The following is an article written by Stephen Kane to celebrate 25 years of Filmbase. It first appeared in issue 137 of Film Ireland Magazine.
The Steenbeck Editing Desk
The first thing to point out is that Filmbase didn’t invent filmmaking in Ireland. There were people shooting, planning and striving to make films. It was just so damn hard. The idea of forming a filmmakers’ organisation began in 1985, the year when Amadeus won best film at the Oscars® and Back to the Future cleaned up at the box office. And what films were made in Ireland in 1985? The only feature film was Lamb (and it’s open to debate how Irish it was – it was made by English producers and directors and funded by Channel 4). Eat the Peach was also underway and would premiere in 1986. The life of a filmmaker was looking pretty bleak.
Channel 4 had started broadcasting in 1982 and had an agenda to change the filmmaking landscape. They wanted to take filmmaking to the regions and had helped to form co-operatives like Amber Films. In 1985 they organized a workshop with FAS (then AnCO) to help develop a similar model in Ireland. The idea didn’t quite take off but some of the filmmakers that were present decided to take the idea and turn it in a different direction. Jane Gogan and Alastair Heron began to organize a series of meetings in the Temple Bar Gallery & Studios to discuss the formation of a new organization for filmmakers. The studios had been used as a venue for the Ha’penny Film Club. Vinnie McCabe from Equity chaired the meetings and gangs of curious filmmakers came along to check it out. Some were more than just curious – they were determined to turn the idea into a reality. Many people threw their weight behind it and it started to look like it could really turn into something.
A philosophy of what it should be was discussed. There was also a fear of what it might become – an institution and an island unto itself. Filmbase should always be rooted in the practice of making films – the hands-on aspect of Filmbase was vital to it being connected to the real world of filmmaking. It should always be relevant to the generation that was using it rather than being a monument to those who set it up in the first place. The issue of who Filmbase was for was also a key part of the philosophy; it was to have an open-door policy towards membership. There was to be no qualification for membership, anyone could join as long as they paid the annual fee.
After a few weeks the company was formally set up in 1986 and given the name Filmbase. Jane Gogan took on the role of directing Filmbase and a whole host of people joined in to make it all happen – Trish McAdam, Pat Murphy, Mark Kilroy, and Lelia Doolan. In the years that followed Breda Walsh and Martha O’Neill would take on the role of driving the organization forward. Other Filmbase members who had an involvement at this time with regard to policy and training were Joe Comerford, Cathal Black, Fergus Tighe, Johnny Gogan, Kevin Liddy and Donal Gilligan.
Tiernan MacBride had a significant part to play in setting up Filmbase as an efficient and business-like organization, which was vital for it to succeed in the long term. Tiernan also took it upon himself to drive the Action Committee which was set up when the Irish Film Board was abolished in 1987, drawing on Filmbase resources for administrative back-up during his many drafts of a proposal to government to re-institute ‘a single state agency for film’. So many arts organizations had gone to the wall after finding that good intentions on their own wouldn’t keep a company going.
They took over a floor of the Temple Bar Gallery & Studios and set about the first stage of the plan: to gather up film equipment wherever they could. What people needed most was a resource where they could access equipment and facilities. An Arts Council Grant was received and an Aaton camera was bought. There were other donations too – a Steenbeck editing table from Martin Duffy and another from RTE, a video editing system from Tiernan MacBride and other pieces of camera and lighting gear from Éamon de Buitléar, John T. Davis and Declan Quinn.
Fergus Tighe’s Clash of the Ash was the first film to use Filmbase facilities. It wasn’t just a landmark for Filmbase, it was a landmark Irish film – a homegrown drama with energy and vision; it raised the bar for what Irish filmmakers could do. Being involved in the making of films was vital to the plan that Filmbase had. It was more than just an office with an Arts Council grant – it had a role to play in the making of films.
Northern filmmakers also had a role in the foundation of Filmbase. Hush-a-Bye Baby was made by Derry Film & Video, but it did receive some help from Filmbase. And that Northern connection was to continue for a number of years. The Parade of Innocence was another project Filmbase was heavily involved with. While the organization never had an overt political philosophy it did want to have an altruistic side, and give a voice to people who had none.
The Filmbase short film award followed in 1987, awarding £3,500 to one film per year. Since then the funding has been increased, as has the number of films. But the principle is still the same and Filmbase/RTE Short Film Award has been one of the most successful programmes in terms of developing a film culture in Ireland. Many filmmakers made their first film through the scheme – Stephen Burke, Kirsten Sheridan, Johnny Gogan, Ian Power, not to mention countless actors, cameramen, editors, etc. The shorts were seen as being a part of training and, in the beginning, training courses were not a significant part of Filmbase’s role. Initially, there were just a handful of workshops given by leading members, but over the years the program has grown and now it’s one of the leading film training centres in the country.
Filmbase was busy in 1987 – it also saw the production of Film Base News, a photocopied newsletter distributed to members of the organization. Finally, in 1992, after thirty issues, Film Base News became Film Ireland magazine and became the only Irish magazine dedicated to film.
In the last twenty-five years there have been many changes: the offices have moved, staff have come and gone and the organisation has expanded. On the surface, it’s miles away from that first concrete room with a desk, a typewriter and a Superser heater. But those founding principles are still at its core and Filmbase, as ever, remains dedicated to supporting Irish film.