(Bernadette Devlin McAliskey)
LIT Film Festival Keynote Speech and Screening with Lelia Doolan
LIT Millennium Theatre, Limerick.
Friday the 27th of April at 9.30am
The keynote speech at any festival is always a treat and this years offering was no exception. Lelia Doolan is the ‘whose who of Irish film and television’. Lelia is a not only a producer, but a director, actress and was one of the founders of the Galway Film Fleadh.
Lelia has had many achievements including acting and presenting for RTE following the establishment of RTE in 1961. She was also a producer/director, following training in the United States, at the station. In her time there she was responsible for the establishment of ‘The Riordans’. Shortly after she was made head of light entertainment and resigned with Jack Dowling and Bob Quinn in protest at the political and commercial policies of RTE. Together, the three wrote a book detailing their experience at the station, Sit Down and be Counted.
Following her exit from RTE, she was artistic director of the Abbey for two years. She then returned to academia, pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at Queen’s University. While at Queen’s, she also worked in community video and adult education in Belfast. She then taught at the College of Commerce, Rathmines between 1979 and 1988, where she established the first Irish course in Media Communications.
In 1987 she produced Reefer and the Model, with director Joe Comerford. In April 1993 she was appointed chairperson of the Irish Film Board, a role she fulfilled for three years before retiring. She was also a founder and director of the Galway Film Fleadh. She recently won an IFTA for her documentary Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey (2011).
Attending the speech and screening was an intimate crowd of film students from all over Ireland and some film professionals.
Due to a minor glitch the event began a little late. Lelia, ever the professional, entertained the crowd with a couple of interesting anecdotes from her time as head of the Galway Film Fleadh. One of these was a funny story about a Hungarian director and the screening of his film at the Fleadh. She explained how the audience was completely unaware that it was going to be all in Hungarian. The director was also unaware that they had received the wrong copy of his film. Apparently the audience’s and the director’s faces were a picture.
Once the screening began you could not hear a pin drop, the place was so quiet. The screening was of Lelia’s IFTA award winning documentary film; Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey (2011). The documentary was primarily about the public life of well-known Northern Ireland civil rights activist and feminist, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Through the words of Bernadette the audience is afforded the opportunity to reflect on the history of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
The film contains some fantastic archive news footage from ABC, BBC, ITN, Anderson Town News and RTE. It is narrated by Bernadette in a set of intimate interviews. The piece outlines the main events of her public life. These include her being a member of the People’s Democracy movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. She was elected MP for Mid-Ulster when she was just a 21 years-old student and rattled the Wilson government and the Westminster establishment. She witnessed the Bloody Sunday massacre, and went on to co-found the Irish Republican Socialist Party, only to leave it soon afterwards. She survived an assassination attempt while campaigning for the H-Block hunger strikers in the early 1980s. Her family suffered harassment for years beyond that. This documentary is a very honest portrayal of this remarkable Irish woman and it is a story that should not be forgotten.
There was a questions and answers session afterwards with Lelia, as director and producer. It was a great opportunity to ‘pick the brains’ of one of the most important women in Irish television and film. Lelia was asked by a member of the audience how she got such great archive footage. She replied that it was very difficult to get her hands on it and they spent years looking all over Ireland, Britain and theUnited States. In the end she pulled in favours and bit by bit she got what she wanted. She especially thanked Barbara in RTE Archives for getting her some great material. She was also asked did they plan early on to tell the story in chronological order. Lelia replied that it was not a conscious decision to make it this way. It just happened to fall naturally into this order. She then reflected that they had made the decision early on to just let Bernadette’s words and the news footage tell the story. This is why there are no interviews with other politicians. Bernadette also had to agree the final cut of anything produced.
What was interesting from a historical point of view is that this is a history that most of us have lived through but never really talked about. A lot of the students in the audience reflected afterwards that they had never even heard of some of the events, which was shocking. To be honest this event was the highlight of the whole festival for me. To have access to one of the most interesting and experienced members of the Irish media was a real treat.