IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Johnny Gogan, director of ‘Generate The State/Gineador An Stait’

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Generate The State/Gineador An Stait documents the ambitious building of the Shannon Scheme in the newly established Irish Free State of the 1920s that revolutionised electricity production and supply in Ireland. The scheme involved the construction of the hydro-electric power station Ardnacrusha at a cost of IR£5m, one fifth of the Irish state’s annual budget – and at a time of tremendous economic difficulties. Constructed by the German company Siemens-Schuckert, the plant was completed in 1929 and provided the base for the construction of a national power grid while also symbolising a determined forward-thinking independent nation.

 

The film’s director Johnny Gogan explains what brought him to the project. “On one level, the Ardnacrusha story is a typical Ireland’s Own story, a tale of derring-do from a rose-tinted glorious past. I wanted to rescue the story from that fate, peel back the wall-paper to reveal it once more to current generations who know nothing about the scale and the ambition of the project. It is a particularly relevant story for today in that we are failing so abysmally as a country – Society and Government – to address the transition from fossil fuels. The Government recently announced that we would not meet our 2020 Carbon emissions targets. Government has hidden behind the Financial Crisis when in truth the Financial Crisis was the perfect opportunity to change direction. The Shannon Scheme is the living embodiment of that opportunistic ambition.”

 

In 1923 , Dr T.A. McLaughlin proposed the idea of the Shannon Scheme, which came in for criticism at the time as it gathered momentum garnering a few opponents. Johnny says, “I heard a comment recently from the writer Terence de Vere White describing how Ireland experienced a Renaissance – that ran from the end of the 19th century with the Celtic Revival through to the end of the 1920s. The Censorship of Publications Act (1929) represented a symbolic end to this epoque. We need to see Ardnacrusha in the context of that ferment. One of the things that was not allowed to happen was for big ideas not to be quashed and for vested interests not to hold sway. We now know that for most of our history of independence vested interests have been able to hold sway over public policy. One area where vested interest may have held sway was with the powerful farmer – or “rancher” – element in the body politic. Workers were not to be paid in excess of the Agricultural Labour rate, which was incredibly low for this kind of work.”

 

Around 1,000 German and 4,000 Irish workers were involved in the construction phase between 1925 and 1929. The documentary recounts a fascinating part of the process that involved The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union going head to head with Siemens over the workers’ conditions and wages. Siemens appointed Joseph McGrath, the former  Minister for Industry and Coinmerce, as Director of Labour. A ruthless man, McGrath was brought in as a means to oppose the Unions and avert strikes. His victory in doing so would result in injuries and deaths as many underskilled workers were put in dangerous working conditions. Johnny explains howthis post Civil War society was a brutalised place and McGrath symbolised that. He is at once a fascinating and scary individual who subsequently went toe to toe with the Mafia in the U.S. over his promotion of the Irish Sweepstakes. But yes there were many deaths which had to do with the vast industrial nature of the project. It wasn’t that there was no awareness of Health and Safety. The Germans were complaining to the Irish Government about the lack of suitability of the Irish workers who were mainly from agricultural backgrounds.”

 
Nevertheless, the Shannon scheme itself was a major success story. Indeed, the magnitude of the scheme had it dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World. ” Yes, it was massive,” Johnny says, “not just in Irish terms, but in European terms. It happened in a brief window between the First World War and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Once again it has relevance today. For example, it is strongly argued that one very proactive way in which Europe could break its current economic stagnation is to adopt a very determined Europe-wide transition to Renewables – solar in the South of Europe and Wind and Ocean Energy in the North – and to construct a Europe wide grid for Renewables. We don’t have the space to go into this in the film, but we do interview one of the main proponents of this approach the Irish engineer Eddie O’Connor, founder of Airtricity.”

 

As Johnny is at pains to point out this piece of Ireland’s history has a lot to say about contemporary Ireland and the lessons we can learn, an indeed the lessons we failed to learn. “The promoters of Irish Water could have taken a leaf out of that Government’s book in how to successfully set up a public utility. The ESB – set up on the back of the Shannon Scheme – canvassed and enlisted communities when setting up the distribution system that was the less vaunted but equally massive task involved in Rural Electrification. The Shannon Scheme also tells us as a country that you can’t use a financial crisis as an excuse for not thinking and planning for the future. In fact, within every crisis lies an opportunity to change direction. As we surface from our recent economic nightmare can we really say that we have changed direction? I don’t think so.”

 
 
Generate The State/Gineador An Stait screens on Sunday, 22nd November 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

 
Director Johnny Gogan will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
 
 
Tickets for Generate The State/Gineador An Stait are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie
 
 
Johnny Gogan was founding editor for Filmbase of Film Ireland in 1987. His films include the feature films The Last Bus Home (1997), Mapmaker (2002), Black Ice (2012). He is currently working on the feature documentary Hubert Butler Witness To The Future, which will premiere at DIFF 2016.
 
 
Generate The State/Gineador An Stait screens at Limerick’s Belltable Arts Centre 13th January in advance of its TG4 broadcast.

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Clare Delargy, director of ‘Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age’

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Clare Delargy’s documentary Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age, tells the extraordinary tale of British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. In a career that spanned from 1921-1932, Mercedes became the first European female to swim the English Channel, the first swimmer to complete the Straits of Gibraltar and completed 51 endurance swims, with half of them lasting longer than 26 hours. Mercedes’ incredible journey was to make her one of the first international sporting celebrities of the modern age.

Filmmaker Clare Delargy explains her own journey into the documentary. “I first heard of Mercedes Gleitze some years ago on a visit to my husband’s family in Cushendun. My mother-in-law happened to mention her name in passing and spoke about the excitement surrounding her visit to the village when Mercedes attempted to swim from Scotland to Ireland. Her family had a real involvement in the matter because her uncle and cousin had been on the pilot boat that accompanied Mercedes on at least one of the attempted North Channel crossings. The story intrigued me and later I came across a reference to Mercedes and her English Channel success in a Sunday newspaper and then I needed to find out more.”

Mercedes’ success was built on her early dreams of becoming a professional swimmer while working as a stenographer in London. Her determined spirit is evident early on in life in her escape attempt from Germany as a 17 year old after her family’s repatriation during the First World War. Clare points out that “to leave her  home in Bavaria and make her way across Europe in chaos just as the war was ending in the hope of making it back to England was extraordinary. Furthermore, in then attempting to swim the English Channel Mercedes may have revealed the innocence of youth but her strength of character and fearlessness were truly awesome.”

This strength of character and a “will to want to succeed” was to play its part in what became known as Mercedes’ Vindication Swim. After successfully swimming the Channel on 7th October 1927, there were those who questioned the validity of her achievement. Indeed, the English Channel Swimming Association refused to recognize her record as legitimate. Mercedes refused to let the doubters negate her achievement and repeated the feat. In doing so, she garnered a new wave of admirers who were in awe of her courage and determination in the face of adversity.

The documenatry combines newsreel with a wealth of personal archive to tell the story of Mercedes’ amazing life. Clare tells how “after Mercedes died her family came across her books of cuttings and photographs in the attic. As Doloranda and Fergus, two of her children explained to me, before then they knew virtually nothing about Mercedes’s life as a young swimmer, her achievements and her celebrity. As Doloranda began to read through her mother’s records she was becoming acquainted with a young woman whom she had never known and a life filled with surprises and achievements. It was a privileged moment when I first went to meet Doloranda and see all her mother’s press cuttings and photographs. Subsequently I contacted various archive agencies worldwide to establish if any other still or moving images existed of her and the responses that came back were just amazing.”

As the title of the films attests to, Mercedes embodied the spirit of a new age. “Mercedes Gleitze was a fearless pioneer, “Clare says, “swimming many of the most challenging stretches of water in the world including the English Channel, Straits of Gibraltar, Cape Town to Robben Island, the Hellespont. And bear in mind too that she was not just the first woman but the first person in history to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. But ultimately she was a wonderful role model for a new generation of young women challenging the status quo and taking on the old order.”

Since completing the documentary Clare began to develop Mercedes’ story for cinema. With the support of Northern Ireland Screen, Delargy Productions have now produced a screenplay based around Mercedes’ Vindication Swim on the English Channel and her subsequent attempt to become the first person ever to swim from Europe to Africa which she succeeded in achieving in 1929. The first draft has been written by Daisy Waugh, granddaughter of Evelyn Waugh.

Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age screens on Sunday, 20th September 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Tickets for Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Tadhg O’Sullivan

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To coincide with the release of his documentary The Great Wall, Tadhg O’Sullivan, in conversation with Michael Ryan, will present two of his previous works, Bow Street [2010] and What Remains [2013], together with an excerpt from Terminal, a work in progress. The idea behind the screenings is to show and talk about the work that developed a lot of the styles that O’Sullivan brought to bear on The Great Wall. O’Sullivan explains that “these three films have aspects of different filmmaking approaches that are used in The Great Wall. So there’s a kind of evolutionary arc in it. It’s not that one leads to the other but just different approaches and different styles I have used over the years.”

All the works are very much infused with a sense of people and place. With Bow Street one single street becomes a theatre awash with human lives. O’Sullivan tells me that there were two starting points for the film. “One was the idea of relationship between people and place. The built environment and urban architecture and how people relate to that and how sometimes real people can get lost in the milieu around urban architecture. We tend, in an urban environment, not to see real people and the idea of the film was just to stop and shoot over the course of a month and explore that idea by slowing down and looking and watching and meeting people in a way that explores the relationship between the built environment and the human lives that operate within it.

“The other starting point for the film was for myself. As a filmmaker who hadn’t made many films, I had lots of ideas about exploring these kinds of ideas in exotic places like Palestine and West Africa. Part of me just felt that if I couldn’t make a film on a single street then I was wasting my time. So it was a challenge to me  almost taking Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions and using that idea of giving yourself a set of rules and exploring your own abilities as a filmmaker. The simple rule was shoot everything outside on one street and see if I could make something that is engaging and interesting and human and actually manages to explore those bigger ideas of the relationship between people and place and urban architecture.”

In the film people wander in and out of the narrative rather than ever becoming the focus of the narrative itself, something that reflects O’Sullivan’s interest in how the content of film can explore the ideas behind it. “The idea behind the film is the anonymity of life in an urban context, in a public urban context, and the anonymity of people just passing through and fleetingly meeting each other. That is very much manifest in the film. People come, people go, people are introduced, they leave and they are never seen again. We don’t find out their names. We don’t find out really much about them but we have these kind of exchanges and engagements with them. That’s a way of representing and exploring that aspect of urban life  where it is all about temporary fleeting moments with people. The city remains the same; the people move within it.”

What Remains, co-directed with Pat Collins, uses a selection of IFI archive material from the personal collections of Irish families to create an evocative examination of memory. According to O’Sullivan, the film started “as something Pat wanted to do. We had worked together a lot prior to this film and it touches on many of Pat’s central concerns to do with people and place, and shared cultural memory. I’ve worked a lot with archive over the years and it is something that’s really important to me. There is a magic to working with archive and there’s a  particular approach where you are looking for subtle hidden layers and meanings in material that was shot for an entirely different reason. And it’s just the everyday stuff of life, the incidental moments that have a poetry hidden within them. Trawling through the amazing material that is held at the IFI archive you find all these bits of film that were shot as recordings, memories, memories to be held, photographs of family members or holidays. They were shot with one thing in mind. Yet over time they gain other layers which are to do with a kind of melancholy of the passing of time and the idea that people have gone. But also there is an aesthetic and poetic element in them that myself and Pat as filmmakers were very much drawn to. The incidental things within the frames that might not have been apparent to the people who shot them but can be found within them. That is what made What Remains such an interesting film to work on. While I have worked with archive a lot, as I say, this was devoting ourselves to just working with that kind of fragmented poetry of hidden meaning and hidden layers within old material. I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable edits I have ever undertaken for that reason. There is something very free and very beautiful about it and something very human. That’s the most important thing – that the film is a poetic meditation on memory but also on humanity and the persistence of humanity.”

Finally there will be a screening of an excerpt from Terminal, a work in progress that is described as an “experimental film essay about industry, time and the cosmos.” O’Sullivan has been shooting the film for over a year on Whiddy Island, off the coast of West Cork, a place he is particularly fond of. “It’s a beautiful place, but also it’s a very storied place as well. There are all these layers of history written into its landscape  from Napoleonic-era military forts that are entirely overgrown now, through to the history of the oil terminal that was built there in the ’60s and remains there in the same form but plays a very different role now. What really interests me about the place is how you’ve had this long duration of hundreds of years of international historical things happening around the island, on the island, but human life persists and just goes on around that. These big cosmic events come and go but human life goes on regardless. That’s what I’m interested in.

“In Terminal I use material I have shot myself on 16mm in combination with archive material and that is something that I have done before but the approach to filming the 16mm material is based on my archive editing experience. I am almost shooting it in a way thinking what would it be like to shoot material and then approach it with an editor’s eye, as though it had been shot for another film. Using the grammar of archive editing in relation to new material. That is something I am quite interested in and it finds itself into pretty much all my work using that archival editing style and eye on all material, not just old material.

 

Tadhg O’Sullivan, in conversation with Michael Ryan, will present Bow Street, What Remains and Terminal (work in progress/8 mins excerpt) on Sunday, 23rd August 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Tickets are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Treasa O’Brien, co-director of ’Eat Your Children’

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Eat Your Children is an essay documentary that explores Ireland’s so-called acceptance of debt and austerity. Filmmakers Treasa O’Brien and Mary Jane O’Leary, two economic emigrants, return to Ireland to explore what seemed to be Irish people’s stoicism in accepting austerity and the country’s climate of complacency in the face of the nation’s current economic position.

Treasa O’Brien explains how the idea for the film came about 4 years ago “after my good friend Mary Jane O’Leary showed me a video online of Greeks protesting in Athens. They were chanting: ‘We are not Irish! We will resist!’ Mary Jane had just finished a year studying politics in Barcelona and was working for a European think tank. I had just finished a Masters in Film in London. Mary Jane dared me to make a film about why the Irish were not resisting. I said let’s do it together, and the rest is history. As we started to make the film, we realised the rest is history. Irish history is full of rebels and resistances, so why are we now so acquiescent and accepting?”

The film molds its essay in the form of a road-trip around the country, which, according to Treasa, was a way “to structure the film and also to involve the audience – you’re coming with us! We hope the structure allows the audience to discover with us, and also to keep asking questions and draw their own conclusions rather than ‘experts’ just telling them how it is. We both love the essay form as it’s a chance to explore a topic intellectually as well as emotionally, and it also gives room for a self-reflexive kind of authorship.”

Travelling around Ireland, Treasa and Mary meet Irish people on the streets, at protests, and seek answers from sociologists, politicians, historians, economists and activists on the nature of protest in Ireland. As a result, a lot of time was spent in the edit room to whittle the film down to the 78-minute final cut. “We shot over 40 long form interviews, less than 10 of which are excerpted in the film. The volume of interviews slowed down the editing process as we became attached to so many of the points made and wanted to cover everything – at one stage we were trying to make the short history of everything that ever happened in Ireland. So we had to get really ruthless in cutting the interviews down. We transcribed them all with some help and they have become an invaluable research and reference tool for us to have structured the film and informed our own thinking on the subject.”

I asked Treasa was there one thing that surprised herself and Mary the most on her journey around Ireland. “The Right2Water movement,” she replies. “We are really heartened to see this movement grow over the last few months. It seems to be bringing a lot of various groups and kinds of people together in solidarity, and of course it’s bigger than water. Water, our life force, is bringing people together against austerity, debt, and neoliberal privatisation and inequality. However, as inspiring and hopeful as it is, the vast majority of Irish people are still not protesting, even if they might support the Right2 Water movement from their armchairs. We also see the Irish media discrediting the protests and calling them violent. With all its globalisation and high media readership, Irish politics and media can still be very conservative.”

Looking at Ireland today Treasa thinks there is “a chasm between our conservative politicians and the real will of the majority of Irish people. Or at least I hope there is! I am home in Ireland now for the next few months and I will be here to vote yes for the marriage equality referendum. It is an important temperature gauge of how conservative or not the Irish really are – I wish we didn’t have to spend time fighting for things that seem so uncontroversial and obvious (to me, at least) as basic human rights such as the right to decisions over one’s own reproduction, the right to an equal marriage and the right to water.

“We have to think in a joined up and intersectional way – marriage equality, reproductive rights and racism are seen as identity politics, while labour rights and class struggle are left to the left. But, for example, reproductive rights affect poor people more than rich people, as the latter can travel more easily. We need that more intersectional approach which joins up movements and fights for something together as well as all the individual struggles.”

 

Eat Your Children screens on Sunday, 12th April 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Co-Directors Treasa O’Brien and Mary Jane O’Leary will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for Eat Your Children are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

 

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Brian Reddin, director of ’It Came from Connemara!!’

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Brian Reddin talks to Film Ireland about It Came from Connemara!!, his documentary about the legendary Roger Corman’s time making movies in Connemara.

It Came from Connemara!! screens on Sunday, 15th March 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

 

It Came from Connemara!! tells the fascinating story of the B-Movie legend Roger Corman who set up his film studio Concorde Anois Teo in Tully in 1996, 20 miles outside Galway – availing of tax breaks initiated by the-then Minister for Arts and Culture Michael D Higgins and spent the next few years making low-budget commercial motion pictures, such as Bloodfist VIII: Trained to Kill (1996)Spacejacked (1997) and A Very Unlucky Leprechaun (1998). Along the way, Corman gave many Irish people their start in the film industry whilst also upsetting the unions and the tastes of cinephiles who scoffed at the lurid “trash” Corman served up. Brian Reddin’s documentary captures that time in Irish film with wild gusto.
 
Speaking to Brian, I told him I was amazed that this story hadn’t been told before. “I was also amazed that nobody had tackled it before. I can’t imagine why as it is a great story.” Brian’s own personal history ties in with Corman and was one of the reasons he ended up making the documentary. “I was always a huge fan of Corman,” Brian says, “particularly his Poe adaptations with Vincent Price. Then when I heard he was coming to Ireland to make movies, I was intrigued. At the time I was producing a movie review series for TG4 and I tried to get on his sets and get some interviews but we had no joy. So, that made it even more intriguing wondering what was going on there. Then, he was gone almost as soon as he came and we never saw any of the movies and were none the wiser as to what went on there. Then many years later I was producing a drama series out of his studios and I got chatting with a lot of the crew who worked with Corman and their stories were hilarious. I knew there was a great doc in there, so I approached TG4 and they said if you get Corman, then we are on board. It took a while to get him, but once I did, TG4 came on board and then the BAI and we got to make it.”
 
More than just getting Corman, he proves himself to be a delightful interviewee throughout the documentary looking back on his time in Ireland with an impish glee. “He’s amazing,” Brian tells me, “88 years of age and still making movies. He doesn’t have an agent or a publicist or a manager, so initially I simply emailed his production office and then made a few phone calls and eventually he agreed to be interviewed. The problem was tying him down to a date as he is always so busy. When we were planning to shoot with him, he was overseeing his latest movie Sharktopus Vs Pteracuda – which I think is a love story – and he was making that at 87! He is still incredibly prolific and busy. But, once he committed then he threw himself behind the project. He allowed us use clips from his Irish back catalogue and gave us a brilliant interview in his offices in LA. He was happy to talk about anything for as long as we wanted. He was a joy to deal with. I had lunch with him after the interview and it was like a master class in filmmaking.”
 

Alongside Corman, the documentary features a list of of legends: Corbin Bernsen, Josh Brolin and Don “The Dragon” Wilson – all more than happy to take part. Brian explains how he approached them to be part of his film: “I went through all of Corman’s Irish movies and made a list of all the stars who appeared in them. Unfortunately David Carradine [Knocking on Death’s Door, 1999] and Roy Scheider [The Doorway, 2002] are no longer with us, but there was plenty of talent to choose from. I got their agents’ details and emailed them all, and every one of them agreed to take part. It‘s the first time I’ve made a documentary where everybody agreed to do it. They all had a great time in Ireland and they all love Roger, so they were more than happy to talk about their time here. Meeting Brolin was a particular highlight. I loved him in Capricorn One and he’s Hollywood royalty but a nicer gentleman you could not meet. They were all very generous with their time and it was great to meet them all.”

 

Their love for Corman was matched by the hundreds of Irish crew that worked for him. Their fondness of the experience comes through again and again coupled with their gratitude for breaking into the business and the learning curve it provided them. “It was great to get the Hollywood stars in the film, but the heart of it was always going to be the Irish crew,” Brian explains. “They were the ones with the war stories. They worked long hours for little money in tough conditions with pretty shit scripts and they adored it. They all got the opportunity to move through the filmmaking ranks and Corman gave them that opportunity when other places did not. It was an amazing training ground. You could be an assistant one day and directing the next and you could move through departments – grips ended up in make-up and there are loads of stories of crew getting lots of experience in lots of different areas. There remains a great camaraderie amongst the ‘Cormanites’ – as they call themselves – a lot of them turned up for the Galway Fleadh screening last year and it was amazing to hear them reminisce about their time in the trenches with Corman. The list of people who went on to great things from there is huge – David Caffrey for example, who directs Love/Hate, started with Corman, Terry McMahon played a heavy in a few of his movies, even Hector worked for him. There is a long list of people working in the business today who owe a lot to Corman.”

 

The documentary is deceptively fun but contains within it an important part of the history of Roger Corman and his time working in the Irish Film industry. It’s particularly interesting to recall how Corman was seen from the outside by the filmmaking status quo in Ireland, causing ructions from unions and the so-called film cognoscenti. “I wanted to keep it fun and light,” Brian says. “It‘s hard to take it seriously when you are talking about movies like Spacejacked or Knocking on Death’s Door – however, at the same time, his time making movies in Ireland was fascinating. Apart from the people still working in the business today as a result of working with him, there was another story of people being denied work. The unions weren’t happy with Corman and the press less so and those who worked for him were definitely made to feel as if their work had no value outside of the Corman bubble. That was a shame, but it had a lot to do with a lack of information. Nobody knew for certain what was being made in Connemara and then when they saw it, they were outraged that grants had been provided to someone to make such rubbish. However, and it’s important to note, Corman paid back every penny of his grant, so he left owing nothing. Whether you enjoy the films or not, and there aren’t many who do, you can’t deny that they were professionally made by people who had only begun in the business. Nobody would consider Corman’s movies Irish and yet they were shot in Ireland with an Irish crew, Irish actors, Irish technicians – sometimes directed by an Irishman and often telling Irish stories. Yet, they are never called Irish while we’re more than happy to claim an Australian director with American money telling the story of a Scotsman.”

 

Whatever anyone thinks, Corman’s guerrilla philosophy and can-do attitude on low-budget film has a lot to say about filmmaking.He was always way ahead of his time and embraced new technologies. He was shooting digital before anyone else and also embraced the internet very early on. The best thing about Corman is that he is not a cinematic snob. He’ll make anything and he doesn’t get caught up in the aesthetic value of it. It‘s all about making money and keeping the audience happy. He’s currently making movies for the SciFi Channel. When his work wasn’t selling big in cinemas anymore, he moved to the video market and then to television and now to the internet. He just keeps working whatever the medium. Its a pity that we can’t make films the way he used to anymore. For example in the case of Little Shop of Horrors, he was given a location for free for a weekend so he shot the movie in 2 days for $30,000. Once he got an idea, nothing would stop him.”

 

It Came from Connemara!! screens on Sunday, 15th March 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
 
 Tickets for It Came from Connemara!! are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

 

Carol Hunt remembers her time shooting a B-movie love scene in Roger Corman’s Galway studio for the film The Unspeakable.

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Neasa Ní Chianáin, director of ‘The Stranger ’

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Neasa Ní Chianáin’s talks to Film Ireland about The Stranger, her documentary about Neal MacGregor, an English artist who lived in solitude on Inishbofin and died alone, aged 44.

The Stranger screens on Sunday, 18th February 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

 

Neal MacGregor was an English artist who died alone in 1990, aged 44, in a stone hut built for hens on the remote island of Inishbofin, off the coast of Donegal, where he lived without water and electricity. The Gaelic-speaking islanders on the rapidly depopulating island knew little of Neal during the 8 years he lived there.

Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary The Stranger uses interviews with those who knew or knew of him, reconstructions, poetic diary extracts and archive material to piece together the fascinating story of this mysterious recluse and ponders the question Neasa herself poses at the start of the film: “Why do some people choose to retreat – to withdraw from the world; from people; from life? Why would someone choose to live in solitude and isolation?”

Memories of Neal vary from his life in England in the ’60s as a handsome popular teacher come jewellery artist in London, Acid-victim drop out and husband, to the life of loneliness he chose to pursue on a remote Irish island, which raised various questions from the inhabitants – was he a British spy recording IRA gun-running routes? Was he trying to take control of the island? Was he crazy? Or was he just seeking solitude? The different versions of who he was is something that attracted Neasa to making the film.

“I was interested in the notion of what is left of us when we die,” Neasa explains, “the idea that the dead become a collection of memories held by those still living, fragments of a life interpreted by others, memories fused with truth and sometimes myth. Neal was interesting in that he inspired so many conflicting stories about who he was, the Neal in London was a very different person to the Neal who arrived on Inishbofin. I was interested in how the jigsaw of his life varied depending on the storyteller and of course how memory evolves and changes overtime.”

The film plays on our interest in isolation and the life of a mysterious recluse, which feeds into a certain romantic narrative that film is exploring more and more. What is this particular fascination with solitude? “I think as life speeds up it gets very complicated for people,” says Neasa. “Everybody is busy being busy, one distraction after another, no time to reflect. Neal was a thinker and communicated only when he had something to say, one of his friends describe him as being very silent (in Donegal) but his silence was very noisy. I think he was trying to make sense of it all. He was searching for some meaning, he had to reduce his life, turn down the noise, so that he could focus, meditate, whatever way you want to describe it. I think there’s a little part of that in all of us, a yearning for solitude, a yearning to find some meaning. Maybe that’s why people want to hear the stories of those who were not afraid if it, because we think they might have found some answers. I have conflicting feelings about solitude, I sometimes yearn for it, but at the same time I fear it…like silence, I know it’s good for me, but it’s difficult to surrender to it. The film is a celebration of someone who had no fear of being alone.”

 

The Stranger screens on Sunday, 15th February 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Neasa Ní Chianáin will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for The Stranger are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

The film is presented in association with Guth Gafa Documentary Film Festival, who are working with Soilsiu Films on a festival outreach strategy for The Stranger, following its two successful screenings at Guth Gafa in Donegal and Meath.

The Stranger will also screen at The Glen Centre, Manorhamilton on Friday, 20th February at 8.30pm; at the Phoenix Cinema, Dingle, Sunday, 15th March at 12 noon (as part of the Dingle Film Festival); at Century Cinema, Letterkenny on Thursday, 19th March at 8.30pm; and at Glór, Ennis on Thursday, 26th March at 8pm. 

All screenings are part of the Guth Gafa and Soilsiú Films’ collaboration, and are made possible with direct distribution support from The Irish Film Board.

Further dates to be announced shortly.

Check www.thestrangerdocumentary.com for details.

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Marcus Stewart, co-director of ‘Marathon Men’

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Marathon Men is a new feature documentary from Earth Horizon telling the uplifting story of a young banker (Ken Whitelaw) and a middle-aged auctioneer (Gerry Duffy) who set themselves a challenge to run 32 marathons in 32 days in the 32 counties of Ireland with the aim to inspire people all over the country to go out and run their first ever marathons and raise funds as well as awareness for Autism Ireland.

Directed by Marcus Stewart and Marc O’Gleasain, the film came about when Marcus heard about this challenge through a friend and asked himself why would anyone want to put themselves through that? And so, Marcus explains, he “instantly knew that would make an interesting and powerful documentary story.”

Marcus and Marc then spent four years trying to get funding, but kept hitting brick walls. Everyone told them it looked like a great story but kept passing them on to someone else. In the end, Marcus says, “we just got fed up chasing people.”

With no budget, Marcus explains his approach to sculpting Gerry Duffy and Ken Whitelaw’s story into a finished documentary. “I got some of it filmed on a volunteer basis from some students looking for experience. After the event we filmed the guys who told the retrospective back story. The story is told through the voices that were there, and we had just enough amateur footage and photos combined with our own stuff to put the story together. It knits together seamlessly. This is all down to director/editor Marc O’Gleasain. His creative vision was what made it work as a film in the end.”

Marcus has had a working relationship with Marc O’Gleasain for over six years on the production side of things. “With this project”, Marcus explains, “it was my initial idea that I brought to him, but he took the reigns at a certain point and it would certainly still be on a shelf if he hadn’t taken it on. I knew I needed Marc for this as he is very strong on story structure. And this one was tricky to tell with so much amateur footage and archive, etc.

“Marc was generous to share the director title. I had the initial idea and ideas about how I wanted the film to look and feel from the start. Through the process Marc was certainly the one carving the story out of those rushes and in the end I have no problem saying it is more his film than mine. We worked together discussing different ways to tell the story, we both get on very well and understood the problems, so I would say it was a very good working relationship through the whole process. I’m delighted it got made in the end and I’m delighted Marc did such a good job with it.

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“We both feel that stories should never be left on the shelf. Just go and do it was the attitude, probably Gerry and Ken’s inspiration here… They are both inspiring people. It’s made me think it’s important for all of us to pick our own challenge that defines us. We would all learn more about ourselves if we put ourselves through these extremes and I think that’s very important in life. Different people choose different things, for some it’s Everest, for these two guys it was running 32 consecutive marathons and raising 500,000 euro for Autism.”

The film is set to screen this weekend at the IFI and naturally Marcus is excited at the prospect. “I hope it gets a good turnout and that people see it and remember it. That’s why we did it in the end. You want to make films that have an impact on people and the big screen is so important for that.”

Marathon Men screens on Sunday, 14th December 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The screening will be followed by a Q&A with directors Marcus Stewart and Marc O’Gleasain.

Tickets for Marathon Men are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Laura Aguiar, co-director of ‘We Were There’

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We Were There features the unique experiences of women in the predominantly male world of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, including stories of a prison officer’s wife, prisoners’ relatives, Open University tutors, Probation Service staff and a visual artist.

Directed by Laura Aguiar and Cahal McLaughlin, the film explores how the prison impacted on women’s lives, how they coped with the absence of their loved ones, and highlights the important contribution to the peace process by educational and welfare staff.

Speaking to Film Ireland, Laura explains how the film came out of the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) material, as part of her PhD research at Queen’s University Belfast. “The PMA recorded a wide range of experiences, from prisoners to prison staff and relatives, in 2006 and 2007, inside the empty sites. Participants were filmed by a single camera operator who followed them while they walked and talked. The focus was on the participants’ engagement with the site and on their memories of it, therefore leading questions were rarely asked. In this manner, participants acted as co-authors as they had control over the content of the interviews. Co-ownership of the recordings and the right to veto or withdrawal were also given to them.”

Laura’s own collaboration with the archive and the participants began in the post-production phase, four years after the interviews were recorded and digitised, and lasted for three years, from 2011 to 2014. “I chose to work with the female recordings of the Maze and Long Kesh prison because of the nearly absence of their diverse lived experiences in cinematic depictions of the prison and of the Troubles in general. ‘Troubles Cinema’ has been pretty much a male territory and when women are placed more centrally within the plot, their roles are often limited to the sacrificial mother, fanatic femme fatale, or the girlfriend or wife. So we wanted We Were There to go beyond these limited portrayals and to offer a more multi-layered representation by highlighting women’s agencies within the prison walls – as educational and probation staff – and outside the walls – as active mothers, as political activists, and so forth.”

The importance of recording such stories, stories that are often excluded from the traditional narrative of history, provides a valuable record of otherwise hidden people and stories which can deeply enrich our understanding of the past. Laura tells me that “We all at the PMA believe that personal stories are crucial to history, especially when the human side is privileged over the political, as it can help reduce, rather than reinforce, the sense of othering, which is so common in divided societies, as Northern Ireland.

“In We Were There, we did this by intercutting the stories according to what united these women – their diverse experience of the same site – rather than what separated them – their contrasting political affiliations or religion – and we refrained from adopting a ‘reconciliatory’ tone. As one of the participants of the film rightly put it, We Were There uses personal stories to tell the history of the prison in ‘a more multi-faceted way, not one side or the other, but many sides, many truths, many journeys, many stories’. These were her own words.

“However, when one works with personal stories, special attention must be paid to individual versus collective needs and aspirations and the public/private boundaries of sensitive stories. Some experiences may be too personal to be shared and can lead to embarrassment, harassment and even life-threatening situations for participants. That’s why working closely with participants, sharing authorship and ownership of the film with them can be key in minimising these risks. Minimise, not eliminate, as we can never know how stories will be publicly received, especially in sensitive places such as Northern Ireland.

“Furthermore, as war history is highly male-centred – and that’s not just me saying it but just think about all the war movies you have seen – personal stories are a powerful way to uncover women’s plural experiences of war and to deconstruct some of the myths of femininity and masculinity that have been reinforced by institutions such as the Church or the military.”

Also through these stories the film provides both a record of and moving insight into how the suffering of prison extends beyond the prisoners to relatives, partners and friends.It definitely goes beyond the prisoners,” Laura explains. “Estimates suggest that over 100,000 people have been directly affected by imprisonment during the Troubles. That’s a considerable number for such a small population of over 1.5 million.

“However, it is very important to acknowledge not just the women’s suffering but also their agency within the peace process and the history of the conflict. At the same time as the men were enduring the hardships of imprisonment, women on the outside were becoming not only the de facto head of the household but also more politicised and active, with many joining women and community groups and even paramilitary groups in some cases.

“The welfare and educational staff also played a key role, including in the peace process. A lot of them were responsible for planting the seeds for the talks that emerged in the prison. Their educational and welfare programme helped some of the men reflect on the armed struggle and opt to follow a more peaceful route after their release. It is very important to acknowledge their importance, as they often think that their stories matter less than the relatives’ stories. And this is not true; all stories are unique and equally important to the overall history of the prison and the conflict.”

I ask Laura to tell me about the editing process of the project.I regularly met Cahal McLaughlin, the PMA’s director and the film’s co-director, and carried out four individual meetings with participants. In these encounters we discussed the rough cuts and made joint decisions on the inclusion and exclusion of parts of the recordings and on the addition of visuals of the prison, soundtrack, and text. Hence, consent was an on-going process of negotiation, not just a single signature at the beginning or end of a project and ensured that the participants’ earlier role as co-authors was maintained throughout the editing phase.

“We agreed to let participants narrate their own stories and to use visuals of the prison, text and soundtrack minimally to support the women’s own voices. We favoured the contemporary imagery recorded by the PMA and eschewed adding other archival material, for example BBC newsreel or newspaper photographs. Text was used only to offer basic details on events, dates and location. We also agreed that the music should not be too intrusive nor too ideological and collaborated with sound designer Liz Greene, who produced a soundtrack that enhanced the ambient sound of the recordings, without intruding upon the women’s testimonies or guiding audience’s emotions.

“Since the film has been completed, participants have been invited to attend the screenings and take part in panel discussions, which have given them the opportunity to see how their stories impacted an audience and to engage in dialogues with them.”

We Were There screens on Sunday, 19th October 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

This screening will be followed by a Q&A with directors Laura Aguiar and Cahal McLaughlin and participants.

Tickets for We Were There are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Kevin Liddy, director of ‘The Suffering Kind’

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On Set: Shooting The Suffering Kind

The Suffering Kind is an intimate drama about an inner-city priest and a sanitation worker trying to maintain his sobriety. Director Kevin Liddy spoke to Film Ireland ahead of the film’s screening this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film. The film screens alongside Kevin’s first cinema short, Horse.

Kevin’s earlier films, Horse, Soldier’s Song and Country, were marked by their use of the rural Irish countryside. In his latest work, Liddy has shifted the focus of location to the urban setting of the Hudson Valley in New York. Filmed by Oscar-nominated Declan Quinn, The Suffering Kind is a beautifully poignant portrait of a life less lived.

Kevin explains the genesis of the project:

“I had moved to America in 2010, after a feature script I’d been developing for 4 years fell apart and the coup de-grace of being shortlisted for a Signatures project then rejected. I had known Declan Quinn for close to 30 years, having initially worked with him on Fergus Tighe’s Clash of the Ash in the mid ’80s and Declan approached me to be script editor on his Rory Gallagher script.

“While working on it, we discussed making a short film in the Hudson Valley using local talent and getting me back in the directing saddle. I used to have to drive past the town of Newburgh on my way to Declan’s house and was always intrigued by this town with its wide, panoramic main street – Broadway- and its evocative mixture of elegant brownstones and inner-city decay, its inhabitants struggling with the onslaught of advanced capitalism where industry had come, needed workers, and left, leaving great areas of depression and crime. I wrote the script set in this town, thinking it would be smart to have a project set not too far from Declan’s house and availability.

 

“I wrote the piece over Christmas 2013, sent it to Declan who really liked it and we decided to co-produce the script together and see how we’d fare. Declan had a 35mm camera he owned and had a groovy long lens – the ones that give you those ’70s light flares – so we thought we were half way there.

 

“Within a few months we were prepping and breaking down the script, location hunting and casting, and Declan was accessing  his contacts for more camera gear, film stock – Kodak in America gave us 10 rolls of 35mm stock for free, getting a small crew together filled with professional and learner alike and we picked my birthday as a date to start shooting. I prevailed upon my brother, Dermot, to invest in the thing and he put 15 thousand dollars on the table – that was its genesis.”
 

The film is about the power of delusion and the longings that haunt us and Kevin explains how he came up with the character of Michael Hannan and his situation to play out the film’s themes.

 

“It was a mixture of dramatic supposition and autobiographical evidence, an observation of a lower-case, the guys who slip through the cracks. I had come up close and personal with middle-age angst and was striving to let go of delusional life models that were crumbling under this weight of longing and despair and what I was going through seemed like what all of America was trying to wake up from; a great betrayal the society was in denial about. You could see it on the streets, unemployed men like ghosts hanging around the streets, a shell shocked look on their faces, wondering how on earth they ended up here while all around them the wheels of life grinded on, oblivious to their pain.

 

“I wanted to capture that exquisite decay, that undoing of character in the face of the cold light of day, but we wanted to frame it, mount the narrative in handsome brush strokes so the form might ameliorate the more depressing elements in the story.”

 

These brush strokes were achieved with Declan Quinn and provide visual evidence to the film’s themes by being shot on film rather than digital. “It was imperative for me to shoot on 35mm,” explains Kevin, “to prime the canvas with a certain elegiac subtext, to bear witness to the more analog characteristics of the human heart lost in the insatiable needs of an uncaring world.

 

“Finding the right locations is half the battle really, painting with battered walls that were found as opposed to ‘designed’, taking our lead from these locations, designing shots to avail of existing light and supplementing with the artificial of which we didn’t have much of. Declan’s experience is vast and his qualities of empathy are very strong so it was a matter of refinement and the throwing out of the rococo. He’s also very susceptible to listening, allowing me to riff off on the philosophical while guiding me back to the concrete and we had a shared literacy of film and film’s quiver of possibilities so it was how to marry our choices with what was possible.
“The thing is, when you have a face in front of the camera that looks like it came from those streets as opposed to central casting it provides you with inspiration to take the road less travelled, to capture this less seen dignity, to realise the fact that the back of buildings are more beautiful that the grand entrances they support. We shot the piece in 5 days and Declan was a delight to work with, a wonderful cinematographer with a great sense of empathy.”

 

Alongside the visual, composer Rori Coleman brings a beautiful original score to bear upon proceedings, carrying with it a strong sense of sorrow that achieves an elegiac lament yet is never sentimental. Kevin explains how he came to work with Rori and what he brought to the film.

 

“I had always had a strong relationship with composers, believing that cinema is closer to music than prose in its rhythms and pace, its effect on the subconscious, etc., and had started out on Horse working with Donal Lunny. Brian Willis [producer] suggested Rori to me and we met up and started talking about the world of the script, its fever and longings, the characters’ bridges all broken behind them; and so we started teasing out the musical expression of that forlorn but previously fecund state the characters lived in.

 

“The trick is to be open yet deliberate in this hunting down of timbre and Rori is not only a very sophisticated man but old enough – sorry Rori – to recognize and empathize with this life pall. Agreeing on a common language which comes gradually anyway, I remember having discussions with him about jazz and how that might give us an entrance to this world or not, how jazz for me was too loose limbed and how for us the score must have a predetermined, rigorous alignment with the images, so it was a question of using jazz instruments supported by strings, etc., to marry the  interplay into a precise interdependence.

 

“What Rori brought to the film was an understanding of the poetic, the inner drama of peoples lives hinted at, their beautiful miseries made visible. Not only is he a craftsman with a broad knowledge of the technical, but he lets in the paradox and is impressionable in the best sense of the word. I couldn’t talk more highly of the man.”

 

And so for Kevin it is obviously a tremendous moment to experience the film in all its glory on the big screen in the IFI. “Yes, but like all filmmakers you’re worried about how the Digital Cinema Package will perform as opposed to a print, how the colours and blacks hold up, how at my age I’m still fucking around with shorts as opposed to features, blah, blah. The wonderful part is when, for a moment, you can forget those concerns, when the cut from one swell to another works powerfully and, for an instant, you are a filmmaker like any other, impressed by the autonomy of the piece as if it had nothing to do with you, where its life is no longer dependent on you and the magic of cinema takes over.”
The Suffering Kind screens on Sunday, 14th September 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.Kevin Liddy will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for The Suffering Kind are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Lorna Fitzsimons, co-director of ‘Poison Pen’

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The comedy feature Poison Pen, the first screenplay from international best seller Eoin Colfer, will screen this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film co-stars Lochlann O Mearáin as a washed-up author, who is coerced into writing for a gossip magazine, alongside Aoibhinn McGinnity as his new boss. Set in London but shot almost entirely in Dublin, Poison Pen is a smart and discerning romantic comedy about the nature of celebrity and integrity.

Poison Pen was directed by Lorna Fitzsimons, Jennifer Shortall and Steven Benedict, and made as part of the Masters in Digital Feature Film Production at Filmbase, which places an emphasis on practical filmmaking to prepare students for a future in film production.

“Anyone who’s made one can tell you what it’s like to make a feature film, but you only really learn when you do it yourself,” explains Lorna Fitzsimons, one of the co-directors and students on the course. “We did classes in everything: script writing, pre-production, casting, camera, sound recording, marketing, funding, etc. Directors, producers, writers, a really impressive list of industry experts came to see us, which was great preparation.”

As one of three directors, Lorna explains how they divided up Eoin Colfer’s script and how artistic continuity was retained. “Essentially we divided the script by locations or ‘worlds’. Steven (Benedict) took the old world, mainly based around Molloy’s apartment and his daughter Sally, I took his new world, mainly based around the magazine offices and London, and Jenny (Shortall) took the Celebrity world which, as you can imagine, was based in hotels, clubs and glamorous places.

“This division worked well, people act differently in different company and places. For example, Molloy is used to his writer’s block while he is at home, it’s comfortable, he owns it. When he gets to the Poison Pen offices, it’s different, he’s different. The influence of a different director is easily worked out this way. We spoke so much about character and story and motivation in preproduction that I don’t think anything was left to chance.”

In addition to the two lead actors, the film boasts an impressive support cast that includes Paul Ronan, Mary Murray, Susan Loughnane, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Aaron Heffernan and Lauryn Canny. Lorna discusses how they acquired the acting talent. “Our producers, Áine Coady and Sharon Cronin, did an amazing job of negotiating with agents and getting people in the room with us. Sometimes we did readings, sometimes we didn’t. I think that the guidance we got from Filmbase on casting was one of the best things about the course. There are no hard-and-fast rules, you have to meet actors and look for the characters; some people surprised us when we looked at the tapes and that was a learning curve, it’s all on the tape, not necessarily in the room.

“Having actors with experience on set is really important but there is such a fine balance, they need to want to be there and be challenged too.”

With over 30 locations and an extremely tight shooting schedule, managing time while getting good performances in the can was another balancing act. The film premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in July which, with principal photography starting in April, gave the filmmakers a tight deadline to aim for.

“Getting to the finish was a challenge. All the little niggly bits that can take months, but because we had this deadline we had to get them done. This is where many people new to filmmaking get lost I think, in the soup that is completing the film”.

Lorna also puts an emphasis on preparation. “Directing on set was the highlight for me. It’s difficult to get practice doing that, so I tried to appreciate every moment. Preparation is necessary and really stands to you. I like being on set with my homework done, observing what it is everyone is doing, answering their questions and giving the actor the right words just when they are needed.”

After the rush to get the film finished for its premiere down in Galway, Lorna is looking forward to its screening at the IFI this weekend. “I feel like we were all a little shell shocked standing on the stage at the Fleadh. It’s been 6 weeks now, so this time I’m looking forward to watching the film with friends and family, seeing how they react.”

Poison Pen screens on Sunday, 31st August 2014 at 18.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The cast and crew will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for Poison Pen are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Martina Durac, director of ‘Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh’

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On the 6th March 1988, Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann, three members of an unarmed IRA unit, were shot dead by British SAS forces in Gibraltar in extremely controversial circumstances. Martina Durac’s film, Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh, explores the life and death of one of the IRA’s most iconic female members. The journey is guided by Professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, who spent many hours in discussion with Mairéad in the year before her death, and travels back to Belfast, Gibraltar and England to revisit her memories of that time. The film screens this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Recalling how the project came about, director Martina Dulac tells Film Ireland how a number of years ago she was researching a documentary series that she was going to make for TG4/BAI about women who served in the IRA and Republican paramilitary organisations during the last 40 years and more – “I felt their stories had not been told before, in their own words.”

As Martina was working on this and seeking the women who would be involved, she began to think more about Mairéad Farrell, whose story she was broadly familiar with. Mairéad joined the IRA in her late teens; spent over ten years in Armagh Women’s Prison for planting a bomb at the Conway Hotel in Dunmurry; was appointed the OC of the women in the Armagh jail; went on hunger strike along with Mary Doyle and Mairead Nugent seeking the same five demands to be met as the men in Long Kesh were; was tipped to occupy a very significant role in the now changing Republican movement in the late ‘80s when she was released; attended the University in Belfast for a short while; and was shot dead in Gibraltar by the SAS.

“It seemed to me a life story waiting to be explored,” Martina explains. “Speaking with the commissioning editors in TG4 I said I wanted to make a film about her. That’s when I discovered that Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, who I already knew, had been planning to make a film also and had been writing a book [unpublished] about Mairéad just around the same time that the killing in Gibraltar took place. Myself and Vanessa Gildea [producer of the film] went to meet with Bríona and we decided to work together. I would direct the film and Bríona would get involved as consultant. However, as I delved into the research more it seemed to me that the best way to tell the story would be for Bríona to be our on-screen guide as she revisited the events of that time and what they meant for her as well. When she agreed to this we set off on the journey along with Vanessa and Paddy Jordan, the cameraman, and we travelled with Briona from Dublin to Leitrim, Belfast to England and then on to Gibraltar and Spain, in search of the story.”

Bríona Nic Dhiarmada had had a very particular relationship with Mairéad Farrell for about a year and a half before her death while writing her book and because she also had a strong family connection to the North of Ireland and had been visiting it quite regularly from the mid-1970s, her role as “on-screen guide” is vital in bringing a better understanding to Mairead’s life. “I felt she was well placed to tell the story, Martina says. “It was important for me that we did not attempt a straightforward chronological biography as I don’t think it would have been the right way to approach this. How do you get inside the head of someone who lived through these times, did what she did and died as she did? The film was always going to be partial, in a sense, an exploration and a series of questions and reminiscences. Bríona brought a humanity and a curiosity to the project and I think she’s a compelling on-screen guide through what was a complex story. Even so, it was not possible to look into every facet of the story in detail as we are hidebound by the exigencies of making a 52-minute film.”

Martina points out that Mairéad’s journey from a middle-class upbringing in Belfast to a high-profile member of the IRA is seen as being somehow different from most of the other IRA activists because she came from a comfortable background and might have been more expected to end up in university than jail. “I’m not sure this distinction entirely made sense as she was definitely exposed to what was happening in Belfast and beyond all throughout her childhood years but this sense of otherness did add to the mystique that surrounded her after she was released from prison and became a spokesperson for the new direction into which the IRA and Republicanism in general was headed. She was, in a word, charismatic. From looking at old interviews with her it’s possible to see both the charm she possessed and the real determination to succeed in her aims even if that meant risking her own death and the deaths of others. This is something we do not ordinarily come face to face with in our own lives and I was drawn to explore it. She was as complex a person as we all are and she lived through a time in Irish history that is indelibly etched into the psyche of the country and has had long-lasting effects on how communities on both sides of the border viewed and still view each other. I wanted to see if we could explore this in some way in the film that would offer any inkling of understanding.”

Reflecting on the experience I ask Martina if is there one thing above all else about Mairead that she came out of the experience with a better understanding of. “I think it’s fair to say that I went into the making of this film believing that there had to be very strong reasons for Mairéad Farrell acting as she did in getting involved with the Republican movement so young and becoming an active service volunteer in the IRA while in her teens. Bríona says it in the film and it comes across to me also from the accounts of other people – Mairéad Farrell was a product of her times and the history of her people. It’s impossible to have made this film and not see that. She didn’t start out with a desire to hurt or kill other people; I think she started out with anger, the anger of the young at injustice, and I think she set out to do what she thought was necessary at the time to stop this injustice. In the light of so many actions, resistances, uprisings and revolutions across the world that we’ve seen since then, how many can we say are really successful for their protagonists and bring them what they think they fought for? Maybe very few, but I think I understand the desire for change and the deep frustrations that drove her to do what she did a bit more now that we’ve made this film.”

Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh screens on Sunday, 27th July 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Martina Durac, Vanessa Gildea and Bríona Nic Dhiarmada will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: ‘Where the Sea Used to Be’

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The feature film Where the Sea Used to Be is set to screen this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film introduces us to brothers Patrick and James, who meet up in Dublin for a Christmas Eve pint and end up spending the day together when Patrick misses his train journey home to his wife and child – whom he tries to contact throughout the day on his phone from various toilets as his constipation gives him time alone to make calls.

The brothers see little of each other these day after Patrick moved to “the country” to work in “pharmaceuticals”, while James stayed in his seaside family home hoping to buy a boat and return to fishing. The two industries are as different from each other as the brothers themselves – and as they interact throughout the day we see how far the distance is between them.

Spending the day together they journey home and touch upon the past without ever seeking to affect the present – the day passes and Patrick spends the night at his family home. Along the way the pair encounter a mix of colourful characters, from a demented Santa to a loving Aunt, from a grumpy dressing-gowned ragged barowner to a loveable doe-eyed rogue. The brothers engage in conversation, though never really revealing much about themselves. There are stories to be told but not today, rather the day unfolds just like any other.

Walking in and out of beautiful wide shots the pair journey between the characters they meet drinking tea and supping pints along the way. The film’s minimal road trip is an evocative study of moments in life that exist in the ordinary, where no solutions are sought, no past issues are resolved and no traumas healed. It is what it is. And it’s all captured in a well-crafted script that embraces the rhythm and pacing of realistic dialogue and a direction that is not afraid to linger on passing moments, all gently massaged with a delicate score by Adrian Crowley.

The film was co-written by Stephen Walsh, not the first time he has collaborated with another writer on a script after working with Christine Gentet and Goran Paskaljevic on the 2001 feature film How Harry Became A Tree. Walsh was also writer and narrator of Sé Merry Doyle’s  2004 documentary feature Patrick Kavanagh, No Man’s Fool; and writer and story consultant on the 2010 documentary feature film John Ford, Dreaming The Quiet Man, also directed by Sé Merry Doyle,  before co-writing Where the Sea Used to Be with the film’s director Paul Farren, writer and director of the short films Choppers, Saturday and Pandora.

If co-writing conjures up images of collaborative brainstorming and high-fiving,  that’s not quite the case here as Stephen reflects, “I wrote a script. Paul discarded it. Then he wrote a script. I hated it… We sulked. We made peace and created a very good outline from which we never really deviated afterwards. Scenes came and went. We never “co-wrote” in the sense of sitting in a room together smoking pipes and waving our arms as inspiration struck. The final versions of scenes were usually written very close to the time we shot those scenes, often on the bus to the location; sometimes by Paul, sometimes by me.”

The original idea for the project came “after one too many vague meetings with the Irish Film Board; the need to make something that didn’t require the “permission” of such people to exist. It was also a project that couldn’t have benefited from being fed through a sausage machine by the sons and daughters of Robert McKee as they practiced their latest expensively-purchased buzz-words on us. We committed to the project in August and were shooting by Christmas. We used Christmas as a way to call our own bluff, really; shit or get off the pot.

“Then, with no money and no real means of acquiring much, we decided to also use Christmas as a backdrop to the story. Then we just needed a story! Christmas traps people together; very handy, storywise. Christmas locks people into patterns of behaviour they’d rather not be stuck in. And it’s even worse  – or better, from the point of view of story! –  if the characters are related. So we made them brothers.”

 

Stephen himself plays Patrick , while co-writer and director Paul Farren plays his brother, James. Paul explains how the casting of himself and Stephen was a sort of happy accident. “It was not our original choice. It came out of necessity rather than vanity.  When we realised it would be shot over a longer period of time we knew actors would not be able to give the commitment needed. There was someone else cast in my role briefly but he couldn’t work that amount of time. Finally, we auditioned ourselves with the help of a director friend, Vinny Murphy – so as not to be fooling ourselves –  so you could say, he gave us the job. As for everyone else, well they were people I had either worked with before or wanted to.  I believe firmly in working with people who you like. So it was a mix of actors and non-actors and I don’t think you could tell the difference between them.”

 

The result is a film whose characters are the story of the film.  Stephen explains that himself and Paul looked in other places for their story than is usual in Irish film. “Writing, for me, starts and finishes with character. What you get in all but the very best films is ‘types’ – or worse, Plot Delivery Devices – rather than characters. We placed the characters in the foreground and sought to discover what sort of story could happen to these people. Sure enough, they revealed their story to us. But they also got hungry, fed up and occasionally avoided each other! At times it seemed like we were making a documentary about people who insisted on existing but, really, didn’t! People seem to respond to the characters and, whether or not they like the film overall, many have approached us to say how relieved they are that we haven’t foisted another Crap Irish Film on the world. As Farmer Hoggett might say, “That’ll do, pig!”

 

The characters are well marshalled throughout by Paul’s confident direction, using long static takes, not driven by dialogue and never afraid to let the images do the work. “That’s what film is I suppose,” Paul muses.” Though there is plenty of conversation along the way we wanted to create something that you could understand with the sound off.”

 

Where the Sea Used to Be screens on Sunday, 22nd June 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Director, writer and actor Paul Farren and co-writer and actor Stephen Walsh will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for Where the Sea Used to Be are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Mark Gaster, co-director of ‘How to be Happy’’

how to be happy

 

The comedy feature film How to be Happy is set to screen this Sunday at the IFI as part of its monthly showcase for new Irish film. The film stars Brian Gleeson as Cormac, a marriage guidance counsellor, who starts sleeping with his clients, and Gemma-Leah Devereux as Flor, a private detective hired to investigate his antics.

Written by award-winning writer/director, Conor Horgan (One Hundred Mornings), How to Be Happy is directed by Michael Rob Costine, Mark Gaster and Brian O’Neill. The development of the script was a collaborative effort between Conor and the students of the Filmbase/Staffordshire University MSc Digital Feature Film Production Course, which prepares filmmakers for the reality of writing, developing, pitching, producing, shooting, editing, posting and distributing feature films in digital formats.

One of the film’s directors, Mark Gaster, is quick to point out the benefits of such a course, which lays a tremendous emphasis on hands-on filmmaking. “Whilst you are given a theoretical grounding, you are very quickly expected to produce material with all the same pressures and limitations, such as budget and time, that you would experience as part of any low-budget, indie production. In terms of making the feature film, Filmbase were great. They had the courage and confidence in the class to allow us make our own film. They were very supportive and their experience and guidance were invaluable, but when it came to making the film we were given full responsibility, no hand holding or looking over our shoulders. From my perspective, as a director, that’s exactly what you want and need.”

The film boasts a high calibre cast and Mark explains how they went about gathering such talents as Brian Gleeson, Carrie Crowley, Gemma-Leah Devereux , Brian Fortune and Stephen Mullan to work on the project. “Before we started we had a cast in mind. It came down to a lot of readings, perseverance and phone calls, particularly by Richard Bolger (one of our producers). Having Conor Horgan’s witty and entertaining script didn’t hurt either.

“We wanted to work with Brian Gleeson from the beginning, we knew he would bring the character of Cormac to life. Gemma-Leah Devereux’s Flor just shone in her readings. The Factory’s screen actors program was really useful for us too. From there came Stephen Mullan, who brought a lovely quirkiness and vulnerability to Al, as well as Lesa Thurman and Geraldine McAlinden. The instant we meet Brian Fortune we knew he would make a perfect comic villain by the way he mixed the dark and light tones of Larry “The Mangler” Doyle. Richard and myself knew Carrie Crowley was going to be at a screening of a film she starred in called Earthbound. We felt she’d be perfect as Barbara, our villain’s devious wife, so after the screening we literally chased her down a crowded corridor and door-stepped her; thankfully she decided to be in the film rather than get a restraining order. Laura Way, who was actually one of the directors on Filmbase’s previous film [Keys to the City], hit  Bethany’s bitchy character right on the head (despite being one of the nicest people you can meet) and Rebekah Wainwright, Jenny, came to us with numerous episodes of The Tudors under her belt.”

As one of three directors – alongside Brian O’Neill and Michael Rob Costine – Mark explains how they managed to work together successfully on the one feature. “Even though we had a fair idea from the beginning as to how the filming would be broken up between us, we worked together on the production as a whole right up until we started the shooting. We made sure we knew Conor Horgan’s script inside-out so there would be a seamless continuity throughout. One of the main reasons everything went so well was due to the tremendous amount of hard work that everyone in the class put in. They all got behind the film and really pushed it. The hours cast and crew worked were insane.”

With any feature film comes challenges but there are particular challenges every micro-budget project faces – particulaly one as ambitious as How to be Happy. “Everyone will tell you that on a micro-budget you should limit yourself to two or three locations and have a small cast,” Mark explains. “We had a really big cast and were shooting all over Dublin. There were numerous offices, apartments, bars, hotels, street scenes – both night and day -, a full-blown wedding reception and the beautiful greenhouses of the botanic gardens  – the humidity of which played havoc with our lens. On top of that, principal photography was about eighteen days and we only had Brian Gleeson for eleven, which is a problem when he is in most of the script. But everyone pulled together and made it work.

“Locations falling through during filming was probably one the toughest things to deal with on the fly. Venues would either get nervous or get a more valuable booking. The wedding scene was meant to be shot in a beautiful, grand room. We were supposed to be able to set up the night before, have one day to film and de-rig the following day. Out of the blue, the day we should have been setting up, the venue told us we couldn’t have the room. The next day we were forced to dress, shoot and de-rig a room in ten hours that you wouldn’t book for an AA meeting, all the while surrounded by people who didn’t really want us there. But watching the film you wouldn’t know that; our crew was brilliant. The art department transformed the room. Everyone in production worked flat out to make sure we had everything we needed. If we didn’t get this scene, we didn’t have an end to the film but from the first time I called ‘action’ everyone – camera, sound, lighting, the ADs – on the floor just pushed as hard and fast as they could. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything so much in quite a while.”

All in all, Mark speaks of the whole project as being “fantastic” and an experience that has served him well in the film industry.Before the course I already had some industry interest in a couple of projects I was developing, but co-directing a feature has helped open more doors. A feature is a different type of beast to a short film and when trying to raise funding or get actors or production companies attached to a project it helps that they know you’ve been through the process before and come out the other side with a film. That experience of actually seeing a project through from development to post-production, to its first festival and search for distribution, is a steep learning curve but an excellent learning opportunity.”

 

How to be Happy screens on Sunday, 6th April 2014 at 13.30 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The directors will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for How to be Happy are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Aoife O’Sullivan, producer of ‘Tasting Menu’

tasting-menu-stephen-rea__130429085104

Tasting Menu is a feel-good comedy with elements of farce that has charmed audiences on the festival circuit with its delicious tale of overlapping lives on the closing night of a three-star Michelin restaurant in Catalonia. A young couple come together a year after their marriage fell apart and set in motion an evening that will have a profound impact on their hosts and fellow diners.

This weekend the film comes to Dublin, screening as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Co-written and directed by the award-winning Spanish director Roger Gual, Tasting Menu is a co-production between Dublin-based production company Subotica Entertainment and Zentropa Spain, the Spanish arm of Danish director Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainment. Among the array of talent that make up the ensemble cast are Irish stars Stephen Rea and Fionnula Flanagan.

Aoife O’Sullivan, one of the Irish producers of Tasting Menu explains how Subotica  were introduced to the project by the Spanish producer David Matamoros and Danish producer Peter Garde. “Both are connected to Zentropa in Denmark – David runs Zentropa Spain – and we have worked with Zentropa on numerous occasions in the past so it was a natural fit. The director Roger Gual had envisaged some of the situations and actors as Irish so it made sense to set the film up as a Spanish-Irish co-production. We were drawn to the interesting premise of the film, the talented young director and Spanish cast and of course the fact that we’d be working with Fionnula Flanagan and Stephen Rea.”

Tasting Menu is Roger Gual’s third feature following his impressive debut Smoking Room (2002) and Remake (2005). Gaul was instrumental in getting the two Irish actors on board meeting them personally and, according to Aoife, “the response was very enthusiastic. Both Fionnula and Stephen were very receptive and liked the freedom that Roger gave to the actors. He’s very open to letting actors make suggestions and bring some of their own creativity to the film. And of course spending some time in one of the most impressive spots of the Catalonian Costa Brava in a three-star Michelin restaurant also helped!”

Fionnula Flanagan and Stephen Rea are joined in a strong ensemble cast by the likes of Claudia Bassols, Togo Igawa, Jan Cornet and Vicenta Ndongo, among others, which brings with it particular rewards and challenges. “The reward is to see how they all work together with everyone bringing their own individual experiences and talents to the story. The characters come from all over the world so the audience is treated to a rich palette of accents and dialects as well as varying cultural approaches to dramatic situations and the experience of fine dining. The challenge is to make it look organic. From a production point of view, there are a lot of scheduling and communication challenges on a daily basis. The biggest challenge is to make it seem easy – so the director has to work harder to achieve that.”

David Matamoros, the film’s Spanish producer, worked for over two years on the development of the project. “When he first got the script, he felt like it needed to appeal to international audiences,” Aoife explains. “The premise remained the same – it was always a great one. Some characters were dropped and some others were added. The restaurant in the story is based on real life three-star restaurant El Bulli – and a bizarre case of life imitating art unfolded during development. While Roger and co-writer Silvia Gonzalez were writing initial drafts of the script they were getting advice from Ferran Adria, head chef of El Bulli, but during this period he actually made the decision to close the doors of El Bulli. So just as in the script, the last night became something really treasured. It was a lot of fun for the creative team to see that happen in parallel to the development, but there was also the challenge to be faithful to the story that they wanted to tell and not be distracted by real events.”

Aoife talks about the advantages of European co-productions citing two main advantages. “On one side, the sources of finance are bigger when you work with other countries. So a film like this can benefit from national film boards, broadcasters, investors, etc., and it somehow makes it more international. A film like Tasting Menu has travelled to places like Russia, Bulgaria, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, US, Brazil, Latin America, which it may have found harder if it was a smaller indigenous Spanish production.

“On the other hand, creatively it can be a great experience. For Tasting Menu we had actors from Ireland, Catalonia, Spain, Croatia, USA, Japan, the UK and Holland. The DoP was Andorran, the composer Irish, the director Catalan… in line with the foodie theme of the film you could call it a veritable smorgasbord of talent.”

This foodie theme brings with it a luscious symbolism that is integral to the film’s feel and affect. Spanish producer David Matamoros details the concept behind the Menu. “We consulted Ferran Adria, Carme Ruscadella, El Celler de Can Roca and Irish chefs. At the end of the day, Vicenta Ndongo the actress who plays the Chef was the key: her father is from Guinea, her mother from Andalucia, and she’s Catalan. So we wanted to create a Mediterranean trip, join all flavours from Africa, Spain, Italy, Greece… So the menu becomes a journey; every dish has a meaning. And we were able to create that. When we introduced it to Joan Roca, the chef at Celler de Can Roca, he remained silent for a minute and then he added ‘there is a lot of Gin and Tonic behind this concept. I will use it in my restaurant for the next season.’ And then we knew we were on the right track.”

Although it’s based in a seaside Spanish restaurant, several parts of the film are shot in Ireland. The mansion of Fionnula’s character, Countess D’Arcy,  was shot in Howth Head, Dublin airport features and the restaurant where Claudia Bassols’ character, Rachel, has lunch is the Rustic Stone in Dublin. Most of the love scenes were shot in the centre of Dublin. The railway station where Stephen Rea’s character, Walter, takes the train back home is in Kilkenny. Aoife remarks that “it is so beautifully integrated that you don’t notice the seams. To have the Spanish crew merging with the Irish was a great experience and some of them have become very good friends. Roger moved to Dublin to do post and to work with Stephen McKeon on the score of the film.”

Tasting Menu screens on Sunday, 23rd March 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film will be introduced by producer Aoife O’Sullivan. 

Tickets for Tasting Menu are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Macdara Vallely, director of ‘Babygirl’

BABYGIRL Trailer for Web

 

Niall McKay met director Macdara Vallely to talk about his  feature, Babygirl, which screens this weekend as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Armagh-born writer/director Macdara Vallely’s first film, Peacefire won best first feature at the 2008 Galway Film Festival. His second feature Babygirl, about a Puerto Rican teenage girl in the Bronx, premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and opened in the US last year. Macdara moved to New York over a decade ago and has earned a living as a furniture mover and a musician before settling on screenwriting. He now lives in the Bronx, which is the location and inspiration for Babygirl. Niall spoke with Macdara at his adopted office at a cubicle in the New York Public Library.

How did you get started as a filmmaker?

I came to the making of films in an indirect way. I didn’t go to film school. I’d been to theatre school, which I thought was a total waste of time. I don’t really do well in those kind of academic environments. Back in 2004, I brought a play called Peacefire to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I toured with the play for three months. I just thought that there’s got to be a better way than this. I wanted to turn it into a film, but I never set foot on a film set. So I wrote a short called The Love Bite.

I’d been in New York about five years and there’s no access to funding here. It’s all private. Your resource here is human capital. I pulled about $3,000 together and got together with these guys, Samuel Crow and Ramon Wilson, and we shot this thing [The Love Bite] in six days with a digital camera. It was a great experience because it was like going to film school in a way. You learn some very important lessons, like don’t be stepping in front of the camera when you are rolling.

What happened to it?

It ended up making money, which is quite impressive for a short. It won best first short in the Galway Film Fleadh in 2004. My next short was Fiorghael (2005), an Irish language short. I was working with Tamara Anghie. She’s a fantastic producer. We had a very different experience because it was funded by the Irish Film Board and shot on 35mm.

How did you come across the story for Babygirl?

In New York, you spend a lot of time people-watching. One day I was on the train in the Bronx and I saw a Puerto Rican mother and teenage daughter on the train. The girl was reading a book and the mother was on the phone. This guy gets on the train and he starts eyeing up the daughter. He came across as a bit of a creep, to be honest. The daughter was having none of it. So then the guy started chatting up the mother. The mother was loving the attention and flirting back and then the three of them got off the train together. I was just left with the question of what happens next? So I went home started writing the script.

How long did it take you?

I banged it out in three weeks, which is great. Sometimes it can take three years. I just tried to imagine what would happen next. I tried to avoid the pitfalls of this kind of story. I didn’t want to see the girl as a victim. I wanted to see her as a proactive person who was trying to take control of her own destiny. I am a bit bored with that victim-characterization, particularly of woman. So once she started fighting back against this guy it became a lot more interesting from a dramatic point of view.

Did you do an outline or just write the script?

It’s very hard to give a hard and fast answer to that question. It depends. The scripts that I’ve been most happy with haven’t started out as an outline but more as a little idea like the girl on the train. Typically what will happen is that I’ll write a lot and once I have the raw material, I will then shape and form it from there. I could end up with a first draft that’s 160 pages long. But I think it’s very important not think too much but let the characters propel the narrative and see where it takes you.

Honestly, the outline thing is pretty helpful for funders but it can really stultify the creative process. Your conscious brain can’t create. It can criticize. It has its place but the writing comes from somewhere else.

So you don’t work off a treatment?

A treatment is a piece of prose, it’s not a piece of drama. What I am interested in is drama. I am sure there are people that really love writing treatments and are really good at it. I am just not one of them. It’s probably best to write the treatment after you’ve written the screenplay.

But you treat writing like a 9–5 job?

I don’t really think you can call it job. It’s not really work in the sense that its not hard labour. I feel very lucky to be able to sit up in that library and write. But I think a big thing is routine and just being able to set aside the time. It’s easy to fall out of the routine.

Do you work on character arc?

I find it uncomfortable talking about the writing process. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules. I just write. The conscious brain helps you when something is not working. It gives you certain tools. Things like characters arcs are useful to have because otherwise nothing happens but I don’t start with that. That comes later. That comes with the critical brain.

But you’ve been doing this quite a while now. Is there an inherent ability to know what form or shape a story should take that you would not have had your first day writing?

Absolutely. You have an intuition for when something is wrong. And finding out where it’s wrong. It’s like rot. Maybe you develop a nose for where it’s wrong and you go in and fix it.

How did you put the film together?

Really, it’s all David Collins from Samson Films who initiated the film. He had seen Peacefire in Galway and liked it and asked me to stay in touch. I sent him the script and he liked it a lot and said he would work on it if he could find a producer in New York.

He found R. Paul Miller, who produced a John Sayles film called Lone Star and also The Secret of Roan Inish. We shot in New York in the Bronx but we did all of our post-production in Ireland. Paul raised private equity and the Irish Film Board put in money for the post-production.

What was the budget?

You’ll have to ask the producers. But I make very small films. Peacefire cost $200,000. Our production budget was very modest. We shot the film in 16 days. But despite the New York location there’s a strong Irish element to it. Brendan Dolan is the composer, I am the director, Samson Films is the production company and the film was edited by Nathan Nugent (Waveriders, The Door, Sensation). I’d never worked with an editor before and I resisted the idea but working with that guy was a great experience.

Do you find yourself improvising on set?

It’s mathematics and economics. You can divide the amount of scenes by the number of days and you have your plan. We had one and a half set-ups. So I didn’t have much room for improvisation. I don’t like saying to the DOP ‘go in there and cover that for me and we’ll make it work in the edit.’ Everything is edited in the camera and executed. If something’s not working then you go to plan B. We were shooting 12 pages a day. You can achieve that if you plan. The most valuable resource that you have is time on your set.

How did you decide on the tone?

Well I never play it for laughs. I think personally that there’s a very fine line between comedy and tragedy. The best comedies are tragic at their heart and the best tragedies are somewhat comic. The comedy has to be inherent in the material. Restraint is an important part of my process. I like an audience to lean forward. I do not like to shove certain stylistic or tonal elements down their throat.

How did you find the cast?

Both Peacefire and Babygirl deal with young people so you don’t really have a place to go find them. The girl that plays the lead in this film has never acted before. We’d been working for about two and a half years and not found what we needed. I was going to film schools, theatre schools and on the last day of auditions the second to last girl to walk in was Yainis Ynoa. It’s hard to describe but I just got this gut reaction when she walked in the door. She hadn’t opened her mouth. She’s a 15-year-old girl from the South Bronx that lived the life of the character. Actually, she’s probably tougher than the character, but she has this amazing sensitivity, creativity, and awareness. She’s just one of these people that pops on camera. You take this big risk when you hire a first-time actor. She’s not experienced, she has no agent, so we had to deal with her family. But I think she’s the best thing about the film.

Did you decide on a style to the film?

Well the style should suit the story. I am not one of these people who wants all my films to look the same. So we used handheld and we use a tripod. I did tend to use a lot of static wide shots and two shots with the girl and her mother. I like to see two people having a conversation. At times they were in profile and they looked like a mirror image of each other, which was great because my character was struggling against the idea that we are all almost destined to become our parents. The Bronx is visually a very intense place. We tried to move the camera around in that environment and it was too much. So we kept it wide and let the action take place inside the frame.

So how do you earn a living from filmmaking?

It’s not easy. It’s more complicated when you have people dependent on you to eat. [Macdara has a wife and a baby daughter.] I don’t mind suffering for my art but usually what happens is that other people have to suffer for my art. But I am very lucky that people think that I can write. Screenwriting is what pays the bills. But that’s recent, up until then I was playing music and I’d worked for moving companies.

What sort of things are you commissioned to write?

I write feature-length screenplays mostly. It’s a good learning process to work on commissioned work. You have to bring all your skills to the table. It can be more challenging because it’s not something that you initially wanted to a talk about.

What’s your next project?

I am going to Beirut in the Lebanon in a few weeks after the Tribeca Film Festival. I will be there a couple of weeks doing research for a script. Most of it is set in Beirut but it has a kind of Irish connection as well. It’s great.

Might there be some emotional similarities between Beirut and Northern Ireland?

They’re both post-conflict societies. There are a lot of similarities. That’s what you realize. People ask me how can I write a story like Babygirl about a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx but the story came out easier than Peacefire, which was based on a character who was my age and grew up in exactly the same estate where I grew up.

There’s this fallacy that you should only write about what you know. I understand what people mean by that but if you only wrote about what you know you’d be very limited.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine Issue 141, 2012.

Niall McKay is an Emmy award-winning independent producer and director. He is the director and curator of the Irish Film New York and the co-founder of San Francisco Irish Film Festival and Los Angeles Irish Film Festival.

 

Babygirl screens on Sunday, 2nd February 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Producer David Collins will be present at the screening.

Tickets for Babygirl are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Leticia Agudo, director of ‘City Wild’

City Wild-0

 

When Whackala began a crowd-funding campaign in 2011 to raise money to make City Wild the company set out to produce a short film. Since then City Wild has evolved to become a feature documentary. Steven Galvin caught up with Leticia Agudo, who co-directed the film with Paul McGrath, to find out more about Whackala’s first feature-length documentary, which shines a light on the people who live and work in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

The film screens this weekend as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Most people who have spent time in the Phoenix Park have at one time or another wondered in true Through The Keyhole-style ‘who could live in a house like this’. Leticia Agudo and Paul McGrath asked themselves the same question and decided to make a documentary that would provide some answers. As Leticia tells me, ‘Both Paul and I love the Phoenix Park, and, being nosy filmmakers – let’s call it curious, it’s more professional – we each, at separate times, saw people coming out or going into a couple of the lodges, and then we got really curious about who they were and what life inside the park was like. Before that, Paul thought the lodges were empty and used for storage, so it was a great surprise. I personally love documentary because you can get right into a world and close to people you normally wouldn’t, and this was one of those instances where we both really wanted to find out more. From the start, we liked the angle of it being “a bit of the country in the middle of the city”, as some of the characters refer to it.”

The park is home to 40 families or households, mostly park staff, past and present, whose lives and stories are intertwined with those of the park. For the documentary, Leticia and John looked for people who, aside from having interesting stories, contrasted each other in their experiences and personalities. The people involved are the essence of the documentary and their findings inform the film enormously, in content and style, providing a rich insight into the Park’s history. One of them was Brendan Costello, a retired ranger from Strabane, who, according to Leticia, “aside from being incredibly open and generous with his stories and knowledge from the start, had reels of Super 8 footage of his family and events in the park, mostly during the ‘70s. We loved it and wanted as much as we could use in the film; it showed the private and public nature of their lives in the park, which was interesting, they had been part of some of the biggest historical events in the country.”

Brendan also helped in getting others on board. “There was one person who was very reticent from the start even though he was one of the first people we met, but we kept at him, because we were won over by his life story and his humbleness; in his case, and also in the case of others, Brendan, whom we got very close to, interceded in our favour; he trusted us from the start and saw the good in what we were doing and was the best ambassador of the project amongst other residents. Paul and I normally end up being quite close to some of the people we film; we made three good new friends from the park who we see regularly.”

As a result the film balances the personal stories of the residents, the day-to-day running of the park, as well as its history. Something that Leticia admits was difficult to achieve. “It was a very lengthy edit. I got carried away with the personal stories in the first cut and Paul looked at it and said: “where’s the park?” Finding the narrative took going back and forth between structures on paper and the edit. I came up with the opening very early on and we both liked it; except, we eventually added images of the park waking up too, as Paul thought the park itself had to be another character in the film throughout, so he kept tabs on me, since I would quite happily have made the whole film about the people and their stories. Our loose large structure was: the past, the present and the future of the park, represented by the characters that dominated each section: retired staff first, then the active staff and, finally, Terry, the deer keeper and aspiring park resident, representing the future and hopes for the park.”

Leticia herself took on the difficult job of editing down the 60 to 70 hours of their own footage. “Both Paul and I like constructing documentaries  that use no voiceover or guiding texts, although that makes the edit a lot harder; we have to find all the content from what the contributors say and make it make sense with what images and music it’s juxtaposed against, since I also prefer contrasting, rather than illustrating a point. It’s a challenge, but when a sequence, or even a moment, works, it’s a real pleasure.”

The film is set to screen at the IFI and as Leticia insists her 3 plans for the film are:“Get it seen, get it seen, get it seen! I’m still applying to a couple of international festivals, but it’s not really a festival film; we’ve gotten great feedback from a previewing audience of over 50 year olds, some of the initial funders of the film, who really engage with it and its characters, and we’re really happy targeting the documentary at them. We entered into a contract for broadcast with RTÉ in 2012 but they want a younger, lighter and more current approach, so I’m also editing that version at the moment, which is, essentially, a different film. It took us a long time to detach ourselves from the slow reflective film that it turned into, and that we’re quite happy with.”

Steven Galvin

 

City Wild screens on Sunday, 19th January 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Directors Leticia Agudo and Paul McGrath will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for City Wild are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Des Kilbane, director of ‘Croí Trodach’ (A Fighting Heart)

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Steven Galvin chats to Des Kilbane, director of Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart), the epic story of Johnny Kilbane (1889–1957), the longest reigning World Featherweight Boxing Champion of all time. The film screens this weekend as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

When Johnny Kilbane, the Cleveland-born son of Irish emigrants from Achill, became the World Featherweight Champion on 22nd February 1912, defeating the six-year reigning champion Abe Attell in a 20-round bout in Vernon, California, he entered the realms of legends. He returned to Cleveland on St. Patrick’s day to the largest gathering in the history of the city with a turnout of around 200,000 people. According to his biography: Newspapers canonized him. Children idolized him. Parents even named their new born sons “Johnny Kilbane”. Kilbane would go on to beat Attell’s record and become the longest reigning World Featherweight Boxing Champion of all time holding the title for a staggering 11 years from 1912 to 1923.  Kilbane fought more than 140 fights in his career losing only 4 times – a sporting feat that has lead to him being considered one of the top 5 Featherweights of all time.

Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) tells the epic story of Kilbane’s life, a story that stretches from Achill Island to Cleveland, Ohio, taking in so much along the way.

Irish director Des Kilbane, himself a distant relation of Johnny, tells me how the genesis of the film dates back to when his own father used to talk about Johnny Kilbane visiting Achill in the early 1920s when Johnny was still the champion of the world. In the mid-1980s, Des picked up a copy of The Book of Lists, where celebrities select their favorites in their chosen fields, and read that Mike Tyson, heavyweight champion of the world at the time, had picked Johnny at Number 7. “I was amazed, ” says Des. “So the idea was always there but the wherewithal wasn’t. When I completed my film studies in 2009 the idea arose again to make a film on Johnny’s life. I found Kevin OToole’s website on Johnny (Kevin’s great grandfather) and it all took off from there.”

It’s a surprise to learn how in fact Johnny’s path into boxing was by chance. Des explains how Johnny always wanted to be a star of the vaudeville stage. “He was a great dancer, he played the violin and he could hold a tune. But having to survive working on the docks as a 10 year old honed his fighting skills. His nemesis as a boy was his neighbor Tommy Kilbane and they fought on the street regularly. A friend suggested he contact Jimmy Dunn a local boxing trainer. They met up and the rest is history.”

Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) charts Kilbane’s sporting career but also extends well beyond it relating a rags-to-riches story that begins on Achill Island, from where his ancestors originated and his father emigrated, and finishes in Cleveland, Ohio, where Kilbane grew up. “Johnny had a very tragic childhood,” Des tells me, “losing his mother when he was 3 years old and his father becoming blind when he was 7. So he had to leave school to earn money to keep the family going.” He went on to fight his first professional fight in 1907, became a lieutenant in the US Army during the First World War and would serve his community after his impressive boxing career. “After he retired from boxing, he made a lot of money but lost it all in the crash of 1929,” explains Des. “He had to re invent himself as a boxing promoter and then as a politician, which he became very successful at.”

The film also works as a particular story of Irish Emigration and the building of the Erie Canal, the US’s first major transportation system, linking the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east. As Des says, Achill Islanders had been emigrating to Ohio from 1820s onwards to work on the Erie Canal, which was one of the great American engineering constructions of the 19th century. “From those beginnings other emigrants from the West of Ireland followed, particularly during and after the Famine and a large Irish community was established in Cleveland which still exists today.”

There is some wonderful archive footage throughout Croí Trodach, including rare footage of Kilbane’s World Title fight that has never been seen before, which “was discovered by Kevin O’Toole (Johnny’s great grandson) in his Grandmother’s attic when she died in 1995,” says Des. “This very volatile nitrate film, over 100 years old, is very expensive to convert but with the help of Frank Stallone, Sylvester Stallone’s brother, Kevin managed to convert the last 4 rounds of the Kilbane vs Attell fight, which has never been seen before and is shown in the film, for the first time. We also found some very rare footage of Johnny at home with his family and Johnny on the election trail as a candidate.”

The film features a specially commissioned original soundtrack by Portland musician and award-winning writer Willy Vlautin, founder of the band Richmond Fontaine.

Initially Des self-funded the project, travelling to the States for research purposes. Midas Productions then came on board as co-producers, and in late 2011, TG4 signed up as broadcaster. In 2012 the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland approved funding which allowed Des to finish the film.

The finished documentary is a fascinating and insightful account of the life and times of one of sports greats.

 

Steven Galvin

 

Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) screens on Sunday, 15th December 2013 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film will be followed by a Q&A with Des Kilbane.

Tickets for Croí Trodach (A Fighting Heart) are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Michelle Deignan, director of ‘Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre’

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Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre is a feature-length documentary that reveals the story of the radical organisation founded in the early ’80s by women in order to represent and support generations of Irish women in London. The story of the Irish in England has always very much been the story of Irish men in England, but Breaking Ground documents a little known history of Irish women’s success story and records the history of Irish feminism in London.

The film’s director Michelle Deignan recalls how the project initially came about when “back in November 2011 I was asked to exhibit a short film of mine, Red Cheeks, in an exhibition at the London Irish Women’s Centre. In this film an actress reports anecdotes about me as an Irish artist and filmmaker in London, within the context of a tour of three Irish spaces there, including the London Irish Women’s Centre. After seeing Red Cheeks in the exhibition Claire Barry, the Centre’s director, asked me if I’d write a proposal to make a documentary on its history. I was really surprised not least because it was the first time I’d been asked to pitch for a documentary project. I thought, what a great opportunity to make a funded film about Irish women in London, a subject that other films of mine had addressed but in completely different ways. So I went ahead and wrote a detailed proposal, which Claire later told me blew her away. She also told me that when she saw Red Cheeks in the exhibition at the Centre she hadn’t a clue what it was about but thought it looked very professional and it was on that basis only she asked me to pitch for the documentary!”

It comes through clearly in the film that the wave of Irish women emigrating during the ’80s was very much on a proactive level as London seemed to offer Irish women an opportunity to break free from certain restraints – economic, political and cultural – in Ireland. According to Michelle, “Irish women are more migratory than Irish men, which indicates that women have more reasons to leave Ireland.” The documentary tells us that in the ’80s Irish women made up 10% of the female population. Michelle continues, “For some of these women 1980s London, though not without its hardships, was a place to escape from the repression of the male dominated Irish state, religion and culture. It was this generation of women who began the London Irish Women’s Centre.”

The documentary provides a real insight into how the Centre functioned as an alternative to the traditional notion, and way of life, of the Irish in London. “The aim of the centre was to meet the needs of a diverse range of Irish women who didn’t necessarily conform to the established order of what either Irish or British institutions perceived were legitimate expressions of Irish womanhood,” Michelle explains. “At the Centre all versions of being an Irish woman were possible. It’s also important to mention that first, second and third generation Irish women used the resource. Originally it was a feminist collective, a practical resource to help Irish women live their daily lives, as well as a space within which to question notions of cultural and gender identity. Brid Boland, one of the original workers at the Centre, points out in the film that is was important to them that Irish women would aim to integrate with all parts of British society reaching beyond the confines of an Irish only community.”

One of the strengths of the film alongside the interviews from leading members is the great array of  archive footage, which brings so much of the history to life. “The archive footage and photographs in the film are from a huge number of sources,” says Michelle. ” The London Irish Women’s Centre supported a group called Video na mBan, who recorded many events and interviewed many guests and users of the centre. Most of that footage has been long dispersed but there was one cupboard left full of U-matic tapes. These turned out to be footage from 1987/88, mostly of the Irish Women’s Conferences that the Centre had organised over a five-year period in London. This was the archive we started with and it gave us some fantastic clips. Many of the women we went on to interview are featured in these.

“The Centre did a lot of self publishing in the form of reports and newsletters and they astutely had a lot of their events documented by professional photographers. Most of the black and white photographs in the film were taken by Joanne O’ Brien and Sass Tuffin, who had both been employed by the Centre to document events at different times. Colour photographs were from the personal collections of some of the interviewees and others we found in the the Centre’s archive. We also used some fabulous archive from Anna Liebschners’ short film A Free Country’(1983), about the Prevention of Terrorism Act and how if effects the Irish community in the UK.”

Ultimately, the Centre functioned as a space for Irish women and as a vital source of support that could provide for their needs and also take up the challenge to agitate for change. “Angie Birtill  – one of the women who worked at the centre – made a great point that women were supported and encouraged to not be victims but to do something about what they wanted to change. In a space where all opinions could be expressed and all grievances could be aired, opinions were shared and support groups for various different causes were formed. This was collective power in action. Women were coming to the centre and galvanising support for many causes from protests about the strip searching of prisoners to reproductive rights campaigns. It’s inspiring stuff.”

Steven Galvin

 

Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre screens on Sunday, 10th November 2013 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film will be followed by a Q&A with the London-based director Michelle Deignan.

Tickets for Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Paula Kehoe, director/producer of ‘An Dubh ina Gheal’ (‘Assimilation’)

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Paula Kehoe: Director/Producer

 

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) is a revealing exploration of the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and the Irish in Australia. Steven Galvin caught up with Paula Kehoe, the film’s director/producer, to find out more about her fascinating documentary.

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) screens at 13.00 at the IFI on Sunday, 15th September 2013.

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) is a documentary that explores the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and the Irish in Australia. Produced and directed by Paula Kehoe, the film is structured around Irish poet Louis de Paor’s journey back to his once-adopted homeland to explore a hidden story of the Irish in Australia. A story that takes in the existence of a new colonial identity in Australia – that of the ‘Aboriginal Irish’, proud to be Aboriginal and proud to be Irish – while at the same time exploring how the Irish, as white Australians, were also complicit in the dispossession of Aboriginal people.

Since the British first established a colony in Australia in 1788, Aboriginal Australians have had their land stolen from them or destroyed, become victims of new diseases brought in by sailors and convicts, and became targets of genocide. By the late 1800s, the indigenous population had been reduced from up to an estimated one million to only 60,000. During much of the 20th century, the government adopted a policy of assimilation by removing mixed race children – many of Irish heritage – from their parents and adopting them out to white families or placing them in mission schools in an effort to eradicate traces of Aboriginal culture and language. An Dubh in Gheal explores the story of this “stolen generation”, and also that of an Aboriginal resistance lead by ‘Shamrock Aborigines’, who saw theirs as a shared struggle against a common oppressor.

Paula explains how she had “brewed over the film for quite a long time. I actually started thinking about the subject area before I ever started making films. Since then it had always been at the back of my mind as a story that should be told. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to tackle it in Australia as an Irish-Australian filmmaker for a lot of complex reasons. It was only really when I was in Ireland and with Louis on board that I felt comfortable with the fact that this was also an Irish story that could be told from an Irish perspective.”

Louis de Paor

Louis de Paor: Presenter/Co-Writer

Paula, who moved to Ireland in 1994, tells me how it took the years she had spent immersed in indigenous culture and language in Ireland “to raise my consciousness and deepen my understanding of the society in which I was raised. As a result my growing awareness of and engagement with Aboriginal life, culture and politics in Australia became entangled with a very Irish perspective. When I looked deeper into the recent past in Australia, the Irish dimension of the Aboriginal story was starkly apparent. It is remarkable how many Aboriginal people have Irish heritage, political activists, politicians and members of the Stolen Generations among them, and they are very proud to claim it. Yet conversely the Irish were embedded, and themselves assimilated into ‘white Australia’ and all that it entailed.”

Having first heard Louis de Paor reading the two poems that feature in the documentary in 1997 in Club Áras in Galway, Paula recalls how “they suddenly reappeared in my consciousness in 2010 while I was researching this subject.” Louis had lived in Australia and had responded to the plight of the Aboriginal people through his poems, ‘An dubh ina gheal’ and ‘Didjeridu’, which inspire the film’s narrative.

“These poems have powerful things to say about Indigenous Australians”, whom Louis feels a natural affinity with as an indigenous Irishman according to Paula. “Yet, as ‘Didjeridu’ acknowledges, the Gael, as a founding people in the story of white Australia, were also complicit in the dispossession of Aboriginal people.The fact that the poems were written in Irish is crucial. When I explained to contributors that the documentary would be bi-lingual, half in ‘Gaelic’, they were much more open to it. English is the language of the coloniser for both the Irish and Aboriginal people, and certainly the Aboriginal people I spoke to have a very keen awareness of those paralells.”

Paula first approached TG4, who liked the proposal, then wrote it up for the BAI, and it got commissioned. “Then Louis and I started working on it together and shaped it beyond my initial proposal to embrace the personal stories and the contributors who came and went and also to incorporate what Louis brought to it. So it’s evolved in various different stages. I couldn’t have done it then without Louis. He was the key to making it work. He gave it a moral centre from an Irish immigrant’s point of view. It was a fabulous experience and such a privilege working with Louis on this project.”

An Dubh ina Gheal explores the story of the ‘Stolen Generations’, but also how, despite the circumstances, out of these multi-racial unions new identities have been formed. Paula points out that “there is now a whole generation of indigenous Australians of Irish descent. During the ’60s and ’70s political activists of Irish descent were called ‘Shamrock Aborigines’, “who saw theirs as a shared struggle against a common oppressor. They recognised that the Irish have also suffered under British rule. So there are strong associations there.”

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Louis de Paor & Bill Brock-Byrne

Bill Brock-Byrne, a member of the Stolen Generations, features in the documentary and explains how he thought the missions were there to protect them from the government, and yet part of that was protecting them from their own culture and from their own beliefs.

Previously there had been little to no research done on the offspring of Irish and Aboriginal parents so Paula couldn’t rely on archival sources and “that’s why finding someone like Bill Brock-Byrne was crucial because his family history tells us so much.”

Paula admits that the documentary was the most challenging project she has ever undertaken. “It’s a sensitive area so it was important to be respectful and aware on every level. The archive film and photographs proved a tremendous challenge as there is so much kept by so many different institutions and there’s so much protocol involved in using any archive material that has indigenous content. While it wasn’t an easy journey, it has been without any doubt one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I hope that it does justice to all of those involved.”

The result is a fascinating document that achieves a balance between the historical, the personal and the poetic, crystallising the intimate and complex ties that bind the Irish and Aboriginal Australians and how that relationship is envisaged and in doing so reveals a hidden history of the Irish in Australia.

 

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) screens on Sunday, 15th September at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The Australian Ambassador Dr Ruth Adler will attend and there will be a post-screening Q&A with filmmaker Paula Kehoe.

Tickets for An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Aisling Ahmed, producer of ‘Amazing Azerbaijan!’

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Ireland On Sunday presents Amazing Azerbaijan!, a revealing portrait of an oil-rich state where all is not as it seems. Steven Galvin caught up with Irish producer Aisling Ahmed to find out more about this tale of two countries.

Amazing Azerbaijan! screens at 13.00 at the IFI on Sunday, 25th August 2013.

In 2012 Azerbaijan staged the Eurovision Song Contest. The capital city Baku played host to a glamorous spectacle that showed off the profits of a 40-year oil boom proudly around its neck like a gold chain. But behind the veneer of glitz and glamour lies tales of government corruption and abuse of power that have been quietly accepted by Europe in its hunger for oil.

The irony of the country’s evident wealth on offer for all to see at the Eurovision was the fact that it also drew attention to some of the means allegedly used to achieve it. In the build-up to the Eurovision a growing activist campaign claimed that the tens of millions spent were a smokescreen to deflect attention from the government’s dire human rights record.

Amazing Azerbaijan! investigates the abuse of human rights in Baku and explores the semblance of a thriving democratic republic and the reality of a repressive and corrupt country. The film portrays a country that denies freedom of expression and political assembly, forcing evictions upon its citizens, arresting bloggers on false charges, beating peaceful protesters, and imprisoning journalists (one has been killed), all in an effort to maintain the façade.

The film is produced by Aisling Ahmed for Crow Hill Films, which she founded in 2009. The origin of the project was its director Liz Mermin, an American based in London, who had worked previously with Aisling on the feature documentary Horses.

Aisling spoke to Film Ireland: “Liz had the idea of using the Eurovision as the hook to put together a documentary on the country. She knew things were tricky over there so we started to look into it and felt there was a strong story that needed to be told.” Aisling goes on, “Azerbaijan is seen as democratic but effectively it’s a dictatorship. The same family have been in power since it became independent.”

The country is led by the authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, who has maintained his family’s rule for two decades when he came to power in 2003, and was re-elected in 2008 with 87% of the vote – an election boycotted by the opposition and criticized by Western observers. Aliyev recently amended the constitution to end term limits and tighten his grip of control. Despite criticising every election The Council of Europe has refused to sanction the country in any way.

 

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The Eurovision proved the perfect foil for Liz and Aisling to get into the country and investigate what was going on in this oil-rich state strategically located at the edge of Europe, between Russia and Iran, and allowed them the opportunity to pitch the film where they may not otherwise have been able to do so. Aisling describes how they first flew into Azerbaijan in January and put together a 52-minute version ready and out in time for Eurovision 2012. “At the time there was a lot of media coverage of what was happening in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the Eurovision and things moved on once the Eurovision was over and it disappeared from the media. Obviously we didn’t want to be a part of that. So we got a little bit more funding and got a grant to update the film and show what happened afterwards. We did a bit of an update and made it into a 60-minute film to show what happened in the months since the lights went out on Eurovision. This made it far more relevant for a 2013 audience and was picked up by human rights festivals like One World in Prague.”

Once in the country Liz and Aisling were able to assemble the subjects they felt would work best for the documentary. “We spoke to people on the ground in terms of the groups that are working to support human rights groups in Azerbaijan and through them we were able to tap into people that were very active.”

Among these are Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani radio reporter, who has uncovered several corruption scandals linked to Aliyev’s family; Jamal Ali,a rock musician who has performed at anti-government rallies; and Emin Milli, a writer and dissident from Azerbaijan, widely known as the “donkey blogger” for his role in a video lampooning Aliyev’s government.

According to Aisling, “We felt that especially with Khadija, Jamal and Emin that their stories really stood out from a journalistic point of view and that they were stories people would really hook onto.” All 3 claim to have suffered at the hands of Aliyev as a result of their campaigning –   demonstrated to devastating effect in the film. The 2013 updated version of the film shows exactly what happened to Khadija, Emin and Jamal in the months post-Eurovision.

Dealing with such people in the film, Aisling sees something Irish audiences can relate to. “Khadija’s story would have a lot of echoes in Ireland with Veronica Guerin and what happened with her – in an Irish context I think a lot of people could relate to that unwillingness to give in under pressure and she’s prepared to sacrifice everything for it. Jamal and using music as a form of protest in Ireland has a lot of resonance as well.”

Also the updated film features an interview with Loreen, the winner of Eurovision 2012 and the only contestant to meet with the human rights groups in Baku.

Aisling expresses her hopes for democratic change in Azerbaijan, but is aware of the challenge that lies ahead. “There’s a presidential election coming up – will it even be monitored this time? The opposition is stifled. But it feels like something is building and a younger generation are bringing with it a level of momentum and a passion for change; but they’re really up against quite a machine.”

The documentary is part of that momentum and Liz is delighted that “the life of the film exists beyond its production. We received outreach support from an organisation in the UK called BRITDOC. They run something called the BRITDOC/Bertha Connect Fund and we got a small grant from them to help get the film out there, host screenings and panel discussions in a number of cities around Europe. Through that we realised there was a huge outreach potential for the film, to help activists and human rights groups engage the decision-makers in a direct way on the issue. We also learned that it has a lot of educational potential and we’ve been approached by a number of NGOs who have asked to use the film to train and inspire other activists in countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia.”

Liz is delighted that the IFI are presenting the film in Dublin, and, as well as the screening, “Rasul Jafarov, an activist from Azerbaijan, will be present at the screening and will participate in the panel discussion afterwards. Building on the successful outcome of the Sing for Democracy campaign around the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, Rasul and his organisation, Human Rights Club Azerbaijan, decided to build on the momentum and convert the campaign into Art for Democracy which was launched last year. The screening and discussion at the IFI will give an Irish audience an opportunity to engage with Azerbaijan beyond what they say through Eurovision and perhaps think about institutions like the Council of Europe and decisions our politicians make there and how they influence people on the ground in those countries.”

Amazing Azerbaijan! screens as part of Ireland on Sunday – the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The screening is at 13.00 on Sunday, 25th August 2013 and will be followed by a panel discussion with Liz Mermin (director), Aisling Ahmed (producer) and Rasul Jafarov (Chairman of Human Rights Club Azerbaijan and the ‘Art for Democracy campaign’ and member of the Civic Solidarity Platform).

Tickets for Amazing Azerbaijan! are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Maurice Galway, director of ‘Pauline Bewick: Yellow Man, Grey Man’

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Ireland On Sunday presents the Irish premiere of Pauline Bewick: Yellow Man, Grey Man, Maurice Galway’s portrait of the artist. Steven Galvin chatted to the director about his film ahead of its screening this Sunday.

On Sunday, 9th June the IFI’s monthly showcase, Ireland on Sunday, presents Pauline Bewick: Yellow Man, Grey Man, an intimate portrayal of one of Ireland’s most acclaimed artists. Directed by Maurice Galway, himself an artist and the CEO/Artistic Director and founder of the Dingle International Film Festival, the documentary examines, in a creative way, the hugely successful series of works by Pauline known as The Yellow Man, and illuminates an equally important, but much less well known, series of works, the Grey Man Drawings.

Maurice had always been a great admirer of Pauline’s work before eventually befriending her “12 or 14 years ago”. He recalls meeting her for the first time, when he walked into her studio and there was an old Russian painting she’d found many years ago of a fox – “We had this wonderful conversation about foxes and immediately got on very well and a relationship formed. I’d meet her now and again. Then I had an exhibition in Siamsa Tire called ‘Gimme Shelter’. Pauline had a very powerful crucifixion piece she’d done a few years beforehand. I asked her could I exhibit the piece. She asked me about my own work, a short film I had made called Fallen Angels, with 2 wooden angels hand-carved in 1846 – one I set alight; one I put out onto Barrow Beach and drowned. It’s a very emotional piece and when Pauline watched it, she cried. She said, ‘I’ll exhibit the crucifix beside that film.’ That was the start of working with her.

“I was always interested in her; her stories are fascinating. So I approached the idea initially with her that I would curate an exhibition around her and that it would be film-based; but out of that came this film, as I knew I wanted to do something more about her.”

And so the film is more than simply a retrospective of her career and it’s clear Maurice wanted to explore Pauline as an artist and as a person, capturing her talking about herself on a more emotional level, and rummaging around the questions of who is this Yellow Man and who is this Grey Man that appear in her work.

“I wanted to get to know her a bit more and find out what she feels and what she thinks. How is she emotionally when she’s making this work? I knew from talking to her over the years that the Yellow Man did stem somewhat from her time with Utanga, who she had an affair with in the South Sea. Although she first drew The Yellow Man in Tuscany.”

The Yellow Man, which Pauline is best known for, represents an ideal life style and philosophy, but what about the Grey Man, that up until now had never been exhibited? “They are one and the same,” Maurice explains, “two parts of a whole.” Pauline first exhibited the Yellow Man in the RHA in Dublin in 1996. Maurice recalls how Anthony Clare, the psychologist, opened the exhibition and he talked about how the Yellow Man was a “celebration of life; encouraging us to remove ourselves from the bustle of life and to sit back and admire things. But around that same time Pauline started drawing the Grey Man, as she would call it.  That came about because she was seeing a gestalt therapist. During a session with her she did a drawing that appeared as this dead figure. Going through the process of analysis she realised it was her father, who had abandoned her when she was about two and a half years old. This was the first time she began to acknowledge what this was and that throughout her life she’d had a great lack of trust in men, blaming them for all the wrongs in the world, but when she began to realise that this all stemmed from her father abandoning her she began to change her attitude.”

But Pauline never exhibited the Grey Man. Only now were the drawings shown for the very first time at the Dingle Film Festival in March – up to then they’d never gone on public display and now, appearing in the film, will be the first time many people have seen them.

“Pauline attributes the Yellow Man to her Mother, who was a very free thinker, a radical – and she gave Pauline a tremendous sense of freedom and insists that she was an artist. This freedom is a major attribute of the Yellow Man. Whereas in contrast, the Grey Man represents those restrictions in life and represents a ‘down time’ as Pauline calls it. Like many people Pauline gets down at times, and the Grey Man very much represents that.”

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Yellow Man in Fig Tree (1935) – Pauline Bewick

The film achieves a level of intimacy that is obviously a reflection of the trust between the filmmaker and his subject. Pauline’s openness is both celebratory and revealing and makes for a beautifully insightful and fascinating documentary. “There’s a wonderful piece by her,” Maurice says, “it’s a self-portrait where she’s on all fours, naked, pregnant – and I asked her about that piece once; she just said how horrific it was to be pregnant, like this wild animal with this being inside in her – and that was her being honest. Pregnancy didn’t suit her, she didn’t like it.  She’s always been open about her life – even be it her affair going off to the South Seas and living with a ripped-up young man for 6-7 months.”

One of the things that shines through the film is Pauline’s tremendous sense of humour, which Maurice identifies “has been in her work all her life.” She attributes humour to getting back with her husband Pat. “They saw a marriage counsellor and Pauline told me they laughed and laughed in every session and it reminded her how much she loved him.”  Throughout the film, that humour is manifested in her bond with nature that is a constant reference point for Pauline. At one point she posits that “women who like frogs are very well adjusted.”

The film begins with the quote “to marvel is the beginning of knowledge and where we cease to marvel we may be in danger of ceasing to know.”

“It’s a Greek quote,” Maurice explains, “it’s been attributed to Plato but I’m not 100 percent sure. Going back to Anthony Clare, he actually used the quote when he opened the Yellow Man exhibition and he said that Plato asks us to marvel at life and this is what the Yellow Man is asking us to do – to marvel at the beauty that surrounds us.”  Pauline tells us in the film that the Yellow Man has a tiny penis that is “not for use” and, according to Maurice, “it’s important to Pauline that he’s not a sexual being and he can walk around naked at one with nature and sexuality doesn’t interfere with him; he is able to simply marvel at what surrounds him.”

There’s a wonderful sequence in the film of a dancing fox. Maurice recalls ringing Pauline and telling her that he’d had a dream of dancing with her as a fox and “she got terribly excited telling me that it was the perfect symbol because to her, she’s always tried to capture nature in her work and in her life and she finds nature both cruel and beautiful. The fox is that symbol. So that dance becomes a waltz between beauty and cruelty.”  Similarly so with the Yellow Man and Grey Man, both intertwined and an inseparable part of the other.

Despite being made for little to no money, Maurice was able to call upon the talents of friends of his to help give the film its own beauty. Eugene O Connor was DOP, who has worked on The Beatles Anthology, Fr Ted and countless music videos. And, providing the music was Nico Brown, who has worked with Mike Leigh, Alan Parker, and PJ Harvey, among others. Nigel Cole provided the wonderful stills for the film.

“Everybody worked for free. There was no financing. Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden doing the music – the music is very important. When I started, Pauline gave me access to everything – she went away on holidays –  her house, her studio, all her archives for a 2-week period. At that point, Nico Brown had written 3 pieces of music for me so I was listening to that, which really helped me create images for the film while I was working at Pauline’s. A lot of the cutaways are done on a small Sony camera I have. Martin came on board at the end and they composed and performed everything for the film.

“And I worked closely with the FAS Film & TV Training course here in Tralee. I’ve a good relationship with Brian Nolan and Paul Dolan there so the deal was, I bring Eugene O Connor on board and they provide crew and equipment; so their students are getting on-the-ground experience and I get to use the RED Scarlett, a Canon XF305, tripods, lights and the like; so again massive savings. Brian Nolan, who’s an editor himself, worked with me afterwards on the film, cutting it and grading it, so all done for a few shillings – but I had to make them all dinner and cook too during the shoot!”

The film is set to screen this Sunday and Maurice is delighted the IFI are screening the film. “I spent a lot of time there when I was a student so it’s very exciting. It was Ross Whitaker who suggested that I contact Sunniva [O’Flynn – IFI Curator] about the Ireland on Sunday programme, which is what I did. Sunniva took a look at the film, liked it and programmed it.

“At the minute now I’ve started making submissions to different festivals. So far I’ve been really lucky with the IFI screening and RTE have picked it up with the plan to screen it a couple of times over the next two years. Obviously as well I’d like to get it out it to a few festivals.”

 

Pauline Bewick: Yellow Man, Grey Man screens as part of Ireland on Sunday – the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The screening is at 13.00 on Sunday, 9th June 2013 and will be followed by a Q&A with Maurice Galway.

Tickets for Pauline Bewick: Yellow Man, Grey Man are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

 

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Tom Begley, director of Tax City

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Set in London’s Waterloo in the 1990s – Tax City is the 20-minute story of Johnny Costa, a rock star who is stabbed through the throat in a vicious assault after a gig one night ending his singing career. Costa loses his house, wife and kids and ends up in Cardboard City with the down-and-outs where he comes in contact with Fintan, the brutal leader of the Taxing Squad – a gang that preys on the homeless community.

‘The story’s not true but it’s true about the taxing squad,’ director Tom Begley told Film Ireland. ‘They did exist and they were mostly Paddies – and they did quite well for themselves actually. There’s a particular place where all the down-and-outs used to lived and they had their own kind of community there called ‘Cardboard City’. There’s an IMAX cinema there now. Among that community there were a couple of gangs – predominantly Irish and Scottish and they were known as the Taxing Squad – and these guys would come around and terrorise the residents and take any belongings they could get or any money and piss off with it. That’s really what the film is based on.’

The film was written and produced by Andy Nolan, accordion player with the Celtic rock band The Biblecode Sundays. Tom explains, ‘I knew his band – they’re popular in London among the Irish. I met Andy through another Irish band. He approached me with the script – he had done his research on the taxing squad and we looked at the history and that was it.’

The film was initially envisaged as a short but developed into something longer. ‘The way I look at it is it’s a minute a page – that is a rule of thumb for me. But it started to take on a life of its own and at one stage  was looking like a half an hour. We had to get very clinical and cut parts of it to make it flow. There was a lot of post-production done on it to bring it down – you can get quite close to something and even though there was over half an hour of material there we got quite clinical because we felt it lacked the right flow.’

Was there a feature there at all? ‘Well, there’s enough footage there but for me it was about quality not quantity and so we cut it down to what worked best.’

Steve Collins, who plays Fintan, the Taxing Squad leader, got involved through Andy, who had originally pencilled him in for one of the parts. Under Tom’s direction Collins was cast as the gang’s brutal leader. ‘I’d done shorts before with him. He is like he was in the ring – really focused. He’s a real gent to get on with. I love working with him and he’s really come on in leaps and bounds since the time of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; he’s really learnt the craft, doing shorts and he’s learnt so much in terms of acting. He adapts very well. We’ve become good friends now at this stage. We’ve a couple of things lined up for him in the future.’

Another member of the cast is Noel ‘Razor’ Smith who spent half his life in jail – over 30 years – and was once referred to as the most dangerous bank robber in England. ‘Talk to him these days and you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He’s an absolute gem. And again we became close – and I’m doing a short with him in the future. He’s not a trained actor but he gives a great performance and puts in a shift. Razor came on board through Andy and Steve – he’s written a couple of books too. One of them he’s looking into turning into a film script.’

There’s obviously a close-knit cast and crew that Tom trusts working with. ‘There is. I wouldn’t have anyone on set who I thought was not going to be part of the group. I’ve been at it too long now – I rely on dynamic.’

And what about Tom’s own journey into film? ‘I trained as an actor when I came over to England 26 years ago; did a couple of commercials – here and in Ireland – and I must have been in every Irish theatre show in London over the years in some aspect! I jumped into directing then when I stepped into direct one of the shows I was in and it developed from there, learning the craft of film directing… I directed a feature in Bulgaria about 5 years ago and I’m back there in July to do another one and hopefully there are another 2 features – low-ish budget – then next year. And there’s always quite a few scripts coming in all the time.’

Tax City was shot over a couple of weekends and Tom admits that ‘We didn’t have a massive budget. Andy pulled in the money as producer. Fundraising – and money he raised through the band. I’ve been in the business a long time so I know a lot of people – crew, production companies, make up, actors, etc. so we pulled in a lot of favours. Some of the actors are policemen based in Swindon and Reading and they got me access to so much. We shot Cardboard City in Swindon – it wasn’t in Waterloo because it would have cost us too much and when you’re filming in London you need licences for everything; but there we are in Swindon – we could go where we wanted and we could do what we wanted more or less. So we did well for the money we had.’

The film had its sold-out premiere at BAFTA in London recently and is now set for its Irish Premiere on Sunday at the IFI. ‘It means a lot to me to be able to go back to Ireland and screen something we’ve shot. You have to be proud – we’re flying the flag. And of course there’s a number of Dublin actors in there so they’re keen to get it over there; so it’s great to have it in the IFI. They came up trumps and we’re thrilled to have the film play in Dublin and then we’re looking into getting the film into festivals and hopefully something will come from that and we’ll see what happens.’

Tax City screens as part of Ireland on Sunday – the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The screening is at 13.00 on Sunday, 12th May 2013 and will be followed by a Q&A with Tom Begley, and with Steve Collins.

Tickets for Tax City, costing €5, are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3he4aBfCU4

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