Cork Film Festival: “The Mission Doesn’t Change”

From documentaries and animation to shorts and industry events, this year’s Cork Film Festival sets the annual event on a longer-term path. MIKE McGRATH-BRYAN speaks with producer and chief executive FIONA CLARK.

It’s a little under two weeks to go to Cork Film Festival as this goes to press, and as Fiona Clark, the festival’s producer and chief executive makes her way into the Opera House Café, the Jazz weekend’s street entertainers begin filing past the street-facing windows in uniforms of various, increasingly lurid hues. It’s festival season in the city, alright, and Clark is a mixture of excitement, nerves, and pre-festival exhaustion as the last pieces fall into place for her own project. This year sees the festival celebrate 63 years of operations in the city centre’s screens and venues, launching in 1955, five years after gaining international approval at Cannes (see boxout). 2020, then, marks a milestone anniversary for Cork Film Fest, a fact that is mentioned as a focus of attention for staff in this year’s brochure.

While the approach of a landmark anniversary is apparent, the thought process behind the festival this year is, for lack of a better term, business as usual, according to Clark. “The mission of the festival doesn’t change year on year. We’ve taken some time to consider, refresh and realign what that is, but it’s simple and applies regardless of year: to connect people through outstanding films, and for there to be a shared festival experience of those films across ten days. We have a programming team, and we’re clear about the shape and feel of the festival. We’re the largest film festival in Ireland, showcasing the best in Irish and international film, across features, documentaries and shorts. We’re selecting award-winners from the international circuit, and the festival being on in November is a great opportunity to reflect on the state of the world, and film reflecting that, from throughout the year.”

Irish cinema is indeed in sharp focus throughout the festival’s programming, from the gala European premiere of festival opener ‘Float Like a Butterfly’, directed by Corkonian Carmel Winters, to the prominence of documentaries like archival presentation ‘Cork on Camera’, supplemented by events like special screenings of international co-productions and seldom-seen classics of Irish filmmaking. This year’s homegrown offering anchors the festival’s wider variety of programming, and Clark is rightly excited. “Very strong. It’s important to us to showcase the best of Irish work in the programme, and we’ve certainly got that in spades. ‘The Favourite’, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest offering, an Irish premiere that we worked hard to secure, produced by Element Pictures, that we believe will be a sumptuous feast for people. The award-winner from Galway, ‘The Dig’, ‘Belly of the Whale’… then you’ve got ‘The Overcoat’, a retelling of the Gogol story (see boxout), and we have nine programmes of Irish shorts, including the world premiere, supported by Screen Ireland, of six short programmes. We could go on, and I think that demonstrates our commitment. It’s where new talent is discovered and we’re keen to profile that.”

Documentary programming is a pillar of any film festival, and CFF has a very strong programme of music documentaries happening throughout the course of events (see boxout), telling a variety of compelling musical stories that help flesh out historically important chapters of the medium’s development. For Clark, these films form part of an ongoing and wider mission, regarding the documentary format and Cork audiences. “It’s always been there. Film and music go hand-in-glove anyway. For a wider audience, there’s a lot to take away. The Blue Note documentary will take you through its history leave you with a smile on your face all through it. But there are plenty of films that embrace that element, too, from ‘9 to 5’ to (black-metal biopic) ‘Lords of Chaos’.”

Outside of the realm of the city’s speciality venues and cinemas, the film festival’s remit as a pillar of the civic cultural offering expands into the community. Screenings of selected festival-entered features and classic movies in regional partner theatres are an important part of mid-festival outreach, as well as the establishment of a year-round viewing centre at the City Library on Grand Parade, showing selected festival entries on-demand for members. These initiatives among others are central to the festival’s continued development. “They’re absolutely vital. When I started out in arts education, (my thoughts were) ‘unless you create access and opportunity to enjoy, experience and participate in the arts, why would they be interested?’. And it’s such an important part of the fabric of who we are, and where we live. We’re able to do these regional screenings through our work with Gate Cinemas, our principal venue partners. So, for the first time, we’re going to be running our schools programme in Cork, eight titles in Midleton and Mallow, and building on that, we’ve received 2019/2020 funding to extend the outreach of a pilot for our ‘Illuminate’ mental-health and wellbeing programme to Transition Year students. We’ll be rolling that out in Cork next year, and across Munster in 2020, and that’s a great opportunity to work with young people to engage and express their ideas.”

On the further topic of outreach, a trio of industry-geared events across the first weekend of the festival will allow local filmmakers and arts professionals to interact with industry names and players on topics from training and networking to documentaries and distribution. This degree of engagement with an active and ever-developing core of local creators adds to the value of these sessions to the festival. “What we’ve tried to do this year is recognise that filmmakers need different things at different points in their career, so whether you’re a student or an emerging filmmaker starting out, need advice on funding or promotion, or connect to international industry players to generate markets, that’s what we’ve focused on. We’ve got ‘First Take’ and ‘Doc Day’, and we’ve introduced a new day this year, ‘Focus Forum’, which is a networking and roundtable event to help (filmmakers’) professional development, from shorts to features. We’ve aligned that with the Screen Ireland World-Premiere Shorts, as a lot of the filmmakers will be in town for that, and it’s a free event. Festivals have a role to play. We’re platforming 120 shorts, if we weren’t recognising that they were an important constituent to the festival, and responding to their needs as creators, I think we’d be doing them a disservice.”

With the wheels firmly in motion on the festival ahead of doors opening on the 9th with the gala premiere of ‘Float Like a Butterfly’, Clark collects her thoughts ahead of the big season of screenings, and casts an eye on what’s left to be done. “I’m super-excited. I keep having to pinch myself. A terrific team of people, nearly all returning from last year, so there’s a great sense of collaboration. The programme is really strong and the audience reaction has been very positive so far, and we’re really proud of that. The big push is always to get to the point where the schedule is locked down and we’re able to share it. Our job now is to make sure to make sure people know about it, vote with their feet, come along and have a great time. The best outcome is that the people attending come away from it thinking, ‘I’ve experienced my city in a different way’, or that they visited Cork and thought, ‘that was amazing’. The festival experience is important to us.”

Cork Film Festival runs in venues across the city and county from November 9th to 18th. For more information, check out or pick up a hard-copy brochure in town.

IndieCork: Declaration of Indiependence

IndieCork film and music festival has become an important cornerstone of the city’s cultural community. Before this year’s instalment, from the 9th to the 16th of this month, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with festival co-ordinator Mick Hannigan.

Mick Hannigan is a man in a good place. With the IndieCork film festival he co-chairs now in its fourth year, and having recently regained control of his former cinema, the Kino, now a theatre, things have come together after a period of upheaval that resulted in the creation of the fest.

“The genesis of IndieCork was the parting of the ways four years ago of my long-time colleague Úna Feely and I from our then employers, Cork Film Festival. There was much talk of CFF becoming a ‘red-carpet festival’ and we were concerned at the loss of focus on young and emerging filmmakers, particularly those working in short film. We had, after all, spent many years building the festival up to be the premier festival for shorts in Ireland. While we had no doubt about our ability to attract great shorts from Ireland and abroad, we did wonder if there was a sufficiently lively Irish indie scene. We needn’t have worried. Wonderful Irish features land on our laps each year, made without Irish Film Board or Section 481 funding, but showing great talent and inventiveness.”

The new festival placed heavy emphasis on short film as a staple of the programme. As mentioned, short film was Mick & Úna’s speciality, and it represents the pioneering spirit of the season.

“The short film is the R & D arm of the film industry. It’s in shorts where new styles and techniques of story telling are tried out, for the most part by imaginative young filmmakers. We love shorts as an art form in their own right but as the place where new filmmaking talent can be identified. Identifying young talent and following their subsequent film careers was always the payback for us. I remember, for example, Harry Potter director David Yates as a diffident 21-year-old in Cork with his wonderful short When I Was a Girl, or John Moore with Jack’s Bicycle or Lenny Abrahamson’s 3 Joes. There are other many examples I could cite. And of course we have two programmes of Cork-produced shorts. It great to be able to present these in a proper cinema setting to large appreciate audiences. And if a festival can’t support the creative people on its own doorstep, what’s the point?”

The crew struck up a working partnership with Rising Sons and have added web hosting firm Blacknight to the lineup of sponsors this year – how are these groups to work with, what do they add in terms of the running of the fest?

“Frankly, the festival would not have happened on the scale it is without the support and endorsement of Benny McCabe of Rising Sons – he approached us when we were planning IndieCork, saying he liked the idea of an independent festival, it fitted with his perspectives on independent breweries. It’s a good fit. Blacknight Solutions’ support has been really timely. When we wanted to expand to a second venue they were there lending support and advice for the Blacknight Festival Centre. And again it’s a good fit as Blacknight already work with Irish film production companies.”

Last year saw an expanded IndieCork Music programme, which is now a full-fledged week of music replete with an annual award. Mick is succinct about why it works. “I guess it’s the whole indie thing – indie film, indie music. The SXSW festival in Austin, Texas is huge of course but it’s a good model for mixing film and music. Anyways we love both, so why not!”

At time of writing, the brochure was just launching, and Mick is ebullient about the offering this year, highlighting some personal favourites of this year’s lineup. “We love our opening film. It’s sold out now but it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy that audiences will really enjoy. There are two Cork-produced features – horror flick Beyond The Woods and visually astonishing Storage. It’s great to be able to give them their World Premieres. The Film Feast is always a special occasion – food and film. What’s not to like!”

The Cork City Council Arts Office has also extended its support this year, a notable gesture after the parting of ways from the Film Festival. It’s an elephant in the room that’s not long waiting to be addressed. “It’s heartening to receive the support of the Arts Office. It doesn’t mean that we are in ‘financially sustainable’ territory – we’re still 100% volunteer-led. Festivals and arts events thrive if they are supported from a number of sources. We’re glad the City Council sees the value of the festival to Cork and to the Cork film community. I think over the past four years we’ve shown that there’s a space, perhaps a need, for an Irish festival of indie film. We’re glad it’s in Cork.”

On further discussion of the film community in Cork, Mick is glowing. Just off the back of recent successes, he’s optimistic about its future.“Well Peter Footte is way up there. What he has done with The Young Offenders is simply amazing, fulfilling the promise of his earlier shorts, which we screened in Cork. I think people are gonna be impressed by producer/actress Sinead O’Riordan’s work on Dead Along The Way. One project worth looking out for is the screen adaptation of Lisa McInerney’s wonderful Cork novel, The Glorious Heresies.”

The one question that always emerges and your writer imagines vexes festival folk nevertheless emerges: what to do when all is done and dusted for another year? “I’m heading to Liverpool straight away! To present Irish shorts at the Liverpool Irish Festival. What a great city. I love it and the people.”