The 19th Galway Film Fleadh came to an end on Sunday and by all accounts it was a rousing success. Success is certainly the word for debut director Marian Quinn (sister of Aidan Quinn) whose "32A" nabbed the Best First Feature award at the fest. The Best Feature doc prize was split between Christopher Dillon Quinn's "God Grew Tired of Us" and "The Cats of Mirikitani," directed by Linda Hattendorff. Attendance this year has been estimated at 15,000, up significantly from 2006, according to a festival representative and every attendee I spoke to had a hell of a good time. The Fleadh (pronounced flah, means "festival" in Irish) is a low-maintenance, low-stress (except for the staff of course) event, meant largely to benefit the local community which is without a regular art house cinema the rest of the year.
That said, there were plenty of out-of-town visitors from elsewhere in Ireland, the UK and the US, including a large group of international financiers, producers and buyers in town for the Galway Film Fair, an annual development and co-production market between some 55 Irish and European producers and 40 financiers. Attendees this year on the money side included HDNet's Laird Adamson, Rhi Films' Lynn Holst, Forefront Films' Harold Warren, producer/sales agent Jeff Dowd and producer Ben Barenholtz (also in town with his directorial debut, "Music Inn.")
The Fleadh kicked off with one of those all-too-rare experiences at a film festival, where opening night films are often star-studded duds aimed more at a presumed less-discriminating local audience than at the film snobs us "industry types" tend to be. Cristiano Bortone's "Red Like the Sky" ("Rosso come il cielo") is as moving and uplifting a story as one could want and the perfect way to kick off the event. Based on the true story of Italian sound editor Mirco Mencacci, the film tells the story of how in 1970, 10-year-old Mirco is blinded by an accident, causing him to be institutionalized in a school for the blind that is little more than a sweatshop training academy with students trained in "skills" such as loom operation and industrial tasks. After losing his sight, Mirco's imagination becomes a sixth sense and combined with his hearing, some good friends and sheer force of will, Mirco is able to carve out a life for himself. The audience ate it up and that this film has neither UK nor US distribution is quite a surprise to me.
Part of the Fleadh's Out on Film section, Katherine Linton's "Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig" combines the making of the 2003 charity album of songs from and inspired by "Hedwig & the Angry Inch" and the story of the beneficiary of the funds raised by the CD sales, New York's Hetrick-Martin Institute. The institute is home to Harvey Milk High School, the first school in America specifically designed to address the needs of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and questioning students. Essentially two films in one, footage of the album's producer Chris Slusarenko's attempt to get the album made and studio footage of the various artists involved is intercut with footage of and by several students from the school. While it might sound muddled, it actually works quite well, with some of the songs being played over footage of the kids from the school. Segments by and about the students veers from heart-lifting to heartbreaking, as they deal with the pressures of being young and "different" in today's society.
Anand Tucker's "And When Did You Last See Your Father" provided a poignant note with its story of a son's lifelong attempts to develop a real relationship with his father in the face of his father's terminal cancer. Blake Morrison (Colin Firth) is all knots of resentment and regret as a 40-year-old man still being overshadowed by a loud and often inappropriate father (the always superb Jim Broadbent). Told both in the present and through flashbacks, the tale of the perfectly imperfect family and growing up despite of (and partly because of) the "sins of the father" is a delight of writing and acting and should have audiences reaching for the hankies throughout. In addition to Firth and Broadbent, the cast includes Juliet Stephenson, Claire Skinner, Elaine Cassidy and Gina McKee, with a special nod to big screen newcomer Matthew Beard as the young Blake.
One of the main draws of the Fleadh is the chance to see some of the new Irish cinema and the world premiere of Marian Quinn's "32A" was worth the trip alone. Winner of the Fleadh's Best First Feature award, "32A" is coming-of-age story set in 1979 Dublin. Quinn's debut feature began at the Fair 9 years ago as a pitch and was finally unveiled to an enthusiastic audience in Galway. Billed at the story of the "in-between" time in a girl's life, when she's no longer a child and not yet a woman (the title refers to the size of her first bra), "32A" doesn't so much break new ground as make us comfortable with the ground often traveled. There are turns of phrase and mannerisms that are particularly Irish, giving this film a leg up. Secondly are the performances. Ailish McCarthy, Sophie Jo Wasson, Orla Long and Riona Smith are as natural and honest as you could wish for and McCarthy especially shines as lead character Maeve. Filling out the cast are writer/director Quinn's brother Aidan, Orla Brady, Kate O'Toole and Jared Harris. An interesting side note: Peter O'Toole's daughter Kate and Richard Harris' son Jared are both in the film, although they don't appear together.
The other two Irish features I managed to catch are decidedly less likely to receive U.S. distribution, but are in their own was significantly more ambitious than Quinn's film. Tom Collins' "Kings" is the first Irish language/English bi-lingual film to be produced in Ireland, although the vast majority is in Irish. It tells the story of six young men who emigrated to London in the late 1970's, hoping to make their fortunes and return home as success stories. Flash forward and they are still in London with only one of them an out-and-out success. They meet again to give a sendoff to one of their own who apparently slipped and fell in front of a London underground train. Ambitious in its use of Irish and it's dark and unrelenting portrayal of the despair of the survivors the film is not entirely successful as it's adapted from a play ("Kings of Kilburn High Road" by Jimmy Murphy) and definitely comes off as stagey.
"Garage", the second film from the pairing of director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Mark O'Halloran is a beautiful and almost painfully quiet drama about a simple small town man named Josie (Pat Shortt) and the town in which he lives. Treated basically as a pet (both wanted and un-) by the town residents, Josie shuffles along as a gas station attendant, safe and happy in his life. Unfortunately, the real world catches up with Josie's version. The thick Irish accents and small scope of the film might hurt US chances at distribution, the film is very "Irish" in it's style and demeanor, but a thoughtful distrib might take a chance on this Cannes fave and with careful marketing and word-of-mouth might make it worth a go.
Best First Feature
First Place: "32A, "Director: Marion Quinn, Producer: Tommy Weir
Second Place: "On Broadway," Director: Dave McLaughlin, Producers: Mark Hankey, Charlie Harrington
Best Feature Documentary
Joint First Place: "God Grew Tired of Us," Director: Christopher Dillon Quinn and "The Cats of Mirikitani," Director: Linda Hattendorff
Second Place: "Saviours," Directors: Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan
RTE Two Best First Irish Short
First Place: "Hesitation," Director: Virginia Gilbert, Producers: Julien Berlan and Michelle Eastwood
Second Place: "The 18th Electricity Plan," Directors: Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D'sa, Producers: David Holmes and Brendan Byrne
Best Irish Shorts-Tiernan McBride Award
First Place: "Teeth," Directors: John Kennedy and Ruairi O'Brien, Producer: Noreen Donohoe
Second Place: "Scumbot," Director:Ciaran Foy, Producer: Philip Rogan
Best Irish Short Documentary
First Place: "The McDonagh Pictures," Director/Producer: Ian Palmer
Second Place: "Saol an Mhaor," Director/Producer: Sean o cualain
RTE Best First Short Animation - The James Horgan Award
First Place: "The Red Ball," Director: Alan Holly, Producer: Barry O'Donoghue
Second Place: "Getting Round," Director: Chris O'Hara, Producer: IADT
Best Irish Short Animation
First Place: "The Red Ball," Director: Alan Holly, Producer: Barry O'Donoghue
Second Place: "The Crumblegiant," Director: John McCloskey, Producer: Pearse Moore