Andy Devane looks back over this year’s hugely successful IrishFilmFesta in Rome.
The eighth edition of the IrishFilmFesta ran from 26-29 March at its usual base, Rome’s state-of-the-art Casa del Cinema, and was marked by its by now customary large crowds, interesting guest speakers, and diverse programme of films.
The four-day event kicked off with Adam & Paul – produced 11 years ago and already identified as an “Irish classic” by the festival’s visionary artistic director Susanna Pellis. Set in inner-city Dublin, the film follows the hapless existence of two childhood friends whose day-to-day lives have degenerated into a relentless quest to feed their drug habits. The movie is stylised and features much physical, almost slapstick comedy, counteracted by moments of poignancy, desperation and ultimately great sadness.
Introducing the film, Pellis recalled seeing it for the first time a decade ago and knowing, instantly, that it was a “work of genius.” She also described it as a turning point in Irish cinema, when directors could move on from portraying The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and hailed its director Lenny Abrahamson as the “most interesting film director of new Irish cinema.”
Next came A City Dreaming, a nostalgic tribute to Derry, documenting half a century of city life from the poverty of the early 20th-century to a later, darker era when Derry made international headlines for terrible reasons. The documentary is narrated by the late radio and television broadcaster Gerry Anderson. After its screening, the film’s director Mark McCauley described the work as Anderson’s “love letter to his city.” McCauley, a camerman who spent much time filming in war zones such as Baghdad and Sarajevo, drew on his experience to create this seamlessly-sequenced portrait of “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”
The festival continued with the short film The Good Word by Northern Irish actor and director Stuart Graham, who starred in Volkswagen Joe, last year’s winner of the Rome festival’s Live Action category in the short film competition. Introducing Graham’s 21-minute film, Pellis acknowledged that she shouldn’t lay her cards on the table but declared The Good Word her personal favourite in the shorts competition, quickly pointing out that she was not on the jury tasked with selecting a winner. It was easy to see why she was so enthusiastic. Set in 1950s Ireland, the film follows a preacher, Ivan Cutler, who calls on the Taggart household to spread the gospel. From the beginning, the atmosphere is tense, the cinematography rich, the script taut and surprising.
The evening ended with the romantic comedy Poison Pen, starring Lochlann Ó Mearáin and Aoibhinn McGinnity, about a prize-winning author who is coerced into writing for a tabloid gossip magazine. The film was the end result of a Masters in film production at Dublin’s Filmbase, and the work of five young Irish directors and producers, four of whom were present in Rome. The film’s two producers Aine Coady, Sharon Cronin, and two of its three directors Lorna Fitzsimons and Jennifer Shortall (missing was Steven Benedict), said that the film’s multiple directors and sets as well as a scramble to raise funds, meant there was pressure until the last minute. However. they heaped praise on the film’s actors, several of whom are big names, for working for free.
Friday’s programme began with Ballymurphy, a 38-minute documentary giving voice to the relations of the victims of the massacre of 11 civilians in Belfast by the British army’s parachute regiment in 1971, whose casualties included a mother of eight young children, and a priest aiding a wounded man. The raw and moving documentary was shown in Rome just hours after Taoiseach Enda Kenny renewed his calls for an independent enquiry into the massacre. Speaking after the documentary, Seán Murray, the director of Ballymurphy, said that the political landscape of Northern Ireland is now entering a new phase, with a peaceful future where the only conflict was the “battle of narratives.” However he insisted that it was “paramount to give families of victims of state violence their say.” When asked by an audience member what the difference was between Ballymurphy and the later Bloody Sunday, Murray said it was simple: “There were no cameras at Ballymurphy.”
The evening continued with Brendan Behan: The Roaring Boy, directed by Maurice Sweeney. The documentary follows Northern Irish actor, writer and director Adrian Dunbar on a journey from Dublin to Paris, London and New York, to discover the real story behind the controversial poet and playwright. It is a touching and compassionate account of a troubled, multi-faceted man who battled demons all his life before eventually succumbing to an early death from diabetes, caused by alcoholism, at the age of 41.
The screening was followed by an interview with the colourful Dunbar by Pellis and Prof. John McCourt of Roma Tre University. Dunbar has played Behan many times in the play Brendan at the Chelsea, written by Brendan’s niece, Janet Behan. It is evident from the documentary, and even more so from the subsequent interview, that Dunbar has a deep connection and admiration for Behan. He said his motivation for making the film was to “deconstruct the image of Behan the alcoholic” and “refocus attention on the fact that he was a writer, a very important writer, and poet.”
Pellis invited Dunbar to read some of Behan’s work in the writer’s own voice. Not bashful by nature, Dunbar asked why he would read when he could “sing a bar of a song instead”. And so did, very well, in Irish, before sitting down and transforming himself into Behan in a surprisingly convincing manner.
The evening ended with Niall Heery’s comedy Gold, preceded by the five-minute short The Weather Report by Paul Murphy, centred around a suspicious phone call to a Mayo lighthouse during World War Two. Gold tells the story of estranged father Ray, played by David Wilmot, whose return to his hometown after 12 years to reconnect with his teenage daughter Abbie has a life-changing effect on everybody involved, including his former partner’s husband Frank, played by James Nesbitt. This offbeat and quirky film features a solid performance from up-and-coming English actress Maisie Williams (Abbie), best known for her role as Arya Stark in the HBO television series Game of Thrones.
Saturday’s programme began with a series of short films: Somewhere Down The Line, an animated film by Julien Regnard following one man’s loves and losses; Anya by Damien O’Connor, a touching animated film charting 20 years in the life of a Russian orphan; The Duel by Alex Sherwood, Ben Harper and Sean Mullen, an animated encounter between two wizards battling over a book; Ghost Train by Lee Cronin which centres around a reluctant annual pilgrimage by two brothers to a creepy fairground with a tragic past; The Ledge End of Phil by Paul Ó Muiris, an animation about a man who must take a leap of faith or be trapped forever.
The Break by Ken Williams, Denis Fitzpatrick, follows Tim and his family as they take a break by the sea, but perhaps they outstay their welcome; Coma by Ian Lawton is filmed on an iPhone 4s and begins with a guy waking up to the sound of an alarm. I’ve Been a Sweeper by Ciarán Dooley follows the final working day of the Sweeper as he cleans Dublin’s iconic pubs; Keeping Time by Steve Woods is about a modern power station worker as he dances in a circle of warriors, combining traditional moves with modern dance; The Measure of a Man follows a young man struggling to come to terms with his father’s death; Novena by Anna Rodgers is set in north-east Ireland and shows two gay and lesbian people invited to speak in a church; Deadly by Aidan McAteer, is an animated film about a stiff called Boney who has a run-in with a spirited old lady named Bridie.
The shorts were interspersed by encounters with two of the films’ directors. Lee Cronin described his film Ghost Train, which stars Owen McDonnell and Steve Wall, as being about “decisions we make as children and how they effect us as we grow up.” Paul Ó Muiris said his film The Ledge End of Phil was about the “choice between security and risk”, and whether to “be active or be passive.” Later that evening both films won the festival’s Short Film Prize.
The shorts were followed by Patrick’s Day, Terry McMahon’s award-winning film starring Moe Dunford as a 26-year-old schizophrenic who experiences love for the first time. This disturbing and emotive movie gripped every viewer in the packed cinema; one particularly shocking sequence, with its jarring use of sound and graphic imagery, caused several people to leave; others were frozen with their hands to their faces. Like coming to the end of a powerful novel, when the lights came on the audience was left reeling.
As the film’s director Terry McMahon, producer Tim Palmer, and star Moe Dunford took to the stage, they were greeted with sustained applause. With his tall frame, John Wayne swagger and frequent use of unprintable language, McMahon is the tough guy of Irish cinema. Patrick’s Day, he said, is a “story of loneliness and courage,” and was inspired by his experience of working in a psychiatric hospital as a youth. Dunford, whose performance is nothing short of astounding, said he drew inspiration for his demanding role from a close family member. “In many ways”, he said, ” the more you get to know Patrick, you realise he is more normal than many of the film’s other characters.”
Patrick’s Day was followed by An Bronntanas/The Gift by Tom Collins. Filmed entirely in Irish, the thriller follows a lifeboat crew whose members make a dramatic discovery during a rescue mission. The film was preceded by the 11-minute Rúbaí by Louise Ní Fhiannachta, also in Gaelic, about a little girl who refuses to join her classmates as they prepare to receive First Holy Communion.
On Sunday, the final afternoon began with the Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea, an animated re-visitation of a Celtic myth featuring the voices of Fionnula Flanagan and Brendan Gleeson. The film is directed by Tomm Moore, who co-directed The Secret of Kells and is a founding member of the Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon.
This was followed by Frank, a wildly original movie which Pellis described quite rightly as “difficult to classify.” Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film centres around the young aspirant musician Jon (Gleeson) who joins an eccentric band led by the mysterious musical genius Frank (Fassbender) who hides behind a gigantic papier-mâché mask.
Susanna Pellis interviewing Lenny Abrahamson
Later, introducing Frank’s director Lenny Abrahamson, Pellis said she had waited eight years to finally welcome him to the festival, which has now screened all four of his movies. The post-film encounter took a surreal turn when audience members were treated to fan-like Frank masks, hand-made by Floriana, one of the festival organisers.
Pellis said that while the festival does not have a theme outside of presenting the best of Irish contemporary cinema, she identified the link between excessive talent and mental illness as a possible common thread to this year’s programme, linking Patrick’s Day, Brendan Behan: The Roaring Boy, and Frank.
Abrahamson said that his film railed against the idea of the American cultural axiom that “if you want something bad enough you can succeed”, as well as today’s “X-Factor ideology”. He said the film was also against the notion that it was “somehow cool to be crazy”, adding: “That is to diminish the reality of some terrible suffering and turning it into some kind of hip motif.”
Inspired by the lives of troubled, unconventional musicians such as Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart, Abrahamson said: “We wanted to make a film about the chaotic, amazing business of making stuff, we wanted to see that happen, not just hear some finished pieces.” The director described Gyllenhaal as “formidable, artistocratic, and extraordinary”, while he equated Fassbender’s effect on women with scenes from Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which the feathered creatures hurl themselves at windows en masse.
The audience was then plunged back to the dark days of Belfast during The Troubles, with the festival’s swansong, ’71 by London director Yann Demange. This relentlessly fast-paced, hard-hitting film centres around newly-arrived British soldier Gary Hunt (played by Jack O’Connell) who finds himself behind enemy lines as his first day on duty descends into nightmare. The movie, featuring strong performances by Dublin actors David Wilmot and Killian Scott, earned Demange a prize for Best Director at the 2014 British Independent Film Awards.
The IrishFilmFesta goes from strength to strength and Pellis and her crew are already organising next year’s ninth edition.
Andy Devane is the editor in chief of the magazine Wanted in Rome.