Is Irish cinema any closer now to producing its first auteur than it was twenty years ago, when decent funding for feature films first became available? It doesn't seem so, and with borders dissolving rapidly it's sad to think there may never be an Irish filmmaker as distinct as Hong Sang-Soo, Kiarostami, Demirkubuz and so many others worldwide.
The reputed lack of a visual culture historically can't really be cited as a reason since in James Coleman we've produced one of the world's leading contemporary artists. Some blame the mediocrity of film education. Others, the lack of a film community. Certainly when one listens to Godard speak about the sense of community and the relationship to film history fostered by Henri Langlois that helped give birth to the Nouvelle Vague, this would seem to be precisely what the budding but marooned young Irish filmmakers of the early 90's so desperately needed. Unfortunately no Langlois was at hand to help and we are still suffering the knock-on effects. Langlois's pioneering curatorial project with its startling juxtapositions of forgotten films provided the New Wave auteurs with a vision of a cinema without preexisting rules or predictable pathways, a medium that would be a continuous process of thinking and one attuned to and connecting up with innovative developments in other fields. This had in fact been an issue for Art School graduates in Ireland like Joe Comerford who turned to film in the 70's but it had no place in the commercially-oriented funding climate of the 90's (whose major decision-makers tended to have a background in television). As a consequence, in the 90's experimentation in film migrated to the work of our leading gallery artists.
What Langlois really bequeathed to the French New Wave filmmakers with his inspirational screenings at the Cinématheque was not just an ability to think cinematically but the desire for each of them to forge a unique relationship to film history. Such a consciousness has never existed in Irish feature filmmakers — it's now more evident in the world of the new experimental filmmaking, with artists such as Maximilian Le Cain and Rouzbeh Rashidi.
One can only dream of an Irish feature filmmaker to whom Raymond Bellour's account of the cultural underpinnings of James Coleman's art might apply: "The good fortune of Irish literature has always been that it is a 'minor' literature, divided in its language and pushing the language of its colonizer, now its own, to points of rupture, so that the occupier is displaced from his own territory to the extent that it is reclaimed by the use of language as an act of sabotage." The battle between word and image in Ireland recalls a passage from Histoire(s) in which Godard accounts for the greatness of post-war Italian cinema, its post-sync tradition rendering the relation between image and language problematic: "The language of Ovid, Virgil, Dante and Leopardi made its way into the image." Will the language of Maturin, Le Fanu, Joyce and Beckett ever make its way into the image here? Pat Collins' recent feature film Silence (its title says so much), in drawing on sources as diverse as the films of Abbas Kiarostami and contemporary sound art, is certainly a step in the right direction.
Fergus Daly is a freelance writer and academic, and contributes to LOLA, Undercurrent and Senses of Cinema, among others