A Quick Guide to Northern Irish Cinema

If you’re a subscriber to our newsletter, you’ll have noticed by now that our predictions for the 2023 Academy Awards were pretty well spot on. We’re not going to belabour the fact that we’re clearly incredibly prescient and on-the-pulse when it comes to modern pop culture – we’ve already run our victory laps, thank you – but we are a small team based entirely in Northern Ireland, and we are absolutely going to do some shouting from the proverbial rooftops about the success of An Irish Goodbye, which won Best Short Live Action Film.

Set in rural County Tyrone, An Irish Goodbye is the tale of two brothers – Lorcan and Turlough – grieving the death of their mother. Lorcan has Down Syndrome and Turlough, who’s made a life for himself in London, is reluctant to return to live with his brother on the family farm. And then they find their mum’s bucket list…

Featuring inky black comedy and literally all the feels, this film feels quintessentially Northern Irish in a way that’s hard to define. But, in the spirit of the moment, we’re going to have a go anyway. Because there’s nothing like watching your fellow countrymen go out there and represent to give you the urge to dig into a bit of film theory, is there? So read on for a quick guide to the history, philosophy and accomplishments of of Northern Irish cinema.

It’s as hard to define as any other national cinema (and maybe even more so)

So, here’s the thing. The concept of national cinema is… let’s call it “contested.” Find two theorists who agree on how it ought to be defined, and you’ve probably found at least one film theorist who wasn’t really listening when you asked them the question. 

The trouble with trying to categorise a film by its nation-state of production is that film doesn’t tend to play by those rules. With the exception of three (3) national film industries – the USA, China and India, and even then, we’re only talking about mainstream, not independent, movies – there’s virtually no country in the world that can afford to make movies solely for a domestic audience; the home box office takings won’t cover the production costs. So, outside of those filmmaking giants, professional feature filmmaking becomes an international affair, both in terms of  the above-the-line creative talent and the money that finances production (usually a conglomeration of investors, very often including public money from various national or local governmental sources with the proviso that a certain part of it be spent in production that takes place in their specific jurisdiction, and often including capital investment companies and individuals from all over the world).

Say you have an English-language movie set in Scotland and Germany. The production company is based in Edinburgh, as is the writer. Investment capital comes from Screen Scotland, the Deutscher Filmförderfonds, and possibly Screen Ireland, because there are a couple of scenes that could just as easily be filmed in Dublin-pretending-to-be-Glasgow. Then your kick-ass producer brokers a couple of finance deals with four separate investors: two are based in London, one in Vancouver, and one in Zurich. Your director is Australian. Your lead actors are English, Welsh, German and Swiss. And that’s before we even get to the question of distribution.

So… where does that film come from? Scotland, because that’s where it started out? Germany, because they’ve contributed the largest chunk of production funding? Australia, because of the director? All of the above? None of them?

Good question. And there’s not really a great answer, to be honest.

“The nation-state itself has for a while been manifestly losing its sovereignty,” writes Stephen Crofts in Theorising National Cinema.

“It has been pressured both by transnational forces – canonically American in economic and cultural spheres, and Japanese in economic and, more recently, cultural spheres – and simultaneously by the sub-national, sometimes called the local. Recent assertions of ethnicity, for instance, centre on linguistic rights and cultural protection: from the Spanish regular in public notices in American cities to people from the Iberian Peninsula who describe themselves as Basque or Catalan rather than Spanish; from the nationalism of Québecois cinema and Welsh programmes for S4C in the UK to the substantial Greek video markets throughout Australia, especially in Melbourne, the third largest Greek city in the world.”

Stephen Crofts: “Reconceptualising National Cinema/s” in Vitali and Willeman (eds.): Theorising National Cinema (British Film Institute, 2006)

And that’s before we even get to the issue of whether or not Northern Ireland can be defined, in any real sense, as a nation-state in the first place, which, you may recall, has been the source of a certain amount of bad feeling in this part of the world.

Fortunately, Theorising National Cinema has the beginnings of a workaround to the wider questions. Quite honestly, the Wikipedia summary is easier to parse than the original text, so we’ll quote that instead, but if you fancy having a glance at its full, glorious academese, you can find it here – “History, Textuality, Nation: Kracauer, Burch and Some Problems in the Study of National Cinemas” by Philip Rosen. But for now, let’s go with the abbreviated version:

“Philip Rosen suggests national cinema is a conceptualization of: (1) Selected ‘national’ films/texts themselves, the relationship between them, which may be connected by a shared (general) symptom. (2) An understanding of the ‘nation’ as an entity in synchronicity with its ‘symptom’. And (3) an understanding of past or traditional ‘symptoms’, also known as history or historiography, which contribute to current systems and ‘symptoms’. These symptoms of intertextuality could refer to style, medium, content, narrative, narrative structure, costume, Mise-en-scène, character, background, cinematography. It could refer to the cultural background of those who make the movie and the cultural background of those in the movie, of spectatorship, of spectacle.”

Wikipedia: “National Cinema” [Accessed 24 April 2023]

Yes indeedy, that is the easier version; you can thank us later. But basically, what it’s getting at is that national cinema can be considered as a body of film texts that are connected by some kind of abstract but describable relationship (e.g. style, content, character, narrative etc) between them that’s rooted in the abstract but describable sense of what makes up the nation that’s claiming cinemaship over the films. No nation-state required, thanks. Just a concept of “us” as separate from “them” – and, believe us, Northern Ireland is excellent at that game, so it stands to reason that we should be past masters at doing national cinema.

So, that’s good.

Yes, a lot of our movies are about the Troubles…

Full disclosure: we seem to have a bit of an issue with avoiding this particular topic. Even films that aren’t really about the Troubles – Closing the Ring, for example, or Good Vibrations – don’t manage to make it very far without devolving into a bit of bombs ‘n’ bullets. It’s like we’re a 5-year-old on Mother’s Day and all we have to do is not tell Mum what her present is, except that instead of blurting, “It’s a pair of earrings!” we find ourselves yelling, “DID YOU KNOW WE USED TO HAVE EXPLOSIONS HERE?” in the middle of the nice movie about a teenager finding the long-lost wedding ring of a GI who died in Belfast during the war.

Honestly, it’s likely that if we asked you to name 5 Northern Irish films, you’d respond with 5 worthy efforts at cinematically conceptualising what on earth was going on in this tiny little place for so long. That’s fair, we suppose. Hell, the last time we won the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar, it was for The Shore (2011), which saw Ciarán Hinds and Conleth Hill reuniting an old friendship 25 years after the Troubles prompted the former to make a swift exit to the US. Mostly, the film was a love letter to the beautiful County Down coastline, but it still found a way to sneak the other thing in as well.

But here’s the thing: the Troubles was just part of life in Northern Ireland for a long time. Everyone at CinePunked HQ grew up with it; we know whereof we speak. And, while there was certainly a hell of a lot of grim and gritty and bleak and depressing going on back then, there was a lot of gallows humour as well (we love a dark joke in this part of the world) – and also, life just went on. It was bloody annoying sitting in a traffic jam for three hours on the way home from school because a major arterial route was closed due to a bomb scare, we can tell you that. But it also got at least one of us out of our homework on at least one occasion (can’t conjugate Russian verbs when an explosion has knocked out the electrical transformer for your area, can you?) so there was that, too. 

But you’ve seen Derry Girls, right? Of course you have. Everyone has. Is that series about the Troubles? No, exactly. It just has bits of the Troubles scattered through it here and there, because that’s what life was like here in the 90s.

That’s what we mean.

…But we do tell other stories, too

All of which is to say: this compulsion we seem to have of inserting our grimdark history into literally any narrative doesn’t make Northern Irish cinema solely Troubles-dominated. Yes, fine, okay, we know: Hunger (2008), 71 (2013), In The Name of the Father (1993), Divorcing Jack (1998), Belfast (2021), Odd Man Flipping Out (1947), etc etc etc. We’re not arguing that there’s not a bit of a common theme going on here.

But, you know… the rest of the world kind of enables us. No, no, hear us out – you do. Heard of a little movie called Ordinary Love? Starring Liam Neeson (our greatest export) and Lesley Manville, it was the darling of the 2019/20 festival circuit, after which it vanished more or less without a trace. According to Box Office Mojo, it was struggling to break north of $750,000 in revenue almost a year after release. 

Set entirely in Belfast, and directed by Northern Irish husband-and-wife directing duo Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, it’s a poignant, passionate slow-burner about a married couple struggling to deal with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Nary a police checkpoint nor an explosion to be seen. And it disappeared on its release. 

Likewise, Boys from County Hell (2020). Sure, it hasn’t quite got the star-power of Ordinary Love (though it’s got a Derry Girl, plus a John Lynch), but it has got a darkly comic take on vampire forces awakening in a sleepy rural town, and, honestly, that stuff never gets old.

Barely scraped $100,000 at the box office.

So, yeah, we can absolutely tell other stories – it’s just that there doesn’t seem to be a massive market for them. And maybe that speaks back to the concept of national cinema being a body of works only loosely connected by a common theme, which itself revolves around the concept of “nation” as individually re-constituted with regards to every iteration. Maybe for it to feel like “Northern Irish cinema” on a broader stage – for now, at least – the texts in question need to incorporate Troubles-oriented themes in order to fit the wider conceptualisation of “Northern Irish.” 

We definitely don’t do ourselves any favours in that regard, though. Did you know Belfast’s Europa hotel is the most bombed hotel in Europe? You do if you’ve ever visited Belfast, because we love to tell people that.

So… uh. Okay. Maybe we’re not quite ready to move on yet.

We’ve got Muppets

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t get more wholesome than that.

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