Dublin International Film Festival revs up for fresh start with new sponsor and impressive programme
The Dublin Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, and until next Sunday will fill the capital's cinemas with high-quality Irish and international movies. And in truth it's even more pleasing than usual to watch it unfold, because last year some of us became genuinely concerned about its future.
When long-term sponsors Jameson announced that they would be ending their 13-year association with the festival, pessimists wondered would the event be able to survive in these straitened times. But for director Grainne Humphreys and her dedicated team, the disappearance of the festival was never contemplated for a moment. "We never even discussed that as a possibility," she tells me.
"The search for a new sponsor was a challenging business, in fact in a way it almost felt like changing husbands, and I'm glad it's behind us.
"But we never ever contemplated failure: through the summer we just talked about the festival's future all the time, and even though we were going through this sometimes quite frustrating business of finding a sponsor, we always focused on the things that we could do, and the films we'd seen in Cannes or Toronto, or Irish films that we heard about and might be able to feature. It was always going to happen, it was just a question of how would we do it."
Happily, a new sponsor was found, and already Audi is beginning to look like a very good fit. "It's interesting to look at what Audi has done already this year," Humphreys says. "Their outdoor campaign using films from the festival is really interesting, and I'm delighted with it. Because I think that in the past the campaign was much more focused on the marketing and brand than on the programme, so I think that's a welcome development. It's a shift of focus, and it's allowed the cinema to come to the foreground, which is lovely."
The business of finding a backer, however tortuous, was a useful one for Humphreys and her colleagues, because it "forced us to re-evaluate ourselves, what the festival was and what it should be".
"I think in the arts, and definitely with film, we all know each other, and we live in a bubble, but when you go into meetings with people, even people who live in the same city, and you find out that they've never been to the festival, it makes you think about what you're doing, how you could do it better, and what it all means to Dublin."
Humphreys and her colleagues eventually arrived at a core set of festival values that involved "the commitment to audiences rather than awards, the commitment to international cinema, and the idea that we would maintain if not expand the Irish element". Those principles are well reflected in this year's programme, as we'll discover, but the Dublin Film Festival began with much less ambitious aims.
The original Dublin Film festival was started by, among others, the late, great Irish Times critic Michael Dwyer back in the mid-1980s. And the main motivation, Grainne Humphreys tells me, was "because Michael felt that there were too many films being shown in London that weren't being shown in Dublin, and that there needed to be an annual celebration in the capital showcasing the best of world cinema. And that was it".
That original festival collapsed at the end of the 1990s, but the event was revived in 2003 by Michael Dwyer and others as the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. "That first one in 2003 was very much a labour of love," says Humphreys, "I think they put the programme together in something like three months, Michael kind of took out his little black book of invites and somehow they pulled it together. "But by the time the second festival was being organised, you had the Light House, you had the IFI, the Cork and Galway Festivals were up and about, there was also a French festival at the IFI that I was involved in, there was a documentary festival, there was a German festival and so on, so it couldn't just be a festival about world cinema any more. It had to become bigger, more diverse."
Over the years, the Dublin Festival has broadened out into an event that mixes a curated programme of international films with some of the most exciting new Irish features and shorts, and incorporates the city itself into outdoor screenings, public interviews and of course, the time-honoured mystery film that traditionally ends each year's festival. Grainne Humphreys has been festival director since 2007, and her commitment to the task has been absolute.
Belts have been tightened somewhat in 2016 in a pared-down event, but the festival programme is impressive, and includes some fascinating films and events. Claudia Cardinale, Richard Gere, David Hare, Jack Reynor, Ben Wheatley, Rebecca Miller and Neil Jordan are among this year's guests, and Hollywood's Angela Lansbury will take part in an interview with a live audience tomorrow at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.
"She's such a legend," Humphreys says, "she's worked with and known so many extraordinary people, and we're so honoured to have her."
Grainne reckons she watches "at least 1,200 films a year" in her search for festival fare, and admits she sometimes reaches the point where "if I watch another bad film I think I'm going to cry".
But every now and then "you find something that makes you sit up and pay attention, and you're bowled over by the richness and the beauty of the image".
Charlie Kaufman's caustic adult animation Anomalisa is one such movie, and is sure to be a festival highlight. It tells the story of a lonely self-help author who falls in love in a dingy Cincinnati hotel. "I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival," Humphreys tells me, "and there was this huge jaded crowd of film critics and we all just literally went 'wow' - it was so imaginative, so fresh, and fun. It's quite dark, but it's not depressing."
Three other festival standouts are Lucile Hadzihalilovic's haunting sci-fi drama Evolution, Sebastian Schipper's exhilarating, one-take Berlin thriller Victoria, and John Carney's Sing Street, a winning musical set in 1980s Dublin telling the tale of a young man who starts a band in order to impress a girl.
And then there's Son of Saul, Laszio Nemes's extraordinary and harrowing drama set in Auschwitz, and starring Geza Rohrig as a Hungarian-Jewish Sonderkommando who finds his son's body and vows to give it a decent burial. "What really stands out about it," Humphreys says, "is the fact that it takes a subject that we feel familiar with and manages to show it in a completely different light."
Labyrinth of Lies explores similar themes, and tells the story of German war criminals who attempted to evade justice after the end of World War Two. "It's another very strong film," says Grainne, "and so is Land of Mine, a Danish drama about a group of German prisoners of war in 1945 who were ordered to clear mines their army had set along the Danish coast."
Humphreys is pretty sure that Maiwenn's French film Mon Roi will "divide audiences", but she's a fan. Emmanuelle Bercot stars as a woman recovering from a serious skiing accident who recalls her passionate love affair with a mysterious man played by Vincent Cessel. "You know it sounds bizarre when you say that a French love story feels like a brave experiment, but somehow it does.
"Another film we have that I really love is called Black, it's really interesting. It's basically Romeo and Juliet, it's about two immigrant groups warring with each other in Brussels, and that sounds boring and you think to yourself I can see that on the news thanks very much, but it's done with this incredible energy, it's really really smart.
"There's another couple of films I'd just point out, and one is called Departure. It stars Alex Lawther as a young man who falls in love with the guy who lives beside him in his holiday home in France. Juliet Stevenson plays his mother, and it's told with such power, and in this clever way where you have no idea where it's ultimately going.
"Another very strong British film in the programme is Remainder, which has Tom Sturridge playing a guy who's hit by a piece of glass that falls from a high building and he wakes up and finds he's lost his memory.
"It's a bit like Christopher Nolan's Memento, and it's one of those films that you watch and think 'this is a really smart début feature', and you just wonder what this guy is going to do next."