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Interview With Cork Film Festival Director Mick Hannigan
22 Oct 2009 : By Aileen Moon
Mick Hannigan
Mick Hannigan has been the director of the Cork Film Festival for 22 years. IFTN caught up with him to discuss this festival’s long history, future and the highlights of this year’s Corona Cork Film Festival.

IFTN: Mick, you have been the festival director of the Cork Film Festival since 1985, what has changed in the last 22 years?

Mick Hannigan: We have certainly laid an emphasis on developing the short film program throughout the years and we are now at a stage, and have been for many years, where we screen as many short films as dedicated short festivals do. The short film area has developed hugely and our international reputation would be based around that work. 

We have also introduced innovative work throughout the years, and it is very gratifying that our audiences continue - at least for one week of the year - to explore the highways and byways of film making. Not just the main stream and not just the quality art house cinema productions, but more cutting edge work.

Have the festival’s audiences changed and evolved with the festival?

MH: Well ours has and is always quite a wide ranging audience. Certainly it is a wider demographic than the audience for main stream cinema and it is a wider demographic than the audience for art house cinema. We have quite a sizeable loyal audience who support the festival and come every year, they may not see themselves as cinema-goers for the rest of the year but for the week of the festival they come out night after night.  And on the other side there is a large young audience, primarily young Cork people, and then we have a multitude of young people who come to Cork on gap years or to do a course in one of the colleges or simply come to Ireland to hang out. Cork is no different to other cosmopolitan cities, in Ireland, in that it is quite diverse now and I think the festival’s audience is reflective of that.

The third segment of the audience includes a number of film makers, primarily young Irish filmmakers, coming to screen their films and coming to support their colleagues’ films or films they may have worked on - so there is certainly a distinct film making community going to see as much as they can and attending various receptions, networking sessions and masterclasses.  I think it’s quite exciting that the festival can address a traditional loyal audience, young people in the city and also young film makers.

The Cork Film Festival strives to present a balanced mix of Irish and International films - some of which are big-budget, small budget, independents, short or experimental. How do you decide what works get through?

MH: We get a large number of submissions, over 3,000 each year, and the task is to look for something that is fresh, innovative and something challenging.  I suppose we are looking for films which are original in some way.  If anything we have a bias against conventional dramas (although we do screen many dramas) because we are looking for freshness either in terms of subject matter or in the language used. 

If you look at our programme over the years - and this year is no different - there is a range of side bar events of either film makers who we would consider to be very good creators but who are not terribly well known in Ireland or films from a country whose cinema output may not be well known.  For example this year we are doing a number of programmes on Indian short film.  Now people may be well aware of Bollywood, and those films are terrifically entertaining, but there is a strand of films coming out of India which are original, innovative and experimental and I think would be surprising for people. 

Another example would be Peter Tscherkassky who is a wonderful Austrian film maker who doesn’t shoot film but rather reworks it.  For example he has done a piece from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ where he has manipulated the film in a very inventive and engaging way. 

So right across the board we are looking at - I hesitate in using the word experimental because that can put people off - but films that are cutting edge films. Films that are doing something new or imaginative and I suppose one of the wonderful things about short film is that, despite the restrictions in terms of budget and indeed in terms of peoples’ experience of film making, the best short films are truly imaginative and can be far more imaginative than what you are likely to see down in the multiplex. 

Furthermore, between the shorts and the experimental films, we have a section called ‘Free Radicals’ which coveys in its title that, in this section, we are looking for quite radical film making.  It is a very broad menu of films but we find that though the type of programming we engage for the past number of years has been very welcomed and indeed demanded by our audiences they are also looking for something special, strange and wonderful - the bizarre and the novel.

Did you notice a common theme in the thousands of projects submitted this year?

MH: Well with something like the documentary section one can get an idea of a sort of documentary Panorama and what is interesting each year are the pre-occupations which arise out of the documentaries submitted.  The film makers continue to engage with social, political and artistic issues so it is perhaps easier to discern in the documentaries but to make a very general statement about the generality of films submitted this year there is still an excitement with the medium.  It is clear from the films that are being submitted that young film makers and more experienced film makers continue to develop the medium of cinema.  It’s just over a hundred years old but we are still only scratching the surface about what is possible with cinema and each year it is quite exciting for us as programmers to look at the new crop of films that are emerging.

On a practical level have you noticed an increase in digital films being submitted over the years?

MH: Yes, very much so. Originally I would have shared people’s slight concern that the growing availability of filmmaking tools - whether in film making or editing - might result in an ever expanding number of fairly mediocre films but I found this it not to be the case.  In the short films and locally produced films that we screen in the ‘Made in Cork’ section or in the graduate films screened the standard is really high. I think one reason for this is that digital technologies have made life easier for people so the films look better, the sound and editing is better and I think these technologies have lent a more professional look and feel to the films which we are viewing.

Can we expect local Cork talent to be well represented at this year’s festival?

MH: Indeed yes. We’ll have a screening of Margaret Corkery’s film ‘Eamon’ which won an award at the Karlovy-Vary film festival.  It’s her first feature and it screened at the Dublin Film Festival earlier this year and we are certainly delighted to welcome her back to Cork.  There is a film maker from Cork, Fergus Daly, who’s just completed a new documentary on time and art.  There’s also the ‘Made in Cork’ programme of shorts and a couple of other documentaries so we are quite excited about the quality and depth of the film making which is Cork based, the standard goes up every year.

The Cork Film Festival prides itself on being the oldest film festival in Ireland, having been founded in 1956.  What would you put the longevity of the festival and its success down to?

MH: Well the Festival was the first in Ireland and indeed one of the first in Europe and was immediately very successful because it was founded at a time when Ireland was opening up to the world economically and culturally, which was stirring - but it did then slow down in the seventies and early eighties.  Its longevity, I think, is predicated on the fact that it continues to be innovative and that it continues to show innovative films.

In my mind there is an obligation on film festival programmers to keep up to date on technological and aesthetic developments and to bring the audience along with them. Our festival continues to show radical, exciting work and new forms of cinema and I think if we persist in that approach, always seeking out the new, that will hold well for the future. 

You are of the opinion that film festivals need to be about more than just screening films. What do you see then as the other roles of a film festival, especially the Cork Film Festival?

MH: Certain screenings are important but my point is that it shouldn’t be just screenings. What’s very important is that an opportunity is created for audiences to meet with film makers and for film makers to meet with their audience. Film festivals possess a very special space which enables that kind of dialogue to happen.  In particular in our documentary programme we are given an opportunity to introduce documentarians who can introduce their work and then liaise afterwards. This is also a feature in our ‘Meet the Film Maker’ sessions so that audiences do have an opportunity to interrogate the film makers and this is a hugely valuable exercise for film makers to get really valuable feedback from their audiences.

There is also the social aspect of film festivals.  Film festivals should be and, for the most part are, great fun.  In Cork there are formal networking sessions and then there are the informal ones in the bar of the Cork Opera House or in the festival club.  There is a particular film making atmosphere throughout the week of the festival here where people who are engaged with cinema as an art form, have the opportunity to converse with filmmakers so that the focus is on film throughout the week and that can be very educational, enlightening and entertaining, as well socially enjoyable. 

Has the recession affected the festival this year?

MH: It certainly has affected it.  We are operating on a reduced budget and have employed fewer staff this year.  The staff members who are engaged in the festival are working for diminished wages and salaries and we have had reductions in a whole range of areas from marketing to venue hire.  Thus we have had to tighten our belts in a wide range of areas.

That said, I hope the quality of the festival won’t suffer, I think there are still enough stimulating programmes going on and enough exciting guests coming to the Festival but it is undoubtedly the case that we have contracted ever so slightly. We have cut back on certain areas but that is not necessarily a bad thing - it has provoked us to focus on what is central and what is core to the festival and to eliminate elements which may not be quite as vital to the success of the festival as we imagined.  All in all, the discipline of working with slightly fewer resources is not necessarily a bad thing.

Director Julien Temple is one of your special guests at this year’s event.  Why was he sought out?

MH: Julien made a wonderful documentary about a pre-punk R&B band called Dr Feelgood who hailed from Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary. I thought what they were doing was quite exhilarating and invigorating so I was immediately interested Julien’s film about them.  Julien has a wonderful track record of musical based films and looking at his film technique is quite interesting. 

The film being screened at the festival, ‘Oil City Confidential’, is the one he did on Dr Feelgood and he makes very clever use of archival footage such as the film of Graham Greene’s, Brighton Rock.  In any film where participants are looking back to, as it were, their golden youth there is a wistfulness about that and the film is about aging, reflection and the ‘what might have been’. Dr Feelgood broke up because of the pressures of touring, different lifestyles and approaches to their careers so this film it not just a history of the band it is a morality tale and a social history of the England of the period.  Having lived through that period myself I found it very valuable to view but I think it will work well with younger audiences as well. 

And of course the other two special guests of the festival are Georges Schwizgebel and, as you have already said, Peter Tscherkassky

MH: Yes.  Georges is an absolutely fabulous animator.  His work is very ‘painterly’, indeed he animates with oil paints quite regularly.  He is old style, his work comprises only of drawings and paintings and he does not use a computer to create his animation.  He really is one of the great animators and he has a great body of work so it is a fantastic thrill for us to welcome him to Cork to screen his film and give a masterclass class.

Peter is another fascinating film maker.  He doesn’t use a camera himself, as  mentioned already, what he uses are prints he manipulates sound footage or footage from other films and manipulates and works it.  The masterclass he is giving in Cork I have attended a similar masterclass to the one he will be giving in Cork and as a non-film maker myself I found it riveting and entertaining and it was on the basis of that I invited him to Cork to present it to the Cork audiences as well.

Aside from the aforementioned guest star appearances and screenings what are the festival events that you personally are looking forward to this year? 

MH: There is a film maker I have invited from Canada, Alex McKenzie, who has built his own hand cranked projector. He has wonderful ethereal, mysterious and shadowy images which have quite a poor light source, so much so that you find yourself peering at the screen trying to discern the imagery which harks back to the pre-cinema days where there was shadow and puppet play etc and I found that quite engaging and thus invited Alex who, on the strength of his invitation to Cork, has now organised a whole tour of his work across England, Scotland and Wales.

We are kicking the festival off with a fascinating documentary called ‘To Age or Not to Age’. We were so excited about it that, even though the documentary is not yet completed, we wanted to screen it as a work in progress because it is dealing with current scientific investigation on longevity. The documentary is exploring the work of scientists who are trying to extend our lifestyles spans, not by ten or twenty years but by considerably longer periods.  It sounds daft and crazy but if anybody wants to google it on the net there is a considerable body of scientific work which has only just begun to hit public consciousness and I think this documentary, ‘To Age or Not to Age’, is going to attract a great deal of attention in the future to what is a fascinating new area of scientific discovery. Theoretically the task seems to be doable and there is scientific research in testing this with worms, mice and genes etc which seems to suggest that it is possible.  We are talking about a paradigm shift in people’s thinking about the possibility of human life and anybody who sees it will, I think, be full of questions as these are not just scientific dilemmas but political and ethical dilemmas.

Finally Mick, how do you see the festival changing - if at all - in the next five to ten years?

MH: There is always the temptation to expand and become even more eclectic but what we are trying to do here at the Cork Film festival is to contain it and to be more focused on what is important to us.  We will certainly continue to develop our work in promoting short films and will remain a platform for short films.  I hope that we become even more rigorous in terms of welcoming and embracing new and independent cinema such as engaging documentaries and short films which challenge us and provoke more questions about the society we live in.

For more information about this year’s Corona Cork Film Festival visit www.corkfilmfest.org/





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