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Women with a Movie Camera

Veronica Johnson

Women in the Irish Film Industry: Stories and Storytellers, by Susan Liddy (ed), Cork University Press, 416 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1782053736

“Young girls are writing to me … every single week for a whole year now, I get letters from young girls saying, ‘I’m going to go into film.’” The words of Emer Reynolds, director of the film The Farthest (2016), an Emmy award-winning documentary about the Voyager missions, interviewed in Susan Liddy’s edited collection Women in the Irish Film Industry: Stories and Storytellers. It is fitting that an interview with Reynolds is placed at the centre of this book, as her experience as a female film editor and director embodies many of the issues that are discussed in this first significant scholarly publication to focus on women working in the film industry in Ireland. Reynolds’s description of her love for science, and her love for film, is vivid and engaging. She is passionate about her work and is happy that her very deliberate inclusion of female scientists in The Farthest has encouraged the next generation of women to approach non-traditional careers in science and in the film industry. Yet she is also aware of the barriers that women face in trying to establish themselves in an industry that has been traditionally male. Later in the interview, when pressed by Liddy as to the impact of gender on her career, she makes the comment “Have I not gotten jobs because I’m a woman? That’s harder to discern. I do know that my husband – who is also an editor – gets offered more money than me for equivalent jobs.”

The experience of women working in the Irish film industry and the problems facing women in building a career in this industry are the focus of this book. It provides portraits of a number of film directors, including Juanita Wilson, Pat Murphy and Dearbhla Glynn. Fittingly for a book about women in the film industry, it opens with a chapter on Ellen O’Mara Sullivan of the Film Company of Ireland (1916-1920), who lived in a period when there were more women working as directors, producers, and screenwriters in the industry than at any other time in the history of cinema. The contributors are some of the most important academics working on this topic, including Ruth Barton of Trinity College, Dublin, Anne O’Brien of Maynooth University, and the editor, Susan Liddy of the University of Limerick. It also features some of the newer academics and researchers on Irish film, including Ciara Barrett and Laura Canning. It is a mark of the scholarship of this book that all of these contributors are gathered together to contribute to this important and timely conversation.

Susan Liddy provides an excellent introduction, stating that the aim of the volume is to “excavate, analyse and challenge” the “processes and practices that can foster and normalise” the exclusion of women in the Irish film industry, in the hope that the experiences of women in this industry “will be recorded and not lost to future film histories”. This introduction provides a context for the topic by referring to the role of women in Irish society in general and then Irish cultural life before talking about the specific role women play in the Irish film industry. This book includes chapters about the Dublin Feminist Film Festival, women cinematographers, the gendering of space in Irish films, and documenting women’s experience during the Troubles, to name but a few. Its scope is broad, as is its historic sweep.

One of the most interesting chapters both in content and in context is Díóg O’Connell’s piece on Ellen O’Mara Sullivan and the Film Company of Ireland. O’Mara Sullivan, along with her husband, James Mark Sullivan, owned and operated the first significant Irish fiction film company. Despite the limited archival records available to her, O’Connell makes a strong case for O’Mara Sullivan’s pivotal role in the company. Her chapter is “attempting to reassign focus where there was little focus beforehand. In the history of Irish cinema, we are missing Ellen’s voice.” O’Connell’s extensive research brings that  voice to life, creating a picture of a lively, intelligent woman from a prominent Limerick family who was well-travelled and well-educated before her marriage. Using a number of resources, including letters, O’Connell relates how O’Mara Sullivan travelled with her husband in 1918 to try to find an American market for their films. It can no longer be said after this valuable chapter that the history of Irish cinema is “missing Ellen’s voice”.

There are reference throughout the book to the importance of networking in order to succeed in the film industry in Ireland, and some suggestions that this is a particularly masculine approach to finding work or finding funding, and that it can exclude women. To counter this, there are also references to the number of female executives now working in the industry, suggesting that the old ways of doing business might remain the same but that now more women are involved in the decision-making process. One of these is Annie Doona, the chair of Screen Ireland and president of the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT). Doona’s chapter, “Educating Gráinne”, looks at the role that education plays in the underrepresentation of women in the film industry and reports on a study she conducted with key stakeholders in film education and film industry in Ireland. One of the most interesting responses was that parents and teachers of primary and secondary school children see the film industry as a male domain. Doona shows that while 40 per cent of students in third-level filmmaking courses are female there is little opportunity for students to study the topic formally before college. Some of the recommendations she makes are to introduce audio-visual literacy and filmmaking to young girls early in their schooling in order to attract more of them to consider a career in filmmaking.

The book makes it clear that there are specific barriers to women working in the film industry, not least the conflicting demands of long hours and childcare. At the same time it offers portraits of women who are working or have worked in the Irish film industry and it is cautiously hopeful that the new initiatives being brought in by Screen Ireland and others will help alter the balance. As Susan Liddy notes in her cknowledgements “We are travelling through interesting times. Hopefully, the best is yet to come.”

1/9/2020

Veronica Johnson teaches film history and film theory at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, National University of Ireland, Galway.

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