Floating new ideas for Cork Film Festival
New boss tells of his plans for silver-screen gold at event - so what can cinephiles expect this year?
As those of you who recall the Saipan fiasco may remember, no one does civil war quite like Cork. Last year, when the Cork Film Festival's director Mick Hannigan was asked to stand aside after almost 30 years in charge, he responded by setting up an alternative event, and the inaugural Indie Cork Film Festival took place a few weeks back.
And the best of luck to him, but meanwhile the original ploughs on, and the 58th Cork Film Festival gets under way next weekend with a new director and an impressive programme of foreign and domestic features, documentaries and short films.
James Mullighan is an Australian-born cinephile with a background in arts journalism and festival management. He worked with Sony, the travelling short film festival ResFest and the Edinburgh Film Festival before being approached by the Cork board earlier this year. And when he was hired as creative director in May, he had to hit the ground running.
He comes from Adelaide and lives in London: as a total outsider, was he at all intimidated by the idea of managing this intimate festival in this most unique and distinctive of towns?
"Actually the city I come from is about the same size. And I've found lots of parallels," he says. "For instance, Adelaide has a healthy self-confidence and definitely thinks it's the arts capital of Australia – and in a way it is. So the Cork landscape wasn't entirely unfamiliar to me, and it wasn't hard to do a quick thumbnail survey of what Cork is good at and wants. You know, they don't mind a chat in Cork."
But Mullighan admits he still has a lot to learn about the city, its people and their film festival.
That festival is comfortably Ireland's oldest, and among the longest running in Europe, with a proud tradition of attracting international stars and directors to a refreshingly informal and unstuffy annual event.
"I'd never been to Cork at all until the board flew me over, and had never attended the festival as it always clashed with the work I did with the Encounters shorts festival, which usually runs at the same time. But I'd definitely heard of the film festival, primarily through Cork's short film initiative, which is very well known abroad." And it hasn't taken Mullighan long to figure out what the Cork Film Festival is – and isn't.
"I've been to the Dublin Film Festival," he says, "and it's an important, world-facing event, with premieres and launches. But Cork doesn't do galas and red carpets, we don't put journalists and photographers behind a barricade and march people into the auditorium. The style here is much less formal: it's more if you're a filmmaker thanks for coming, but we expect to see you on the dance floor at 1.30 in the morning.
"Dublin does the premieres," he says, "and at the Galway Festival there's a big industry conference each year where deals are literally done. But neither of those two things are Cork. Here, our brief is simpler.
"We've got a reasonably well populated conurbation in Cork and beyond who love movies and don't get much of an opportunity to see arthouse fare, so we are a place that plays films rather than launches them.
"There's a bit of launching, because three or four times in the programme there's a studio picture which is going to get a general release after the festival, so we've done three or four previews. But most of the time the films shown in the festival will not be seen in Cork again."
The Cork festival's emphasis is very much on the local audience, and its programmes have always been dictated to some extent by its venues.
"We've got a 250-seater multiplex in The Gate for the repertory global stuff," James explains, "and we've got the magnificent, thousand-seat Opera House for bigger stuff and special presentations, and then I've got the Triskel Christchurch, which is a deconsecrated Anglican church fully fitted out with digital equipment and a beautiful sound system, used for gigs as well.
"They've put some cushions in so it's nice and comfortable, and watching a film in a church can be a very interesting aesthetic experience. For instance this year, as part of the Nic Roeg retrospective, we're showing Don't Look Now in the Triskel, which has all these amazing scenes shot in Venetian churches."
Mullighan is proud of the programme he's assembled for the 58th festival, especially given the short amount of preparation time he had. "But I did have some train tracks to run along," he adds, "and I've had huge help from our programming team.
"I'm a fan and a film buff rather than a cinephile, if you know what I mean. I don't write long, informed, scholarly reviews for Sight & Sound, that's not me – my strength is wrangling and putting together a large arts event.
"I know and love movies, and through the last couple of jobs I've had I've learned the industry as well, so I've got lots of contacts there which are germane. I know what will play well at a festival and what won't, and I've picked quite a bit of what's in there, but so has our four-person programming team.
"Don O'Mahony is from Cork, he was the catalogue editor in years past and is now head of the feature film programme. Helen Jack is a freelance documentary journalist, she's head of the documentary programme, and Colm McAuliffe, who's from Cork but lives in London and is a freelance journalist for Sight & Sound, he's head of shorts. Philip Illson, who's a previous Cork jury member and runs the London short film festival, is head of music and film events.
'Then of course there are the films that came in by submission. There would be about a thousand of them, 200 of which would be features, so they all got watched twice.
"Based on our recommendations, the board had a sense of how they wanted the festival to look, but there's been no editorial input from them, other than the thumbs up. They've left me alone but they've also been very supportive."
James Mullighan has a strong grounding in classical music, and is particularly pleased that veteran English filmmaker Tony Palmer will be coming to Cork to present three of his films, including a new documentary about Benjamin Britten called Nocturne. "I've admired that man for 25 years," he explains, "so I'm thrilled that he's presenting three of his films, and is going to give a lecture to film and music students.
"In 1983, Palmer made this epic film about the life of Richard Wagner, starring Richard Burton in one of his last roles. It's seven hours and 45 minutes long, and we're showing the whole thing in the Opera House, with two full meal breaks." And you'll find some of James' other favourites from the programme in the panel below.
When the festival abruptly changed management earlier this year, there were rumblings from traditionalists that the event would be made more mainstream in an effort to ease financial concerns. But a seven-and-a-half hour movie about Wagner doesn't sound all that commercial to me, and there are few concessions to the mainstream in Mullighan's festival roster.
"I'm really looking forward to Victor Kossakovsky's film, Long Live the Antipodes!, which starts with the conceit that in only four places in the world if you drill through the Earth's core will you come out on land at the other side. So you know it twins Shanghai and Peru, and makes four little diptych films, there's no narration, no narrative but I've deliberately put it in there because it's so spectacular to look at. We're playing it in the Opera House, and I hope people go along to it!"