Sarah Cullen takes a look at Lily, Graham Cantwell’s short film about a girl with a secret, who is faced with the greatest challenge of her young life.
“I’m not homophobic. I have lots of gay friends,” scoffs a character in Graham Cantwell’s Filmbase-produced short film Lily. Indeed, it is claims such as this that seem to ring out, almost like a refrain, across our so-called tolerant society: a society in which bigoted actions are often cloaked in liberal speech. The character who speaks these words is here is a secondary school teacher (Lynette Callaghan), something that shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, in our post-referendum society, many Irish schools are still unwilling or unable to address the requirements of its gay, lesbian and transgender students. Lily deftly illustrates this failure, taking as its focus the lack of adequate LGBT information provided in a sexual education class. It’s just too early for Ireland as a nation to start patting itself on the back in relation to LGBT rights: if we continue to fail some of our most vulnerable members of society – children – how can we claim to be inclusive?
This is what the eponymous protagonist discovers when she attempts to come out in school. After confiding in her friend, Violet (Leah McNamara), about her sexuality, Lily (Clara Harte) becomes the target of bullying from fellow students. As a result, she suffers a violent encounter in which a group of girls corner her in the bathroom and leave her with some serious injuries. Lily discovers that her parents are of little help and turns instead to her close friend Simon (Dean Quinn). Simon is already known around the school for being out and “in-your-face,” and brings Lily to meet Oonagh (Amy-Joyce Hastings), a young woman who takes Lily under her wing. Oonagh advises Lily to adopt a new persona, and to tough it out: things get better after school, we learn.
Director and writer Cantwell should be lauded for his light touch which addresses so many current issues regarding LGBT experiences in Irish society. It’s important to recognise that marriage equality is not the be-all and end-all for many gay and lesbian individuals in Ireland, and indeed this is alluded to in Lily’s portrayal of Oonagh’s decision to choose her own path. To this end, director of photography Eimear Ennis Graham successfully illustrates the confining nature of its school in comparison with the wider potential of Dublin city. The film also examines Simon’s performativity as a young gay man in a heteronormative environment, highlighting how such personas can be used as a defence against the hostility of straight society.
The film’s denouement, in which Lily confronts her bullies, is similarly commendable in the way it handles the complexities of its issues. The film does hint at better days to come, and while Lily should of course be celebrated for her bravery (and Harte gives an admirably spirited performance), a sense of pathos and loss remains: that no LGBT child should be forced to endure their school days, and their survival should not be dependent upon the thickness of their skin. Lily’s recent success testifies to its resonances with audiences around Ireland and abroad: it was both nominated for an IFTA and won the 2017 Iris Prize Youth Award. I’d argue that Lily should be added to the school curriculum: although I suspect it may hit too close to home for those who would like to ignore the continuing failures of the Irish education system. After all, how could they be homophobic? They probably have gay friends…
Lily has screened at over 50 international festivals worldwide, including the prestigious Savannah Film Festival and the Rhode Island International Film Festival. It won the Youth Award at the Iris Prize Festival, the Blue Riband event on the LGBT festival circuit, known as the LGBT Oscars. It was nominated for Best Irish Short at the 2017 Irish Film and Television Academy Awards, was nominated for an Irish Writers’ Guild Award and won the Best Irish Short Award at the two biggest festivals in Ireland, The Galway Film Fleadh and the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, qualifying for Academy Award consideration in the process. At the Santa Fe Film Festival Lily was awarded the Best International Short Film award and Director Graham Cantwell was honoured with the Courage in Cinema Award. The film also won awards at the Underground Cinema Film Festival in Dublin and in San Diego, North Carolina, Barcelona and Durban in South Africa. Lead actress Clara Harte was voted Best Female Actor at the Pune International Queer Film Festival in India and at the Underground Cinema Awards, where Amy-Joyce Hastings also won the Best Supporting Actress award.