Cheers rang out across Ireland last week at the news that The Souvenir Part II, Joanna Hogg’s sequel to her critically acclaimed quasi-autobiographical portrait of a toxic relationship in 1980s London, had been accepted for inclusion in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight strand at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which is, believe it or not, going ahead in early July.
Well, no, they didn’t, obviously. However, the fact that the film was “Irish-produced” was deemed worthy of note in our headline when we published the story this week. If The Souvenir Part II goes on to critical acclaim or receives awards, the role of Dublin-based Element Pictures will be foregrounded again. If it hits the big leagues and nabs an Oscar nomination, it will be hailed as an Irish success story alongside such previous Element productions as The Lobster, The Favourite and Room.
Guiney and Lowe may not be the only Irish producers to have made films outside the country, but they are the most successful
It’s a tribute to the achievements of producers Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe, the founders of Element, that they’ve managed to turn on its head what used to be a thorny question: what is an Irish film? Is it a film set in Ireland? About Ireland? Made in Ireland? Must it have an Irish director? Should it be financed from Ireland? In the past, a long under-nourished local industry, interspersed with occasional Anglo-American productions set here but with no Irish creative input, led some to support a purist definition. By their measure, My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The Snapper and hundreds of other were not actually “Irish films”.
Not surprisingly, this argument ultimately fell victim to its own contradictions, as well as to the blunt reality that filmmaking in a small country is inevitably transnational for simple reasons of cost and scale. But the principle rightly endures that Irish creative talent should be supported and promoted, and that truly Irish stories need to be heard and seen at home and abroad.
There is of course no reason why Irish filmmakers shouldn’t tell whatever stories they like wherever they want. Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan, Lenny Abrahamson and many other directors have done just that. But it always seemed that producers, who ultimately own the rights to the finished work, were largely restricted to their home turf and that this reflected the reality that power and control really still lay elsewhere. Element has changed that. Guiney and Lowe may not be the only Irish producers to have made films outside the country, but they are the most successful, with multiple appearances at Cannes, the Baftas and the Oscars.
There’s no point in being too high-minded. It’s human nature for people to look for the local angle, if there is one, on an international subject
All of which is worth celebrating. Where it can get a little sticky is when it comes to ascribing nationality to a particular film. Element excels at productions for the upper end of the prestige international arthouse circuit. These are the titles which trade most enthusiastically on the notion of a film as the product of a single authorial vision, embodied by its director. The Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, as Guiney told The Irish Times this week, is the festival’s pre-eminent platform for that exact idea. “Directors’ Fortnight is ground zero for auteur filmmaking,” he said. “It’s run by French film-makers, and it’s there to highlight the work of the most interesting film-makers working internationally.”
The conclusion is clear: The Souvenir Part II is a much-anticipated British film from an acclaimed British auteur. Let’s raise a glass to the success of Joanna Hogg. And let’s also note, in parenthesis, the vital role played by the Irish producers.
It might seem a pity that the green jersey needs to be pulled on at all in these cases, but there’s no point in being too high-minded. It’s human nature for people to look for the local angle, if there is one, on an international subject. Hard-nosed calculations are made every day in newsrooms on whether readers will find a story too distant from their own lives to be worth reading.
But, whether because of the intense competition for eyeballs in the online marketplace, or a misguided attempt to filter something – anything – meaningful out of the firehose of “content” pushed out every day by the entertainment-industrial complex, the emphasis on the Irish angle seems to be on the increase. A competition for a literary prize is framed through the presence of one or two Irish contenders; a single Irish win at an awards ceremony crowds out any other talking points. It’s not a particularly enlightening way of understanding the way the world works, and it’s particularly unhelpful when it comes to film production, a complex business that tends to cross borders at will, and an artform which still, more than any other, can open our eyes to human experiences right across the planet.