Guth Gafa Review: A Cambodian Spring


Maria Flood takes a look at Chris Kelly’s award-winning A Cambodian Spring, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring examines a range of issues pertinent to global life in the present day: the failures of multi-national organizations, state corruption, uneasy alliances between Church and state, and the role of citizen resistance to power. Set in present-day Cambodia, the film took 6 years to make, and it offers what Kelly calls an ‘unapologetically subjective portrait’ centred around three individuals who were caught up in the land protests that came to be known as the ‘Cambodian Spring’: the Buddhist monk Venerable Sovath, and residents and activists Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny.

The fact that filming took place over six years allows Kelly to offer a teleological account of the protests, beginning with the initial resistance of the residents of Boeung Kak, a lakeside area in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. In 2007, the Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen (in power since 1985), leased the land around the lake to the company Shukaku Inc., an organization with ties to members of Hun Sen’s political party. Land titles and land grabs have a long, violent and painful history in Cambodia. Following French colonialism, for several decades from 1930 onwards, land was owned privately and not distributed to the people. This changed in the 1950s, but when the horrific regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 they confiscated all lands through land grabs, the destruction of homes, military violence, torture, and executions. The traumas of Cambodia’s history, including the genocide of 1.5 – 3 million people, are never far from the surface in this film. At several points, protesters are seen facing off with the military and the police, and they compare these agents of the state with the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge.

Yet this narrative is not specific to present=day Cambodia because the visual imaginary Kelly evokes speaks to global concerns. Kelly lends pathos to the images of vulnerable, unarmed civilians confronting faceless antagonists who are protected by helmets, shields, weapons, uniforms, and the power of a militarized state. These images conjure a global vocabulary of dissent, from Venezuela, to the Arab Spring, Ferguson, and the Parisian banlieue. The destruction of the natural environment of the lake, the theft of the villagers agrarian livelihoods, and the indifference of the bulldozers who destroy the residents’ homes all speak to the environmental chaos and greed that structure the current neoliberal communion between private profit and government indifference.

By highlighting how property, private enterprise and the state are connected in a corrupt web that disenfranchises the individual citizen, the film points to a worldwide issue: one only has to think of the recent tragedy in Grenfell Tower in London and the privatization of vast tracts of public land by local councils in that city to see that this is a larger struggle. Venerable Sovath also points to this interconnectedness when he refuses to exploit his position as a monk to ignore the villagers, saying, ‘if the people are poor, the monks will be poor’.

Kelly is firmly situated on the ideological side of the activists, evidenced through the use of their personal footage and the fact that any scenes of the government and officials are shot from the perspectives of the protestors. However, the style itself is less subjective: more ‘fly on the wall’ than the ‘fly in the soup’: we never see the filmmakers on camera, or have the impression that he is interviewing the subjects of the documentary. A graduate of the film studies programme at Queens University in Belfast, Kelly is an ardent fan of art-house cinema, citing French New Wave filmmaker Chris Marker, cinéma vérité documentary maker Jean Rouch and Russian Andrei Tarkovsky as inspirations. Tarkovsky’s aesthetic of ‘visual fugues’, abstract visual sequences overlaid with melodic, fluid musical strains that are repeated as thematic refrains, surface in A Cambodian Spring. Shots of torrents of muddied water, waving grass, leaping flames, and the sandy shoreline around the lake are accompanied by an ominous, throbbing score punctuate the political narrative.

A Cambodian Spring is a difficult film at moments, and the complex political and historical circumstances that led to the protests and to the intensity of feeling that surround them are not explored in great detail: there is no voiceover, and intertitles offer brief overviews. However, the film excels at capturing a sense of liveness, and the intense emotion and passion of the individuals in question. It also poses deep questions about how change and revolution come about in the world, and the personal cost of fighting for a cause you believe in. Venerable Sovath, who goes against the dictates of his religious superiors, is threatened, imprisoned, and ejected from the order but continues his activism both nationally and internationally. Tep Vanny, currently in prison on what appear to be trumped up political charges, says at one point that they have all lost homes, jobs, and been sent to gaol for fighting against the development and the government.

There is a tendency to assume that the marginal, the poor, those with nothing to lose are the first to stand up and fight. While this may be true in some circumstances, the case of Venerable Sovath shows that some are willing to give up their own privilege to fight for the equality of others. At one point in the film, activist Toul Srey Pov notes that ‘it’s easy to wake a sleeping person up, but you can’t wake them up if they’re only pretending to be asleep’. This film is a call to wakefulness and action, not only on the part of the desperate, but also from those who pretend to sleep, who have a lot more to give, and perhaps to lose. 


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University.


The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August. 
A Cambodian Spring is screening in the IFI Documentary Festival, followed by a director Q&A on October 1st.


Festival Report: Guth Gafa | International Documentary Festival


Maria Flood looks back on a busy Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival, showcasing the latest award-winning International and Irish documentary films on thought-provoking subjects, and promoting the art of great story-telling, through film, to rural Irish communities.


Guth Gafa, meaning ‘captive voice’ in Irish, is a documentary film festival based in Headfort House, in Kells, Co. Meath. Now in its 11th year, the festival originally started in Donegal and moved to its current location in the heart of the Meath countryside four years ago. Guth Gafa (pronounced ‘guh gafa’) includes over 40 features and shorts, and unusually, 20 of the 23 directors screened are present at the festival to answer audience questions after screening and in the morning ‘Meet and Greet’ session, ‘Coffee with the Filmmakers’. The festival also includes several kids’ workshops, a masterclass on distribution, and a late-night Festival Club with live music.

City of Ghosts

“We believe in citizen power”, festival directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane state, and the selection of films highlight their commitment to confronting many of the challenges faced in the modern world. This year’s theme is ‘Messages of Hope’, but this should not give the impression that the films screened are in any way maudlin or simplistic responses to global events. Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring reveals the often-violent confrontations between citizens, the state, and the Buddhist hierarchy, and offers an eye-opening account of injustices in the region, while Irish-USA-UK co-production Eliàn (directed by Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden) highlights the heart-breaking plight of a generation of undocumented children in the United States, mostly from Latin America. Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts is a harrowing account of the ISIS occupation of the Syrian city of Raqqa and the activists who try to resist the terror caused the terrorists.


Music is an important theme at this year’s festival and a major hit of the festival is Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, about the rise and fall of pop icon Whitney Houston.. Many of the works screened highlight the power of music to change social attitudes and give people optimism in troubled times, as well as how dangerous it can be to follow a musical passion in some contexts. Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley’s moving and uplifting Landfill Harmonic looks at Paraguayan children who have turned landfill waste into musical instruments, while German co-production When God Sleeps (Till Schauder) charts Irani rapper Shahin Najafi’s poignant and sometimes hilarious distribution of phallic videos to provoke of the religious authorities in his home country — who place a $500,000 bounty on his head.

School Life

There are many family friendly options at the festival, including the breath-taking The Eagle Huntress by Otto Bell and a daring animation about autism and Disney, Life, Animated by Roger Ross Williams. By far the stand-out hit of this year’s programme was Ní Chianáin’s immensely popular School Life, an observational documentary about the life of the primary school age boarding students at Headfort School. Formerly known as In Loco Parentis but changed to School Life at the behest of American distributors, the film played three sold-out screenings, many of which included former pupils and teachers at the school. The principal subjects of the documentary, charismatic teachers John and Amanda Leyden, can also be found wandering through the grounds and hallways of Headfort throughout the festival.

The film has three screening areas, each more weird and wonderful that the last. The Adam Room, located in Headfort House, is named after pioneering neo-classical architect Robert Adam, and is a masterpiece of elegance and excess. The room is adorned with many fine examples of Georgian portraiture, and watching these contemporary films surrounded by the watchful eyes of denizens of worlds past is a unique experience. The Road House cinema is a bright-red mobile screening unit, offering comfortable cinema style seats, and the Hanger Cinema is located in a warehouse, converted to cinematic conditions, where the illustrious Lord Headfort himself would store his airplanes.

The festival is also committed to sustainability, and one of the food outlets is supplied by ‘Food Cloud’, who make delicious vegetarian treats like quiches and soups from produce that would otherwise be thrown out. All of the disposable food containers and cutlery at the festival are compostable, and the bar offers reusable drinks containers.

The festival is an annual event, and they are always looking for volunteers. The full festival programme and further detail are available on their website here


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runsruns 4 – 7 August. 

Guth Gafa Review: ‘The Farthest’

Maria Flood enters a world of wonder in Emer Reynold’s The Farthest, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Irish filmmaker Emer Reynold’s second feature-length film, The Farthest tracks the genesis of the space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched by NASA in 1977. The mission of these satellites was to document Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune through photography and videography, and relay images back to earth for analysis. The satellites were programmed to continue their journey through the solar system, before finally exiting our galaxy and moving into the deep, dark regions of outer space. Both satellites continue their respective journeys through the ebony vastness of space: Voyager 1 exited our solar system on August 25, 2012while Voyager 2 continues to move towards its outer boundary.

The film plunges us into a world of wonder, and the tale Reynolds tells is one that touches on infinity, eternity, and the beauty of human aspiration. Indeed, it is surprising that the stories of the physicists, cosmologists, geologists and engineers who created and programmed the Voyager satellites have not been told on the big screen before. Reynolds constructs the documentary around a series of interviews with high-profile members of the NASA teams, and these interviews are interwoven with stunning, previously unseen and re-digitized images from the Voyager journey. Added to the breathtaking quality of the images (and this film should be seen in the glorious, grand screen darkness of the cinema) is an exquisitely curated soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Rose Royce, Chuck Berry, Bach, and Mozart.

The film is packed with startling images of the planets: the rich, humming ochre and orange whorls of Jupiter, the buzzing ice-cool crystals of Saturn’s rings, the delicate clouds of Neptune and the violent eruptions of its moon, Triton, the ‘disappointing’ blue and hazy uniformity of Uranus (‘poor Uranus’, one cosmologist notes). The experts interviewed also have a wonderful ability to transform potentially perplexing and highly complex facts and figures into wonderfully memorable, bite size chunks. They speak of lightning strikes on Jupiter that could go halfway across America, and of Uranus’ moon Miranda where there are cliffs so steep and high, if you were to fall you could finish your daily newspaper on the way down — that is, if you weren’t too busy focusing your rapidly impending death. One of the engineers describes the technology of Voyager as comparable to the devices we have in our pockets today, removing not his mobile phone – but his automatic car keys,.

The film takes the viewer on a journey, not only to the outer reaches of the Milky Way, but also back in space and time to a moment in the 1970s when communication with alien species became a credible, and sought-after, prospect. Most of the scientists agree that alien, non-human intelligent life somewhere in the universe is not only a possibility, but rather a probability. But finding it is the problem: we are looking for ‘needles in infinite haystacks’. The principal barrier is not space, but time. In the history of humanity, one scientist notes, there have only been 100 or so years when the human species had potentially evolved the technological capacity to intercept signals from other beings in outer space. More than this, the vast distances that such signals have to travel through the universe mean that by the time they reach earth, or by the time our communications reach other intelligent life, a civilization or species that would have been capable of interpreting or receiving them may have evolved, peaked, and been lost or obliterated.

The Voyager mission also included a medium that was designed to communicate with interstellar beings, an enterprise which evoked as much debate in philosophical circles as it did among the scientific community. Carl Sagan was a key figure in this respect, and he was responsible for the creation of the ‘Golden Record’, what Sagan described as a kind of ‘message in a bottle’. Modeled on a vinyl record but made of solid gold, the recordings therein contain 90 minutes of music, 12 minutes of earthly soundscapes, 115 images, and even brainwave recordings of a person thinking about Earth, the history of ideas and human social organization, and what it’s like to fall in love. The musical portion of the record aimed to capture the ‘sounds of the earth’, with music culled from a vast number of cultural contexts, from Chuck Berry’s ‘Jonny B Goode’ (The Beatles refused an offer to be included), to Japanese shakuhachi music and African percussion.

The record also contained a vast array of messages in 55 global languages, what Janet Sternberg describes as ‘proto tweets’ — short, concise greetings from humans to potential alien listeners. Nick Sagan, son of Carl, had his voice recorded and describes the feeling of knowing that his greeting ‘from the children of Earth’, is hurtling around in space somewhere: ‘some piece of me is a traveller on that ship and will keep going’.

The sense of wonder conveyed by the NASA scientists, many of them in their sixties and seventies, is infectious. As one of them notes, the whole Voyager mission was born out of an innate and intrinsically human capacity for curiosity: ‘it is a human thing, and a childlike thing, to ask questions’. The number of female researchers who worked on the mission and who Reynolds has interviewed is also striking, and reminds us of the egalitarian ideals of the community of scientists in question.

Though rudimentary by present day standards, given the current state of the global climate, overburdened resources, and ecosystem destruction, it is not improbable that one day the Voyager probes may become, in the words of one scientist, ‘the only evidence that we ever existed’. Indeed, it seems a not uncommon belief amongst this group that ‘continued human existence will depend on our ability to live on other planets’.

Yet in spite of such potentially gloomy prognoses, I was struck by the way the film evokes a moment of powerful optimism, when the flower-fueled idealism of the 1960s transmuted into scientific and philosophical inquiry. When Voyager had completed its fact-finding missions around the planets of our solar system, against the wishes of senior NASA administrators, Carl Sagan arranged for the camera of Voyager 1 to be turned towards Earth, in ‘the world’s first selfie’. What they depicted disappointed many: Earth was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, one member of the team spotted a tiny blue dot in a hazy, rainbow ray from the sun. In a deeply humbling manner, our planet was visible only as a tiny speck in the infinite vastness of space.

It is not only the striking images that dazzle in this film, or the feats of intellectual inquiry. It is also the film’s evocation of the relentless thirst for knowledge and communication that drives all of us on some level, and the human capacity to recognize, and perhaps sometimes celebrate, our own insignificance. The Voyager mission took place in the midst of the Cold War, in a bitterly divided world. Now, although we are more and more connected through global technologies of travel and the Internet, productive communication between different ideological belief systems appears more and more fraught. The Farthest reminds us of a time when people reached out in love and friendship not only to each other, but also to beings and creatures that may or may not exist, in the belief that other lives, and other worlds, are possible.


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runsruns 4 – 7 August. 



Guth Gafa Review: City of Ghosts

Maria Flood visits Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts won the Guth Gafa ‘Human Rights’ prize for its depiction of the ISIS occupation of the Syrian city of Raqqa. The film recounts the story of the group of citizen journalists and activists called ‘Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered’ (RBSS), who launched a campaign against the fundamentalist group. The film opens with a black screen and a voiceover that states, ‘some situations are atrocious, but others are more atrocious’. Few would disagree that the war in Syria is of the most atrocious kind, from its beginnings in popular revolt against the Assad regime to the current state of murderous disarray, with rebel groups, the regime, ISIS, and an international proxy war battling for control in a conflict that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The film follows the lives and work of RBSS activists Aziz, Mohamed, Hamoud, and other citizen journalists in Raqqa as they strive to constantly communicate ISIS atrocities taking place in the city to the outside world. Aziz, Mohamed, Hamoud, and others have had no media training, and they have mostly been moved out of Syria for their own safety, but they tweet constantly, updating their website and pages with live information fed to them by different people still living in Raqqa. These individuals take enormous personal risks to communicate with the outside world, and the members of RBSS have all lost friends and family members to ISIS terror. When ISIS could not find Hamoud, they targeted his father instead and we see Hamoud watching an ISIS video that depicts in dramatic, stylized form his own father’s execution: They make all of their content free, so that no one news outlet has exclusive access. In this way, they hope to reach as wide an audience as possible. The BBC, CNN, ABC, and others use RBSS as their principal source of news from Raqqa, because it is impossible to get journalists into the city: ISIS would kill them immediately.

The opening sequences of the film contrast life in Raqqa (known as the ISIS ‘capital’) before the occupation and after: shots of people dancing, swimming, and shopping cede to car and tanks rolling into town, with black flags flying as young men, some of them children, grinning manically at the camera as they carry guns. Some particularly disturbing scenes are drawn from ISIS propaganda, and are difficult to watch: hands being chopped off, mass executions in Raqqa’s ‘Paradise Square’, beheaded bodies lying on pavements, with the heads impaled on nearby railings. There is no doubt about the evil present in the actions of this group that co-founder Aziz Alhamza says is ‘beyond Taliban or Al’Quaeda’.

In an era where citizens in Europe and America seem to have less and less confidence in the so-called mainstream media, City of Ghosts is a powerful reminder of the important role that a free press can play in working against atrocity and injustice. ISIS actively recruit individuals who are proficient in social media, and Aziz told me after the screening that ISIS has had decreasing numbers of recruits since RBSS launched their media campaign: down from over 1000 in 2014 to 100 last year. More than this, a Google search of ‘Raqqa’ in 2014 would have produced a slew of articles from the mouth of the ISIS propaganda machine; now, RBBS newsfeeds dominate the top ten searches.

Aziz, the unofficial spokesperson of the group because ‘his English is not so bad’, reiterates at several times throughout the film that ‘a camera is more powerful than a weapon… we are sure that our words are more powerful than their weapons’. RBSS continue the war of information against the terrorist group, and they insist that rather than trying to defeat ISIS militarily, their ideology must be vanquished. Like the many headed Hydra, Aziz argues that ISIS will continue to spring up in new formations until what they appear to offer recruits (sex, money, power, prosperity) is no longer attractive — because people have other options, and hope.

The bravery of the RBSS group is astonishing, considering that Aziz acknowledges that ‘the more they [ISIS] are challenged, the more barbaric they become’. Many RBSS members have been killed by ISIS, including Ibrahim Abd al Qader and Fares Hamadi in Raqqa, and journalist Naji Jerf in Turkey. The courage of the RBSS members has all the more impact, because their lives before the revolution and their hopes for the future are so ordinary: born into middle-class families, they too want families, children, a home, and jobs.

But these ordinary individuals have faced extraordinary circumstances. Of the citizen journalists who risk their lives to send information to the RBSS members abroad, Aziz says ‘these are the people history should be written about’ — but this comment certainly applies to all of the members of their collective. About halfway through the film, the black screen returns, and it is momentarily illuminated by a solitary candle: a light in the darkness, and an image reminiscent of the Amnesty International icon. Next, a computer screen is turned on, flashing up with the RBSS homepage — two solitary symbols of light and of hope in an uncertain future.


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.

City of Ghosts will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime in the coming months.



Guth Gafa Review: The Grown Ups

Maria Flood reflects on Maite Alberdi’s The Grown Ups, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Poignant, illuminating and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Maite Alberdi’s The Grown Ups tells the story of ill-fated lovers Anita and Andrés who meet in a bakery, part of a school for Down syndrome adults in Chile. Like any couple in the first blush of love, Andrès and Anita want it all: love, intimacy, sex, babies, and a home of their own. As Anita says, ‘my parents were happy and I want the same for myself’. But Anita’s mother and Andrès’ sisters (the ‘Grown Ups’ of the title) are against the match: they feel that the couple are not mature enough, and anyway, it is illegal for people with Down syndrome to get married in Chile.

Strong personalities emerge in the group. The irrepressible Rita hides chocolate in her pockets in defiance of her mother’s instructions to stay off sweets because she is on a diet. Rita’s impulsive sexual urges towards the shy Dany also have to be tamed. Andrès is a self-confessed reformed womaniser, who promises his eternal love to Anita after she emerges from a cardboard cake, in the manner of Debbie Reynolds in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for his birthday. Resident philosopher Ricardo bemoans his meagre pay from working in an old person’s home and the scenes in which he listens to the elderly and makes them laugh force us to question the view of those with Down syndrome as non-contributory in society, and the ways in which work and care are compensated.

Andrès perhaps sums up the main sentiment behind the film when he says, ‘we will open people’s eyes and they will see us having a normal life together’. The film certainly opens eyes by inviting us into the world of the school, and focuses almost exclusively on the adults with Down syndrome: their family members and the workers at the school are occasionally pictured in the background or heard in the voiceover. This is both the film’s most unique feature, and a potential criticism because it risks being somewhat idealistic about the challenges faced by parents and carers when Down syndrome adults embark on romantic and sexual relationships, contraception being a key issue (although it is mentioned in a group meeting).

But this is the point of the film: to give the members of the group their own voice without the interruptions of the ‘Grown Ups’. Documentary critic Bill Nicholas has argued that documentaries are about the play of the familiar and the unfamiliar: we want to see something we recognize and understand, as well as something new and eye opening. The film brings us into lives filled with familiar fun, friendships, conflicts, tensions, dreams, hopes, and unfulfilled longings. By opening windows onto ways of seeing the world that many viewers will have very little knowledge about, the film draws on the common concerns shared by humans all over the world and the neurological spectrum: how to love, how to belong, and how to find meaning. As Ricardo says, ‘what confuses me is how short and complex life is’ — a feeling of perplexity we can all share.


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University


The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.



Guth Gafa Review: ‘The Eagle Huntress’

Maria Flood finds an unlikely feminist icon in The Eagle Huntress, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

An instant feel-good classic, Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress tells the story of unlikely feminist icon, the 13-year-old Aisholpan, the first girl in her community to become an eagle hunter in the wildernesses of Mongolia. Aisholpan’s father, her greatest supporter, trains her for the upcoming eagle-hunter championships, in spite of the reservations of the more conservative members of the tribe. Aisholpan’s Dad wells up with pride as his daughter learns the intricacies of the craft: placing the hood over the fearsome beak, feeding the bird, and teaching the eagle to return to the glove. While her mother is also supportive of her daughter’s ambitions, saying ‘I want her to love her life’, it is the father-daughter relationship in the film that produces the most intense emotional impact.


One of the most touching aspects of the film is how Aisholpan brings together her traditionally masculine training as an eagle hunter with an easy femininity: she wears her hair in pigtails and adorns it with bows and flowers, and loves wearing nail varnish, even on the hunt — one contrasting image sees two bottles of pink and purple nail varnish sitting beside an almost-bare rabbit leg, with a strip of flesh and fur still clinging to the bone.


In the land of the ancient Emperor Genghis Khan, Aisholpan carries on a tradition of fortitude, skill, and prowess; it is hard not to be awed by her physical strength. The film is full of high drama, with one particularly memorable sequence showing Aisholpan scaling a sheer cliff face in order to capture her very own eaglet from its mother’s nest, as her father manoeuvres the ropes that steady her form to the top of the precipice. She travels a full day on horseback through wind and rain carrying the 15-pound eagle on her outstretched arm, a fantastic creature who, with wings out-stretched, is almost as big as the teenager herself. Another sequence shows her navigating the snowy wastes of the mountains, waist-deep in the drifts, pulling her very reluctant pony over a pass and still shouldering the giant bird.


The cinematography is quite literally breathtaking: made on the bleak but beautiful snow-filled slopes of Mongolia, the camera captures seemingly infinite horizons, with undulating layers of mountains and crisp bright blue skies. The film captures so much of what attracts art house movie-going audiences today: grounded in a local context, replete with traditional costumes, nomadic traditions and a rich history, this is also a universal story. A young girl, buoyed by a proud father and mother, who overcomes social and physical challenges to achieve her dreams — what’s not to love?


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University


The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.



Guth Gafa Review: ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’



Maria Flood takes a look at Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s review of Whitney Houston’s life, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival, taking place at Headfort House, Kells, Co Meath.


Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me about pop superstar Whitney Houston’s life straddles a sometimes uneasy line between the tabloid theatricality of Houston’s public persona and the intimate tragedies that populated her private life. The film opens with a bang: a swooping overhead establishing shot of the Beverly Hills hotel where, on 11th February 2009, Houston’s body was found in a hotel room bathtub. The next scene cuts to a performance during Whitney’s last world tour in 1999. Houston’s face reveals what, in retrospect, could be signs of her increasing drug use: her eyes are half closed, her make up is smudged, and she is sweating profusely. Although she is performing in front of thousands of people, the extreme close up of Houston’s face makes this scene almost intimate – we feel we are right there with her, as she sings the final notes in a verse of the worldwide hit ‘I Will Always Love You’. The music stops, waiting for the big chorus – but Houston doesn’t rush it. Seconds tick by as she gathers her body, before exploding with the famous ‘And I….’ chorus.

It is impossible not to be blown away by Houston’s talent. Whitney: Can I Be Me charts its extraordinary genesis in the troubled streets of Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s where race riots were common and drug use rising among African American communities. Houston, daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin of soul legend Dionne Warwick, and godchild of Aretha Franklin, accumulated an astonishing number of accolades and firsts: more consecutive number 1 hits that The Beatles, most awarded female act of all time, with all seven of her albums reaching diamond, platinum or gold certification. The height of Houston’s fame was the 1992 film The Bodyguard which Houston’s real-life bodyguard David Roberts suggests was just like real life, but with ‘no sex and no shooting’. Patti Howard, one of Houston’s friends, suggests that without the trailblazing of Whitney, African American female artists like Beyoncé would not be where they are today, noting ‘she changed history for us’.

The film is careful to avoid easy answers regarding Houston’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. Instead, Broomfield and Dolezal seem to suggest that Houston’s tragedy lay in the many internal conflicts she battled with: between white pop music and her roots in church gospel, between her controlling mother and her loving, but ultimately, disappointing father, between her image as a white-styled princess and the ‘hood’, and between her love of God and her addictions. Houston believed her talent came from God, and her abuse of it through drugs and alcohol was a source of deep shame for the singer.

However, most powerfully, the film suggests that Houston’s possibly romantic relationship with childhood friend Robin Crawford, and their later alienation in 2001, was the greatest contributing factor to Houston’s fatal addictions. Crawford, now an openly gay marketing manager who is married with two children, was by Houston’s side from the early days of her career and stayed through the troubled years of her marriage to Bobby Brown. After Houston’s death, Brown even admitted that he believed Houston to be bisexual, and suggested that if Robyn had been in her life, Whitney would still be alive today.

Houston, many of her friends agreed, never doubted her talent. What she did doubt, most tragically, was herself. We see Houston’s fragility in her frequent refrain, ‘Can I be me’ – when can she stop performing for others, and be herself. But this self fragments over the years – through fame, drugs, and the loss of love. As she said in an interview, ‘success doesn’t change you, fame does’ and Houston seemed fatally underequipped to navigate its vicissitudes. This film is a touching and sometimes uncomfortably intimate exploration of a unique talent that presents Houston as a sensitive and generous person, brought down by racial and sexual politics of the era and the exploitative workings of the star system.


Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University


The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.



‘Anima’ Screens @ Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival 2017

Through conversations with scholars and health care professionals; Artist Marie Brett (E.gress) explores questions relating to death and care in contemporary Ireland. The conversations span medical, philosophical, folkloric and legal perspectives, offering an insight into the intimate and privileged moments of the artist/participant encounter.

Directed by Colm Mullen, Anima is based on Marie Brett’s research project Whispers and was in collaboration with St Francis Hospice, Raheny, UCD School of Social Sciences and Law and The National Folklore Collection.

The film was funded through the 2016 Documentation Bursary.

The film is set to screen at this year’s  Guth Gafa International Documentary FIlm Festival in Headfort House, Kells, Co Meath, in competition as part of the Short Lens Documentary programme on Monday 7th of August at 12pm in the Hangar Cinema.

For further information visit: Short Lens Documentary Competition




Call For: Volunteers for Guth Gafa


Illustration: Adeline Pericart


The 8th Guth Gafa International Film Festival is now actively recruiting volunteers for this year’s festival. Guth Gafa are seeking interested parties for the Malin leg (25th and 26th of October) from the local area and all interested parties for the Kells (1st and 2nd of November).

For the Malin leg of the festival Guth Gafa are seeking volunteers from the locale, as we are unable to provide accommodation. All applicants will be considered for the Kells leg of the festival, as Guth Gafa will be able to accommodate you on site.
Volunteering for this year’s festival offers you the opportunity to be part of an interesting and rarely seen side of the world of film. This year’s festival is set to be quite unique and offer a varied range of screenings and events. Volunteers may be asked to work in one of several areas:

  • Venue Supervision
  • Ushering/taking tickets
  • Q&A sessions
  • Selling merchandise
  • Transportation
  • Flyer and poster distribution
  • Guest accreditation/registration desk
  • Box Office
  • Kiddies club
  • Conference coordination

The form on the next page contains questions related to your work experience, any past volunteering experience (with Guth Gafa or other events/organisations) and availability during the festival. Please fill out as many relevant questions as possible as this will help Guth Gafa to find you the area of work you would most enjoy. Please note that you must be over 18 to volunteer. Successful applicants shall be contacted via email in the coming days.

To apply, please click this link.


Full details are available on,ggnews


‘Five Voices’ screens at Guth Gafa

'Five Voices' - Still - 1
Five Voices is a touching account of the lives of five people struggling to live in recovery from drug addiction amid a rapidly fragmenting community.

This film gives insight as to the challenges growing up and raising a family in the Clondalkin area of Dublin. An area greatly affected by drugs and gangs.

Directed by Colm Mullen, Five Voices’deals with the challenges we all can face and how these difficulties can sometimes take us down a wrong path.

Speaking about the selection Colm said ‘I am delighted to have one of only four Irish short films selected for this year’s festival. I admire Guth Gafa’s commitment to human rights driven filmmaking. It’s a real compliment for everyone involved in the film. We are very much looking forward to the festival’.



Director – Colm Mullen

Producer – Norrie O’Sullivan

Director of Photography – Colm Mullen

Editor – Padraic Keaney

Music by – Bob Holroyd

Assistant Director – Claire Flood


Five Voices Screens as part of the Irish shorts programme at Guth Gafa on Friday 17th of May in Malin town, Donegal.

Five Voices has previously been selected for screening at:

Patras International, Film Festival, Greece 2012

Fingal Film Festival, Dublin 2012

Rob Knox, Film Festival, London 2012


Trailer ‘Five Voices’ –

For more information


Guth Gafa Announce Full Programme of Films


Guth Gafa, 7th International Documentary Festival (16-19 May 2013, Donegal & City of Derry)

Guth Gafa have announced the programme for their 7th International Documentary Festival, which includes some of the top documentaries in the world. In the line up are 17 international feature documentaries from 14 different countries, many of which have won the top awards around the world, seven Irish feature docs and a selection of outstanding shorts.

Over the course of the festival 30 award winning features and short documentary films from 15 countries will be screened on five different screens on and around the village green in Malin.

Three world premieres of Irish films top the bill.

A selection of films will also be screening in Derry, as part of Guth Gafa’s partnership with Derry, City of Culture 2013.

 Included in this year’s bill are two films widely considered to be two of the best recent examples of international documentary film making: Alan Berliner’s  First Cousin Once Removed, winner of the Best Feature Documentary competition at IDFA, the largest and most prestigious documentary festival in the world, and Searching for Sugarman, winner of the Oscar for Best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards.

These two will play alongside many other films that have won accolades in top international festivals and award ceremonies world-wide.

 Audiences will be taken to locations as varied as Switzerland, Israel, Azerbaijan, Africa, India and Cambodia to discover stories as wildly contrasting as a young man’s escape from the brutality of a North Korean labour camp in Camp 14: Total Control Zone, and a teenager’s ‘escape’ from the boredom and isolation of a remote village in the Arctic Circle in Village At The End of The World.

In the remarkable Wrong Time Wrong Place, John Appel examines the role played by coincidence and fate in the 2011 terrorist attack on Oslo and Utoya in which 77 lives were lost, by speaking to survivors.

 The charming Winter Nomads tracks shepherds, Carole and Pascal as they embark on a 6,000 kilometre trek through Switzerland with a flock of sheep in a winter grazing ritual as old as time.

 The Summit by Irish film maker, Nick Ryan focuses on the world’s most dangerous mountain, K2 and the 2008 tragedy which claimed the lives of 11 climbers including heroic Irish mountaineer, Ger McDonnell.

The Finnish film, Soundbreaker profiles Finland’s most vibrant and daring composer and accordionist, Kimmo Pohjonen as he breaks all the rules and shatters everything you know about the accordion. The remarkable Pohjonen, who has composed and toured with the Kronos Quartet and other famous musical names, comes to Ireland for the first time to play a live gig at the Foyle Theatre in Derry, after the screening of the film on his life. This is a gig you will not want to miss.

Among the selection of short films screening will be the world premiere of the TG4-funded film, Ponydance, by Derek O’Connor, about the Belfast-based dance troupe of the same name.

For the full list of feature films click here


Call For: Next Generation Student Short Documentary Competition


Next Generation Student Short Documentary Competition

Student Documentary Film Competition, open to final year and postgraduate student groups and individuals.
Awards & Prize giving ceremony on final day of Guth Gafa

(Sunday 19th May 2013)

This will be Guth Gafa’s second year hosting Next Generation, our student documentary competition, and it is our hope that itwill engage our audiences with fresh, youthful material, provide inspiration to other students, and through our prize award – an industry-sponsored production and post-production package – offer assistance to one talented young student filmmaker to make another film in 2013/14. We think that it is even more important now in times of economic difficulties to support the upcoming generation of documentary filmmakers, and encourage them to continue working in this field.

Next Generation is a competitive programme of up to 10 outstanding short documentaries (maximum 10 mins) on the theme of human rights from Irish media students in their final undergraduate year, or on apostgraduate course. It is a great first opportunity for young directors topresent their films on screen and discuss their work afterwards. An international jury of 3 attending industry experts or filmmakers will choose the best of these student documentaries.

The DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS is Friday, April 26th 2013. While work must reach us no later than the specified date we would appreciate submissions in advance.

(16th to 19th MAY 2013)
Videos for submission must be uploaded to a Vimeo web page, and must be password protected. Details and instructions on how to enter the competition, and how to upload your video, will be sent by email after registration.

Register your interest by emailing and please give us your own name, name of college, year of study, course and contact email address and phone numbers.

Email queries to


Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival June 10-14 – Report



Monday June 13th.

As metaphors go, it turned out to be strangely appropriate.  Jeffrey Harrison rescued and befriended a pigeon.  He lovingly tended to it, and then it went missing – just hopped out of his RV on the beach and went walkabout (it was injured).  Jeffrey and his son gingerly approached a flock of pigeons on the beach to try to find it, and the son asked; ‘can you tell which one it is from all of these?’ And that in a way, mirrors the moral and ethical dilemma at the heart of Donor Unknown. Jeffrey, you see, made his living by donating his sperm throughout the 1980s – in fact he said it paid his rent for eight years – and the pigeons have come home to roost, so to speak.

The feature length doc follows one of his offspring, JoEllen, as she tries to find out about Donor 150 and attempts to make contact with any other half siblings that may exist….and they do, in their dozens.  The film follows JoEllen as she first meets up with Jeffrey whom she kindly describes as ‘bohemian’.

Many of the issues raised by members of the Gortahork audience during the Q & A following the film’s showing, centred on the whole notion of what fatherhood actually means, with one lady saying that she barely knew her father so he may as well have been a sperm donor.  Both the director, Jerry Rothwell and JoEllen herself bravely waded in to try to address the philosophical nuances raised (both seemed tired…JoEllen had made a roundtrip to Leitrim for a radio interview earlier in the day, and Jerry probably at this stage would rather stick to just the facts ma’am….the filmmaking process, the editing decisions, etc etc)  It was all too much for one local audience member as he raised his hand; ‘I’m going to be blunt.  That whole thing there is f**ked up…the world’s away with it!’

Another lady who was understandably tired as she had flown in the whole way from New Zealand to attend Guth Gafa, is producer, Lynn Collie.  Her documentary, There Once Was an Island is one of those films that gives a human face to a seemingly intractable reality – that of climate change.  Takuu is a tiny low lying atoll in the South Western Pacific and because of the industrialised world’s carbon dioxide emissions the way of life of the tiny community is in danger.  The rising tides and encroaching salt water is wreaking havoc on their homes and livelihoods.  You have to admire the effort and dedication that the filmmakers put into this beautifully shot verite-style film and the access they have given us into a unique and threatened culture, but as Lynn Collie stated during the Q & A; ‘we are filmmakers, not activists’.  There Once Was an Island follows three of the islanders as they consider their futures. The film challenges audiences to consider their own futures and relationship to the earth and other people.….and that is a big ask.

Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs until 14th June as it continues to follow two main strands; Terrorism on trial (films that deal with the shifting line between activism and terrorism) and the second theme is Climate based with chaired debates on both strands.  And in case you think that sounds all terribly worthy, the Festival Club with Craic and Ceilis and Cabarets has been threaded into the mix.  Eco friendly camping facilities have been provided and you can pay for a bunk in one of the camper buses for the night…..but be warned, you could get lumbered with a bunch of snorers. At least one person I know of who paid for a bunk, rolled out into the dawn without having slept a wink!  But then nothing beats a Gortahork dawn.


Saturday June 11th.


‘Green is good’.  Or is it?   Windfall Director Laura Israel, a native of Meredith, a small rural upstate New York town, believed that in welcoming the news that windmills were being planned for the area – she was honouring her green credentials.  This was the initial instinct of many in her community. Meredith locals are made up of people who have lived there for generations to more recent arrivals and the arguments in support of the windmills ranged from the economic benefits they would bring to a dying farm community, to genuine environmental concerns.

Then the reality of how these 400-foot Airtricity windmills would actually impact on their lives – from the sheer size of them, to the noise, to the health implications – began to increasingly alarm a large section of the community as they researched what their installation would actually mean.  The town of Meredith is split and opinions become divided on whether or not to give the go-ahead for the windmill project.

Windfall claims to look at both sides of wind energy development, but throughout the 83 minute documentary, there is very little revealed that would recommend the installation of windmills as being in any way beneficial.  The arguments in favour of their erection seem chiefly to be distilled to the fact that farming as a way of life is dying, and this could bring in a little money to landowners who allow their property to be used.  Beyond that, the film explores the link between the pursuit of wind energy and how highly profitable it is for wind energy developers to erect industrial turbines in large volumes on linked ridges of land.  The documentary touches on the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the developers when it comes to trying to convince local residents and the town board to allow for the erection of the windmills and it does not shy away from the charge of ‘vested interests’ being levelled at supporters of the idea.

Windfall is an interesting exploration of how the green agenda can be manipulated for corporate profit and the director, Laura Israel’s appeal seems simply to be; do your research.

Lisa Burkitt


Midday Movies

The little festival that can

Now in its sixth year, Guth Gafa documentary film festival, in Co Donegal, is making an international name for itself. As an antidote to loneliness, the annual gathering of international documentary filmmakers in the tiny Gaeltacht village of Gortahork beats most. In any given year, a clutch of the latest and best film-makers bounce from festival to festival around the world. Mostly, they wash up in teeming cities, surrounded by thousands but meeting none. Then they arrive at Guth Gafa, and within the tiny pubs and temporary cinemas they come face to face not only with each other but also with their audience….



Is the stage now set for theatre to offer solace?

Fintan O’Toole has gathered an impressive team to explore the role art can play in Irish life, writes Darragh McManus. ‘The whole question of art and society, it seems, gets pushed to one side during times of economic crisis. We can’t afford culture, the argument goes, when that money needs to be spent on jobs and hospitals and education. The counter-argument, though, insists that art is even more important when times are tough: it offers solace, helps us make sense of what’s happening, and lets us see a higher, more rarefied plane of human existence, something soaring above the worries of economics and politics…’



One cool pirate

When Johnny Depp thinks about what it is he does for a living and how well he’s paid for it, he has to laugh. Currently starring in the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which will ironically be screened at Cannes this year, Depp was paid somewhere between $32m and $35m (€22.2m-€24.3m) for this film alone. ‘To an outsider standing around watching this going on, it’s ludicrous. I mean it’s really an insane thing,’ he says, laughing…



Scorsese ‘to direct Taylor and Burton biopic’

Director Martin Scorsese is set to direct a film based on the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, reports say. The couple married and divorced twice over a 13-year period, after meeting on the set of Cleopatra in 1963. Paramount Pictures are said to be in negotiation with Scorsese, after buying the rights to the book Furious Love. Released in 2010, the book received little interest from studios until Taylor’s death earlier this year. The Hollywood couple, both British, appeared in 11 films together, including the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which Taylor won the second of two best actress Oscars…



Girl with Dragon Tattoo trailer released

The first trailer for the eagerly-awaited US adaptation of the Stieg Larsson bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been released. Directed by The Social Network and Se7en’director David Fincher. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo stars Daniel Craig as investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as his troubled partner, hacker Lisbeth Salander…




Single Shot Cinema Workshop

FÁS Screen Training Ireland and Guth Gafa Festival are running a two-day ‘Single Shot Cinema’ course with Leonard Retel Helmrich – detailing his working methods as a director and cinematographer. The event is aimed at experienced filmmakers; directors with and interest in cinematography; or DOPs.

This is an opportunity for participants to partake in a practical hands-on workshop with an innovative documentary maker, as Leonard Retel Helmrich was the winner of the World Documentary Prize at Sundance 2011 and the Best Feature Length Documentary at IDFA 2010 for his latest film, Position Among The Stars.

Leonard Retel Helmrich’s films have been praised worldwide and the filmmaker himself bases his success on a self-invented method of filmmaking, which he calls Single Shot Cinema. Having spent years developing this technique, workshops are now run all over the world.

The course costs €100 and will take place in Óstan Loch Altan Hotel, Gortahork, Co. Donegal on 11th June. The deadline for applications is 7th of June 2011, and applicants for this course should submit a current CV online at For additional information regarding the festival visit