IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Sinéad O’Brien, director of Blood Fruit


This month’s Ireland on Sunday features Sinéad O’Brien‘s documentary Blood Fruit.

Earlier this year Adam McPartlan spoke to Sinéad at the Capital Irish Film Festival about her film, which tells the story of the Dunnes Stores strikers in 1980’s Dublin.

Mary Manning, a 21-year-old Dunnes Stores checkout girl, refused to sell two Outspan grapefruits under direction from her union in support of the anti-apartheid struggle. She and ten other supporters were suspended and a strike ensued. The 11 knew little about apartheid and assumed they’d be back to work before long but the arrival on the picket line of activist Nimrod Sejake changed everything, setting the strikers on a path they could never have expected.


Blood Fruit screens on Sunday, 5th July 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Strikers Mary Manning and Cathryn O’Reilly will take part in a post-screening Q&A.

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



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



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



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

PaulaKehoe Director
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.”

Bill Brock-Byrne & LdeP

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


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

Amazing Azerbaijan Header


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.


Amazing Azerbaijan Euro


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



Ireland on Sunday Interview: Mark Byrne and Rob Dennis, directors of ‘Under the Hood’



Ireland On Sunday presents Under the Hood, a revealing portrait of life in Belarus. Steven Galvin chatted to directors Mark Byrne and Rob Dennis about their film ahead of its screening this Sunday at the IFI as part of their monthly showcase for new Irish film.


Under The Hood is an intimate look inside Belarus, the  “alienated zone” – a country we know little about; an autocratic regime built on a political system of state control. The film’s directors, Mark Byrne and Rob Dennis, are known for their previous documentary, Beyond the Wall (2010), which examined the communist era and its legacy, illustrating the endurance of the human spirit in the face of political dogma. Filmed in the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland, Beyond the Wall humanized life under Communism and the complex issues that still face the region. Under the Hood continues on in that vein. The film is constructed through the voices of the Belarusian people who speak about their lives, providing a fascinating insight into life in a country that has been called “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe”.

‘We were interested in the Stasi and the KGB and the Cold War,’ Mark explains about the reasons behind the documantary being made. ‘So it seemed a very natural extension to go to Belarus where a post-Soviet State still exists. And what you find is a lot of parallels exist between what was happening 20/30 years ago in East Germany or wherever and what’s happening in Belarus.’

The film eschews historical narrative and “expert” talking-heads and instead lends a voice to the people of a country, who tell their own stories, establishing an accurate and discerning picture of what is going on. ‘I think people are always more interested in people’, Mark insists. ‘What we were especially interested in was to have a look behind the news story and get inside the country and meet the people, because from very early on we always believed that people are interested in people and we wanted to get in to the country and have them tell their story and let the news headlines fall to the background.’

The advantages of such an approach bear fruit in the film as rather than merely being a predictable outsider’s perspective of a country run by “Europe’s last dictator”, replete with tales of rigged elections and alleged human-rights abuses, we instead see a more personal communicative portrait of a country that is divided between its people – those who support President Alexander Lukashenko and those who do not.

Rob explains that ‘one of the things we found was that there is quite a lot of support for Lukashenko – because he’s brought stability, which, given the country’s history, is something that’s very attractive to a lot of people.There certainly is a divide there; older people who’ve lived through communism do crave stability. And there’s a lady in the film who says about Lukashenko that “he doesn’t increase wages; but he increases pension” – even if it is often a couple of months before an election! These people crave stability.’

This divide is not just generational but also geographical – there’s a rural/urban divide, with Lukashenko’s strongest support being in rural areas. As Mark points out, ‘this is a country where the wages are around $250  a month. Things that are very cheap there – vodka, cigarettes and diesel gives the illusion of stability to people living in the countryside – it’s a dubious form of stability…’

Rob explains that ‘there’s an attitude amongst the younger, more educated group that these people are being brainwashed. You’ve got State TV telling these people what to think and they’re swallowing it whole. And on the other side you have people saying, “Look these are Western-supported opposition guys – they don’t give a damn about me. There is a disconnect between these two groups and perhaps a lack of understanding of exactly why each believe what they do.’




Th flm’s title Under the Hood is a local expression meaning on the radar of the KGB: under surveillance, suspected, followed, threatened, intimidated. This constant fear in people’s lives leads to a heightened state of paranoia, something that comes across strongly in the film. As Rob says, ‘From the very moment you arrive in Belarus, you’re aware people are scared. People accept that they’re being watched.  You hear the word paranoia several times a day – if you’re stopped at traffic lights people are aware of the car next to them. They talk about being paranoid.’

Mark admits that ‘It’s accumulative. Even me – on our last trip there during the elections there was a heavy police presence and you do start to feel a sense of whose watching; what’s that car doing; waiting for the knock at the door. It does get to you. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with that day in day out.

He adds that ‘you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. But what worries me is that people have come to accept this. Citizens of Belarus accept that they cannot leave the house without their passport, which they must carry when they leave the house and they must be prepared for document check and even if you have your passport you can still be taken in because they might want to check your passport – and that can take a couple of hours. And this to a large extent has become accepted – certainly by many young people who may not have known any other way. They’re not fazed by the constant police involvement in the daily life in Belarus – even young people who would lean toward the opposition.’

Both directors talk about their fears for Belarus and that maybe this paranoia has led to a strong sense of self–censorship through fear. Both Mark and Rob fear that the revolution nearly happened in 2010 and got crushed and Belarus’ opportunity may have passed them.

2010 marked a high point of major anti-Lukashenko protests, when crowds gathered in Freedom Square in the run-up to the elections to protest against Lukashenko’s regime. Why that particular moment? ‘Sometimes the planets just align’, Mark believes. ‘When Lukashenko won the election by 79% and even though that was a more subtle landslide than previous elections, people were ready and moved quickly. According to Rob, ‘it was like this is our moment – we have tens of thousands in the square and a real sense of it’s happening now – but it didn’t and the following summer they came back again and tried to build the momentum again and again it was crushed. And that can only happen so many times before you lose faith.’

Perhaps one factor is that the difference between Belarus and East Germany or the former Soviet Union is that the people can leave, can travel – so, as you see in the documentary, some people just leave believing it’s just not worth it. Rob agrees: ‘The fear of being tossed in prison, the paranoia, the fact that the opposition is riddled with KGB, so they don’t know who to trust – the fact that they can go West and build a life for themselves… a lot have done that. And that’s watered down this movement. It’s hard to see it growing to that level again but then who knows – who would have known that the Berlin Wall would come down when it did.’

Mark breaks in: ‘I wouldn’t like you to think that there’s no will for it. The will is strong and the will is there. As stability wanes a certain amount of people are questioning whether Lukashenko’s the best thing for the country – there is a will to create a new life something along the European model. The lack of leadership, the lack of strong leaders is a strong factor. Small pockets of workers are striking – if that grows who knows how things will develop.




We go on to talk about the practicalities of making the documentary. Belarus is not a country where you can simply set up camera and film. As Mark explains, you’re not allowed use video cameras on the street. ‘Anything that looks like it’s media related or semi-professional is simply not allowed. So very early on we decided we would use any sort of camera we could get our hands on. It became apparent that we couldn’t gain access to the country as media people – we would be refused Visas, and once refused we couldn’t change our story and say we were tourists – so we decided from the start to say we were tourists and we grabbed a couple of domestic camcorders and headed out to Lithuania back in Aug 2011. We set ourselves up in Vilnius because it’s only 200k from Minsk and about 30 minutes from the Belarusian border. We got an agency to organise visas, which we got in August 2011. Loaded up the car and headed to Belarus – only to discover that it really was like entering an old Soviet Empire.

‘Our first queue was 4/5 hours to get across the border and there’d only be 4 or 5 cars in front of you! But you queue and you queue. You drive in – a lot of military, and a lot of paperwork and a lot of questions – they love a stamp –, being searched but we got in. When you get to Minsk, there’s no setting up a tripod or anything… you just can’t do it. So we were thinking are we going to end up doing our entire movie in people’s apartments and in the backs of cars. We were restricted – even when you go to the countryside you cannot arrive in a village and just take a camera out.  Our Belarusian friends were particularly nervous in the countryside – the older generation in the countryside see people speaking English and think they’re spies and that they better call the local KGB office.

Mark recalls how they spent a week on their first trip to work out what the practicalities were. ‘We realised we couldn’t bring cameras and microphones across the border; we cannot use a tripod outside; we can’t linger anywhere; we can’t film near any national monument or government building. You don’t have to do a lot to get into trouble. And our problem was that we wanted to spend some time to get to know people, so were always concerned that if we were arrested once that would be the end of the film.

‘The way people ended up in the movie or not was whether we actually formed a relationship with them. Whether we liked them and they liked us – more importantly whether they liked us! There had to be a high level of trust between us. We were very lucky with the people we ended up with in the film.’


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

The screening is at 13.00 on Sunday, 7th July 2013 and will be followed by a post-screening Q&A with Mark Dennis.

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



IFI’s Ireland On Sunday presents: ‘Tax City’


Ireland On Sunday presents the Irish premiere of new Irish short film Tax City, a dark and gritty journey into the heart of the London homeless community.

Set in 1990s London, Tax City follows the sensational comeback of rock star Johnny Costa (Jon Campling) followed by his tragic fall from grace. During his subsequent perilous fight for survival on the streets of London, Costa is forced to confront Fintan (played by former-World-champion-boxer-turned-actor Steve Collins), the brutal leader of a ‘taxing squad’. The story is inspired by the real-life network of Irish-dominated criminal ‘taxing squads’ that preyed on the London homeless community throughout the 1990s.

Tax City is presented by Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film, on Sunday 12th May at 1pm.

Written and produced by Andrew Nolan and directed by the award winning Tom Begley, Tax City recently had its sold-out world premiere at BAFTA in London. The short film stars Jon Campling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 & 2), Steve Collins (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Kid), Noel ‘Razor’ Smith (ex-bank robber/best-selling author), Mark Hutchinson (Drowning Rats) and Forbes KB (Game of Thrones).

Based in London, Nolan and Begley are working on a variety of short films in 2013 and Nolan’s feature film project Clan Londonis currently in pre-production. The soundtrack features music from Nolan’s popular Celtic-rock band The BibleCode Sundays.


The film screening will be followed by a Q+A with director Tom Begley and boxer-turned-actor Steven 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.




IFI Present: Ireland on Sunday – ‘Terrible Beauty’


Ireland on Sunday is the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

This month’s event features Keith and Dave Farrell’s docudrama A Terrible Beauty, which will screen on Sunday, 21st April 2013 at 1pm.

Producer Dave Farrell will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Keith and Dave Farrell’s docudrama A Terrible Beauty centres on two linked events during the Irish Rebellion of 1916, the battles of Mount Street and North King Street culminating in the massacre of fifteen innocent young men and boys.Our story is largely told from the perspective of the foot soldier on both sides and the innocent civilian caught in the middle.

All characters are real and much of the dialogue is taken directly from accounts given by combatants on both sides and the wives and mothers of those murdered. It is a very emotionally charged drama with actors speaking to camera intercut with powerful battle scenes. This technique brings the audience to the centre of the unfolding events adding to the tension.

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