Divorce Iranian Style, which appeared on Channel 4 recently, and Shanghai Girls.

The appearance of some great work on the festival circuit, like last year’s Doclands bodes well for the discipline as a whole. Encouraging also are theatrical releases of Shimmy Marcus’ Aidan Walsh – Master Of The Universe and Sarah Share’s If I should fall From Grace, her Shane McGowan profile. As Marcus explains, “If anything, I think the documentary situation in Ireland is a lot healthier than the drama situation, which I see as critical. ‘Docs’ here are finding more original subjects and stories than their fiction-writing counterparts.” He cites Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, together with his father, Louis Marcus’ work as primary influences.

Yet, Martina Durac’s motivation behind organising and designing the course, arose from what she felt was Ireland’s lack of a forum for creative discussion. She believes that although previous courses on offer have been extremely useful, they are geared more towards the production process. “There’s so much pressure on people to look at the practicalities that often they don’t think enough about what they are trying to do creatively,” she adds.

Most of the filmmakers taking part had considerable prior experience of the production and finance element of documentary making. The selection process was by interview. All ten participants either had a project in various stages of development, or had worked for some time within the industry. Some like Pat Collins and Adrian McCarthy had made a number of films already.

The opportunities offered by the three-day seminars are best explained by Martina herself: “It’s always difficult to raise funds for ‘docs’, and in a way that is why I wanted to run the course, to say ‘forget about the real world for a moment and while you are cocooned in this hotel in the middle of nowhere, just run with your ideas and enjoy listening to other filmmakers’. It helped people get away from the awful situation you might find yourself in, as you try and shoehorn an idea into a finance package where it just won’t fit.”

Loopline are currently working on a part-funded documentary that, as Martina explains, Sé Merry Doyle is making because they can’t sit for ever saying they’ve only got half the money. Shimmy Marcus highlights some of the difficulties with finance, “There are only so many places you can go: The Irish Film Board, RTE, TG4 and the Arts Council.”

Events like The Amsterdam Documentary Forum, and Sunny Side of the Doc in Marseilles provide opportunities for seeking co production partners, but overseas interest is difficult to secure. Once a film is made, unless it fits within the 52 minutes essential for almost all TV schedules, or proves to be a huge success first, it is unlikely to reach the small screen. The number of festivals either specialising in documentaries, or hosting a documentary category is relatively high. Yet problems can arise there also, as Shimmy Marcus’ experience illustrates, “ Some festivals discriminate because they insist on a film print. ‘Aidan’ was left out of a few because we don’t have one. But then there are a lot of festivals that specialise only in docs, which drama filmmakers can’t get into.”

Campbell Ryan Productions’ film on the National Ballroom is just one of those in development that indicate a healthy interest in the medium. Ballroom Of Dreams is due to begin shooting early this summer. Directed by Liam Wylie, the producers have secured support from The Irish Film Board and Dublin Corporation among others.

Greater access to pro-summer filmmaking, and the current popularity of documentary-type TV means that interest in this kind of filmmaking is likely to grow. Also proving successful for producers are more commercial documentaries aimed at specific TV audiences. Paradise Pictures’ On The Ballykissangel Trail was made after producer Colin Cowman recognised a niche market, and has already been sold to more than 50 different TV networks worldwide.


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