The following article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXII, Issue VII. It appears in print and online.
David Monaghan speaks to content creators at the 18th Firehouse Film Contest in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.
Short films are often overlooked. Despite being arguably the most accessible and immediate form of film-making, audiences tend to focus more on the short’s longer, star-studded cousin: the feature film. With the Oscars airing at the end of the month, ardent viewers will undoubtedly be making the journey to their local picture houses to catch most of what’s been nominated at the prestigious ceremony, without considering too much the potential of short films. The Firehouse Film Contest is an event that highlights this potential, with much of its content exhibiting creativity, humour and talent.
Developed by former OTwo stalwarts Conor O’Toole and Conor Barry, alongside their friend Simon Mulholland, Firehouse is an “almost monthly” contest in which creators are encouraged to make short films that are five minutes or less. This appears to be the event’s one restriction, as each and every film produced for it varies in tone and production quality. “We started the Firehouse Film Contest because we had loads of friends who were great film-makers but had no deadlines to encourage them to make things,” says O’Toole. “And so we set an arbitrary one once a month, with the hopes that they would make more films.” Although the contest is open to all genres, Conor Barry notes that the submissions they receive are geared more towards comedy, due to the short film format. “But we’re always very happy when we have dramas, and experimental films,” O’Toole chimes in.
Although normally located in A4 Sounds off Dorset Street, the 18th and most recent contest took place in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. One of the contest’s most frequently featured directors is Séamus Hanly, whose frantically-edited, ‘Tim and Eric-style’ videos have made him a recognisable creator at the monthly event. For its 18th iteration he produced an intentionally clumsy video which lampoons the style of bad video bloggers. Titled ‘2016 (So Far),’ it is indicative of his self-aware, parodic style, featuring awkward cutaways, poor sound quality, and a stilted delivery. “What they said from the beginning was any variety of production quality [is welcome],” he says. “You get some very nicely shot, very nicely sound recorded stuff. Then you get videos by me.” Though he creates content for a film festival, he is hesitant to say he makes short films. “I wouldn’t call them short films, and that’s a complete technicality. I see them as videos; YouTube videos or sketches… When you don’t see it as a short film but as a video, there’s a lot of freedom, and you can mess around and stuff. When it’s called a short film it’s almost as limited as a feature.”
As has been said, there is a great freedom in creating content for Firehouse. Counter to Hanly’s humorous videos are items like ‘White Fluffs,’ a short film that intermittently follows tiny bits of fluff as they blow in the wind, or ‘Creep,’ a music video. “You do get the odd artsy short, and the audience goes quiet, doesn’t laugh, and takes it for what it is.” He also credits part of contest’s draw to its welcoming environment. “It’s genuinely friendly. A lot of people don’t want to say this, but for Dublin that’s kind of special. There are a lot of good, niche things in Dublin, but it really means something when it’s not commercial. There’s no surface level ‘oh, we welcome all kinds of films,’ then you realise they don’t. Here, they really do.”
Each month, special prizes are handed out to certain videos at the contest. The categories are Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Production/Technical Prize, and a Judges’ Prize, which in the past has been decided by the likes of Tara Flynn, director Mark Doherty, andRepublic of Telly host Kevin McGahern. The winner of the most recent Best Picture award was ‘Bigger Cats’ by Donnacha and Diarmuid O’Brien of Dangerfarm, the latter of whom has worked on RTÉ productions in the past and has produced Tara Flynn’s videos. A comedy writer like many others at Firehouse, he edits videos as a day job. He is critical of ‘mainstream’ Irish film-making for stifling creativity. “To make any sort of feature, it’s still someone else’s money. So you always have to answer to all these people and you have to deliver on what they’re investing in, with little freedom to do what you want.”
He continues: “For an actual ‘Irish new wave’ to come about, there needs to be major changes, especially in the dismissive attitude towards screen-writing… New writers need to be properly developed and paid for their apprenticeship by the industry.”
He praises the monthly contest as an outlet for up-and-coming creatives who may be struggling against such a system: “‘Official’ Irish film-making takes itself very seriously. Festivals, academia and funding are focused on arty [and] important endeavours. The Firehouse is a godsend for frustrated comedy-makers like myself. RTÉ’s remit is kind of broad stuff, so here you can pursue quirky odd things.” O’Brien gives particular praise to the people behind Dreamgun whose short feature, titled ‘The Crush List,’ won the Technical Prize at the 18th Firehouse. “They normally make really high production stuff. They didn’t have time this month so they took out a phone and they did it through Snapchat. That shows how good they are because it was a stylistic choice and it was really funny… I think they make the finest videos in the country.”
Running a little over two years, the Firehouse Film Contest has, in that time, drawn a large following. Its 18th contest was filled to audience capacity and drew a record total of thirty short films. Despite not proving as popular with wider audiences as the feature film, events like Firehouse, with its abundance of talent, show that there is life in the short film yet.
The next Firehouse Film Contest is on March 6th in A4 Sounds.