AS DIRECTOR OF the Third Annual Irish Reels Film and Video Festival, Fidelma McGinn hopes to wrest her native country from the cinematic ashes of sentimentality and cultural stasis. The "machine of Hollywood," as McGinn calls it, has a tendency to appropriate the very idea of Ireland to the point that such an intangible thing as "national identity" or "local color" becomes a fixed object bracketed by a very fashionable, very palatable brand of nostalgia. Ireland, as it is represented in most mainstream films, has stood for too long as some kind of generic land of poverty and paramilitary conflict, a place of unchanging simplicity idealized through the charming rhythms of brogue. What McGinn says will emerge from the contemporary Irish works premiering at the festival is a more authentic, homespun vision of modern Ireland, which is actually many visions of many Irelands.

"It's a very different country than it was in the '40s," says McGinn, contrasting popular stereotypes of a perpetually "strife-torn" and dirt-poor Ireland to the vast social changes that have actually taken place in the country of late. A national economic revival, due in large part to an influx of international finance supporting Ireland's growing technical industry (along with the return of natives from abroad "bringing a swell of income with them"), has gradually led to the social and artistic renaissance now known as the "Celtic Tiger."

I had the opportunity to preview two of the festival's feature-length films, and also a handful of short videos that will be presented over the course of the event. Taken as a whole, the works certainly support McGinn's claims regarding the specific nature of their perspective, for better and for worse: These are young, energetic, and ambitious movies, with a strong focus on the dilemmas of identity and individuality. As such, most of the films are strongly character-driven pieces, regardless of the level of experimentalism they exhibit (which varies widely, especially among the shorts); in general, dramatic force is derived from the subtle internal politics of highly personal interactions.

By far the most interesting of the feature-length films is Sunburn, a classic narrative of teenage confusion and awakening, which charts the emotional trajectory of a group of Irish kids doing a summer work program on Long Island. The fact that director Nelson Hume follows to the letter the well-worn dictates of the coming-of-age genre is completely to his credit here: The big surprise is that he handles all the unsurprising elements with such subtle humanity and humor. All of the actors are fantastic, and the story, while utterly predictable, is so well-paced and believable it doesn't matter. It's as though someone finally got the formula right, simply by not overcharging the sex and mismanaging the pathos. It's so easy to watch, it's enthralling.

The Book That Wrote Itself, written and directed by and starring Liam O'Mochain, suffers from the same kind of aggressive self-consciousness that makes Hal Hartley the undisputed king of coffee-shop irony. The film, which turns the camera on the turning of a camera (very new wave), has ambitions toward being a cinematic meta-comment on an artist's quest for identity through the processes of creation, but it doesn't quite have the chops to pull it off. The innovation of the idea (a novelist attempting to prove his novel is feasible by filming it) is unmatched by that idea's execution, and while there are some pretty funny moments, the movie too often gets derailed.

Derailment is, by definition, less of a threat in the short film format; it is here, according to McGinn, that many young Irish filmmakers are first "cutting their teeth" in production. The three shorts I watched--Half Full, Half Empty, Dream Kitchen, and The Case of Majella McGinty--were all wonderfully inventive. They delved into an amazing, sometimes shocking range of emotional territory through an inventive manipulation of formal constraints.

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