Monday, December 3, 2012

Recollections from 1978 to 1984

On the occasion of the launch of Film Focus: New Directions in Film and Media Literacy for Young People, IFI Education's two-year action research project, Ciarán Benson writes about film education as one of the core activities of the IFI over its last 20 years. 

In addition to its recently commemorated 20th birthday, the IFI also has a 30th anniversary looming in 2013.  The IFI was officially incorporated as the Irish Film Institute in 1983. The years leading up to that have their own little history, one reflective of the changes at work in Irish society from the 1970s. The Arts Council, under the leadership of Colm O’Briain, was a particularly energetic and exciting body at that time.  It was a time when older categories of ‘fine’ art were being jostled by newer ones seeking recognition. Film was one of these upstarts. It was also a time when those seeking societal change were strongly committed to the idea that profound change could be instigated by energetic and thoughtful transformations of the education system. 

During 1978 I worked on a project for the Arts Council to reposition the arts in Irish education. The young David Collins (Now Managing Director & Producer of Samson Films), then Literature and Film Officer with the Council, and I taught a course in film ‘theory’ (having taught ourselves in the preceding weeks!) at an annual meeting of the Irish Film Society in the La Touche Hotel in Greystones in the summer of 1978. Following this, it was Davy’s idea that we should seek to become board members of the then National Film Institute at 65 Harcourt Street and use it as a vehicle to advance film and film education. Founded by Archbishop McQuaid in 1943, and incorporated in 1945 with a view to keeping a close eye on the moral dimensions of film and to promote its educational and training potential it had, I think it is fair to say, largely run out of steam by the late 1970s. But it owned its building and the board controlled that ownership. In a word, it had potential.

IFI Family Film Festival 2011

Following our – uncontested – election to the board in late 1978 (or early 1979?), Davy and I set about co-opting new members and re-imagining the Institute. We quickly co-opted Kevin Rockett (now Professor in Film Studies, TCD), Donal Fitzsimons (currently in the School of Education, UCD) was already there. Liam O’Dwyer (now CEO of the Irish Youth Foundation), Luke Gibbons (currently Professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies, NUIM), Niamh O’Sullivan (later Professor of Visual Culture, NCAD), and a young encyclopaedist of film from Tralee, the late Michael Dwyer (distinguished Irish Times film critic), amongst others, joined us in the years following.

We were all in our twenties/early thirties, lovers of film, and optimistic about the ways in which Irish society might be changed for the better. With a shoestring budget we appointed a director (Malachy O’Higgins) who was quickly succeeded by a second Director David Kavanagh who remained until the IFC/IFI was firmly established in Eustace Street. A particularly important appointment was our first education officer Martin McLoone (currently Professor and Director of The Centre for Media Research, University of Ulster) in January 1980.

It is fair to say that two very different tendencies met on that NFI board representing very different views of Ireland, yet my memories are that the tone of our board meetings was affable and often amusing. From the outset we committed ourselves to advancing film education and, with Martin McLoone on board, we immediately instituted summer courses of the La Touche kind.  

In July 1980 the first Summer School was held at Clongowes Wood College. It was themed Film Studies: The Irish Context and had over 90 students. The following year’s theme, also at Clongowes, was Film Noir. Evening courses for teachers and the general public began early on, and soon publications began to appear like Television and Irish Society (edited by Martin McLoone and John MacMahon, based on the papers from the 1984 Summer School) and Every Picture Tells a Story: Introduction to Visual Literacy (1985). The first Television Summer School, in cooperation with RTE, was held in the ‘green room’ at RTE in July 1983. 

I was Chairman from 1982 to 1984. By 1982 the board was committed to changing from the National to the Irish Film Institute. I remember the meeting at which all emblems of the NFI’s denominational history were removed and the course of the future IFI was clearly charted. It was never easy since money was always short and the times were tough. We received comradely encouragement from the British Film Institute and from the BBC’s educational services. 

In 1983 the IFI took over the running of the IFT (The Irish Film Theatre, formerly The International, on Earlsfort Terrace) and changed it from a rep cinema to a 'first run' art cinema. Despite some notable box-office successes (Heat and Dust, for example) it was not a great success. What it did, however, was to confirm that the IFI needed its own screens and by late 1985 The Quakers Meeting House on Eustace Street was identified as being a potentially ideal new home.

Eventually, under subsequent boards chaired by Kevin Rockett, and with farseeing support from The Arts Council, the move to Eustace Street became possible.  Proceeds of the sale of 65 Harcourt Street were, like a dowry, instrumental in attracting the funds for the IFC.  

In these differently challenging times, little histories like this should remind us that we never know how far the ripples of enthusiasm can reach. 

Ciarán Benson
Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCD

Read more about IFI Film Focus report. 

No comments:

Post a Comment