Docfest Ireland: why a new all-island documentary festival is more important than ever

Song of Granite is just one of many excellent new documentaries showcasing film talent in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Oscilloscope Pictures

In these strange and febrile times, Irish and Northern Irish identity is in the international spotlight. The border is the “blood red line” of Brexit, the eye of the political storm. The prevailing atmosphere is daunting and uncertain, but it also feels like a time of profound change and exciting potential across Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is especially true in the creative industries.

Documentary and factual films are at the heart of Irish and Northern Irish creative output. For the last few months I have been involved in founding a new, industry-focused, all-Ireland international documentary festival with the Belfast Film Festival, chaired by documentary filmmaker Mark Cousins. The inaugural Docfest Ireland will take place in June next year.

When I moved back to Belfast two years ago after 20 years away, I was heartened to see a vibrant film industry in a period of exponential growth. In the last five years, Belfast has invested £35 million through the development of Titanic Studios – the home of Game of Thrones – and Belfast Harbour Studios, housing Warner’s Superman prequel Krypton. Over the next few years, it will invest £117 million in three landmark screen industry buildings – the new BBC NI headquarters, Phase 2 of Belfast Harbour Studios and a new Belfast Film Centre.

Titanic Studios have helped to regenerate Belfast. Titanic Studios/Flickr, CC BY-SA

But it’s not all about big fictional blockbusters. As we hover anxiously on the threshold of Brexit, I was curious to find out if creatives are reaching out to each other across the Irish border, and my research focuses on UK/Ireland and international co-productions.

Collaboration and innovation

The last five years have seen a surge in feature-length documentaries from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Many have had a theatrical release, and are international co-productions. Hard-hitting post-conflict legacy films such as Dublin-based Sinead O’Shea’s A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot, and Belfast-based Sean Murray’s Unquiet Graves are making waves in the industry and with audiences.

O'Shea’s film about the ongoing paramilitary activity in Derry, is a co-production between Dublin’s Blinder Films and Spring Films in London, and had a nationwide cinema release in September 2018. Murray’s powerful account of the Glenanne Gang crimes during the Troubles has had a sell-out festival run and is due for cinema release in March 2019.

Fine Point films in Belfast has an impressive track record, including Emmy-nominated Elián, and Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned. The company’s Bobby Sands: 66 Days, is currently showing on Netflix. Belfast’s documentary powerhouse Erica Starling has made a glut of co-productions over the last few years. Feature documentary Escape From San Quentin is due for release in 2019 and is a collaboration between seven European countries.

Recent stand-out features from the Irish Republic include Song of Granite, Wonderful Losers, Camino Voyage and I, Dolours. Irish American Donal Foreman’s exquisite The Image you Missed, about himself and his estranged filmmaker father Arthur MacCaig, was one of my favourite films this year.

Rich heritage

Several factors have helped create this boom in Irish documentary filmmaking. Northern Ireland has a distinguished history in current affairs programming, and post conflict the skills honed by local filmmakers in 30 years of covering the Troubles have produced ever-more sophisticated and imaginative storytelling.

These skills have also been passed to the next generation, many of whom have enough distance from the horrors of the past to seek new horizons or reframe it in fresh and interesting ways. The Irish Republic has become a confident, liberal European state, and is now a commercially connected creative powerhouse with excellent links to funders in the US.

Both Northern Ireland Screen and Screen Ireland have encouraged the growth of cinematic documentary through development funding schemes, and universities such as Queen’s have seasoned documentarians leading their courses. As well as this increasing domestic growth, creatives like myself are returning to Ireland and keen to shout about the talent we have here.

Brexit is focusing the minds of executives, broadcasters and funders north and south of the border. Many factual production companies have offices on both sides. Established London-based companies are setting up in Belfast too, partly due to regional funding but also perhaps with a view to being located in a gateway to Europe post Brexit.

Today, plenty is happening in the factual TV and digital space. The Broadcast Authority of Ireland (BAI), which funds across the north and south, has a larger proportion of factual applications than any other genre. Arts documentary Geldof on Yeats was a co-production between the BBC, RTE and Wild Ireland (a Natural History series) with a blend of investors and dual language versions.

I recently organised an outreach event in Dublin with Creative Europe Ireland and Northern Ireland, inviting industry people north and south to talk about the future of creative collaboration. This conversation will continue through Docfest Ireland which will showcase the best in Irish and international film and host a Doc Market with decision makers and filmmakers from across the globe. Our BFI/Docs Society New and Emerging Talent Day will also allow fledgling documentary makers to meet established producers and funders.

The island of Ireland, total population approximately 6.8 million, punches way above its weight in the creative industries – and nowhere more so than in documentary/factual film, TV and digital content. It’s time we reached out to international industry and audiences, and put ourselves on the global map.