Johathan Irwin’s animation in ’99 Problems’

How it’s New York: ’99 Problems’ is part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
How it’s Irish: It’s set in Dublin.

It’s not that often that one might walk into a movie theater 3,000 miles from where they were raised, only to hear an accent so unmistakably familiar, that it stops one, if not quite dead, then at least a tad injured, in one’s tracks.  Yet that, is what occurred when this reviewer strolled into the Village East Cinema in downtown Manhattan last week to view a selection of short films, chosen as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. 

There, on the screen, twenty-five feet from the tub of popcorn the guy in front of me was discreetly, practically, shamefacedly, eating, was an aerial view of a housing estate, not so dissimilar to one that I grew up in, some years back, in County Dublin, Ireland.

The movie was ’99 Problems’, a short documentary created by director Ross Killeen and producer Louise Byrne, which ventures into the Irish psyche, and examines something which has, not lurked at the back of our minds, nor peered nervously from the periphery of our horizons, but, remained there, proudly and confidently, for generations. The ice cream van, and the person who drives it.

It is a staple of Irish life, something that affects all the senses. The faint din of the children’s song, ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’, perhaps, wafting from another estate near your own, then moments later, the sight, when it appears around the corner, that feeling, that rush, when one realizes that one must dash home to get money from the parents, the anticipation, the excitement, then lastly, that pride, that relief, as you hold your cone tightly, but not too tightly, with your change in your pocket, as you walk slowly away, and begin your silent assault on what you’ve just purchased.  For minutes, all is right in the world, at least for you, for the man who provided those minutes of pleasure, it’s not just a job, but a career, not merely part of life, but an entire lifestyle, that of the ice cream man.

The film deals directly with ‘Pinky‘, not his real name of course, after all, this is Ross Killeen’s County Dublin in the 21st century, not Quentin Tarantino‘s 1990s Los Angeles. There are however, surprisingly, some extraordinary parallels. Pinky tells the viewer of the disputes with other ice cream men, arguments over ‘patches’, who sells where, and to whom, about when his van was attacked by a bat-wielding thug, albeit a thug wearing one of those paper hats that ice cream men often do.

The story of Pinky, the self-described ‘King of the Ice Cream Men’, is not quite an everyman-type tale, as it is not every man that makes a living selling ice cream. You’d wonder is it worth the hassle, we see him when he’s not out driving around the estates, fixing his vehicle, making it roadworthy, or when he is out, and the kids aren’t, as he loses his battle once again to the dreaded electronic devices, that are keeping kids indoors, rather than out, playing soccer and eating ice cream.

It’s an interesting feature, a story told well by Killeen, and indeed Pinky himself. The excellent animation provided by Jonathan Irwin does much to enhance the story, particularly Pinky’s tales of rivals and rows, and the upbeat attitude of the film’s protagonist is refreshing, though one wonders what he does in the colder Irish months, of which there are quite a few, when there is little call for ice cream cones, with or without, 99s. The documentary ’99 Problems’ was shown four times at the Tribeca Film Festival, which ran from Thursday April 25th, until Sunday May 5th.



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