At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one Irish short made big waves. Filmmaker Tony Donoghue spoke with Sheila Langan about his utterly charming stop-motion animated film Irish Folk Furniture.
The Sundance Film Festival, which takes place each January in Park City, Utah, is a staging ground for the independent films to watch out for in the months ahead. At this year’s festival, audiences and critics were raving about a number of screenings, including Fruitvale, which re-tells the 2009 shooting of a young man by Bay Area police; Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Allen Ginsburg in Kill All Your Darlings; an experimental short by actor James Franco; and a nine-minute animated documentary about traditional furniture all the way from the small village of Ballinderry, Co. Tipperary.
Thoroughly unique and captivating, Irish Folk Furniture took home the Short Film Jury Prize for Animation. It is the work of Tipperary native Tony Donoghue, who caught up with Irish America after almost 48 hours of circuitous travel from Utah back to Ballinderry.
At the time of our conversation, Irish Folk Furniture had been screened 47 times in 17 countries, and just as this issue went to press it received the Best Short Documentary award at the Global Visions Festival in Canada.
On paper, Irish Folk Furniture shouldn’t work – “short animated documentary about old furniture” is a bundle of contradictions. But under Donoghue’s direction, it’s a triumph and a joy. In the opening scene, an old cabinet teeters down a snowy laneway. Two wooden chairs appear, scampering up to it in close pursuit. Immediately evident is Tony’s skill as an animator. The pieces are brought to life with stop-motion animation, using images from a Nikon D70 still camera he found on eBay for $150. Moving a large item of furniture frame by frame across a big field is no easy feat, so what’s equally clear is how much the person behind the camera must care about these pieces.
Donoghue became interested in traditional culture and folk furniture years ago, when he was living in London and working at the Natural History Museum. “I think that, like a lot of people, I had to go away to be able to see it,” he mused. “When I worked in England for a few years I realized that it was very trendy for people to have English folk furniture, remnants of the English agricultural past, in their houses, whereas we have this stuff just sitting in our sheds at home.”
Rural Ireland in particular is pretty unique, Tony explained, in that many older items of furniture – dressers, cabinets, chairs, tables, flour bins – are still in the same family or the same context in which they originated. “Here, we never had much of an industrial revolution, so [aside from immigration] families tended to stay put. You see furniture that’s been in the same place for 50 or 100 years, some as far back as before the Famine.”
He conceded that there tends to be a difference in quality between Irish folk furniture and that of other countries like England and France, where it was made by special craftspeople. “Most of our stuff was made by local guys,” he explained, “woodworkers, barrel makers or wheelwrights, people who weren’t primarily furniture makers, so most of the interest that I have in Irish folk furniture – other than that it’s uniquely beautiful – has to do with its association with the family.”
After working as a curator in California and going to art school to study film and animation, Tony returned to Ireland and began teaching animation courses in Dublin. But when his father died suddenly in 1999, he realized that between going to boarding school and moving to England at 18, he had never really spent much time exploring where he was from.
“My mum was doing poorly, so I quit my job and came home,” he said. “I would set her up with her breakfast in the morning and then go out for a few hours to record the neighbors talking about life.” He wound up recording conversations with over 50 local people – neighbors, farmers, etc. – going about their daily business, all using a small voice recorder. “If you put a big camera in front of your granny, she’ll either clam up and be terrified or put on an act for it,” Tony explained. “But if you put a little recorder in the middle of the table and let your uncle or your granny wash the cow, peel the carrots or whatever they need to do, they’ll ramble on.”
From this archive of recordings, he made an earlier short, Film From My Parish: 6 Farms, which screened at the 2009 Sundance Festival. He also delved into the conversations while working on Irish Folk Furniture.
Donoghue has been trying to create awareness about the subject for about 10 years now – raising the issue of restoration with his County Council; intervening when a local man came close to losing a pre-Famine dresser to an American antiques dealer for a mere $100 (it has since been restored by the National Museum, and Tony now uses it for exhibitions). The question was how to get other people to care.
Since many of the pieces are from a poorer past, most of the people he talks to don’t value them at first – either associating them with poverty or seeing them as things that have just always been there. “They don’t speak about them with great attachment,” Donoghue acknowledged, “but when you listen to them for a while the stories start to come out.”
That’s precisely what happens in Irish Folk Furniture, which was produced by Cathal Black as part of the Irish Film Board’s Frameworks short film initiative. Truly a local project, it was all filmed no farther than two miles away from Tony’s house. Using conversations from his archive and more recent recordings, he introduces us to five members of his community, and over the course of the film, sixteen pieces of furniture are repaired, restored, and returned home. The animation is a stunning achievement – witty and moving without being overly cute, it inspires in viewers a genuine regard for the pieces.
“I thought okay, how do I take probably one of the most boring subjects in the world – old furniture – and make it interesting?” Donoghue asked, laughing. His answer was “make it move. Without going into the Disney anthropomorphic world, I had to animate it. Empathy is what I was after, because the real danger with animation is that you fall into slapstick.”
Now, Donoghue’s hope is that, between the film’s success and Ireland’s still evolving post-Celtic Tiger ethos, the Crafts Council and local bodies will take a stand towards restoring Ireland’s folk furniture and preserving it. Not in museums, but where they belong: in people’s homes. “If you put the furniture back in the house it continues to evolve,” he maintains. “And so what if a dog takes a bite out of it? It’s part of the evolution. It’s the most sensible way of curating living culture.”