Irish mockumentary stirs controversy

He made his name with the excellent anti-establishment drama How To Cheat In The Leaving Cert. Now director Graham Jones is back with another challenging offering in Fudge 44

Fudge 44, the second film by Irish writer/director Graham Jones, is a mockumentary, set in Tokyo, that tells the story of a team of six puppets who allegedly try to rob a bank.

Don’t let the plot or the setting throw you though, the film is essentially about modern Ireland – and, more specifically, the impact the Celtic Tiger has had on art here.

“In retrospect I think we [Jones and writing partner Garrett Sexton] were preoccupied with consumerism,” says the director, whose last feature was 1997’s How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate. That film’s provocative title and concept drew the ire of politicians who hadn’t seen it, and the praise of critics.

A small-scale local indie classic, it was a hard act to follow, but from the start the duo decided that they wanted to do something completely different.

“Pretty early on, we said let’s set this idea in a kind of otherworld. Sometimes it’s fun to work on that kind of canvas, where it’s not ‘realistic’. As we were writing, things from Japan kept popping into the script. And then one day we just said, how about actually setting it in Tokyo?”

The film features ‘interviews’ with Japanese locals that have become the focus of controversy. Rather than translating what they said, the film puts spoof statements into the mouths of its subjects. As a result, the ethics of the project have come in for some criticism. But the director is unrepentant. He says that he was aware that would happen, and that he was using the technique of spoof documentary to make a point. Or more correctly, to make two key points.

The first relates to the Western media’s portrayal of the East. “By and large it’s incredibly racist,” he says, “I think we’re very limited in the way we see the rest of the world.” And the second concerns the faith the public too often place in documentaries.

“There’s this feeling that because it’s not staged, or it’s not fictitious, that automatically it’s the opposite, that it’s real. But you have to realise that a lot of what you see in documentaries is complete bullshit.”

Jones explains that he told interview subjects that they could talk about anything they wanted, since they would be over-dubbed in English. “The effort of getting it right was more about casting them right,” he insists. “I think most of the time they were talking about common misconceptions about Japan or something.”

The film, currently touring the international film festival circuit, touches on various aspects of Japanese culture, from commerce and retailing to homelessness and organised crime. Throughout, you get the impression that Jones was consciously striving to avoid the stereotypical images of Tokyo – to shift the camera away from the high-rise neon city and onto some very ordinary Japanese people with some very extraordinary ‘experiences’ to recount.

“Over the years, we’ve seen these images of Tokyo,” he says, “and it’s only representative of a part of Tokyo. It’s only the cheese on the surface of that pie – there’s so much else there.”

How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate was well-received, and got publicity for the innovative fund-raising measures that enabled its completion, like asking every Leaving Cert student in the country to contribute £1 to the film. But Fudge 44 suffered from what he calls “difficult second album syndrome”. It took Jones the best part of a decade to finish his second feature.

Jones’ debut was released in 1998, just as the Celtic Tiger was really starting to roar. A number of newspaper articles at the time praised Ireland’s cultural renaissance, one that the country’s new-found wealth was helping to support. But eight years since those pieces were written, Jones isn’t so sure the economic boom has had a positive impact on Irish art.

He criticises the “staid” nature of Irish cinema, and particularly the lack of imagination of the Irish Film Board. Jones is full of praise for the individual members of the board, “but something happens when you put them in a room together, you give them taxpayers’ money and you tell them to be responsible. A strange lasagne results – it’s very dull somehow.”

Which is something that could never be said about Jones and Fudge 44.

 

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