Ireland at the Oscars
Irish talent has stormed the Oscars. Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) has become the first film in Irish Gaelic to be nominated for best international picture at the Academy Awards and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin performed beyond expectations with nine nominations. Five Irish actors find themselves competing for awards (four of those are up for the Banshees). Colin Farrell is nominated for best actor, Kerry Condon is mentioned for best supporting actress, and Barry Keoghan and Brendan Gleeson go against one another for best-supporting-actor. Paul Mescal is nominated as best actor for his turn in Charlotte Wells acclaimed debut Aftersun. Richard Baneham, a graduate of the animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, is nominated in the best-visual-effects race for Avatar: The Way of Water.
Now turning aside for the moment the debate about lack of nominations for women directors (for which Wells should surely have been considered), the nominations represent a phenomenon of cultural triumph and quiet soft-power for Ireland.
A quarter of Oscar actor nominations this year are Irish. Ireland has a population of 5 million people. That’s a phenomenal success story. It’s also one that is inconceivable for Scotland.
Can you imagine a film in Scottish Gaelic to be nominated for best international picture at the Academy Awards? You cannot. Can you imagine a Scottish director commanding a raft of Scottish talent to dominate nominations? You cannot. Our ‘film-industry’ celebrates when a super-hero film is shot here, our film festival has just been shut down, as have iconic cinema venues and our arts sector faces swingeing cuts.
There is a disconnect between the parts: writing, theatre, tv, film.
As Pat Kane laments (Culture cuts at BBC Radio Scotland speak to a much deeper malaise): “…beyond the news programmes, both the TV and radio versions of “BBC Scotland” share the same mediocre sensibility. There are endless shows and voices from the “real lives” of Scots, following the routines of their work (or their leisure). There are very few shows that (like the average weekly schedule of Radio 4) bring the big ideas and edgy stories, preparing those Scottish citizens for their turbulent future …Why is there such a prohibition against intellectual seriousness, the grander narratives of Scotland’s past, present and future, and the major concepts that could frame and explain them?”
This lack of seriousness mirrors a lack of ambition and belief.
There’s more lamenting here as Charlotte Wells reflects on the closure of the Filmhouse – and no doubt there will be more when the King’s Theatre closes losing a prize cultural asset and when the Tron Theatre goes – just as The Arches did before it.
Only a couple of weeks ago Creative Scotland warned it faced having to reduce the number of companies with long-term funding in half after being targeted for Scottish Government budget cuts. Up to a third are already said to be at risk of insolvency within months.
The solution is not to just practice the weeping and waling but to lobby for more funding, a more expansive ambition and crucially to see the arts as a connected ecosystem rather than individual companies battling it out for a diminishing pot of money. Ambition comes in waves and bursts, who remembers the rearguard action that was fought for years against the very idea of a Scottish National Theatre Company? Much hand-wringing went on for decades about whether it would be a good idea, and the saga of the botched and delayed ‘Scottish film studio’ is an epic saga in its own right.
We celebrate ‘Scottish film’ when Avengers Assemble – but Glasgow being represented as Glasgow would be a real Marvel.
So why can we not imagine Scottish success in the film industry on the scale of Ireland? It’s surely not for want of talent as writers, actors, directors and technicians. The easy-answer is that we have neither the cultural ambition nor the resources and clout of an independent country. This is not to say that Scottish actors and directors and writers and cinematographers should have to stay here, there is something amazing about a diaspora of talent across the world, but like in so many industries there is a difference between leaving because you are developing your work and leaving because there is no work to develop.
Nor is it just true that the Scottish government and the Scottish creative agencies are just hopelessly hand-tied until the magical day of independence. The lack of serious engagement with building an arts ecosystem that has genuine ambition and connectivity is a political disgrace, and a mystery.
Scotland has talent pouring out of it’s creative pores, but lacks the imagination, guts or strategy to make it good. This is a tragedy. Why is Celtic Connections – a showcase of home-grown and international talent – not beamed out across BBC Scotland? Where is the serious tv show that will reflect on the life of Tom Nairn? Why is so little of our own sporting success (little as it is) impossible to access on our public broadcaster? Where is the showcase for theatre and screenwriting talent on Scottish tv and radio? Why does no-one in senior political positions seem to take any of this seriously or present any ambition for moving this forward?
As Robin MacPherson, professor of screen media at Edinburgh Napier University and director of Screen Academy Scotland said some years back:
“The problem is, as the experience of every other European country confirms, that you cannot increase either quality (measured by awards, critical reception, long-term impact) or commercial returns without increasing output. That requires investment directly into the films, in the companies that produce them and, as importantly, into the people who conceive and execute them.”
Added to this, and this is where the political reality really is a problem MacPherson notes that we need Scottish producers to have the kind of stability which depends on consistent levels of domestic production, both in feature film and high-end TV drama, but: “…. until we address the equally deep-seated problem of UK broadcasters’ marginalisation of Scotland as primarily a source of net license fee income or advertising revenue without a corresponding requirement to source production locally, our film companies will continue to struggle for survival.”
So congratulations to all the talented Irish actors, producers and writers. But look across the water not just with envy but with anger and ambition for better here too.