Thursday 25 June 2009

Comerford Profiles 24: Joe Comerford, film-maker

The film-maker Joe Comerford (left) with Patrick Comerford at a commemoration in Hollyfort, Co Wexford, in 2016 marking Máire Comerford’s role in the 1916 Rising

Patrick Comerford

The Irish film-maker Joe Comerford is best known for independent movies such as Down the Corner (1978), Traveller (1981), Reefer and the Model (1988) and High Boot Benny (1993). He is a son of the late Alexander (‘Sandy’) Comerford of Malahide, Co Dublin, and is descended from the Comerford family of Rathdrum, Co Wicklow (see 13: Comerford of Ballinakill, Rathdrum and Courtown). He is a nephew of the late Maire Comerford (1893-1982) (see Comerford Profiles 21: Máire Comerford (1893-1982), republican activist and journalist).

Joe Comerford was born in Dublin in 1947, and became involved in film-making while he was a student at the National College of Art and Design in the 1960s.

From NCAD, he moved in the early 1970s to RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster. There he trained as a camera operator as well as in general studio production. However, Comerford later admitted that he found it difficult to work within the institutional constraints of RTÉ. He left in 1972 to begin a long and distinguished career as an independent film-maker whose own film practice was to challenge the conventions of popular studio production.

In the 1970s, little funding was available for independent production in Ireland. Comerford became a founding member of the Association of Independent Producers (AIP) with other independent film-makers, such as Bob Quinn, Cathal Black, Pat Murphy and Thaddeus O’Sullivan. In those formative years, they worked on each other’s films.

Throughout the late 1970s, the Association of Independent Producers lobbied the Irish Government on behalf of the fledgling independent sector and their campaign bore fruit eventually in 1981 when the government established the first Irish Film Board.

Joe Comerford’s own films illustrate well his commitment to a form of politically engaged and aesthetically challenging cinema that was impossible within the constraints of television.

His early short films – Swan Alley (1969), Emtigon (1972), Withdrawal (1974, later re-edited and reworked in 1982) and Down the Corner (1978) – demonstrate his approach to an experimental, avant-garde practice. All his films are elliptical and complex in their narratives, challenging the audience to make sense of seemingly unmotivated plot turns.

Over the years, however, he has applied this essentially avant-garde sensibility to a relentless exploration of social and political issues, giving his experimental forms the unadorned flatness of naturalist film-making.

Joe Comerford has also been particularly concerned with the political situation in Northern Ireland, and the conflict there has been a theme in most of his films. His three feature films – Traveller (1981), Reefer and the Model (1988) and High Boot Benny (1993) – share a general concern for those on the margins of what was an increasingly-affluent Irish society. In these films, he was particularly concerned with exploring the political and cultural implications of the then violence in Northern Ireland.

In his most critically-successful was film, Reefer and the Model, and for this he won the Europa Prize for best film in 1988. In this movie, Joe Comerford’s marginal characters – a prostitute, a gay man, a republican on the run from Northern Ireland and a disenchanted criminal – form an alternative “family” to that of the official nation.

This attempt to re-imagine Ireland in radical ways has been a feature of Comerford’s film-making throughout his career. In the commercial climate of the 1990s, his challenging vision was largely out of favour. And so, despite a long and distinguished contribution to film-making in Ireland, he has been able to make relatively few films. As the Europa Prize testifies, Joe Comerford has found critical favour more often abroad than in Ireland itself.

Joe Comerford ... Irish film-maker best-known for his independent movies


Martin McLoone, Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema (London: BFI, 2000).
Lance Pettitt, Screening Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
Kevin Rockett, John Hill and Luke Gibbons, Cinema and Ireland (London: Routledge, 1988).

© Patrick Comerford 2009, 2011, 2016. Last updated 22 October 2009; 3 June 2011; 13 June 2016.

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