Craic Addicts: Finding Excellent Films and Local Hospitality at The 15th Galway Film Fleadh
by Mark Rabinowitz
Set in the bucolic west of Ireland along the Corrib river, Galway is a college town, a tourist destination, and the location for some of the best "crack" in all of creation. Crack, for those of you unfamiliar with the phrase, means "fun" in Irish and is properly spelled "craic." The Irish, it has been said, are in endless pursuit of the craic and while a mere six days at the 15th Galway Film Fleadh is not nearly enough for me to swear to that, the hospitality, verve, and love of film that was displayed in Galway was enough to convince me.
The Irish have many things in their favor. They "take the piss" (make fun) better than any nation on earth, swear better than anyone else, brew the best beer in creation and are also serious about their film (pronounced "fillum" by many). Most of the screenings I attended during the fleadh (pronounced "flah") were packed with locals and film professionals alike enjoying the diverse programming of the festival, including world cinema, a healthy dose of new Irish films, dozens of shorts and the odd special event, all making for a great six days.
Saturday afternoon presented me with a few high points of my trip and one extraordinary cinematic experience. One of the venues of the Fleadh is the Cinemobile, which I was afraid was going to be a camper van with a TV/VCR combo and a couple of folding chairs. A pox on my low expectations, then! The vehicle in question is a magnificent example of what we can achieve as a species when we put our minds to it. A truck the size of a small house contains a 100-seat theater with Dolby sound, very comfortable chairs, and a proper slope, all making for an intimate and convenient cinema experience. Every festival should employ one.
The pair of documentaries I attended were as different as can be and both engaging in their own ways. Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain, two Irish documentary filmmakers, have managed to create one of the most stunning pieces of documentary filmmaking in the history of the genre with their film "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." I know, I know: there I go being hyperbolic again. Well no, actually. In an unparalleled example of "right place, right time," Bartley and O'Briain managed to get themselves (and by extension, us) front-row seats to the first coup of the 21st century and likely the first coup ever engineered largely by the media.
In late 2001, O'Briain and Bartley journeyed to Venezuela to document the charismatic and populist president, Hugo Chavez. A staunch leftist and ally of Fidel Castro, Chavez alarmed and angered the United States by exercising more state control over Venezuela's petroleum company. While the company was already a state-owned firm, it was traditionally run by the elite of the country who profited from the sale of oil by this, the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world. Chavez's plans called for redistribution of the country's wealth, which created many enemies both within the privileged classes and the United States.
Given complete access by Chavez, O'Briain and Bartley captured footage of the coup and the resulting re-capture of the Presidential Palace that can only be called astonishing. While demonstrators were being fired at by snipers surrounding them, the pair managed to keep shooting. Once the palace guards, loyal to Chavez, hatched their plan to retake the palace, O'Briain and Bartley were with them all along, filming as if part of the commando raid. The film also clearly shows who was behind the coup on the Venezuelan side and implicates the United States government. This is an important film for important times, a fact recognized by the audience who awarded the film the award for best feature documentary.
Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan have made a not-entirely dissimilar doc with the local Irish film, "Raise the Roof." The film follows Katie Verling in her attempt to open Glór, a performance center for traditional Irish music, on schedule. Appearing at times both dedicated and quixotic, Verling struggles against multiple adversaries, including non-fire certified acoustic tiles and seemingly uninspired laborers as well as local politics and bureaucracy. Verling's single-minded commitment to the project is what gets the job done, and along the way we are treated to some fantastic "trad" music and a little history lesson about County Clare, considered by many in the film to be the most important area in the history of Irish traditional music.
The opening night film in Galway was the world premiere of John Deery's drama "Conspiracy of Silence," an exploration of the Catholic church's continued insistence on celibacy and how it is affecting the modern priesthood. The film centers on two stories, one involving the suicide of priest Frank Sweeney, and the other about young seminarian Daniel McLaughlin who is expelled from seminary when he is witnessed leaving another student's room and suspected of being gay. Compounding this is an investigation by local reporter David Foley who suspects a church cover-up in Sweeney's death.
The film boasts some fine performances by veteran actors such as John Lynch as Sweeney's longtime lover Father Francis and veteran actors Brenda Fricker, Jim Norton,and Hugh Bonneville. The questions raised by the film involving the hypocrisy inherent in the church and the fact that the celibacy rule was enacted in the 12th century as a means to generate more money are all interestingly raised at the climax of the 87-minute work, but the film opens up some plot holes you could drive the Popemobile through on the way. It feels like someone convinced Deery to cut more out of his film than was necessary and I hope that there is material left to flesh out some of the weaker aspects of the story.
The two most oddly satisfying endings in the festival belong to two films that could not be more different. Piotr Trzaskalski's debut film "Edi" and Alan Rudolph's "The Secret Life of Dentists." The former is a small Polish film about a homeless man, Edi, who lives in a squalid squat with his somewhat addled friend and makes what little money he can from selling items he has collected from around the city to a scrap metal yard. Through a thoroughly believable turn of events, Edi and his friend wind up on the country farm of his childhood with an infant, where Edi finds, for a little while, some peace. The end of the film is as stark as the city landscape where the film begins and ends, and the photography and direction are among the most beautiful I have seen this year. Henryk Golebiewski as the forlorn Edi is a wonder to watch.
"Dentists," on the other hand, is a subtle character play about two college sweethearts who share a marriage, three daughters, and a dental practice. At times both darkly humorous and painfully honest, Rudolph and screenwriter Craig Lucas have fashioned a tight and tense film about an introverted and emotionally repressed man's suspicions of his wife and effect it has on his life. Denis Leary is a marvel as a modern day Jiminy Cricket (albeit a drinking, smoking, swearing one) and as in "Edi," the ending will not placate the natural desire for a neat and tidy conclusion to turmoil.
The audience award winner for best first feature went to John Crowley's "Intermission," an Irish film produced by, among others, Neil Jordan and Stephen Wooley and starring Colin Farrell, Shirley Henderson, Colm Meaney, Cillian Murphy and Kelley Macdonald. The film is set to be released in the U.S. by IFC Films. Other notable films and events at this year's Fleadh included Joel Schumacher's "Veronica Guerin" about the murdered Irish journalist (played by Cate Blanchett); "Hukkle," Gyorgy Palfi's well received Hungarian film; Wolfgang Becker's "Good Bye, Lenin!"; David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls"; and acting masterclass with Irish actor Pierce Brosnan and a directing masterclass with Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa"; "Ollivier, Olivier"; "The Third Miracle").
A major part of the Fleadh is the annual Film Fair, a co-production market where writers and producers can meet with more than 40 financiers and distribution executives from all over the world to pitch their projects. Many of the writers at the fair get much needed exposure to the financial side of the business and learn valuable information about how the creative and financial sides work to create finished films.
An excellent film event, good fun, gorgeous local and a dedicated staff combine in Galway to create a special event that I hope to be attending for next 15 years of its existence. Until next year, Slainté!