22 Feb 2017

What is the Irish for ‘avant-garde’? An examination of the avant-garde idea in Irish cinema

by Sam Fitzpatrick

Sam Fitzpatrick interviews filmmakers Dean Kavanagh, Rouzbeh Rashidi and Maximilian Le Cain for his thesis “What is the Irish for ‘avant-garde’? An examination of the avant-garde idea in Irish cinema” for the course “MSc in Digital Feature Film Production” run by Filmbase Dublin, in association with Staffordshire University.

Sam Fitzpatrick: Ireland obviously has historically not possessed much in the way of an experimental film scene. Even the recent EFS programme in the IFI, “Absences and (Im)possibilities”, reinforces that fact; in both its programme notes and its title. But it seems that this may be changing — yourselves, the others in the Experimental Film Society and various other practitioners have been incredibly prolific, it seems to me, over the last few years. Do you see this activity as representative of an experimental scene or emerging movement as such?

Rouzbeh Rashidi: Personally I would prefer to stay away from classifications such as ‘movement’ and ‘new wave’. I think that they are very dangerous and have contributed to many of the maladies in today’s cinema. If you are engaged with the history of film and study it carefully and passionately you realise that all of the established ‘movements’ and ‘new waves’ occurred organically with time as the presiding judge.

I was involved in a ‘movement’ called “Remodernist film” for almost two years. It has a striking, interesting and genuine manifesto, which I still admire, but unfortunately the focus and energy of the contributing members was spent on everything but the actual craft of filmmaking. It simply became a cheap act of protection and promotion for the ‘movement’ itself rather than making films. Usually when a considerable amount of films have been completed, screened, reviewed and discussed- with text from film critics and theoreticians in circulation, then finally as time passes, you will know if there was a ‘movement’ or ‘new wave’. But when you remove all of these factors, and above all, remove time from the equation and reverse the actual process, the result is absolutely horrific.

All I know is that with EFS the energy is focused on the PRODUCTION of cinema and that is all we care about. With EFS we are trying to create a culture that we simply don’t have here; therefore we are building it from scratch with our films. Even if our films are part of a ‘movement’ or ‘new wave’ we really are unaware and simply don’t think about it. Each of us developed a unique and personal cinematic language and it is only through this that we constantly express ourselves. Also it is worth mentioning that we care very deeply for and engage with the history of cinema and are completely aware of the fact that the limits of cinema have already been fully reached, right to the very edges. There is nothing new in film history. The only way that you can genuinely contribute is to dig into your personal experiences and make cinema about them. By no means does this mean a translation of events as concept/content but rather a formalistic approach that embraces themes too.

Dean Kavanagh: I always worry about the term ‘movement’ as it is thrown around so much, and in particular, over the last year or two in Ireland regarding, what I would call, a certain ‘mainstream independent cinema’. Even the term ‘independent’ is finished with.

People really want to see an ‘Irish new wave’ but everyone knows it is not something that the filmmakers can decide. That is for the critics to determine in 20 years time, most likely when it is over, if it ever existed at all. But I think it is undeniable that something special is happening within cinema here and it has EFS at the absolute core.

Experimental Film Society has been very active in Ireland and internationally. To this date, with the combined works of the filmmakers, it has produced around 52 feature films, over 400 short films and has also fostered expanded cinema and audio-visual performance events and film screening. EFS members have even released albums of drone/ambient music online, like an addendum to the film work. All of this has happened within the period of 10 years and between 9 or 10 people internationally, 4 of whom living in Ireland. There is certainly a ‘scene’ emerging here thanks to EFS.

Maximilian Le Cain: There’s a strong, organic affinity and understanding between the four EFS members based in Ireland, the four featured in the Absences and (Im)Possibilities programme: Rouzbeh Rashidi, Dean Kavanagh, Michael Higgins and myself. It could be argued that we’ve created a sort of ‘scene’, however small and marginal. Beyond that, there are two or three Irish filmmakers that I am aware of as coming from a somewhat similar place. But this question of experimental film production in Ireland also comes down to how one defines ‘experimental film’- there are, of course, so many different approaches. It’s a broad and sometimes contested territory. We have our own brand of ‘experimental film’ but it’s certainly not the only one, nor should it be. There is much experimental moving image work happening in Irish artists’ film and video that has nothing in common with what we’re up to. So I’d say there is an upsurge in experimental work happening in Ireland but this is the product of multiple scenes. And as to the question of EFS being a movement (which has been mooted by some people), only time can answer that one. We’re just concerned with doing our work.

SF: You’ve written on the difficulties of getting experimental feature-length work exhibited — in line with that, I wonder what your thoughts are on the space for experimental cinema in Ireland generally?

RR: In this age of digital revolution, the entire process of film distribution has been reversed and torn upside down. By this I simply mean that in the past it was extremely difficult to make a feature length film due to very high production costs. But if you were able to pass that stage it was reasonably feasible to get your film shown, even though it may be a limited run at film festivals or public cinemas. Whereas now it is far easier to make a film but near impossible to get it exposed to an audience due to the sheer volume of products being made. It is this saturation that has completely killed the very term ‘indie’ or ‘independent’ cinema, and that is why I prefer to use the term ‘underground’ in relation to the works of EFS, because this term still carries a trace of radical agenda to some small degree.

I like film festivals very much and over the years I have seen a great deal of fantastic films at them and I have had the opportunity to meet like-minded people who I am still in contact with (film critics, cinephiles, curators). However, Ireland’s major film festivals (Galway Film Fleadh, Cork Film Festival and Jameson Dublin International Film Festival) have always been extremely unsupportive of this kind of cinema and consistently reject it for reasons unknown. I have been living in Ireland for the past 10 years, during that time I have been working constantly and I have explored every avenue to find support for our films, for example, this is the very first time that two programmes of EFS will be shown in the main section of Cork Film Festival. Other than this, no other film festivals in Ireland have ever supported us.

SF: Similarly, the history of experimental film in Ireland is largely a bare one — with the one major exception usually mentioned being the First Wave filmmakers of the 1970s. Do you see a link between that movement and the experimental scene today — or, to your eyes, are the influences on Irish experimental film largely international? (Or are they drawn from other Irish sources entirely!)

MLC: Again, I can only speak for myself and, perhaps, some close friends. The influences are international and scattered all across cinema history. I don’t think I’ve been consciously influenced by any Irish filmmaker of the past. Inspired, yes. For instance, Vivienne Dick is someone I admire greatly. Another Irish film that stays with me is “The Dawn” (1936), a one-off feature made by a group of non-professionals in Kerry. It’s a miraculous piece of work and for me is the most luminous indication of what a classical Irish cinema might have been, a legacy we don’t have and which I regret.

SF: Dean, Donal Foreman has compared your work to that of the Irish First Wave film-makers — does this comparison hold true to your mind, or do you see them as an influence?

DK:  For me there is no direct influence from these filmmakers. Perhaps all we have in common is the country of origin. My influences came entirely from abroad, discovering the cinema from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Europe, USA and the Middle East. I’ve never felt too close to Ireland growing up, I always felt like I was from somewhere else, and cinema gave me a history that I could participate in and it could provide a place for me to reside that is neither here nor there.

SF: Do you see a political element as important to your work? As part of my research, I’ve been looking at links between ‘Third Cinema’ practitioners and that of the Irish First Wave film-makers — is the idea of a cinema in direct opposition to mainstream cinema resonant with you or would you see yourself as having no connection to the cinema-as-industry model at all?

RR: I can only speak for myself, and I feel that everything you do in your life is very political. I really don’t approve of playing the role of opposition/resistance and making political films in this way. You may say that I make films politically but I never make a political film consciously. Furthermore, I have no problem with the film industry (mainstream or current Hollywood). I do not see them as an enemy, a threat, something to attack, but rather a completely different entity and universe. They are doing exactly what they are programmed to do, to make entertainment and sell it to the mass audience. I have no relation to this at all as I come from a totally different background and system of filmmaking, which I formed and forged through the years as an individual. I never wanted to be part of the film industry and make films within it, even though I dearly wish I could be someone like Erich von Stroheim; to make films within the system and subvert it and even destroy it from the inside out, but I simply do not have the ability to so it, so I make films in a different manner.

You see- I really couldn’t care less about stories, concepts, notions, themes, messages or any other system of thought in this manner. Everyone has something to say that is so very general and its value diminishes once it is put through this system, so we should just put it aside. Furthermore, I am deeply interested in the craft of cinema and ‘how’ you want to express these things. I am interested in techniques, skills, expertise, engineering, science, and the laboratory of cinematic experimentation; like some kind of scientist or surgeon. I am interested in what unique ways the techniques we have offer the world something through cinema, in order to communicate with the audience. I prefer to be in this cold, mechanistic and apparatus-oriented world when I engage with cinema, similar to a 19thcentury inventor like Thomas Alva Edison & William K.L. Dickson, The Lumière Brothers, Edwin S. Porter or Georges Méliès. I prefer to approach cinema in this way.

DK: I try to avoid the ‘political’ elements but I am sure they are there; it is impossible to eradicate them entirely. I work within my own personal politic; a film as an extension of myself or as something I could never be. Furthermore, I have worked in the industry on occasion as a freelance editor, cinematographer/lighting cameraman/ camera assistant and AD, I find the industry very interesting. It’s a good place to hone your skills. But as for my films, they have no connection to the industry whatsoever, except that I shoot with Canon, Sony or edit with Final Cut or Avid, or use Cooke, Canon or Zeiss lenses, Arri lamps etc.

My films are in opposition to mainstream though it is not a political strategy or a direct vengeance of any kind. I see cinema as a communication to another entity through artificial documentation. With this you can break down the signal, cross signals and remove any solid message entirely, leaving the recipient with a communiqué similar to noise on a transistor radio. In my mind this is very beautiful, there are different choices to make and these choices allow intimacy; whether you touch someone on the hand or on the face (and in what context). The industry mode removes these choices, serves you a definite context, leaving you with a telegram. So in many ways my films are in opposition just by their very existence.

The very core of the cinema-as-industry model is the polar opposite to my own views on cinema and of my films. Monetary value of an‘art object’ and the demands of the consumer society, as you know have the ultimate impact on cinema as an industry. However, through my mode of production my friends make up the majority of my audience, and perhaps then it is a shame I don’t have more friends. I make films because I feel and uncontrollable need to do so. I have felt this need from as far back as I can remember. There are no controls only the limit of technology; I have no producer over my shoulder handing me money or taking it away and there is nobody telling me what I can or cannot do.

The only thing my films have in common with the produce of the ‘industry’ is that they are all part of the whole history of cinema and filmmaking. So in that sense these commodities are like the distant cousins I don’t’ necessarily have to like or talk with; we all come from the same beginnings but we have made our own paths to the present and these diverged long ago.

SF:  Is there any aspect of modern Irish cinema to which you feel an affinity to, in terms of it evidencing some of the same concerns as your work? Mark O’Connor, on the release of his film Stalker in 2012, released a manifesto detailing his vision for the future of Irish film in which he called for a more personal cinema driven by a more singular vision — is this, to your mind, entirely distinct from your practices or are there similarities?

MLC: I don’t see any real affinity between us and the filmmakers discussed in that piece. True, the call for a more personal cinema is laudable. But I think we’re coming from a completely different place: a different sensibility, a different context, a different set of influences and concerns, and a different relationship with the audience. We have no real connection with the Irish film industry, not even an adversarial one. It’s a different universe that we inhabit- or, I’d almost say, that we’ve created to inhabit.

RR: We absolutely have no connection or affinity of any kind with this, whatsoever.

SF: I’d also love to hear your thoughts on [Mark O’Connor’s] claim that restrictions such as the 180-degree rule in filmmaking no longer apply, due to the increasing sophistication of audiences — is there a freedom to modern experimental cinema which wasn’t accessible by earlier practitioners simply due to the media-literacy of their audience, or is this not something relevant to your work?

MLC: Well, experimental film has always been about pushing the boundaries of cinematic perception for the audience. But I must say I’m somewhat surprised by his comments about ‘new techniques’ in this paragraph. These techniques were innovations in the ‘60s. Cinema has completely absorbed them and now it depends entirely on how they’re used. They can still be put to challenging and exciting use but, when used sloppily, they’ve also become clichés of modern film. Rouzbeh Rashidi spoke for us both when he said: “I believe the limits of cinema have already been reached by Structuralist filmmakers like Sharits, or by Garrel’s early films, for instance. You can’t go beyond that. But if a filmmaker’s experiments are true to his or her perception and personality, the medium’s possibilities are constantly renewed.” Now, occasionally a film does come along, like “Leviathan” (2012), which really does manage to expand cinema in terms of new techniques born of new technology- and by this I mean something really different and not just a bigger, louder way of doing something that’s always been done. But these are very rare.

SF: Similarly, do artists such as Clare Langan seem to you to be working in the same tradition of experimental cinema? It seems to me that, perhaps also due to much of the work being ultimately available online, barriers between works classed differently due to their context of exhibition are weaker than before, and more work exists in liminal spaces between these contexts, but is this something which you’d agree with or would you say artists’ cinema is a separate tradition to your work or the work Mark O’Connor classes as the avant-garde?

MLC: Boundaries have certainly become more fluid generally. With everything up for grabs, it comes down to how you define yourself. My culture is cinema: film history, including experimental film but not exclusively that. I’ve done live performance, installations, sound work, and videos made specifically for the internet that address internet consumption of moving images. But the subject is always, somehow, cinema. I’m always working as a filmmaker, in the sense of Serge Daney’s distinction between love of cinema and passion for cinema: the former is unquestioning acceptance of cinema as is, the latter the desire to question it and test its limits. Today these limits are extremely blurred and what I do reflects that but always with a sense of responsibility to cinema’s history. I don’t know if this answers your question exactly but I think it serves as an example of the current fluidity of these boundaries.

SF: Speaking of international influences, considering that obviously the EFS itself is in an international organisation founded in Iran — is it coherent to still speak of this kind of cinema in national terms? In other words, when Irish filmmakers may be working abroad, when filmmakers not born in Ireland may be working here with Irish influences, and when much work is effectively exhibited globally via the internet, is work, to your mind, still divisible into ‘Irish experimental cinema’ and ‘non-Irish experimental cinema’?

RR: When I was living in Iran I was a complete alien. I made films with limited resources and screened them to my limited circle of friends. I had no connection whatsoever to Iranian society, government or anything else. I just didn’t care about anything except making films and screening them in an ‘underground’ environment.

When I moved to Ireland, I practically resumed the same attitude. I don’t believe in national cinema, I only believe in the ‘continent of cinema’ that all of the films belong to. They belong to everyone from any nationality. I never felt like I belonged to any specific place or culture. I think EFS films are very much universal and can be understood by any creature including extra-terrestrial life. As far as I am concerned, regarding my own work and some EFS fellow filmmakers like Max Le Cain and Dean Kavanagh, we could well be on Mars and we would still make the exact same type of films. Having said that, we are very much in debt to many Irish organisations and NGOs such as The Arts Council of Ireland, IFI, Cork Film Centre/Gallery, The Guesthouse Cork, Triskel Arts Centre, Chester Beatty Library and other places, without their tremendous support we would not be able to continue, so in that sense I am extremely grateful to Ireland.

DK: What is so wonderful and important about EFS is that it is international with different voices from all corners. But nationality has never been something very important to me, I first became truly aware of it when I was filling out my first festival submission form and then my passport; I think of it as a technicality. If an artist lives in a certain place and produces work in that place he is contributing to the culture of that place, so in that sense I am an Irish filmmaker but if I moved to Brazil it would get complicated.

Perhaps I am an Irish filmmaker by-proxy and my films are said to contain many specifically ‘Irish’/rural landscapes and ‘Irish’ faces, though this is a byproduct of shooting in your own backyard, I think there is something there beyond the very obvious national identity, something far more universal, more complex. I would consider what I am producing to be a very personal cinema that is not specifically national. Perhaps it is not for me to decide.

MLC: The basic tenet of EFS is personal filmmaking. Questions of the national identity of our work don’t really concern us when we make films. It just isn’t terribly relevant. Of course, we all have our own cultural baggage but I think it’s true to say that we’d be doing more or less the same films wherever we were. It’s also interesting to note that, beyond EFS, most of the best-known Irish experimental filmmakers have been resident abroad or made work abroad. Perhaps we are still waiting for a properly Irish experimental cinema.

SF: Max, with “Cloud of Skin”, you’re making your debut solo feature film. In mainstream cinema, there’s a widespread perception that shortform work exists more as a ‘proving ground’ for talent, that the important work is in longform, feature-length films. What are your feelings on the difference between short and longer works? Is there a substantive one, beyond the length itself? Does this carry over into experimental cinema, or is it perhaps purely an aspect of how mainstream cinema is exhibited? Do you think there’s more of a space now for longform experimental works?

MLC: Certainly the sense of a ‘short’ work being less important than a longer one does not exist in the history of experimental film, where most of the classics are shorts. I remember being delighted by a comment British experimental filmmaker John Smith made at a symposium on short film in 2005: “I don’t like it when people call me a short filmmaker, I’m actually quite tall!” In an ideal world, each film should find its own appropriate length. (So far, the shortest I’ve gone is three seconds! And the longest remains to be seen.) But with the increased availability of digital technology, this ‘ideal world’ is arguably upon us with the restrictive costs attached to shooting on film no longer an issue unless, of course, you’re sticking to shooting film. Getting films seen is another issue, but producing them is far more achievable even with no budget.

SF: Having just come to the end of a crowd-funding campaign, does this seem to you the way forward for experimental works, or are more traditional means of funding better?

MLC: There are basically two ways of getting experimental films funded in Ireland, outside of paying for everything yourself. One is through grants, the other through crowd funding. The sense I get with crowd funding is that people are getting jaded with it, there are so many campaigns going on. So it’s probably something you can only really do once successfully. Grants from public funding bodies are great but, by their very nature, are not consistent. And money available for such grants is constantly shrinking so the field is becoming more competitive. There isn’t a culture of private patronage in this country. So I guess we’ll all have to turn to crime sooner or later!

SF:  The work of the EFS often incorporates DSLRs — while, I appreciate, not being restricted to such — and Donal Foreman has claimed that use of DSLRs “enabled a more extensive exploration of vintage and hand-altered lenses and filtration” in your work. Do you think modern technologies have significantly expanded the palette of what is possible in experimental cinema?

RR: Again I can only really talk about my own work as other EFS filmmakers use a variety of devices and cameras. Personally I am a huge advocate of digital technology and, in my feature films as well as Homo Sapiens Project, I have always tried to push the boundaries of this medium.

I come from a photographic background so it is only natural that I use this experience extensively in my films. That is why I am very interested in lenses, filters, creative lighting techniques, in-camera colour grading, stroboscopic techniques etc. Digital cameras and post-production facilities are the tools of our time and I believe filmmakers must explore and even exploit them as much as they can. Cinema is a 100% technological machine that needs to be pushed to the extreme limits. I have always tried to surprise myself by experimenting with modern technology.

SF: Finally, I wonder if there’s a specific aspect or set of work in the experimental film scene in Ireland you’re particularly interested in or excited by?

DK: I am very excited by many of the activities that happen between Cork and Dublin. There have been and will be some excellent screening, performance, expanded cinema and music events taking place. Specifically I am excited about the possibility of an experimental cinema here in Ireland and the thanks goes to my friends Rouzbeh Rashidi and Maximilian Le Cain who have carved an exciting, challenging and vibrant cinema scene, making it a positive place to create more works.

MLC: Outside of Rouzbeh, Dean and Michael, I think what Alan Lambert is doing is extraordinary. I’m a big fan of his two feature films. And, as I mentioned earlier, I admire Vivienne Dick’s work very much as well.

RR: I do not look at cinema in that way. I won’t try to find interesting things simply because they belong to a certain nationality, culture or heritage. In my view, at present all the territories and boundaries have crumbled down. Many great things and fascinating activities are happening in so many different parts of the world and I try to absorb them as much as possible.

About The Author:
Sam Fitzpatrick – sam.fitzpatrick@gmail.com