Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Film thirst quenched

I actually had to check the street signs and to see what side of the street people were driving on. I was starting to swear that I must be back in Seattle. And not just because I was getting drenched running from one cinema to another during a film festival. Galway had taken on a Seattle air.

Frankly, I have always thought of Galway as the Seattle of Ireland. Look at all the similarities. Both are port cities on the west coast. Both are located in beautiful settings, surrounded by lovely green scenery. Both are politically liberal. (Part of the irony about the Galway’s water contamination that I was going on about last week was that the mayor of the city, at the time, was a member of the Green Party. You know, the political party that is all about keeping the environment clean? He did make a big stink once the water situation had come to light and, in the best tradition of Ray Nagin of New Orleans, demanded to know why the national government wasn’t doing something about the situation. The national environment minister responded by asking why the city hadn’t spent the millions of euros allocated for a new water filtering system last year. After that, the Green mayor ran for parliament but lost. The new mayor is from the Labour Party. But I’ve digressed.)

Other similarities between Seattle and Galway: Both have vibrant universities. Both have a lively arts community, with strong theater traditions. And both have cool film festivals. Both have had their populations invigorated by influxes of Scandinavian newcomers. (Galway was actually founded by Viking invaders about 1,000 years ago. Seattle has Ballard.) Of course, I’m not the first to notice the similarities between the two cities. In fact, they are officially sister cities or, as they phrase it here, they are twinned.

But what really had me feeling last week that I was back in Seattle was the fact that everybody was treating me so darn nicely. Seattle is famous for how nicely people treat one another. I have no doubt that this is due to the Scandinavian influence. People do not cross the street against the light. If you signal for a lane change, other cars make room for you. (Try that on an Irish motorway!) People smile at strangers. Basically, Seattle is just a nice place. No matter how many Californians move there, the niceness always persists. I once heard a story second-hand which I instinctively know to be true. A fellow moved to Seattle from the East Coast. Some time later, when a friend from his former city came for a visit and they were out driving, the transplant said, “Watch this! You’re not going to believe it. When this light turns green, I am not going to move, and the car behind me will not honk.” The friend refused to believe it. But sure enough, the driver waited there as the light turned green, then yellow, then red. And the driver behind never honked his horn. Now, that’s not something that will happen every time it’s tried. But I believe it’s happened.

Now, I’m not saying that the Galway drivers were similarly tolerant last week. But what I am saying is that the people working at the Galway Film Fleadh were exceptionally nice. Don’t get me wrong. The people at the Film Fleadh are nice every year. But this year they were especially nice. I mentioned last week how someone actually rang days before the Fleadh to thank me for sending in my registration check. And how people seemed familiar with my name when I arrived—when there was no particular reason that they should be. That’s how it went all week. People working at the Fleadh seemed to be going out of their way to make me feel special and welcome. And it wasn’t just the people working at the Fleadh. The other filmgoers seemed especially friendly this year, although film festival attendees, as a rule, are usually a fairly friendly lot. I guess what it comes down to is that most everybody seemed to be there to have a good time and to see the movies. Some years at some film festivals, there is a predominant element that seems to be there to be seen, to be part of a scene or make connections. More than ever, this year it all seemed to be about a love of film.

Before I get all weepy, let me add that the films I saw were really good this year. There wasn’t any knockout movie that sometime emerges above all the others in the memory, but there were several that were pretty special, and most were at the least pretty darn good. I didn’t come out of any screening feeling I had wasted my time. Some of the best ones were the classic revivals. There were lots of pretexts for these because this Fleadh had a whole slew of strands, themes and tributes. There were no fewer than four full-fledged tributes to film figures. Jeremy Irons was there to host the annual Actors’ Masterclass, and in return the Fleadh screened four of his films: Volker Schloendorff’s Swann in Love, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Adrian Lyne’s Lolita and Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman—as well as making him sit through a public interview. There was also a tribute to Fionnula Flanagan, including the role most people would know her for: Felicity Huffman’s mother in Transamerica. Her previous most high-profile role would have been as Ian Bannen’s wife in Waking Ned Devine. But she has been around for decades, playing numerous supporting roles in movies and TV guest roles in everything from Bonanza to Lost. Other Flanagan films screened at the Fleadh were Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (in which Flanagan played a creepy housekeeper) and Some Mother’s Son, which did double duty as part of its director, Belfast-born Terry George. The Fleadh also screened the other two of George’s best three films: Some Mother’s Son and the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda. Subject of yet another tribute was German director Volker Schloendorff, who hosted the Fleadh’s annual Director’s Masterclass. Films of his screened in the Fleadh’s schedule were The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum, The Tin Drum, Strike and Swann in Love, which was also part of the Jeremy Irons tribute.

In addition to all of that, there was the de rigueur gay strand (Out On Film), as well as a Polish Season. This last theme was a brilliant stroke that seems obvious in hindsight. As the Fleadh’s selection of Polish films demonstrated, Poland has an extremely rich cinema. And such recognition in Ireland today is totally appropriate since there are so many Poles living and working in the country. You would have to be living a fairly sheltered life in Ireland not to come into contact with Poles on a regular basis. Ireland’s booming economy has attracted many people from the new European Union countries looking for opportunities. And, speaking of really nice people, I have always found the Poles particularly nice. As much as I hate to generalize about a whole nationality (okay, I don’t hate it; I actually enjoy doing it on a regular basis), I find Poles very likeable. I remember going to Paris years ago, after a long absence, and being amazed at how friendly Parisians had become. When I went to cafés, the servers would greet me with and smile and happily talk to me in English. That had never happened before. Paris has really changed, I thought. Then it dawned to me that the people serving me weren’t French at all. They mostly seemed to be Poles. And, as friendly as the Irish can be, I have to admit that, when I go into a shop in Ireland, I am always happy when I find it is a Pole waiting on me instead of some sullen Irish teenager.

But the Polish Season wasn’t a great idea simply because the Poles are nice people. It was a great idea because they are a lot of really great Polish films. I saw two of them (Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds), and there were a half-dozen more that I didn’t manage to see, by great directors like Krzysztof Zanussi and Krzysztof Kieslowski. As the two Polish films I did see demonstrate, this country’s filmmakers have had an influence far beyond their own borders. Not only did Polanski go on to work in France and America, but top American directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have, for example, cited Ashes and Diamonds as an inspiration.

One of the really fun things about attending film festivals is to get the chance to see and hear actors and directors we admire. As usual, there was a good turnout from the Irish talent, including directors Robert Quinn (Cré na Cille), Brendan Grant (Tonight Is Cancelled) and Lenny Abrahamson (Garage), as well as Mark O’Halloran, who wrote Garage and had a main acting role in Tonight Is Cancelled. Particularly fun for me was seeing a couple of English directors I had followed for years, Julien Temple and the legendary Nicolas Roeg.

If I had to sum up the 19th annual Galway Film Fleadh in one word? I think you already know the answer. Nice.

-S.L., 19 July 2007


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