- Contemporary Irish Film:From the National to the Transnational
An invitation to consider contemporary Irish cinema suggests a number of potential frames and approaches. The most obvious might be the identification of dominant genres, themes, or practices of representation that reflect something about Ireland and the Irish a century after the 1916 Rising. Within a specific understanding of the role and function of a late-flowering national cinema, auteur and cultural-studies approaches have dominated readings of Irish film, which has frequently been called upon as a means of critiquing or negotiating key social structures such as the Catholic church, family, sexuality, and gender. Yet as our earlier attempt to categorize the output of the Irish Film Board (IFB) between 1993 and 2003 revealed, deriving a unifying narrative of Irish cinema centered on textual concerns is fraught with oversimplification and exclusion, eliding a range of variables around production policies and practices, the complexity of which have increased enormously with the proliferation of formats and circuits that characterize the digital era.1 A comprehensive overview of Irish film in 2017 needs to reckon with a diverse industry worth €550 million annually, which incorporates productions as disparate as large international television dramas with budgets in millions of euros and micro-budget feature films (under €50,000 or even under €10,000) produced by tiny crews and struggling to find an audience even in the face of an increasing proliferation of local festivals. In the nearly a decade-and-a-half that we have been assembling an annual review of Irish film and TV output, it has become increasingly the case that although still small by international standards, the [End Page 169] Irish cinema today comprises an almost ungraspable spread of content across formats and genres (including comedy, drama, horror, documentary, experimental, and animation).2 One key characteristic of contemporary Irish film as object, therefore, is the impossibility of synthesizing it.
Attempts to restrict ourselves to narrative features—the traditional locus of discussions around national cinema—do not simplify the task, as the opening credits to Yorgos Lanthimos's 2015 film The Lobster indicates (figure 1). Of the eighteen companies and institutions involved in its production, only two—the Irish Film Board and Element Pictures—are located in Ireland. Across a range of textual and industrial categories—finance, actors, setting, production, and postproduction crews—the film confounds a straightforward correlation of text and production contexts. The Lobster is nevertheless held up as one of the breakout successes of recent Irish filmmaking, a critical and sleeper box-office hit in Europe and the United States (where Colin Farrell's performance earned a Golden Globe nomination) and one of four films (along with Brooklyn, Room, and Song of the Sea) that feature on the cover of the Irish Film Board's 2016 strategy document "Building on Success" (see figure 2).3
The Lobster cannot therefore simply be relegated to the status of an outlier, exception, or "accidental" product of co-production convenience, unlike, for instance, When Harry Became a Tree (2001), a comparable co-production (an absurdist narrative written/directed by a Serbian director on location in Ireland) generally perceived as an oddity at the time of its release and widely ignored in academic discussion and in IFB promotion of Irish cinema.4 The foregrounding of these films in IFB publicity and reports suggests a decisive and permanent shift in the parameters of Irish cinema that acknowledges not only its reliance on co-production but also its deliberate pursuit of stories, markets, and audiences beyond the national. A consideration [End Page 170]
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[End Page 171] of the diverse styles and thematic range as well as the complex funding and crewing of The Lobster, Room, Brooklyn, and Song of the Sea suggests that a primary challenge for scholars of contemporary Irish cinema is not simply the interrogation of themes or representations (although these will likely remain central) but also finding paradigms in which the...