An Interview With Maureen O’Connell Of Dublin International Comedy Film Festival

Chiara Viale caught up with award winning Director and Actor Maureen O’Connell, creator of the upcoming Dublin International Comedy Film Festival, the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland. They discuss what brought her to comedy, her career in filmmaking and what it means to be a woman in the Irish Film industry.

Where does the idea of the first Dublin International Comedy Film Festival (DICFF) come from?

I’ve been thinking about it for years. I always believed that someone else would do it at some point…but no one did. 

I couldn’t get my head around the fact that there wasn’t a film festival in the Republic of Ireland dedicated to comedy, I kept thinking: “There should be one in Dublin, this is ridiculous!”. 

I love laughing, I love comedians, I love being silly, it’s often the best way to deal with life: to make fun of it, to laugh at yourself! That’s why I decided that if someone wasn’t going to create a comedy film festival in Dublin, then I would do it myself!

Why did you feel that a dedicated festival was needed specifically for comedy?

Comedy is very cathartic, very healing. However,  when it comes to film festivals, comedy is often overlooked, even at the submission stage. A story that makes you cry is somehow considered more important than a story that makes you laugh. 

What I like about comedy is that it reaches straight out to the audience: people will either laugh, or they won’t. In drama, it’s much easier to be self indulgent: it’s very tricky to land emotional punches but it’s easier to get away with a not-so-strong drama because the audience’s reaction can be difficult to read. With comedy, if the audience isn’t laughing, you have quite obviously failed. As a result, comedy steers you away from self indulgence and makes you very aware of the audience and therefore, of structure, which turns you into a better storyteller. I think that if you can make a good comedy you can easily make a good drama. The art and skill of comedy should be celebrated. 

Who are your influences in comedy and what draws you towards it as both actor and director?

I love Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. I watched a lot of Disney cartoons growing up and used to scream laughing watching ‘Robin Hood’. That is a beautifully crafted animated movie! 

The structure of comedy is based around someone genuinely trying to do something, and  in front of them there are obstacles – or inner obstacles – or both. Nevertheless, the characters are still trying to do this one thing with all their hearts and they invariably muck it up. 

I think people relate to this process, because everyone in life is trying to do something genuinely with all their heart and soul, everyone, no matter what it might be. More often than not, we don’t hit the target, which causes us pain, lots and lots of pain that we don’t necessarily always express- or know how to express! When we see this struggle presented to us, we can see the absurdity of our own actions and we are able to release, in a public way, the sadness of it through laughter. Ultimately, comedy is an expression of pain. We chuckle and get rid of it, a bit like getting rid of the rubbish, you know? Except we can do it communally. It’s more difficult to cry communally. Crying is a more personal expression. But laughter…laughter you can share with everyone and it brings everyone together. Laughter has a therapeutic power. I love that about comedy. Its soulfulness. I find comedy deeply soulful.

How did you decide to start making films?

As a kid I lived in the countryside in Wicklow. I used to direct and act in plays that me and my siblings would write. When I was about 7 year old my dad brought home a VHS video camera and I immediately got excited at the sight of it, I thought: “we can make our own films!”. 

I started filming fairy tales because the stories were already there and the actors would know more or less what was supposed to happen in each scene. I also wrote a horror film. It was terrible and really funny, although I didn’t mean for it to be funny *laughs*. On screen there would be me, my siblings and my friends, I also dragged my dad into it sometimes! I didn’t have an editing machine, so if a take was bad I’d rewind and start again. It would take us a whole day to film one scene. That was my film work until I was about 14-15 years old. As I grew older, I also started acting in short films and went to the Ballyfermot Film School. Then, I went off to RADA for 3 years. When I became a professional actor, I used the money made with my acting jobs to make my own films and just kept going.

You went all the way to become a professional actor and your first directed feature film ‘Spa Weekend’ keeps collecting awards at film festivals. Do you think there’s been an improvement in inclusivity and equality in the industry since you started off?

Yes I do. Years ago I would apply for funding and just get constantly turned away. Slowly, I started to expect rejection, and although it didn’t stop me, that expectation became a kind of poison because you don’t get angry anymore. And you should be! Anger is often bemoaned by “New-Agers” as a ‘bad’ emotion. But I think it is a valid and justified emotional response to an unjustifiable situation. And you can use it! The expression of anger can give you a vitality of sorts. You can channel it. If you don’t express it, this anger can weigh you down into a saggy acceptance of bullshit. Don’t ever accept bullshit. 

Then, in 2016, Waking The Feminists happened. The Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, which is supposed to represent Ireland, programmed for the centenary of Irish Independence, plays written only by men bar one. People went nuts! Obviously. The Irish Proclamation talks about equality between men and women.

Women stormed the Abbey Theatre. They screamed the house down. Because of that, more women started speaking out about how they had been bullied through the years, how they had worked just as hard as men and sometimes their work was better, yet they couldn’t be recognised for it. It was a guttural scream of exhaustion.

The reason why us women are screaming is because we aren’t listened to. 

Once the foundations of inequality in Ireland cracked everyone started feeling uncomfortable…but all I can say is that they should have done something beforehand, they should have listened to us. If they had, they wouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable. And really, like any good artist would say, ‘your discomfort zone, is your growth zone,’ so, yeah, lots of people in Ireland needed some growing to do.

Waking The Feminists changed everything: after that, every Government Arts scheme in Ireland had to check themselves. I remember realising that funding bodies were now committing to bringing in female directors, and for the first time I thought; “now I’ve got a chance”. So many of us thought the same thing. And all those talented, tired women got up again and started sending on scripts and projects, knowing that they deserved a chance, knowing that it had been so unjust that they hadn’t been given a chance before! Things have improved and I see lots of female directors getting chances now, I am deeply thankful to all the women who screamed the house down and got their voices heard- our voices heard! They are legends. 

What do you think is still the biggest obstacle for women and non-binary people in the film industry at the moment? 

I think it’s the ingrained baggage of patriarchy that we bring with us. I found that sometimes I have to say things, and I say things politely, about ten times before it gets done. It depends on who you are working with and it can be women just as much as men. I work with tonnes of great guys who don’t suffer with any of this, but sometimes as a director I find myself having to just repeat myself so many times the same thing before it’s taken seriously. If it happens over a lengthy period of time while you’re making your film, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain your focus and vision as you get tired of repeating each request over and over. You are slightly frightened your voice won’t be heard again, and yet you might have to say it ten times again still. The danger here is that you might think to yourself: “I just don’t have the energy”, you let it go, and your film might not be as good as it could be because you just didn’t have the energy on the last leg of a film to make your voice heard.

Do you reckon this happens because people are not used to being told what to do by a different kind of voice?

I think so. Again, this is not with everyone, I just think it’s a difficulty for some people to work with a woman who is not supporting the shoot, but she is the shoot, she is the creative authority, and you must be supporting her and listening to her voice. It’s just not a traditional thing to receive orders from a woman. So, no matter how nice I might be saying something to someone, you can see they are gonna frame what I said in a negative way and I don’t know what I can do about it. I try to get around things and find the best way to communicate and get what I need, but the process is so exhausting that it can affect the creative process. No matter what happens, I don’t want to let my films go, so I always muster the energy to ask again, ten or twenty times, and, hopefully, I always will. 

Would you have any advice for a young person who is starting off now in the film industry in directing or acting?

I’ve had quite a lot of people telling me not to do this (acting & filmmaking) and I know that type of negativity can hurt your self confidence. So, my advice is to follow your joy and follow your instinct. Trust yourself, trust your gut. It’s easier said than done because we are all full of self doubt, but try your best and be brave. I think intentionality is also very important. If you want to make a film, then be intentional about it. It’s fine to be scared, but commit to it: work on your script, ask people you trust to read it, and then organise a shoot with people you trust. All you can do is step out in faith in yourself and make it as best as you possibly can. You can make a film with no money, but you need to be intentional about it. And then, you know, enjoy it!! Enjoy making it. Follow your bliss. Follow your joy.

Greyscale. A hexagon with cursive writing inside that reads "DICFF Dublin International Comedy Film Festival 2020."

The Dublin International Comedy Film Festival will take place ONLINE on the 3rd and 4th of December. Check out the program and get your tickets here: http://www.dublininternationalcomedyfilmfest.com/

Follow Mo’s work: https://maureenoconnell.weebly.com/ and @MoOConnell3

To learn more about Waking The Feminists: http://www.wakingthefeminists.org/about-wtf/how-it-started/#

Words: Chiara Viale

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You can support our independent feminist arts journalism for as little as $1 per month on Patreon: www.patreon.com/artificialwomb

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