In Woody Allen films, setting is often a character. New York City breathes and vibrates, while punishing, cradling and uplifting people in those narratives; it is the reason for each person’s world view.

In a similar way, the new Irish film Cardboard Gangsters, set in the raw and enveloping universe of Dublin’s Darndale, has a place-specific intensity that fully animates each moment and minor character.

“We couldn’t have filmed it anywhere other than Darndale,” said John Connors, the film’s co-writer and star, via telephone. “It felt more real. It brought me back to some experiences I would’ve had growing up.”

In the film, Connors plays Jason Connolly, a small-time dealer attempting to gain control of the trade in Darndale, along with his coterie of “cardboard gangsters”, slang for wannabes. Prominent northside Dublin rappers Lethal Dialect (Paul Alwright) and Linco of 5th Element (Ryan Lincoln) portray two in his crew.

“I come from Darndale and I’ve seen the damage that drugs, drug-dealing and gangsters have done to the area,” said Connors, of Love/Hate fame.

When he was young, many of those around him were fascinated with gangsters, he says. It was only later, when he became a writer, that he realised how disturbing that was.

“This fascination with gangland culture and folklore, stories you’d hear about a person getting dragged off and tortured and killed – young fellas would be laughing about this sort of thing,” he says. “They’d be completely desensitized and they’d think it was cool.”

So in Cardboard Gangsters, Connors wanted to show that culture in a way it’d never been shown before on screen. “I wanted to do it without forcing anything onto the audience, without telling them too much, but rather showing them,” he says.

“I thought I’m in a unique position to do it because I come from an area that’s consistently portrayed inaccurately,” he says. Parts of the production were filmed inside Connors’ house.

Grittier and More Violent

On Love/Hate, Connors starred as Patrick, who became a pivotal character in the gangland television drama’s final series, slaying ultimate ganglord Nidge.

Connors portrayed Patrick’s complicated meditations on family loyalty and bloodlust with nuance and potency. Patrick is terrifying, and three-dimensional.

A selection of cast members from Love/Hate star in Cardboard Gangsters. Stuart Carolan, the show’s creator, was an advisor on the production.

Yet Cardboard Gangsters, Connors’ second feature film as writer, is grittier and much more violent than the TV show.

“What the film does,” Connors said, “is examines gangland culture from a street level, as opposed to Love/Hate being about upper-end gangsters.”

Cardboard Gangsters also explores the “sociopolitics of the culture”, which Love/Hate did not, Connors says.

“The sociopolitics can be compared to America’s in terms of the reasons why these people (gangsters) are gods within the culture, being that they’re an affirmation among the youth in working-class areas,” he says.

“The reason the youth look up to gangsters is because gangsters are merely the casual people we know. Footballers and boxers and all of that, they’re a million miles away,” he says.

When speaking to me, Connors had just returned from Galway Film Fleadh, where the film had had a well-received world premiere. The Internet was ablaze with talk of it.

A Five Knight Films production, Wildcard Distribution will handle the release in cinemas this autumn. Both companies are Dublin-based. TV3 has purchased television rights following the theatrical run.

Connors first worked with Mark O’Connor, the director of Cardboard Gangsters, on King of the Travellers (2012).

In King of the Travellers, Connors starred as John Paul Moorehouse, a working-class man who must settle a long-running feud between two Dublin families so he might see a modicum of peace and settle down with the love of his life.

That same year, O’Connor directed Stalker, an experimental drama tackling homelessness and mental illness, which marked Connors’ first foray into screenwriting.

After Connors worked on the script for Cardboard Gangsters alone for two and a half years, he approached O’Connor to direct. He ultimately asked O’Connor to step in as co-writer.

Aside from his film work, Connors is also known for his class and identity activism. In what ways do these aspects intersect?

“The issues [I’m portraying in gangland] come hand-in-hand with poverty. They are a symptom of class systems,” he says.

“You don’t see people in the middle and upper classes getting involved with drug-dealing and street gangsterism. Yet those people are often the real gangsters – people in suits. The figures at the top of these systems are the ones causing mass damage from within,” he says.

“Films in Ireland get funding easier if they’re socially relevant, so Mark and I, with King of the Travellers, Stalker, and Cardboard Gangsters, felt they were perfect opportunities to construct worlds that audiences thought they were familiar with in Irish cinema, yet handled with a fierceness of integrity.”

Clara Rose Thornton is a spoken word artist, culture journalist, and radio and television broadcaster whose work focuses on the arts and their intersection with social justice, history, and place.

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