Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Fleadh me to the moon

Talk about beating the odds.

I have reconciled myself to the fact that I am in a period of my life where I can attend, at best, only half of that marvelous annual event, the Galway Film Fleadh—despite the fact that it is the only film festival in the world that is within reasonable commuting distance of my abode. For the past few years—and probably for one more again—my presence is required in Dublin during the weekend portion of the Fleadh.

Yet, despite this limitation, I somehow managed to take in not one but both of the joint winners of the Best Irish Feature award (presented in association with the Irish video streaming site Volta), Peter Foott’s The Young Offenders and Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary. The latter flick was also honored with the Bingham Ray New Talent Award (in association with Magnolia Pictures) for Seána Kerslake’s performance in the title role. On top of that, I also managed to see the winner of the Best International Feature award, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople from New Zealand.

Yes, yes, there were lots of other awards and, yes, those ones were all for movies that I did not see. But I’m trying to make the glass half-full here. When it comes to obnoxious people always insisting that awards do not matter, I am generally one of the most obnoxious, but I still get a pretty good kick out of finding out that I managed to luck into screenings that won some of the main popularity contests.

Of the two winners of the top award, I would have to say that I would have put my thumb on the scale for Thornton’s film, the one about a frustrated young Drogheda woman coping with her old best friend’s seemingly perfect life. It was just so well made and moving and full of knowing insight. And the performances were all spot on. It is the kind of movie that just makes you walk out of the cinema feeling good about the state of filmmaking and maybe even the world—even though it could hardly be called a feel-good movie. Foott’s romp about young chancers in Cork is certainly more entertaining, in a bust-your-gut-laughing sort of way. It too has its insights, and the humor is so well executed that the movie transcends its dumb-and-dumber-like premise.

Since my sampling of the Fleadh fare was so limited, there really is no point in my making generalizations about it. But, of course, I will do it anyway. One gets the definite feeling that Irish filmmaking continues to be very much alive and well and, as in the U.S. and in lots of other countries, much of the most exciting stuff is happening among young auteurs working with little or no budget but with technology that makes their work look as polished as many flicks with a Hollywood budget. The challenge is no longer getting the movie made. The main problem is now getting one’s great work in front of eyeballs. Film festivals are one way. Streaming video sites are another.

Most of the films I saw were Irish, which seems appropriate enough for an Irish film festival, but in past years that was not always the case. There is always plenty of interesting stuff to see from other countries. What was striking about the Irish films I saw was how rooted each one was in its particular Irish location. Paul and Kate McCarroll’s punk music documentary Outcasts by Choice evoked a very specific time and place, which was sectarian-plagued Belfast of a few decades ago. Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary more or less made Drogheda, County Louth, a character in the film, creating an image of the place that was vivid even for those of us who have only passed through it. And if Drogheda was a character in that flick, then Cork was the virtual star of Foott’s The Young Offenders. The characters and heavily accented banter could arguably exist nowhere else, and the location shots amounted to a virtual travelogue of the Rebel County. I do not know what the film’s prospects are for an international release, but I cannot imagine that audiences in other regions would not take to those zany Corkonians the way they did to Dublin’s northsiders in The Commitments. The only obstacle I can see is the fact that, dialog-wise, the film falls into a sort of uncanny valley where it would be offputting to read subtitles for a movie that is in English but where whole sections would be unintelligible for many English speakers.

Personally, I do hope that The Young Offenders does make its way around the world. It is time that international movie audiences learned that there is more to Ireland than quaint farms and Santry. Having said that, the other Irish movie I saw at the Fleadh—Naji Bechara, Caoimhe Clancy and Iseult Imbert’s The Randomer—also firmly established its geographical location. Like A Date for Mad Mary, it involved a woman on a quest that requires dating a series of men, but under completely different circumstances. You could argue that it is a story that could take place in any major First World city, but the Gerry Stembridge’s screenplay captures something specific about modern Dublin—not the city in The Commitments but the south-of-the-Liffey zone of young cosmopolitan professionals who are as far removed from farmers and social welfare recipients as any cast of characters on an American circle-of-friends sitcom and yet are still uniquely Irish.

As to the Fleadh itself, I continue to miss the participation of the multiplex cinema at the retail park down the road. I have many fond memories of the low-key screenings there of unusual fare from all corners of the world, away from the hustle and bustle and buzz and chock-a-block crowds in the Town Hall Theatre. My new favorite venue is turning out to be the Town Hall’s upstairs Studio. It is small and cozy and limited to flicks that can be played from a disc, but I have seen some really interesting stuff there the past two years. And it can be a welcome oasis from the madness going on downstairs.

On the other hand, one is never going to see any of the winners of the Fleadh’s various awards in the Studio. So it will always be worth it to stand in the queues—sometimes extending out into the rain—and negotiate the crowds on the ground floor in order to see the really good stuff on the big screen.

-S.L., 11 July 2016

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