Thursday, October 11, 2012

Remembering Tiernan

I often wanted to write about Tiernan but never found the right way to talk about the vast activity of his life. So this is really a fragmented, impressionistic piece in response to Sunniva’s request and not really a definitive thing.

These first memories are closely bound up with the group of film makers whose vision created the space for all that would follow.

Tiernan MacBride

I am at the Cork Film Festival in 1981. Joe Comerford’s Traveler is the opening film. Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s documentary on Jack B. Yeats is also being screened. At the Q&A, a large man is asking searching questions about the making of my film Maeve. Talking in public was difficult for me and I was nervous at being challenged.

Next day, the film makers meet to demand the setting up of an Irish Film Board. Passionate arguments are heard from an inner room where Tiernan and Lelia retire to draft a letter with the precise wording that everyone could agree on. An intensity that is so alive and focused compared to film makers discussions in London and New York.

Two years earlier, when I began talking about making Maeve, someone said “Oh you should see Thaddeus’s film.”  I tracked it down to the MoMa library and was watching it on an old 4 plate steenbeck when the researcher came in and said, ”You know, we have these other Irish films you might be interested in.“

So that’s how I got to see On a Paving Stone Mounted, Poitin and Down the Corner. I know there’s an entire constellation of causes and conditions around how new voices of world cinema emerge, but there’s still something magical about how this energy arises at different times and in different countries. On that day in that little editing room in New York, I had a real sense of this momentum gathering in Ireland.

And in the years that followed I saw how Tiernan’s phenomenal energy was fused with every aspect of that momentum.

Tiernan and crew on a set of Christmas Morning

He chaired the Association of Independent Film Makers, who lobbied for years for the setting up of the Board and who had developed the vision for a sustainable Irish cinema. He chaired the boards of the Irish Film Theatre (in Earlsfort Terrace) and the Dublin Film Festival and was on the Board of the Cork Festival. A union activist, he chaired the film section of ITGWU for a time. And he was a crucial force in the IFI from its early days through its big transition to becoming the IFC in Eustace Street. 

Most importantly Tiernan was a member of the Irish Film Board from 1982 to 1987 which was when Charles Haughey abruptly closed it down.  During his time on the Board, Tiernan was an unswerving advocate for the rights of directors and the development of low budget film making.

He helped set up Film Base, loaned equipment, attended meetings, led workshops where he imparted skills and even supported films financially when they looked on the brink of not happening. He felt that a healthy  film culture could not be built on the work of a few directors and fought long and hard for the establishment of an inclusive infrastructure focused on access and training.

Unusually perhaps for the film world, Tiernan operated from a position of wanting to make situations work better for everyone. His instincts were always to help. In my own case, alas, I sometimes perceived this as being interfering.

When I got involved with The Parade of Innocence (a huge collaboration between artists and political activists in support for the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six which would take place through in Dublin on December 9th 1989), Tiernan kept asking how the huge rig carrying Thom McGinty would actually work as it was dragged through Dublin. Annoyed, I kept backing him off. Everyone I knew was frantically working flat out organizing the event, raising funds, making  costumes and props, rehearsing in the Meeting House and at the Point Depot. I kept insisting that all would be fine and that there was no time for runthroughs.

IFI Library named in honour of Tiernan MacBride

But of course he was right, because when he finally pressurized us into gathering at the City Centre at 6am on a freezing dark December morning, the all important rig barely made it as far as the street before the wheels buckled. Disaster. But then the rig was repaired everything worked brilliantly on December 9th.

When Tiernan died, Film Ireland published a compilation of memories from friends and colleagues. I remember laughing when I read Gina Moxley’s piece about Tiernan being a very patient man, because that’s not generally how people saw him.

Gina was totally right, though. Yes, he was certainly uncompromising and wrathful at times in support of what he believed in, but Tiernan was profoundly patient with the things that really mattered. He understood the long haul necessary in order to bring the dream of a Irish cinema to fruition.

Maybe this was the result of growing up in such an intensely political family. Tiernan believed deeply in the democratic process. I have seen him outvoted on a particular issue and then be able to put personal feelings aside in order to represent the prevailing view, which is something I couldn’t do.

All this activity went on alongside a film making life. As well as being a well known commercials director, Tiernan loved the films of Costa Gavras and Francesco Rosi and wanted to make big political films. In 1978, his short film “Christmas Morning” was selected for competition at Cannes, but I think after that he was plunged into the urgency of Irish film politics and so he moved away from the idea of being a director to devote himself to being a supporter of other film makers. He was a positive force in Irish life and a crucial voice in the creation of Irish cinema.

Pat Murphy
Director and Filmmaker

Find out more on IFI Tiernan MacBride Library on our website 

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