Irish Film Board production executive Alan Maher talks about the resilience of Ireland’s film industry and the rise of Irish documentaries.

Amid the ongoing uncertainty about the Irish economy, one sector that is proving remarkably resilient is the country’s film industry. In early December, the Government announced a €16 million budget for the Irish Film Board. This was a 3% cut from the 2010 budget allocation but against the backdrop of the turmoil elsewhere and the IMF bailout to the country, it represented a strong vote of confidence in the IFB’s activities.

One area in which the Irish have been very active in recent years is in feature documentaries. Irish docs have been prominent in international festivals, and 2011 will begin with the Sundance premiere of Knuckle, Ian Palmer’s film about bare-knuckle boxing in the traveller community in Ireland.

Alan Maher came to the Film Board in 2006 from Element Pictures, where he was head of development. Initially, Maher acknowledges he was hesitant when then IFB chief executive Simon Perry asked him to oversee documentary. “My background was mainly in fiction,” he recalls. “But I have become extremely passionate about documentary. The strong talent we have in the documentary field is very inspiring. What we’re doing is giving them an outlet.”

Is the funding at the Film Board now stable?

Yes, the cut was a small one and it reflects the support the film industry has here and the support of Government. It’s very good news and we’re very confident that we can continue to work in the way we have for the last five years.

The allocation for documentary was €1.5 million in 2010. Will that stay the same? And when did the IFB begin to focus on docs?

We won’t know what that is until early 2011. The Board will make that decision early in the New Year. It (supporting docs) was a core principle that Simon Perry (former CEO of the IFB) introduced in 2006.

The idea was that we would put our weight behind creative documentaries for the cinema. That’s what we supported from 2006 on. The policy was reflecting the rebirth of theatrical documentaries at that time. Over the last few years, we’ve managed to build a slate of these creative documentaries that do work for festivals and are beginning to work at Irish cinemas as well. In Europe, it’s not unusual for documentary to be given a similar emphasis to narrative features - so we were just reflecting what was going on in other European countries as well.

What’s the story of your involvement in Knuckle?

It has been a project that Ian (Palmer) has been continuing to work on for 12 years. He has been immersed in the world of the family at the centre of the documentary. We’ve been tracking the project for a number of years. Over the last year or so, Ian found a very good editor in the UK called Ollie Huddleston who came on bard and helped to shape the film. The producer Teddy Leifer came on board as well. Then, Nick Fraser from BBC Storyville came on. We loved it and found a way to fund it properly and to enable it to get finished. We’re delighted that Sundance has so much faith in the film and we’re very confident that we’ll get a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland.

How would you describe Knuckle?

It’s a hard-hitting, very strong documentary that has a very strong narrative and a huge breadth to it. It follows two characters over the course of 12 years and (looks at) their immersion in the world of bare-knuckle boxing. At the centre of it, there is a long-running feud between two families.

How many feature docs does the IFB get involved in every year?

Roughly speaking, it’s 10 to 12. We’re committed to creative documentary. We’re very much filmmaker focused. It’s about supporting the talent, raising the profile of the talent and bringing that on.

It’s about helping building careers. We want to see filmmakers make a number of films and really to establish good documentary talent.

Obviously, Ken Wardrop who directed His & Hers is a huge talent. That film (His & Hers) was a palpable hit at the Irish box-office this year.

Other filmmakers include Ross McDonnell, who co-directed Colony, Palmer and Risteard O Domhnaill, who directed The Pipe. These are names whose careers we are keen to help build.

You’re involved in distribution as well?

We have been helping to find ways to support films that will find an engaged audience by working with the producers and working with exhibitors here (in Ireland.) It may not be a large audience but the films have been successful in their own terms. The Pipe was released this month (December). It had a little bit of bad luck with the weather but worked well. Pyjama Girls by Maya Derrington and Colony also worked. We want to see these films into cinemas. That is something we’re very committed to. We call it “direct distribution.” We’re not actually releasing the films - we’re supporting the release of the films, supporting the producers and exhibitors to get these films seen.

Pat Collins’ doc What We Leave In Our Wake is one of the first films to look at how Ireland has been coping with the economic crisis. What can you say about that?

Pat Collins is a filmmaker of immense talent. We’ve supported him on a number of films. He came to us with the idea of doing a filmic essay on the importance of culture and art in Irish society and how that been affected over the past few years. It’s a poetic piece. We’re filmmaker led and this was something we could fully fund. Pat did an excellent documentary on Gabriel Byrne (Gabriel Byrne - Stories From Home.) When he came to us, we just backed him and said yet. What We Leave In Our Wake had a terrific response at the Cork Festival.

What is coming up?

We’re very excited by a film that will be directed by Nick Ryan called The Summit. This will be exec produced by John Battsek (of Passion Pictures) and written by Mark Monroe (who wrote The Cove.) It’s about a tragedy on K2. Ryan is a hugely talented filmmaker who made an excellent short called The German. This will be his first feature-length piece. We hope that as with people like Kevin Macdonald and Spike Lee, we will have filmmakers who can do narrative and documentary. Ryan is interested in doing narrative work as is Ken Wardrop.

You’re also active in coproduction of docs?

We are working on a coproduction with Holland on a film called The Last Hijack (an animated documentary). The animation will all be done in Ireland and will take advantage of Irish animators. We’ve a hugely talented pool of animators here.

And doc makers can access Section 481 tax credits?

If the structure is right, they can. Something like The Summit that is quite CG heavy will be able to use the 481 tax credit

What’s the long-term goal for docs?

We want to build a sustainable industry in terms of documentary. We want to build successful companies. We look at companies like John Battsek’s Passion Pictures and we hope people here can build similar level of documentary companies. We want to provide support for people who want to make creative documentaries that are ideally feature length and broadly cinematic.