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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Another matchless fleadh

July is a big month for Galway. For six glorious days early in the month there is, of course, the Galway Film Fleadh. Immediately following is the Galway Arts Festival. And that is no sooner over than it is time for the (sound trumpets!) Galway Races. The Irish love races, and the Galway races are one of the biggest racing events of the year. I usually try to avoid stereotypes and clichés but, darn it, sometimes they are just true. The races involve all four of the Irish people’s all-time favorite activities: 1) wagering, 2) drinking, 3) being in crowded spaces with zillions of other people and 4) wagering.

At my house we have been trying for months to get a man to come out to do some work with a big, heavy machine on our property. We finally got him to come by this week. The chat went great. Everything was set, he was all primed to do it, and there was nothing to get in the way of starting. Then he said, “Right after the races.” I had forgotten. All economic forces here come to a halt during July because of “the races.”

Fortunately for film buffs, the film fleadh provides a respite from popular Irish cultural events like the races or Gaelic sports or any of the other stuff that goes on during the summer that normal people are interested in. As noted last time, the weather was suitably damp for indoor film viewing, although the final two days turned annoyingly warm and sunny. In greeting the sparse crowd that arrived for a 6 p.m. screening on the very warm final (Sunday) afternoon, fleadh program director Sally Ann O’Reilly thanked the audience for showing up on such a bright, sunny day, especially with the Galway-Mayo “hurling match” going on. Now, Sally Ann gets points for knowing that Galway and Mayo have a longstanding sports rivalry and that any match between the two counties is a big deal and also for knowing that they were playing each other that afternoon. But it’s pretty bad when even I (who pays little attention to sports in general and even less to Irish sports in particular) know that it was a (Gaelic) football match and that, in fact, Mayo doesn’t even have a hurling team. (Wow, I know way more than I ever meant to about Irish sports!) Anyway, this is the sort of person who attends film festivals, whether in Ireland or anywhere else. That is, people who don’t have a clue about what most other people are tuned into.

Galway’s film festival isn’t as big as Cork’s in terms of the number of days it runs or the number of films as shown. But it has a more personal feel to it. It all feels more accessible. You feel like you get to know the other attendees in some sense, if not literally. And that includes the well-known names that invariably show up. A Canadian acquaintance that I made was over the moon that she found herself drinking in the same pub on Shop Street as Matt Dillon. Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson spent a good while mingling in the Town Theatre’s lobby after the screening of their film The Dying Gaul. And every year there is some guy there who I think looks an awful lot like Steven Spielberg but, nah, it couldn’t be… (Could it?) Just about every new feature film had the director there, and there was ample opportunity to approach him or her and compliment him or her on his or her work, if one felt so inclined. A nice treat at the closing film, Anthony Byrne’s Short Order, was the appearance of John Hurt, who has a role in the movie. Now, this is a man who seems to enjoy film festivals, even though he is clearly very busy with work and doesn’t need to be there—unlike a lot of the hungrier younger actors and directors who show up.

Irish film festivals are always an opportunity to take stock of the state of irish feature filmmaking, and this year’s fleadh was no exception. There were five new Irish feature films screened. In addition to Byrne’s Short Order, there was Pearse Elliott’s The Mighty Celt, Dermot Doyle’s Hill 16, Perry Ogden’s Pavee Lackeen and Patrick Kenny’s Winter’s End. Elliott’s film was a major film with recognizable stars (Robert Carlyle and Gillian Anderson) as well as with a real find of a adolescent actor in Tyrone McKenna. Byrne as well had considerable resources for Short Order, presumably on the strength of his work on the short Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill. The other films, however, demonstrate what is rapidly becoming a well-established fact in filmmaking. As with (ahem) movie commentary publishing, technology has pretty much eliminated all barriers to filmmaking for anyone with enough drive and creativity. Twenty-thousand euro seems to be the new standard price tag for DIY feature filmmaking. Doyle and Kenny wrote their own scripts and shot their movies on mini digital video cameras. Computer software was able to give the films the feel of film stock rather than video and simplified the editing process. Both directors managed to find actors, who ranged from competent to good, as well as behind-the-camera crew to collaborate. Talent is now the only meaningful barrier to making one’s own releasable feature film. Distribution, however, is another issue. But how long until everyone starts downloading (legally, I mean) movies made with all sorts of budgets from the internet the way we acquire music and podcasts? In the meantime, film festivals like Galway’s give the DIY filmmaker a shot at getting a deal for getting into cinemas or at least a video release.

One movie that I saw at the fleadh in particular sticks in my mind. It was a bizarre coincidence that the very day that I saw Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now was the same day that apparent suicide bombs went off in London. In one way it seemed distasteful, if not downright obscene to be watching an “entertainment” about suicide bombers that evening. On the other hand, it was entirely appropriate. Abu-Assad has made a movie that speaks from his (Palestinian) point of view but which also has a definite sense of humanity. I cannot imagine that anyone seeing it would be inspired to become a suicide bomber themselves. It didn’t make the young bombers seem particularly heroic. Life on the West Bank was certainly shown to be bleak, and in the final scenes of the sparkling shops and beaches of Tel Aviv, you could certainly understand Palestinian bitterness. But I’m sure that viewers, other than myself, were also intrigued about why the man sending the young men to self-destruction and mass murder was wearing an expensive suit and driving a Mercedes. If only the two young men in the film had asked the question as well.

In the question-and-answer session following the screening, a few people tried to turn the discussion into a political tirade. One woman asked the director for ideas on how to more effectively struggle against Israel. A bit frustrated since he wanted to talk his film rather than politics, Abu-Assad gave a lovely response, in effect echoing one of the characters in his film, that the answer was not for one side to defeat or destroy the other but for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in dignity, equality and respect.

-S.L., 14 July 2005

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