Reflections on the 2023 British and Irish Film Festival, Autumn edition

Hard or soft border

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 06.10.2023

Luxembourg’s British and Irish Film Festival, now in its fourteenth year, has just had its Autumn edition. Again, it was a strong selection of films. I watched all of them, and tried, in the process, to think a bit about how we might view British-Irish relations differently from the vantage point of Luxembourg, and particularly the vantage point of a festival here dedicated to the cinema of both countries.

The Brits and the Irish are rarely entirely absent from each other’s stories, and certainly these films offered plenty of glimpses, in odd details as much as central themes, of the close and complex relationship between these countries.

In Claire Dix’s Sunlight, a former drug addict in Dublin tries to persuade his now elderly mentor, hero and best friend not to end his own life through assisted suicide – the assister being a specially visiting Scottish doctor.

In Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, the story of a community surrounding a pub in a poor part of the north of England whose members deal in very different ways with an influx of Syrian refugees, one of the locals who’s more hostile towards the new arrivals at one point claims to of course understand them, as his own father was Irish.

In The Ghost of Richard Harris, winner of the festival’s Critics’ Award, the British director Adrian Sibley combines archival footage and present-day interviews to tell the story of Harris’s life and career, from his beginning as an outstanding young athlete in Limerick, Ireland, to his many years as a dominant force in British film and theatre. Sibley, who was present for a Q&A, commented that he was the only Brit involved in the making of the film, other than Harris’s three sons, who, despite being half-Irish, were of course not Irish according to the Irish.

In Graham Moore’s The Outfit, set in Chicago, an English garment cutter tries to outwit the Irish-American mob family who, while using his sartorial services, have taken to also using his shop as a drop-off location for secretive communiques.

In Garret Daly’s charming short documentary Nothing to Declare, we hear the story of the two Irish boys – aged ten and 13 – who used their extraordinary sneaking skills to get a ferry over to Wales, a train down to London and then a flight over to New York, all without being detected by the British transport authorities, let alone paying a penny.

In Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Ballywater, a young, depressed woman has dropped out of university in London and returned home to Northern Ireland, where she’s trying to earn a living as an unlicensed taxi driver and finds a regular customer in a depressed middle-aged man, trying to get his own life back into shape with the help of a stand-up comedy course that she drives him to and from – references to British comedy classics recur in their conversations.

In Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s Oscar-winning short An Irish Goodbye, two brothers are reunited when one of them returns from England to the family farm in Northern Ireland following the death of their mother – he intends to sell the farm, and go back to England, but the home brother has other plans for the two of them and the uncompleted bucket list of their late mother to spearhead them with. “Sure, the English are no crack anyway”, opines home brother at one point.

In Michael McCormack’s documentary Breaking Out, winner of the festival’s Audience Award, we’re told the story of the late Fergus O’Farrell, a Cork native and gloriously talented musician whose career was severely hampered – and perhaps, as his sister suggested in the Q&A, also compelled – by his muscular dystrophy. British cameos in this one can be found in the recalled visit to London at the start to see the specialist who diagnosed O’Farrell’s precise condition, the appearance towards the end of British actor and fellow Cork resident Jeremy Irons to provide encouragement in a moment of need, and also the film’s co-dedication to British musician Colin Vearncombe (a.k.a. Black), a frequent collaborator of O’Farrell’s.

Dr James Gallacher, the first ever lecturer in Irish Studies at the University of Luxembourg, and a Brit himself, gave, at the end of the festival, a talk on violence and trauma in British and Irish cinema. Speaking to me before the talk, he said: “It would be very easy as an outsider to look at the history and conclude that the British and the Irish hate each other, whereas the human reality is markedly different from the abstracted history of the two states. The sheer scale of cross-migration and familial relations between the British and the Irish is often missed, and I think it’s important to emphasise the agency of those human interactions as a counterpoint to the often-acrimonious history of the British and Irish governments. Britain and Ireland share deeply intertwined cultural, literary, sporting, and economic connections that are arguably closer than any two nations on earth, and those connections are made possible first and foremost by people.”

Those countervailing human interactions can be even more the norm in some expat contexts. As a Brit in Luxembourg, I was together with Irish kids in the English-language section of the European School, and then together with Irish colleagues in the English-language divisions at the European Court of Justice and the EU Publications Office.

Geoff Thompson, the Irishman who organises the festival, mentioned to me his own extensive mixing in both expat communities as one of the reasons he set up a British and Irish film festival, rather than just an Irish one. He also mentioned as motivations the far more limited audience that a purely Irish film festival would have had, and his love of British films as a teenager in the 80s, when Irish cinema was still in its infancy. He said that he only came to think of there being a bridge-building element to the festival after the 2016 Brexit vote, which, especially because of its implications for the Northern Irish border, seriously re-enflamed tensions between the UK and Ireland. He recalled the screening of David Wilkinson’s Postcard from the 48% as an important milestone in that respect, as that film gives voice to the large section of the British population whose will was being trampled in the political carnage that then dominated the news.

The British state has still never truly faced up to its long history of colonial brutality, in Ireland or elsewhere. While conscientious Brits have to live with the shame of that, and strive to change it, we can at least take pride in the greater level of care and understanding and purpose that our filmmakers show: Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, McQueen’s Hunger, Demange’s ’71, or even, from earlier this year, James Bluemel’s Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland – here, if anywhere, is our national conscience.

Of course great cinema, great art, captures the best of every country – if not in what it shows, then in the wisdom of the showing – and, at the same time, the fundamental commonality of all countries. Maybe the Luxembourg context, and its cosmopolitanism in particular, also helps bring the latter more into focus. And maybe we’re best at occupying our national identities when we can also easily put them to one side. Certainly the ethos of the festival, evidenced not only in the details of the films screened and the comments of Geoff and his volunteer staff but also in the engagement of British, Irish and other audience members in the Q&As and the post-screening receptions, seemed to me very much one of a common humanity, delighted in, endured and navigated across and beyond all borders, with my questions on British-Irish relations always – and, in a way, to my own satisfaction – seeming a little disruptive and beside-the-point.

Benjamin George Coles
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