The Cork Film Festival should never be about red carpets

I was first introduced to the Cork Film Festival as a Transition Year student; a review that I wrote was considered sufficient for a place on what was then known as the “Junior Jury”, a panel of second-level students tasked with participating in the selection of various prizewinners. My contribution to the event was the first time that I had engaged in any real cultural criticism–what one learns in the classroom differs greatly from the skills that one acquires in the attic of the Triskel, packed within a tight circle, trashing out the merits of the day’s screenings. The Cork Film Festival exposed me to a world of critical and creative practices which would greatly influence my future–I am now an academic, and publisher, who specialises in digital modes of expression. Much of my work, and by extension, what I teach, is centred around the affordances of screen media. Since that first introduction, I have attended the festival each year without fail (last year being the exception, as I was working at Penn State, and airfare isn’t cheap). It has become an annual ritual; each year I take a day and go see a mixture of the Irish and international shorts, filling the gaps between sessions in some of my favourite Cork eateries and watering holes. I have long seen the day as something of an homage to my nativity, as well as a personal celebration of the escapism that creativity can afford–great food, and great film; this is what it means to be a Corkonian. Let the Riviera have Cannes, we have this! Reminiscing aside, I am very disappointed, indeed angry, to learn that the festival is nearing financial ruin, and that the current board have approached Cork City Council’s Arts Committee for an emergency bailout. I’m disappointed, because, as someone who has spent much of their life in Cork, the film festival is ingrained in our cultural heritage, and it is something which I never thought would be at risk. I’m angry, because, yet again, commerce has been privileged over culture.

I don’t know who is to blame here; frankly, I don’t care. In 2013, Mick Hannigan and Úna Feely saw their leadership of the festival come to an abrupt end, a decision that was largely criticised by the festival’s patronage. Hannigan, in particular, had been instrumental in the festival for some three decades, and many believe that it flourished under his stewardship. Feely and Hannigan subsequently went on to found their own festival, IndieCork. When the news of the festival’s peril broke, much of the criticism on social media was directed at the current board. But now is not the time for scapegoating, now is the time for saving our festival, and ensuring that these mistakes are not repeated.

And the mistakes are clear. Over the last three years, the focus has largely been on building the profile of the festival, expanding its economic, rather than cultural, value. Eoin English writes in the Irish Examiner:

In his report, the council’s assistant chief executive, Pat Ledwidge, said the festival, which has an annual economic benefit estimated to be worth over €2.5m to the city, is at “an immediate risk of going into receivership”.

Nowhere do we find politicians citing the cultural importance of the festival. This is why the Arts are struggling on our island–we are weighing the value of such events by their capacity to generate income, rather than their potential to inspire creativity and support critical thinking. When we speak of worth, we should do so in relation to the next generation of students, the promising filmmakers who lack a platform for their work, and the many Corkonians who, unfulfilled by more typical outlets, such as sport, see the festival as an alternative and integral part of their social fabric.

What makes the entire matter worse is that these issues were predicated by Hannigan back in 2013. Speaking with Donald Clarke in The Irish Times, he said:

I think what they want to see, Donald, is an event like the Dublin Film Festival with Danny DeVito or Al Pacino or whatever. I think that’s a fantasy, because of the scale of the city compared to Dublin and the film infrastructure compared to Dublin. They definitely wanted more red carpet events.

For Hannigan, the Cork Film Festival was never about red carpets, it was about providing support for emerging artists:

We reckoned that support for emerging film-makers was the way to make us unique and attract people to the festival. We wanted to have a festive occasion rather than — as I think will happen now — just a week of films.

Since 2013, it is clear that the focus has been otherwise. The focus is no longer on films and their makers, it is on raising the profile of the event, on building its capacity to earn. We can see this ethos embedded in the language that surrounds the revelations. Ledwidge claims that the most recent incarnation of the festival was “a success”:

…last year’s 60th anniversary festival was a success, with an increased profile thanks to a new media partnership with RTÉ.

The report said a number of targets were exceeded, including increased audience figures of 22,200, earned box office figures of some €145,000, almost 1,000 school children engaged with the festival, and it had sold-out Irish premiere and marquee events at Cork Opera House.

If we are to believe these reports–they might well have emerged out of limited perspectives–the “success” of the festival is now measured in terms of visibility, in box office sales, and “marquee events”. In short, it has become just another corporate ceremony, a vehicle for advertising that is utterly disconnected from the realities of those artists and audiences who cherish it the most.

This brings us to the current board, the make-up of which, I wish, respectfully, to challenge. Of the eight members, only two–University College Cork’s Professor Claire Connolly and RedFM’s Dave Mac Ardle–hail from professional backgrounds where their entire focus is on relevant modes of cultural production (certainly, as far as I can tell from the biographies posted on the festival’s website). In many respects, it is unfair to suggest that the emphasis of the festival’s governance is entirely commercial–owing to a partnership between UCC, the festival, and Arts Council, the former received its first ever Film Artist in Residence. Pedagogical underpinnings remain present throughout the festival, in addition to new some new initiatives, like the one focusing on mental health. These are just a few of the many examples of how the festival’s programme has remained strong.

The remaining six members are lawyers, marketeers, accountants, and publicans by trade. Some of them, like Michael O’Connell and Daniel Coleman, have dedicated their lives to NGOs and arts organisations, and so have much of value to offer. Of course, we must also remember that now is not the time to cast blame–I don’t have access to the complete resumes of board members, they might all have something valuable to contribute. I do not doubt their intentions, nor do I dismiss the need for a board of this sort to possess some business acumen, but I would challenge some aspects of their vision and overall strategy. They were called to serve one of their city’s premier cultural gatherings, and they responded positively, doing their utmost, I’m sure, to help it flourish. They need to be commended for their efforts, as should anyone who gives time to the cultural enrichment of their city. Nonetheless, I still wonder why the aforementioned call wasn’t placed elsewhere, why greater measures were not taken to ensure that the festival’s growth would be sustainable, and not to the detriment of what was once its core ethos. I am deeply saddened that we would skew the priorities of a cultural institution by placing so many commercially-minded individuals at its helm–when I say, “its helm”, I do not refer solely to the board, but the political machinations that dictate much of its operations. Cork city is steeped in artistic tradition, and right across our various communities of practice you will find people who have thrived in the creative industries–why were some of these people not appointed? It is true that many of the board members have experience in running similar organisations, but there is a vast difference between proximity and practice. What is also needed at this point is transparency–how has such a significant deficit been amassed in such a short space of time?

Responsibility lies with more than the board; it lies with those who make such appointments, who share in whatever “ambitions” motivated the changes brought about in 2013. Many argued then, and we can see now, that these ambitions were misplaced. What remains to be seen is whether or not situation can be remedied; the bailout is one thing, ensuring the implementation of Hannigan’s vision–that the festival serve its artistic community above all else–is quite another. Why not call upon Hannigan and Feely to return? Can the decision-makers show the humility necessary to admit their mistakes and extend a hand in regret, or are Hannigan and Feely, even now, so disparate from their view of what constitutes success? At the very least, could the board not be re-balanced so as to incorporate a more diverse set of voices (including, one would presume, a few more artists and filmmakers), all of which should be called upon to appropriately justify their inclusion. I am loath to think that our film festival has been jeopardised because of cronyism, because it was placed in the care of predominantly commercially-driven mindsets.

Regardless, we are where we are, and at this juncture, all we can do is call upon our public representatives to take a minute fraction of what they paid to save our banks and developers so that a cherished part of Cork city might also survive. The Cork Film Festival provides a space for young and old to escape the world, to escape schoolyard bruising and mortgage arrears. The political and commercial interests, the egos, the local outrage–none of it matters and should all be set aside; what matters now is that our city’s festival is saved and its legacy preserved so that future generations might benefit from the screen to the same extent that we all have.

2 responses to “The Cork Film Festival should never be about red carpets

  1. An excellent piece James. Hits all the salient points, and asks the pertinent questions. Very sad what is happening, and as you say, the powers that be seem blinded by the economics, and disregard the cultural reward.

  2. You have said everything that needs to be said. Thank you. Now lets hope your voice and many like you will be heard.

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