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Festivals: The Galway Film Fleadh

By Niall McKay on August 07, 2012 in Film Comment

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There are two reasons go to The Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland. It is the best place to see contemporary Irish cinema, and it is the most fun you’ll have at a film festival. Galway is best known for its no-nonsense approach. There are no red carpets, no fenced-off areas, and no limos. Everybody from production assistants to stars like Aidan Gillen (The Dark Knight Rises, Game of Thrones) sip (or sometimes chug) pints in the Rowing Club on the banks of the Corrib River after the evening’s screenings. The festival is also attended by film biz bigwigs, including in the past the late Bingham Ray, who famously convinced Sundance to take Once after seeing it in Galway, and in whose honor the festival now presents a new award. This year, Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles and Sony Pictures Classics’ Dylan Leiner were present.

Pilgrim Hill

Galway’s new programmer, Gar O’Brien, gave voice to a new generation of Irish filmmakers who have produced a body of work that’s rougher, more authentic, and more distinctly Irish than in previous years. One of the most talked-about films was Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s Good Vibrations. The husband-and-wife team dramatized the true story of Terri Hooley, the creator of Belfast’s Good Vibrations music store and record label that helped propel punk bands such as the Undertones onto the international stage in the Seventies. The film is a well-crafted, feel-good piece of storytelling that so delighted the audience in Galway that when the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” came on screen they erupted in spontaneous applause.

Cleverly weaving in archival footage of the “Troubles,” the film tells the harsh realities of Belfast’s past through the lens of the city’s punk scene. However, it is the directors’ ability to capture the charm and charisma of record-shop owner Hooley (who was present for the screening) that wooed audiences. Good Vibrations is also notable for its visual storytelling. Hooley’s conversion from a run-of-the-mill music lover to king of Northern Ireland’s punk movement is vividly depicted in a transformation that takes place while he listens to a band called the Outcasts in a Belfast club. At a concert in the Ulster Hall at the end of the film, Hooley declares: “New York has the hairstyles, London has the trousers, but we have the reason [for punk].”

This year, director Mark O’Connor donned the mantle of enfant terrible of the Irish film industry by having his lead actor John Connors read a manifesto before a screening to declare the arrival of an Irish New Wave. This new wave, O’Connor believes, is led by writer-directors engaged in personal, emotionally direct filmmaking. The call to arms pleased some and irked others as it took a jab at “conventional Irish Film.”

King of the Travellers

O’Connor had an unprecedented two films at the Fleadh. King of the Travellers is a story about John Paul Moorehouse, a Traveller (or Irish Gypsy), who is on a mission to find out who killed his father. The film borrows from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Raging Bull, and what it lacks in finesse (and it does in spades) it makes up for in charm. O’Connor has a distinctive voice and a knack for finding new talent and eliciting a good performance. He cast real Travellers in many parts and worked with nonprofessional actors, giving his film authenticity. The opening, in which two Travellers race pony and traps on a suburban road, is as gripping as any Hollywood action movie, while accurately capturing a pastime still popular within the Traveller community today. O’Connor’s aim is to make a good old-fashioned film rather than make art—his storytelling has a fearlessness that is very refreshing. While shooting the €1 million King of the Travellers, O’Connor etched out the no-budget feature, Stalker, with the same cast and crew.

Gerard Barrett won the Bingham Ray New Talent Award for his charming first feature, Pilgrim Hill. Barrett is an example of a new voice emerging in Irish film which is rooted in a sense of place and identity. Pilgrim Hill depicts the simple tasks in a farmer’s life, from milking cows and going to the market to cutting turf (a peat fossil-fuel used in Ireland). Barrett got a car loan for €4,500 and wrote the script based on the lives of his uncle and aunt, who are dairy farmers in County Kerry. The film uses documentary techniques and features interviews with the main characters to move the narrative along.

From one of Ireland’s most noted documentary filmmakers, Pat Collins, came the hybrid documentary/narrative feature Silence, about a sound recordist named Eoghan who returns to Ireland in search of soundscapes free of manmade noise. The film becomes a meditation on Eoghan’s return and what it means to be Irish. Few films ever manage to scratch at Ireland’s unconscious connection with the land and identity as well as Silence, which seems to spring from the same well of inspiration as Pilgrim Hill.

Silence

The first film from the Factory, a Dublin filmmaking collective led by John Carney (Once), Kirsten Sheridan (August Rush), and Lance Daly (Kisses), also made its debut at Galway. John Carney’s The Rafters is an eerie tale of madness set in the Aran Islands and is part of a new slew of Irish horror films, the most notable of which is Ciaran Foy’s dark tale of Scottish junkies, Citadel. Other film premieres worth noting at Galway this year were Earthbound, a charming science-fiction love story; The Good Man, a modern morality tale starring Aidan Gillen; Lón Sa Spéir, a documentary about Charles Ebbets’s iconic 1930s photo of construction workers eating their lunch on a bare girder 850 feet above the sidewalk; and Jump, a gritty coming-of-age story.

This year marked a notable shift in the types of stories being told. The continued emergence of low-budget or no-budget digital filmmaking may mean that Irish directors can finally begin to make films for an Irish audience rather than trying to ape their better-resourced brethren in Britain and the U.S. Of course, whether an Irish audience will connect with these films remains to be seen—especially when The Dark Knight Rises is playing at the local multiplex. But I am hopeful. Scenes from Silence, Pilgrim Hill, and King of the Travellers are still rattling around my brain and will likely be with me for weeks and months to come. You can create spectacle, but true emotional resonance has to come from a deeper place.

Niall McKay is the curator of Irish Film New York.

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