FESTIVALS: Luck of the Irish? Galway Film Fleadh Showcases Latest Travails and Hopes for Local Industry
by Michael Zam
(indieWIRE/ 07.30.01) -- Galway is a short ride from the magnificent mountains of Connemara and a boat ride from the famed Aran Islands, two of Ireland's most picturesque destinations, so it's not surprising that it's also dominated in summer by tourists in search of Irish Woolens and claddagh rings. To film buffs, Connemara is the land of John Ford's classic "The Quiet Man," and the Aran Islands are the setting of Robert Flaherty's pioneering documentary "Man Of Aran."
For the people who actually live in Ireland, the Galway Film Fleadh (pronounced "Flah") has become one of Ireland's prime cultural events. Beginning a week before the even more popular Galway Arts Festival, the Fleadh was started 13 years ago with several goals in mind, primarily to bring a diverse sampling of Irish and international cinema to a burgeoning city whose movie screens are dominated the rest of the year by standard mainstream, big-budget American fare.
Over 60 full-length, and even more short films, both fiction and documentary, screened at the 5-day festival, which was held from July 10 - 15. Despite the obvious central role of cinema in the festival, the genuine feeling of the fleadh was of a long night at a pub whose denizens just happened to be overwhelmingly involved in the Ireland film industry. Some of this may be due to the low star wattage compared to some of the bigger film fests. Or it may be because there are few distributors desperately seeking out the next "big thing."
The main reason is the Rowing Club, an unpretentious building just a few yards from the fleadh's epicenter, the recently refurbished Town Hall Theatre. Most of the major screenings and relevant events took place there, yet it was at the Rowing Club, nestled on the bank of a beautiful river, where the most interesting fleadh proceedings took place.
It was here, after all, that nearly everyone gathered at one time or another, at all hours throughout the day and night, to eat, shmooze, and, of course, to drink. Attendees, most of whom were independent filmmakers themselves, all found relaxed refuge at this ongoing party. And though many complained that growth of the Irish film industry has led to increased competition for funding for independent projects, the mood at the Rowing Club was one of camaraderie, a feeling that infected most of the festival. Even as participants griped that too many of the films being made in Ireland are American epics, they often did so with a pint of Guinness in their hands.
This year's guests of honor included director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In the Name of The Father"), actor Colm Meaney ("The Snapper") and the great Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. Though all had several of their film's shown, only Kiarostami presented his new work, the beautifully realized documentary, made at the request of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, "ABC Africa," which focuses on children whose parents have died of AIDS.
All three guests also led Master Classes for a group of about 50 invited filmmakers, many of whom weren't Irish. These filmmakers, all of whom had works in various stages of development, also got to take part in one of the festival's most innovative programs, a series of individual meetings with potential financiers and co-producers. Like so much of the festival, the meetings were remarkably pleasant and laid back. Each of the filmmakers were scheduled for up to 10 meetings, lasting up to 25 minutes per coupling, with a pool of representatives from 35 different production companies throughout Europe and the United States. Reps from Miramax, Film Four, Ireland's Bord Scannan na hEirann, Hallmark Entertainment, and the Norwegian Film Institute were just some of the many companies taking part.
Among the several panels that took place at the festival, the one that created the most buzz was the annual Fleadh Blah! Moderated by Ted Sheehy, Irish correspondent for Screen International, the subject was "The State of Irish Cinema in the Light of Changing World Cinema." New York based film critic Godfrey Cheshire quickly set the tone with his observation that, as an outsider, the current state of Irish Cinema provoked two points of view: a well-deserved pat on the back for the last decade's great activity and stunning increase in international notoriety, as well as growing criticism for commercial imitation over aesthetics.
After the huge worldwide attention given Irish films such as Jim Sheridan's "My Left Foot" and Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game," Cheshire noted that Irish cinema of late has been unable to repeat those successes "perhaps because topicality and prosaic realism" have been overemphasized. He pointed to the fact that a majority of Irish feature films have concentrated on kitchen-sink portraits of people, youths in particular, overwhelmed by financial and political strife.
He urged Irish filmmakers not to abandon these issues, but to expand the mode in which they're told, to cross these and other stories, with other genres, such as love stories, action films, even children's films. He astutely used Neil Jordan's brilliant (and underrated in the United States) "The Butcher Boy" as an example of a film which told a typically Irish story, that of a troubled youth, in a wildly imaginative mix of styles.
"The European Union and the trend toward globalization runs counter to the purpose of a filmmaker in Ireland who wants to pursue the culturally-rich stories the Irish need to tell," said film producer, Lelia Doolan, one of the founders of the festival, in the discussion following Cheshire's talk. Many in the audience agreed with her, though several were less pessimistic, pointing to a recent spurt in audience attendance in Italy and France for smaller-budget locally produced product. The numbers in Ireland, however, are not so promising. Last year, only 5% of movie audiences went to see Irish films.
The opening film, "On The Edge," from filmmaker John Carney, was about a 19-year-old sent to a psychiatric hospital, in lieu of jail time, following a near-fatal car crash in a stolen car. It was warmly received by the audience, many of whom were Irish filmmakers, but wasn't much discussed. The same was true for Maeve Murphy's "Silent Grace," which told the story of a group of women during their 10-month stay in a Northern Ireland prison during the hunger strikes of 1980-81, though its provocative subject matter helped generate some buzz. "The Crooked Mile," somewhat lighter fare, directed by Stephen Kane, about a nine-year-old girl on the road with a medical school dropout and a goldfish, received the best response of the Irish films premiered.
Still, when on Sunday night the award was given for best first feature, this, and all Irish films, were overlooked in favor of a ragtag comedy (originally shot digitally, then transferred to 35 mm) from Sweden, "Jalla! Jalla!" A sloppy, but charming comedy about a young man of Arabic descent whose family wants him to marry an Arabic woman instead of the Swedish girl he loves, "Jalla! Jalla!" is often very funny, though ultimately a bit exhausting, as far too many scenes climax with a group of guys screaming and brawling. The film, directed by the promising Josef Fares, was the biggest success at Sweden's box office this year.
"Jalla! Jalla!" was shown as part of the fleadh's Nordic series, which also included works from Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, represented by the funky "101 Reyjavik," already playing at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin and currently playing at the Film Forum in New York.
In addition to several films by Kiarostami, including "Close Up" and "The Wind Will Carry Us," neither of which had been seen on Galway screens before, a series of films from Iran also made their Irish debuts. These included Jafar Panahi's superb "The Circle" (a last minute replacement for Marzieh Meshkini's equally good "The Day I Became A Woman") and Samara Makhmabaf's "Blackboards" ("Not my favorite," Godfrey Cheshire, an expert on Iranain cinema, told me, "but, like all Iranian films at the moment, worth seeing."). Also screened was the US/Iranian co-production from Jamsheed Akrami, "Friendly Persuasion," a documentary about working in the Iranian film industry.
There was also, of course, Kiarostami's documentary "ABC Africa," the best new film I saw at the fleadh. In fact, the documentaries screened were, in general, the most notable films at the festival. "If I Should Fall From Grace," from Ireland, had a fascinating subject: the dynamic, and often drunk, lead singer of the Irish band, The Pogues. Also noteworthy was American Eli Kabillio's "Fuck The Disabled," which told the story of gay, physically-challenged, often very funny Harlem-based white performance artist, Greg Walloch. The award for best documentary, however, went to the touching, if stylistically traditional "Promises," which explores the complexities of the Middle East conflict from the point of view of seven Israeli and Palestinian children living in Jerusalem.
There were also several shorts programs, which, with exception of the series of Nordic shorts, were all made in Ireland. In fact, many of these films were by filmmakers from Galway, and often funded with money from the local Galway Film Fund. The best of this pack was Julia Barrett's "Traveller's Tale," which followed a group of travelers, an Irish subculture of people who live in caravans and move from town to town. Not surprisingly, it won an award at the closing ceremony. Although the quality of the work in the shorts programs varied widely, the series was the most exciting part of the fleadh as, even when the film's missed their mark, their styles were varied, playful, even a bit daring compared to the features. This group of mostly new filmmakers demonstrated best that, despite the many financial and political difficulties Irish filmmakers are facing at the moment, there is a pool of promising talent out there waiting to make their mark.