Anyone who makes a film wants to reach an audience with that film. Through an accident of creative preference I have directed three 'family' films and am now trying (and trying, and trying) to make my next 'family' film. But when dealing with potential investors I feel I am cast as Faye Dunaway to Jack Nicholson in the confession scene from 'Chinatown'.
"It's for young people," I say.
"It's for adults," I say.
"It's for young people AND for adults," I say.
While Denmark sets aside 25% of its film funds for the development and making of family films, in Ireland and the UK there is no discernible policy on family films. The result is that adult audiences are free to select from a variety of films in multiplexes and arthouses but young people and families get one diet only; the latest roller coaster ride from Hollywood. I call it the McDonaldisation of family films. How original of me.
The problem is simple - there is no equivalent of an arthouse outlet for the family films that are not backed by huge publicity machines. The result is that family audiences rarely get the opportunity to see complex or difficult - or just plain different - topics dealt with through film. And so young people start to see film as a fairground ride rather than part of their education and growth. But I love film and I aspire to encouraging a higher opinion of the medium - I just wish it wasn't always an uphill battle trying to get my work to my audience. For the most part, young people only get a sense of the diversity of film through the few film festivals dedicated to them and that's one of the reasons why 'junior' film festivals are so important. But this is the story of another way of bringing non-mainstream family films to their audience.

My first film, 'The Boy from Mercury', died the death at the Irish box office. It has lived on in cinemas here, however, through the work of the Film Institute of Ireland. The film has often been screened in the Cinemobile, and Alicia McGivern of the Institute had drawn up an education pack for 'Mercury' that is used for school screenings at the Irish Film Centre. The film has been used in education in the UK also, and Louise Wordsworth of UK Film Education had drawn up an education pack to accompany it there (
The last film I directed, 'The Testimony of Taliesin Jones', has opened my eyes to the difficulty of my chosen career path. The film has some very fine credentials. It won Best Film at the Austin Film Festival and many other awards in the US and across Europe. It has a fine cast - including Jonathan Pryce, and the late Ian Bannen in his last role. It is being released in the US by its producers, who see a particular way to market it and are finding slow success there. But there were no takers for release in the UK. Why? It's about a marriage break-up. It's about a boy discovering his sense of spirituality. It's for young people. It's for adults. It's for young people AND for adults. It's a family film.

Enter Mairi Thomas, Cinema Development Officer at Dundee Contemporary Arts in Scotland. Mairi saw 'Taliesin' - and became its advocate.  With 'Taliesin', Mairi Thomas devised an education pack in conjunction with 'Showcomotion' in Sheffield (organised by Becky Parry). The pack was put on Film Education's website as part of the October 2001 National Schools Film Week ( and a screening of 'Taliesin' launched the annual event. So, for its many school screenings thereafter, the teachers could first download the education pack and incorporate that into the screening and discussions afterwards. The whole experience (I have attended many such screenings) is always enjoyed by the young audiences. Indeed, after a screening at the Showcomotion event in Sheffield, I received a screenplay written by a fourteen year old Asian girl who had been moved by the film and come up with a film idea of her own.

Through these school screenings I was learning about a film culture oasis for young people. There were fine people at work out there - people like Louise, Alicia, and Mairi - who were committed to bringing a broader spectrum of film to the experience of young people.
The Film Institute of Ireland has hosted many school screenings of 'Taliesin' - including a few in the Cinemobile. Meanwhile, Maretta Dillon, with the newly formed Access Cinema network of Irish arthouse screens, procured an 'education' certificate from the Film Censor's office - a cheap way of facilitating the certification of a family film. Access Cinema has brought the film to many arthouse venues around Ireland and I have attended as many of these screenings as possible.

The arthouse is becoming the only hope of getting a film that does not have a significant marketing budget onto a cinema screen. Here is a place where people get a chance to see something outside the mainstream. But something else is going on with some of them. The Irish Film Centre, for instance, prints its monthly programme of events - world cinema brought to Dublin audiences. Meanwhile, it is quietly introducing many hundreds of school-going teens to new film experiences through the morning screenings organised by the education section of the Film Institute of Ireland.
That model - the film centre - is repeated in varying forms throughout this country and throughout the UK. Dundee Contemporary Arts is a fascinating culture zone with exhibition space, artists' work space, cafe, and two cinemas all under one roof. Mairi Thomas kept contacting me to find out what was happening for the theatrical release of 'Taliesin'. But I kept hearing from the sales agent that no distributor wanted to take the film. They felt it would be difficult to market. Because? It's for young.... you know the routine.

Enter the Dundee Experiment.....

Mairi took a few basic steps. Dundee Contemporary Arts decided to run 'Taliesin' for a week. And they had a plan. They would invite school bookings to coincide with the week of 'open' screenings. So the film would be shown to young people. And to adults. An arthouse drawing the attention of its diverse audiences to a family film.
The publicity department of DCA went to work attracting interest in the film. This proved to be an unexpectedly easy task, as the media were interested in the idea of a non-mainstream family film being brought to its audience with the help of an arthouse. It was the first lesson I learned - the media is sympathetic to the struggle of the small film against the Hollywood goliaths.
Another important help was one of expediency. The Irish Film Centre does not include its school screenings in its monthly programme, whereas DCA has one programme for all events. This meant that the school screenings were not 'ghettoised' and indeed some adults attended the school screenings.
Well in advance of the week of screenings, Mairi talked to Dundee's religious and moral education teachers at an education department network meeting. The teachers were enthusiastic about the topics of the film and later came to an advance video screening - teachers generally liking to see the film before the pupils do.
The key ingredient was integration; this was not solely school screenings or solely 'open' screenings. The result of all this work was a very successful week of attendances - so successful that DCA will bring the film back for another week.
That model, repeated in arthouses throughout the UK and Ireland, could lead to a moderately successful release for a non-mainstream family film. And - as I have seen with 'The Boy from Mercury' - such films can come around again and again.

Those of us who feel a pressing need to tell our stories must then find the appropriate canvas for self-expression. I want to tell stories that reach a particular audience. Should I be writing short stories? Or stage plays? Or radio plays? Or TV plays? Or children's novels? I have done all of the above. What defines the terms required for telling a story through feature film? Am I only allowed that format if I can tell a story at the scale of roller coaster ride? I hope not. I am not a Spielberg. And what happened in Dundee has shown me that there is a bigger window of opportunity than I had realised now offered to me as a film maker. I don't have to surrender all dining out to McDonalds. I have found my way to reach a family audience. That way had been shut off by those who see an unnatural conflict when a film is for young people AND adults. It is a way of getting around the fear of difference that is leading to only bland films reaching mainstream screens.
I understand film - I can make film small and simple. I understand the new technologies and how they can help us make films at minimal cost. And now I have seen a way to make films that can be seen by young people, and by adults, and by families. Maybe, like Faye Dunaway, I can present my truth - my work. And stop getting slapped for it.

My next feature, the one I am trying (and trying and trying) to get made, is for a young audience and an adult audience. It is not a McDonald's movie. But, thanks to Mairi and Dundee Contemporary Arts, I realise there is a way it can reach its audience. Indeed, I have even had the good fortune of being able to include the film education people in my writing of "Jenny's Gift" and have been guided in rewrites by their comments. This ensures that they feel comfortable when they in turn present the project to teachers in order to bring the young audience to the film. It has become a very healthy holistic process.

Martin Duffy

Visit the Dundee Contemporary Arts website to learn more.