Interview: Scannain talks JDIFF with festival director Grainne Humphreys

Last Wednesday, February 25th, the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival launched its programme for the its 13th annual festival. We caught up with festival director Grainne Humphrey’s to talk about the festival, the films, and the 11 days in late March that define our cinematic year.

With all these international films coming to Dublin it’s a great chance for Irish audiences to get to films that they would not ordinarily get to see.

It’s funny actually, if you go to a lot of other countries, it’s one of the things that really strikes you. It’s how little access we have to international cinema, compared to somewhere like London, or Paris.

While the Irish market wouldn’t be huge Dublin would be of a comparable size to many European cities…

It’s a very cosmopolitan city. It’s got lots of different communities, whose cinema isn’t represented. When you think of the Polish community, or the Chinese or Korean communities. I mean it’s really interesting when you’re talking to the embassies, and they’re talking about the work that they do. And yet in Dublin the kind of access that you would have would be very limited. I find that kind of surprising. The fact that the program is out now we can find out what the interest levels for different films is. I haven’t checked the actual figures from the box-office so far, but they seem to have been busy.

There’s been a number of sell-outs, including Pasolini. That sold out before I had a chance to look for it.

Wow. It’s mad. Some of the ones are the usual suspects, but then some you’ll be just surprised by. I wouldn’t have thought that the Abel Ferrera fan-club would have organised themselves that quickly. Or the Pier Paolo Pasolini appreciation society would’ve have been that galvanised.

Donald Clarke did have it as one of his 5 to watch in the festival….

Maybe that helped. It is a very interesting film. He’s a really interesting filmmaker. And Willem Defoe is uncanny in the way in which he looks. As I said you never know. You could look around the programme and you’d presume one about football, or the one about the astronaut would be popular. Not the one about the left wing, communism inspired director by Abel Ferrera.

Maybe it’s viewed as a water charges protest movie…

Well we have them. We have the water charges protest movies. [Eat Your Children, March 22nd] I don’t know now if those are actually sold out.

How do you go about putting together this sort of festival? How do you whittle it down to what is in the programme?

There’s a couple of different ways that I go about it. First off I’ve been doing it quite a while. I’ve been programming for probably the best part of 20 years, if you take in my years programming in the IFC/IFI. I’ve got a trail of festivals that I go to, and have a really good network of colleagues, sales agents, and distributors. And that provides about 50% of the programme. So you know when you go to Cannes, or Toronto, or San Sebastian, you’ll probably pick up anywhere between 3 and 5 films. And then the other films are actually submitted. We opened the door to submissions about 5 years ago and encouraged people to send us new films. And we’ve had some fantastic discoveries through that process. Usually first or second time directors, and not necessarily films that are getting big distribution plans. They’re much more likely to be quite low budget films. But in a way that allows us to extend the reach of the festival. I’ll watch usually about 400-450 submissions , alongside going to the festivals. And then around October I’ll start putting together a very long list with the types of films that I’ve seen and that I want, or that I’m interesting in viewing in the following two months or so. Usually about Christmas I have about 140/150, and it becomes about whittling that down. It changes and fluctuates. I’m kind of unique in that I’m the only programmer so I see everything, and I can keep a balance between documentaries and features for instance, or films from particular countries, or on certain subjects. I like to balance it with a couple of galas and some sort of older titles as well, to bring some guests to discuss films from the past. That’s the way that I have approached in previous years, but there is always changes. There’s always films that drop out, and others that are added. Effectively at the end I have to just push the button on the catalogue and go. Sometimes we get a couple of films from Sundance for instance, and sometimes a couple of films from Berlin. It’s a snapshot. The physical act of going to print is like the editorial decision. We can’t wait for an answer anymore or we have to say now we are going to close the shutters, and start preparing the actual festival itself.

Do you see themes emerging as you’re programming? Are you looking for a particular strand idea, or do you try filling gaps?

Sometimes they come to you, certain themes…you know there is a lot about fractured families. That’s always one that comes up, for instance, in countries that are very strong in melodrama. There’s obviously very strong social realism as well. It’s one of the key themes in Eastern European cinema, in films from the Ukraine, or from Poland, or Slovenia. I suppose there’s a really strong storytelling tradition in Iranian cinema, which we have seen rise in the last couple of years. And in a way I see the festival as amplifying those themes. On a year by year basis, obviously war, the subject of war, displacement, those are the subjects that come up again and again. The hardest thing for me is when you are actively trying to find a particular type of film, and they’re not there. One of the things that I’m…not worried about, but anxious…is comedies. It seems to me that there is a general turn towards people making dramas, not necessarily crime or thrillers, but dramas, and the idea of entertaining an audience, of making them laugh, or bringing them together through something amusing or uplifting or even comic is less and less appealing to filmmakers. I think that’s a shame. I feel like I’m always saying to audiences “Honestly, I didn’t pick all depressing films. There wasn’t that many comedies.” We have a really very funny comedy film, an Italian film, called I Can Quit Anytime I Want. And very definitely one of the things that is the most appealing about it is that it is funny. It actually has a sense of humour, and an exuberance and an energy about it. I don’t care how serious a cinephile that you are, if you deny that laughing and the enjoyment of a comedy in a cinema is important, then you’re denying a vast amount of cinema.

Enjoying something that is funny enhances the experience…

I think so, and I think that one of the things about a film festival like this is that it is trying to reach lots of different audiences, and to try and reflect a very broad taste. So you’re running everything from quite mainstream films and studio films, like Cinderella and even The Water Diviner, to more more esoteric films like Pedro Costa [Horse Money, March 24th]. And you hope that the audiences will be attracted to the ones that they themselves are interested in, but that they might be curious about something else. And that they might take a risk on something that might be slightly outside their comfort zone, or indeed something that they are not familiar with. One of the things that I think is always curious, and this is my eight year programming the festival, is nearly how over-packaged a lot of cinema is now. We know pretty much everything from the trailer, from the interviews, from the bite-sized reports from the set, the sizzle trailer, the preview trailer, the soundtrack announcements, all of these things. For me one of the pleasures of going to the cinema is genuinely that sense of not knowing what you are really seeing, and where it’s going to go, and how it’s going to unfold. And I hope that is something that the festival can bring.

It gives that sense of discovery to the audience, that they have found a hidden gem or something…

Absolutely. I think that that is crucial. It also I think, is trying to connect to audiences, to give them a sense of involvement, a sense of engagement in the act of going to the cinema. That you are not necessarily going to a film that assumes that you are not paying attention, or that you’ve gone to get more popcorn. That you need to pay attention, to figure out, and to listen and engage with the subject, and the story, and the characters. I think that rewards viewers and audiences, and it’s something that I am kind of intrigued by. There’s a Ukrainian film that we have called The Tribe, and it’s an incredible film that is done with no subtitles whatsoever through sign-language. And I think that one of the most interesting things for me is that when I found myself watching films after watching The Tribe that it actually had changed the way I watched them. I watched these films and I thought “Wow, when was the last time that you watched a film and that you were changed? You’re ability to watch films had been altered”.

Philip from Scannain saw it in London, and he described it as a singular experience, like nothing else. He keeps trying to get the rest of us to go see it.

Oh you have to! I’ve seen it twice now and it’s really incredible.

There’s 17 Irish films, and four shorts. So there’s 21 Irish films that are being shown during the festival. That’s a fair whack…

It is a fair whack. The thing that is interesting is that there are more and more Irish films being made every year. Obviously the access to equipment and the increasing talent base in terms of filmmakers both in front and behind the cameras, and the amount of television that is being made here, means that there is just this incredible community there that are making films. What I am delighted about is that you can make a rom-com like Dare To Be Wild, to a horror film like The Canal, and you have Let Us Prey, you have someone like Robbie Sheehan in The Road Within, and you have all of these Irish names making all of these interesting choices. And some of them are very broad, very audience friendly films, and some are somebody like Pat Murphy, who is a really great filmmaker, who has his new film set in India [Tana Bana, March 27th]. It’s a documentary set in India, and that kind of diversity is very interesting.

The opening film The Price of Desire is set in France, and Yximalloo deals with a Japanese musician, and The Great Wall is set throughout Europe…

It’s fantastic. I have been working for 20 years in Irish cinema exhibition and it’s great to see that the possibly very narrow confines of the films that I saw in the 80s are kind of shattered, and that filmmakers in Ireland now put a camera on their back and they can go anywhere. It’s really exciting and the stories that they tell are so different, different styles, different approaches, different lengths. I think that it incredibly healthy at the moment.

Do you feel that it’s important to showcase Irish film as part of the festival then, as well as the international stuff?

I think that it is crucial. That to me is one of the strongest and most important things. We are islanders, we live on an island on the west coast of Europe, and it is vitally important to see where we are in relation to the rest of the world. And the easiest way to do that is to put peers, and they are peers, the Irish filmmakers alongside their international counterparts. To see them in that way. To be able to judge filmmakers who are coming from Brazil for instance, or the Dominican Republic, or the Ukraine, or Portugal, or Australia, and to see them in the context of what new work is coming from Ireland. I think that we are in danger a lot of the time of an insular vision with what other people think of us, and of what we think of them. Because we don’t really have examples. A lot of the time our ability to see international, non-English language, media is extremely limited. We tend to be American dominated, and a very particular type of American culture. For me it’s fascinating to see…to be honest to see how good we are in relation to other countries that may have a population that is 5, 6, 7 times the actual size. It important to find a way to help to get these films release or a platform to get attention for them. To get audiences in who might not think about them, or that the films might get lost in an avalanche that accompanies some of the bigger films.

You are showing Cinderella, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and films that would be ordinarily aimed at a younger audience, but the festival is all over 18s events. Children don’t get a chance to attend this festival, and if you get them young you get them for life…

We are an over 18s festival at present, and that actually has to do with the fact that we have a title sponsor who is an alcohol brand. And my argument in relation to sharing or including those films is that Cinderella may be made by a studio, but to me it is also a film that is an art form. The screening in the festival will have Kenneth Branagh, so it will actually be focused more around the creation of an art form, and the celebration of it in terms of the films that he has directed or been involved with. And then when the film goes on release then the audience that it may have been primarily aimed at will have every opportunity to see it, but we will have been able to present an opportunity for cinephiles and for filmgoers to discuss it at a level that is not necessarily aimed at a younger audience. And the Studio Ghibli will be exactly the same. We have a very strong animation tradition in Ireland, and my hope is that with those screenings that we can aim them nearly at a more craft audience. To celebrate the animation in an artistic way. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that when the films do go on release that the younger audience that we think, naively, that cartoons and animation are aimed at, will have there chance to see them. My background for a number of years was in junior programming, and young people’s education, and in children’s film festivals and I absolutely agree. I think that, if you give a young person of 13/14 an opportunity to see how fantastic international cinema is, they will very quickly have no reason to fear subtitles and that is crucial. The embarrassment is that the best children’s cinema is made in Scandinavia, and in Canada, and the Scandinavian languages are ones that are not familiar as such, and they are not in sync with the Irish education system. These incurable countries, that are creating great films for younger audiences, are probably a harder sell than the types of children’s cinema that we actually get in Ireland, which is predominately American. Or Paddington obviously, let’s not forget Paddington or Aardman. Who are just fantastic. That’s where we are presently, and this is our last year with Jameson. So we will probably explore it in the future. I would suggest that in a festival that is exploring artistic excellence that there is a rare value in examining studio films. Not defining them in terms of the audience for which you think that they are created, but rather in and of themselves as an art form, and of a piece of work which has been scripted, designed, photographed, and acted. I’m intrigued by that, and I think that it is a disservice that we do to certain films, unless they have been directed by certain types of directors. I think that the way that people treat something like a Scorsese film is very different to the way that they might treat one of the Marvel films. I’m really intrigued but that. Some of them have been created within the same systems but are maybe not treated in the same way.

Cinderella in particular appears to have costume and production design on a different level to what you would ordinarily see in that sort of film…

It’s a really intriguing film, particular if you think in terms of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. The fact that it is that very, very classic story., and how do you approach it? What are the elements that you can update, or change, or contemporise? While at the same time maintaining the core sense of the story, the fairytale that has resonated for so many different audiences over so many different years.

There’s an extraordinary line-up of guest coming over to talk about their films, from Alan Rickman, to Russell Crowe, to Jan Harlan. Is there any in particular that you are really looking forward to having?

I’m excited for them all to be honest. When you’re inviting them, you are writing to them on the basis that this person would absolutely love to come, and a lot of the time people say I’d love to come but I’m filming, or I’m working, or the dates don’t won’t. So it’s like that sense of when you’re inviting people to your house and people say yes and you just want to find out more about the films. Russell Crowe’s film is a very large undertaking, it’s quite a broad film, particularly for a first-time director. I think that he manages the balance between epic battle scenes and these very small domestic scenes quite brilliantly. Equally I think that someone like Ryan O’Neal talking about Barry Lyndon, which is a film that has always had a kind of mythical status in terms of Irish cinema, with all of the rumours that have swirled around. In a way it’s a combination of the people whose work is very new and very shiny like A Little Chaos, or Kim Cattrell with Sensitive Skin, where she has turned producer. I’m always intrigued by the decisions that people make in their career. We as an audience sit back and think this is the new film from Russell Crowe or whomever, but this gives us the chance to tease out more details about the film. I find that I have all of these different questions that I want to ask but that you sometimes get jealous of some of the questions that the audience asks. You think that you’ve done a lot of preparation until somebody in the audience trumps you with an absolutely brilliant question that’s obviously been obsessing them for years. I like when you see and think about them as actors or directors and they manage to make themselves much more human, and much more vulnerable. Their art-form is one of the few art-forms that is frozen, that is locked and is shown four times a day in cinemas, and that it’s actually the result of very passionate, very human individuals, who in some instances go “We got away with it. I don’t know how but we did. It started off as one kind of film, but it ended in a completely different direction.” I often remember a couple of the bigger guests that we’ve had in the last few years …I’ve often stood at the back, and this person that i’ve watched on screen for many, many years is nervous about what people will think of their film. They’re just filmmakers who want people to like it.

We’d like to thank Grainne for taking the time to talk to us. The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival runs from March 19th to 29th, at venues throughout the city. Tickets for all screenings are available from the JDIFF website.