Heber Hanly and Stephen Colfer presenting awards. Photo courtesy of Conor O'Toole.

Finished with college five years ago, Stephen Colfer had more time on his hands. He wanted to get back into making films.

College had been stuffy, he says. Learning pedantic rules – in his case, the rules of drama – had stifled his spontaneity and creativity.

He had fond memories of film-making films with friends as a teenager. “In a very off-the-cuff way,” he says.

But Colfer and his collaborators lacked focus – until they caught rumours of a film contest that was starting soon, set up by friends of friends.

“We suddenly went from spending six months talking about these films that we were eventually going to make to one day making a video once a month,” he says.

That competition, the Firehouse Film Contest has run monthly since then, and is now hosted at A4 Sounds artists studios off Dorset Street.

Over the years, filmmakers have shared more than 500 films.

A Prompt

The contest was starting with just that aim – to give “an impetus” to friends to make things, says Conor O’Toole who founded it with friends Conor Barry and Simon Mulholland.

The rules have always been simple: the film has to be less than five minutes long, and must have been made in the past month. That “seemed pretty reasonable,” O’Toole says.

The curation and entry fees of more serious festivals seemed a turn-off. “So we decided it would be free to enter and attend, and that we would screen everything we received that fit the brief,” he says.

There’s a loose theme each month. But all genres are accepted. The house style has evolved into comedy bordering on the surreal, says Colfer.

“I’d almost call it a weird compulsion,” says Seamus Hanly who has entered a film into every screening since month one.

“I remember I was taking a trip to the states and it was a night or two before I was flying off, just before a screening, I just went into my bathroom and filmed footage of myself as if I was at a party,” says Hanly, who is now on the contest’s organising committee.

“Firehouse was just a very comfortable fit for me because they accept all types of production value. They’re so open to everything,” he says.

Two years ago, the feature film The Middle Finger, which Hanly wrote and directed, was picked up by Troma Entertainment. As some of the crew and cast were from the Firehouse community, some call it the first Firehouse feature film.

This has since been followed up by another, yet-to-be-released, shot by O’Toole and “crewed and acted almost entirely by people I met through Firehouse”, says O’Toole.

Colfer found the energy of producing work monthly with his regular collaborators morph into Dreamgun, a live-action podcast series that brings their surreal comedy slant to film scripts.

Just Showing It

“They will literally take anything,” says animator Gillian Fitzpatrick, who has had three films screened at the contest.

“I know people who are very very anxious about making films or precious about showing them and the contest just encourages people to go and do it,” she says.

That’s the idea, says O’Toole. Not having an entrance fee encourages people who might be hesitant to show their “dumb funny short that looks a bit terrible” to get over their inhibitions.

“We want everyone’s rubbish first films to screen with us, so we can watch them grow and learn over the months and years and become the formidable filmmakers they all inevitably become,” O’Toole says.

Some, however, buck the trend. Dave Emery screened his first film, Interruption, at the Firehouse Film Contest in 2017. “I Googled short film competitions and Firehouse came up,” he says.

Four prizes are given out on the night of each month’s contest: Best Picture, Judge’s Prize, Best Actor and Technical Prize. Emery won Best Picture.

It was a great confidence boost, he says. “It was the first thing that kind of happened for me. I’ve a great fondness for it,” he says.

O’Toole says there aren’t any plans to change the format of the contest. “I love it just the way it is,” he says. “I don’t think growth is necessarily always good. Take that capitalism!”

However, O’Toole points to the high proportion of men among filmmakers submitting work as something he’d like to see change this year.

“I’d love if we could reach more women and non-binary people in 2019. That’s the only thing I’d change,” he says

The next Firehouse Film Contest is on Sunday 13 January at 7pm in A4 Sounds, just off Dorset Street.

Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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