Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The fleadh is really my bag

After missing a year, because I was in the States at this time last summer, I am back at the Galway Film Fleadh. And this immediately raises the quite reasonable question: what sort of person spends six days indoors in cinemas during the height of summer? Actually, this question is reasonable only to someone who 1) is not a film fanatic and 2) hasn’t experienced a soggy, damp summer in the west of Ireland.

So, we’ve established that, in terms of climate anyway, Galway ain’t Cannes. But it still merits a special place in my heart in that, attending for the fourth time since 1998 (no two years consecutively), I feel like something of an old hand here. And it is, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, the only film festival close enough to my residence to which I can reasonably commute from home. This isn’t to say that I can walk on foot to it, as I could during my glory days at the Seattle International Film Festival, but at least I know Galway well to have sussed out where I might have a prayer of finding parking. (“Prayer” is the operative word, since the best place to look is next to the cathedral.)

Even though the film fleadh is in its 17th year, it is still small enough that it has that comfortable, informal feel that sometimes gets lost when film fests get a little too big and too important. For instance, what price could you put on an experience like the following? I walk into the lobby of the Town Hall Theatre and proceed to the clearly marked film fleadh information desk. I am looking for my delegate bag with the official program, tee-shirt and badge. Now, I know from experience I will not get them. I never get them on the first attempt. But the way in which I do not get them is always different and fresh and unusual. For instance, this year there is an attractive young woman sitting on the film fleadh information desk. I gamely ask about my delegate bag, and she immediately pouts in a charming eastern European accent, “That’s it! I’m not sitting here anymore. People just keep coming up to me and asking me questions!”

Another attempt later resulted in my being told that I would need to come back the next day to collect my coveted bag. So I came back the next day and confidently asked for my bag. There were two women on hand to help me out this time. They asked me my name and visually scanned a computer printout for it. It wasn’t there, but I didn’t panic. I have learned from previous years of attending the fleadh, indeed from living in the west of Ireland, that these things may never go smoothly but they always sort themselves out. I asked to see the list myself to see if I could spot my own name. That’s when I saw the problem. The list contained names like Matt Dillon and Paul Schrader and Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson.

Here’s the problem, I explained helpfully. These are all famous people. I would be on the list of people who are not famous. The ladies seemed insulted by the notion that I would think that the fleadh would be so non-egalitarian as to segregate people into two separate, unequal lists, based on fame or the lack of fame. I tried putting it a different way. I’m guessing, I said, that people like Matt Dillon and Paul Schrader didn’t post in a check to pay for their delegate bag and tickets to the films. I’m sure they are attending for free. I actually posted in money for the privilege of sitting in the dark for a week and getting little sleep. I must be on a list other than the comp list. There was a flurry of searching through papers on various tables, and finally they found it. I was on a different list. I didn’t actually get a look at that list with my own eyes, but I am pretty sure that, at the top of it, there was a header that read “People Who Are Not Famous.”

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that only people who are not famous have problems getting their delegate goodies. In fact, at the 2001 film fleadh, I had a pleasant but brief chat with Cillian Murphy (most recently seen in Batman Begins), who was also trying to get his.

In fairness, most of the people on the famous list are there because they are actually doing some work at the festival. Dillon, mainly known as an actor, is presenting his first directing effort, City of Ghosts, as well as sitting down for a public interview with an RTÉ radio presenter. Schrader, who rose to prominence as the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and went on to write (and direct) many other notable films, is conducting a Screen Writing Masterclass. Scott and Clarkson are conducting an Actors’ Masterclass. Mexican director Luis Mandoki, whose American films include White Palace, the 1993 remake of Born Yesterday and When a Man Loves a Woman, is conducting a Directors’ Masterclass. Also on the comp list is an Irish cinematographer named Seamus Deasy. He has worked on a lot of Irish films, including The Boy from Mercury, The General, Night Train, Accelerator and When the Sky Falls, the “other” Veronica Guerin movie, starring Joan Allen. Some of these are being shown at the fleadh, as well Deasy’s first film, the 1979 Irish language feature Poitín, and his latest, Pearse Elliott’s The Mighty Celt. At every one of his films that I’ve seen at the fleadh so far, Deasy has been right smack dab in the middle of the audience watching them along with everyone else and apparently having a great time doing so.

There is one major difference at this fleadh, compared to the last one I attended two years ago. Since then, the improbable Irish smoking ban has come into effect and there is no longer any smoking going on in the pub upstairs in the Town Hall. I have mixed feelings about smoking bans (libertarian impulses versus health impulses), but I have to say it is so much nicer to sit up there without having to breathe a lot of cigarette smoke—even though I feel sorry for all of the smokers standing out in the summer rain.

Another important aspect of any Irish film festival is, of course, the alcohol. Film festivals here always seem to have sponsorship from some brewery or distillery, and that makes a huge difference to festival goers because this can determine what beverages are actually available in the pub. For instance, the old Dublin Film Festival was sponsored by Guinness, so that meant you were more or less obliged to drink Guinness. The Cork Film Festival used to be sponsored by Cork brewer Murphy’s, which meant you had to drink Murphy’s. When Murphy’s got acquired, the lager of choice changed to Heineken. When the Dublin Film Festival fell apart and the new Dublin International Film Festival rose over its ashes, the powers that be apparently decided that the new festival had to consist of stronger stuff. Hence the name Jameson (whiskey) was added to the festival name.

Well, this year the film fleadh is sponsored by Belgian brewer Stella Artois, and that works just fine for me. Not only is their lager quite nice, but Stella Artois does great film-oriented advertisements. In elaborate recreations of real or imagined classic French language films, their adverts feature a punch line built around the idea that Stella Artois is “reassuringly expensive.” The one most often shown is called Les chaussures rouges (The Red Shoes) and involves a peasant who works like a dog to save up the money to buy his mother the fancy shoes she dreams of—only to blow the money at the last minute on a single glass of Stella. Any company with this kind of appreciation for movies is a great sponsor for a film festival. No matter how pricy their brew is.

* * *

As I write this, I am listening to coverage of the bomb blasts in London. It is, of course, receiving non-stop attention from news sources in Europe and the U.S., which comes as no surprise. It is worth remembering, though, that this has become a way of life for people in parts of Iraq and other troubled spots in the world. Naturally, we pay more attention when it hits close to home, and I certainly have that feeling myself, having been in King’s Cross station, with my wife and child, just a few weeks ago. When things calm down, the usual suspects will get back to their debate over whether our governments actually brought this about through their own actions or whether this merely shows the face of Islamo-fascists, who already had all the provocation they needed in their heads for this and all their other atrocities (which, any given day, actually tend to kill more Moslems than Westerners).

For now, however, this is one of those times when the French have the right words. We are all Londoners now.

-S.L., 7 July 2005

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