Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Maeve

Jack O’Dwyer gets caught up in the fractured narrative of Pat Murphy’s seminal Irish film Maeve, which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

 

In an attempt to describe her state of mind as an artist during the appalling years of the Irish troubles, feminist filmmaker Pat Murphy has posited that the North suffered primarily from everyone trying to shoehorn it to fit snugly into their own system of beliefs. This is a clear starting point in an analysis of her seminal 1981 film Maeve, co-directed with John Davies, which depicts the problematic ways in which personal and political beliefs can coexist within a troubled nation, often leading to layers of conflict which act as further barriers to peaceful resolution. At its core the film portrays a sort of uprising through inaction, a tentative method by which an individual may behave if they feel that they are excluded from the promised land which lays at the end of the revolutionary road. Through its radical aesthetics and characterisation, the film offers a unique perspective on one of the darkest periods in the island’s turbulent history.

The driving force of Murphy’s film is the titular Maeve, seen in both present day 1981 and also in recurring flashbacks to unspecified times in the past. In the present day, she returns home to Belfast from bohemian London, fully embodying the stringent lifestyle of a feminist ideologue. In the past, with these nascent ideals starting to take shape in her mind, she is seen as a young adult who vows to escape from the hostile community which stifles her. Maeve, played with skilful restraint by Mary Jackson, is often a difficult character for the audience to relate to, likely a reflection of Murphy’s acknowledged debt to Bertolt Brecht and the so-called ‘’distancing effect’’ which he utilized in his theatre. Much of her dialogue is heady and intellectual, delivered as a series of feminist mantras which refer to metaphysical ‘’Woman’’ rather than earthly, anecdotal ‘’women’’. Traditional womanhood, devout Catholicism, revolutionary insurrection; Maeve chooses to shun all of these potential paths in an effort to gain her own autonomy and identity. In one scene, Maeve and her schoolmates are being forced to rote-learn a religious commemoration to the victims of the local conflict. Maeve instead stares out the window, demonstrating a conscious decision to shun the milieu in which her peers are enmeshed.

Acting as a traditional counterpoint to Maeve’s personal protest is her sister, Roisin, played by Brid Brennan. One masterful aspect of Murphy’s screenplay is the heightened importance placed upon storytelling, particularly in relation to how it enlightens the characters who take up the role of storyteller. Roisin tells a number of stories throughout the film, usually depicting some form of tyranny inflicted upon the population by the armed British guards who patrol the streets. One such story implies that Roisin and her friend were the victims of an attempted rape by an intruding soldier, but the nonchalance and humour with which it is told does little to convey the potential severity of the situation. Moments such as these subtly paint Roisin as a character who is caught in the flux, unwilling to critically examine her role as a traditional, oppressed, catholic woman. Despite her sister’s warning that marriage ‘’only keeps woman down’’, there is never the suggestion that she will follow in Maeve’s non-committal footsteps. Even further alienated from Maeve is their mother, Eileen, played by Trudy Kelly. A quiet well of frustration with little dialogue in the film, she is a helpless bystander to the rampaging tide of patriarchal nationalism in her nation, serving as the outdated archetype to which Maeve internally revolts. Perhaps the film’s most emotional scene takes place in a room filled with religious relics, designed by Eileen as a place devoted to her daughter’s future courting. Such a traditional fantasy comes off as absurd given the nature of Maeve’s character, with the scene soon devolving into a heart-breaking monologue from mother to daughter recounting the first time that Maeve boarded the plane as she left to London – ‘’You never looked back once to say goodbye’’. Tragically, this marks the only point in the film at which Eileen is given an extended opportunity to speak, with each word driving a further nail into the coffin that is their incompatible relationship.

The most articulate challenger to Maeve’s unique vision of nationalism comes in the form of her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend, Liam, played by John Keegan. Murphy has expressed the importance within feminist fiction of creating authentic, coherent male characters so as to create an equal playing field of debate. In this regard, the character of Liam is a triumph. A committed republican, he matches Maeve both in the strength of his personal convictions and the fierceness of his debate. The film’s philosophical assertions are founded upon a masterful series of scenes in which the two debate each other in various locations, their rival viewpoints clashing together in a captivating stream of insights and insults. Murphy’s idea for these scenes was that the two would cease to be characters for the duration of these debates, instead transforming into unfiltered mouthpieces for their espoused ideologies; a clear admission of her Brechtian and Godardian influences. The first of their debates happens upon Cave Hill, as they gaze upon a deceptively serene-looking Belfast in the distance. Maeve is first triggered into stating her defiant viewpoint as a response to Liam’s praise of lifelong nationalists, those passionate men who have ‘’been able to keep that image together through all the madness’’. Her issue lies in the fact that the romantic image of Ireland which has guided nationalism thus far excludes her as a woman, it leaves no space for her, she is ‘’remembered out of existence’’ as part of its clause. Next, in her rented apartment in London, Maeve speaks of her decision to ‘’withdraw from it’’, to distance herself from the ‘’country’s neuroses’’. To this, an apoplectic Liam castigates the cowardliness of her actions, pointing to the fact that those who have fought and died for the cause have not had the luxury of her aloofness and free speech, warning that ‘’you’re going to have to come back’’. Virtually every line of their gripping debates could and should be isolated and unpacked by viewers of the film; rarely has such a testament to the efficacy of the Socratic method appeared on screen.  Their intellectual sparring culminates near the film’s end as they saunter gloomily through Clifton Street Cemetery, mutually accusing each other of copping out of their ideals. At the argument’s climax, Maeve compares Britain’s treatment of Ireland to man’s treatment of woman, warning that, if Liam and his counterparts should someday be successful in their struggles, then women will ‘’recognize you as the next stage in their struggle’’. In a film which thrives upon exploring the intersection between nationalism and feminism, this stands as perhaps its most radical political expression.

The film’s challenging subject matter is reflected in the austere visual style which Murphy and director of photography Robert Smith choose to adopt. Considering that the film is set in an environment which features constant, often unexpected intrusions into the daily life of Belfast’s citizens, the cagey 4:3 aspect ratio feels suitably oppressive when viewed on a large screen, as if the characters must struggle in order to escape beyond the borders of the frame. This is further enhanced by the usage of a number of internal framing devices, often doorways, which further squash the characters in to fit their surroundings.  During the tense night-time scenes, the camera creeps behind characters or flits about from left to right, suggestive of the widespread paranoia which haunts the streets. Maeve’s increasingly disillusioned father, Martin, played by Mark Mulholland, returns in a series of scenes throughout the film during which he generally tells a story involving the local population, and these are among the film’s most intriguing moments from a visual perspective. In the first such instance, the camera suddenly wheels around to Martin as he interrupts his wife during a story, and frames him in the middle of the boxy screen staring directly into the camera as he completes a long, thickly-accented monologue. These scenes which feature Martin staring into the camera increasingly come to feel as if he is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. The subtle increase in intensity each time this occurs reinforces a sense of desperation and fear which has creeped into his character, culminating in the heart-breaking, quietly fearful words which he tells himself at the film’s closure. The film therefore arises from the lineage of European modernist cinema not only in its bold subject matter, but also in the way it creatively manipulates the filmic tools to give rise to new modes of artistic expression.

Maeve is comparable to Seamus Heaney’s famous ‘’bog poems’’ in the sense that it holds an abstract mirror up to this unspeakable Irish tragedy in a way which seems to shed cognitive and emotional light upon the subject without offering any form of trite solution to what is an endlessly thorny situation. The film is a whirlpool of ideas, of narratives, of memories, described by Murphy as a ‘’political document rather than a film’’. It feels like a political document not only during the war of words and ideologies at its core, but also in its harrowing evocation of a city where children play in the presence of armed soldiers, and searchlights cut through the dark streets like knives. One of the nation’s finest films, Maeve is a brave, important film, whose intellectual honesty and defiant spirit ought to inspire generations of Irish filmmakers.

 

 

Maeve screened on Thursday, 15th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

 

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Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Sooner or Later

 

Jack O’Dwyer finds much to like in Sooner or Later, Luke Morgan’s no-budget feature from Galway filmmaking collective Project Spatula.

 

Luke Morgan, standing before a full crowd in the Gate cinema, proclaims that, in years to come, ‘’we’re gonna remember this day when our little film screened in Cork.’’ He is there to introduce his feature-length debut, entitled Sooner or Later, the latest project by an artistic collective from Galway known as ‘’Project Spatula’’, described by Morgan as a ‘’rock band, except for films’’, which is loosely comprised of 30-40 members who move fluidly from film to film, churning out shorts, features and other projects in spite of the complete absence of any solid budget or sponsorship. This film should rightfully mark the point at which Morgan and his band of dedicated players move from obscurity to celebrity; for while the film may be self-described by Morgan as ‘’rough around the edges’’, it is also brave, exuberant and comedically potent throughout the majority of its 95-minute runtime.

At the core of the film are Thaddeus and Sally, two strikingly original Irish characters played brilliantly by real-life husband and wife pairing Aeneas and Anna O’Donnell. Thaddeus is a truly ineffable character, part folkloric hero in the vein of Oisín and part cantankerous lout in the vein of Father Jack Hackett, with a spindly gait like Nosferatu and a leathered face like Mick Jagger. Matching his eccentricity perfectly is Sally, scatter-brained and prone to getting caught up in fads, yet wholly capable of delivering razor-sharp wit in a way reminiscent of the late Carrie Fisher. As an elderly pair who yearn to escape the confines of their retirement home and elope to Kerry in order to commit suicide on their own terms, the couple’s seasoned chemistry bursts off the screen from the first frame. Indeed, the film’s opening scene is an absurdly comedic bathtub sequence, lit primarily by candlelight, depicting an intimate moment between the two lovers being rudely interrupted by a Nurse Ratched-like member of staff at the care home. Featuring full-frontal nudity, hysterical one-liners, and a Lynchian debate about the spelling of a suicide note, the film’s opening is a stunning introduction to a film fuelled by exuberant, darkly comedic brilliance.

Acting as the foil to the mischievous duo is Alice, Thaddeus’s granddaughter, played by Muireann NÍ Raghaillach. She cares deeply for her erratic grandfather, and has remained weary of Sally’s role in his life for the duration of the couple’s six-month long relationship. It is her care and concern for Thaddeus which leads to her being duped into driving the pair to the old family home in Kerry, despite the fact that the residents have no permission to leave the care facility. Once at the family home, Alice discovers the pair’s suicide pact after a commemorative urn is delivered three days early to the house – just one example of how the film’s plot is structured upon well-executed dark comedy set-pieces. From this point in the film, Alice has a troubled scowl upon her face, not aided by the arrival of her hapless ex-boyfriend Nigel, a man ‘’easier to push over than a cereal box’’, played by co-writer Peter Shine. Alice as a character is not as memorable or engaging as Thaddeus or Sally, which is understandable given the difficulty of playing it straight in a world defined by comedic madness. The relative weakness of Alice’s scenes within the film does not reflect upon the talents of Ní Raghaillach, who performs capably in a challenging, emotional role.

Morgan, as well as engaging in all aspects of filmmaking, is also a poet and novelist, noting in the past the similarities between writing a poem and writing a screenplay, due to the exactitude and economy of language that is needed to be effective in both. The script, written by Conor Quinlan and Peter Shine, is infused with this ethos, with great attention paid to the clever turn-of-phrase and cutting, precise punchline. This is particularly relevant in the case of Thaddeus, who speaks in a sort of impactful lilt, sometimes humorous and sometimes empathetic; each line of dialogue, no matter how inane or bizarre, falls from his lips in natural, poetic fashion, which is testament to the quality of the script. After the film’s screening, Morgan explained the unique way in which the script was assembled. The director provided the actors with certain situations and told them to improvise based on their own knowledge of their characters. These interactions were livestreamed to a team of ten or so writers in a different room, who listened intently and took down the most memorable phrases, working them into future drafts of the script. This approach leads to an abundance of memorable lines. “Last time I met my girlfriend’s family, the Soviet Union was still going strong”, “I want to remain a human…not drugged up to me eyeballs in a care home’’, and Thaddeus’s oft-repeated insult “shut up bonehead!”. In addition to such quotable lines, the script contains numerous self-contained scenes of well-plotted, escalating humour. The hilarity reaches its peak during a night-time scene which somehow brings together a daddy long legs, an erection, and a misinterpreted suicide attempt to form a feat of sustained comic brilliance which compelled the entire Cork audience to uproarious laughter. 

As Morgan himself admirably admits, the film is slightly bumpy from a technical perspective. It is far too easy to dwell upon unavoidable faults which plague the film such as inconsistent lighting, uneven sound design, and a conventional mischievous soundtrack which repeats awkwardly throughout the film’s first act. Given the virtual absence of any budget at all, these are easily ignored, especially in light of the inarguable directorial vision and ambition which pervade the film. Morgan’s compositions often convey the tone of a scene before any words are spoken. This is the case in a gloriously mundane scene between Sally and Nigel, wherein the actors’ postures communicate their mutual discomfort more effectively than words ever could. Similarly, a tragicomic shot of a melancholy Thaddeus sitting among party decorations (which he himself had put up in celebration of his own death) is perhaps the most affecting in the entire film. The film’s rural Kerry setting, which also includes locations shot in Galway and West Cork, is evoked vividly throughout the film, especially during two poignant scenes between Thaddeus and Alice that take place on a beach which plays a symbolic role in the family’s identity.

Redolent of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem ‘’Do not go gentle into that good night’’, the film is a courageous portrayal of dying on one’s own terms rather than simply fading away in conventional fashion. This mature subject matter is, in Morgan’s own words, Project Spatula’s latest attempt ‘’to shout as loud as we can’’ until the industry takes notice. If the standard set by Sooner or Later is maintained or surpassed with future efforts, then it cannot be long until the Galway collective’s calls are heard; the film is a sparkling paean to life, death, and all the love and hardships in between.

 

 

Sooner or Later screened on Saturday, 10th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Writing Home

 

Jack O’Dwyer puts pen to paper about the romantic comedy Writing Home, made as part of the Filmbase Masters Course

Writing Home, though ostensibly a romantic comedy, tells that classic story of an ego being slowly stripped away in order to reveal the triumph of authenticity over artifice. Conor Scott’s script, under the direction of three Filmbase Masters’ students (Nagham Abboud, Alekson L. Dall’Armellina and Miriam Velasco) and guided by producers Mark Coffey and Jannik Ohlendieck, follows a well-worn cinematic path, with its concerns being particularly comparable to Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, from 1970. Its rigid adherence to the tenets of feel-good cinematic romance deserves both condemnation and praise for, while it is cliché-ridden and predictable, it is also funny, satisfying and undeniably impressive given the inexperience of its cast and crew.

At its centre is Tony Kelly, in a swaggering performance as Daniel Doran, a hack writer who leaves the high-life of London to return to his rural Irish home of Darlingford, where he encounters his dying father, begrudging family, the former flame he suddenly abandoned and a young daughter that he has never met. Kelly’s confident performance brings a real vibrancy and immediacy to the film. His plastic, animated facial expressions reveal a smarmy, posturing fraud who, deep down, is ashamed of what he has become. The opening fifteen minutes or so, set in London, does just about everything it can to make Daniel a deeply unlikeable figure. Among other things, he snorts coke off of the cover of his newest bestseller, forgets the name of a Russian model he sleeps with, and replies ‘’good’’ when he learns of his father’s illness over the phone.

Upon his return to Darlingford, each scene serves one of two purposes. The first is to contribute to Daniel’s journey of self-discovery and moral retribution through acts of selflessness and honesty. The second is to show Daniel up for his arrogance and condescension, often in humorous ways. A key aspect of Daniel’s character is that, despite his overbearing self-seriousness, he is established from the start as a figure who is often the butt of the joke. He uses his wealth and large vocabulary as a weapon of self-defence, which frequently backfires. Particularly satisfying is a scene in which he is cajoled into attending a local Darlingford book club meeting, where he comes face to face with the same sort of self-important drivel that he himself peddles.

The ways in which Daniel successively negotiates the ills of his past, and the ultimate character arc that forms as a result, play out lucidly on screen, for the most part. Perhaps the most problematic scene is a conversation between Aoife (Caoimhe O’Malley), Daniel’s former girlfriend and the mother of his child, and her mother. Daniel is the subject of the conversation in spite of his absence, and there is a revelation from Aoife’s mother which suggests that Daniel has always been benevolent and generous, even before his return to Darlingford. The reveal comes from nowhere, and in light of the film as a whole it seems to dull the emotional impact of Daniel’s ultimate moral progression. Also, numerous scenes, including the film’s opening, make reference to the fact that Daniel is in fact a talented writer of serious fiction who merely became disenfranchised following the failure of his first book. However, rarely in the film do we get a glimpse of this Daniel; the talented artist beneath the showman’s veneer. In fact, Daniel’s writing is a sort of grey area throughout the entire film. The fact that such a large aspect of his life and background remains so far removed from the presentation of his character reduces somewhat the overall cogency of the film.

Shot in just five weeks, Writing Home is a fantastic achievement from up-and-coming Irish talent under the tutelage of Filmbase’s intensive Master’s programme. There is little indication of its limited budget and even when there is, it does little to distract from the verve in front of and behind the camera. All the familiar beats are there, and some of the music-heavy montage sequences are a bit too sickly sweet, but with snappy dialogue, touching performances and confident direction, Writing Home remains engaging throughout its 90-minute runtime.

 

Writing Home screened on 15th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival (10 – 19 November)

 

Mark Coffey, Co-producer of ‘Writing Home’

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera

Jack O’Dwyer was at the Cork Film Festival for Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera, a programme of short films made in and about Cork from the collections of the IFI Irish Film Archive showing Cork city and country life from the 1900s to the 1970s. 

 

This selection of archival footage related to Cork, its history and its people has been compiled by the Irish Film Institute, and screened at the Triskel Arts Centre during the Cork Film Festival. This invaluable selection of footage allows a local and national audience to witness the history of Cork first-hand, and acquire unique insights which cannot be gained by walking its streets.

As an exploration of Cork’s representation on screen over the course of some seventy years, this archival compilation fittingly begins on Patrick’s Street, in 1900. The clip lasts about half a minute and, typical of the period, features a static, flickering image of horse-drawn carts, women in shawls and top-hatted men going about their daily routine, unaware of the camera’s presence. The usual realization that an audience has when viewing such footage – that all those on screen are long dead and perhaps forgotten – is all the more striking and hallucinatory here given the familiarity of the location to citizens of Cork and Ireland. We can remain distant from those in the Lumieres’ films of the period; they are alien to us in distance as well as time. The footage presented here, however, transforms Patrick’s street into a space for both the living and the dead, which is hard to ignore as a local viewer. Just as fascinating is the next piece of archival footage, which shows a crumbled, smouldering Cork in 1920, following widespread fire and destruction during the War of Independence. Disconcerted citizens wander amidst the rubble of more familiar locations such as City Hall and Carnegie library. The images of Cork presented here are almost comparable to World War two footage of levelled cities like Dresden and Coventry, which is shocking to today’s residents, many of whom, myself previously included, are no doubt unaware of this historical chaos in their city.

While these early clips lend an insider’s eye into Cork’s visual history, there are also two pieces featured which are produced by Pathé, whose newsreels were ubiquitous throughout 20th century Britain. The first of these pieces from across the pond focuses on Irish revolutionary icon Michael Collins. It is initially peculiar to observe Collins, one of the most revered yet controversial figures in Irish history, strolling around among the throngs, and engaging in stilted handshakes with camera-shy citizens. He appears almost normal until the second act of this carefully-crafted sequence, when the camera frames him from below as he rallies a sprawling crowd, in a way almost reminiscent of Lenin or Trotsky, his revolutionary contemporaries. Finally, after being depicted as both ordinary man and elevated saviour, Collins is shown as a mourner at the funeral of Arthur Griffith; a piece of film which is doubly poignant in light of it being the last-known footage of Collins, who was assassinated 10 days after Griffith’s death. While this newsreel can be called a sympathetic view of the Irish by Britain, then the other Pathé newsreel featured here – a colour film of Cork men playing road bowling in 1957 – pokes wry fun at their neighbours. The men performing the illegal game are portrayed as recalcitrant rogues, which leads to snide, tongue-in-cheek remarks from the narrator about the mischievous nature of the Irish character.

There are two films in this collection which provide a comprehensive visual account of Cork and its surrounding areas. The first, entitled The Irish Riviera, is a travelogue produced by the Irish Tourist Association in 1936. Featuring the nasally narrator’s voice and gloriously hyperbolic descriptions of similar British newsreels, this journey around Ireland’s south, said to be ’’thrusting jaggedly into the Atlantic Ocean’’, glosses over any blemishes while focusing on the area’s most Edenic features. Beginning in Mizen Head, the camera weaves its way in and around Cork, capturing Cobh’s cathedral and the Shandon Tower in endearingly laborious tilts and pans. As a touristic account of the area, the film is impressively exhaustive given its 14-minute runtime, making trips to Kinsale, Youghal and various coastlines, with each sight doused in saccharine music. At Glengarriff, windows and gates open languidly in a way which seems suited to a Hollywood melodrama, while the narrator enticingly remarks, ‘’the sun is at your window and the sea is at your door!’’. Rhapsody of a River, from 1965, is similar in concept to The Irish Riviera. However, the Louis Marcus-directed film decides to eschew narration in favour of striking visuals and rhythmic, precise cutting accompanied by grand orchestral music. In doing so, it emerges as a dynamic, visual ode to a city in the vein of Berlin: Symphony of a City, Man With a Movie Camera or Koyaanisqatsi, and undoubtedly the highlight of this collection of films for me. From early on, the film can be seen as a visual symphony, with a traffic conductor taking the place of a music conductor as he is intercut with whirring images of Cork city life. Unlike the unchanging music of The Irish Riviera, the music here underscores and magnifies the images with an affecting ferocity. The thunderous images of large industry and the gritty determination of the workers in the background are reminiscent of Humphrey Jennings’ powerful British wartime films such as Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started. There are also a number of fantastic contained sequences in the film. One features a series of Cork’s architectural highlights seen in grand scope from below, which brilliantly conveys their majesty. Another shows old etchings and paintings of Cork transforming into footage of their 1960’s locations, which is truly magical to observe. This wonderful orchestra of images ends with tranquil footage of Cork’s lakes paired with a sentimental ballad about the city; a poetic tribute evocative of Yeats’s ‘’Lake Isle of Innisfree’’.

With the first half of the archival footage having focused on the external features of Cork, the second half focuses more on the domestic life of Cork families. Adoption Day, a short documentary by the prolific Irish catholic production company Radharc, is a brave and charming film made in 1967 which, indicative of its release year, is a strange mix of the old-fashioned and the modern. It details the process by which a Cork family adopts a little girl from a catholic adoption home. Despite some humorously outdated comments from the interviewer – who questions the potentially ‘’unsavoury’’ background of many children put up for adoption – the film treats its subjects with real tenderness and warmth. Particularly touching is the scene in which the family meet their new member for the first time, with a static shot capturing the heart-warming moment with admirable sympathy and respect. The film concludes on a similarly warm note, as the narrator remarks that the baby, shown in close-up, will leave ‘’five broken hearts behind her’’ if she is ever to be reclaimed by her birth mother.

The collection finishes with an equally heart-warming fictional film from 1959 entitled Larry, which is an adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s famous short story ‘’My Oedipus Complex’’. Set in the hazy, working-class streets of Cork, this story of a young boy’s reaction to his father’s return from war and the birth of his sister is uproariously funny and subtly compassionate. Though firmly rooted in its God-fearing Irish catholic setting, the film presents universal truths about the stubborn naiveté of childhood and the carrot and stick nature of parenthood. For Fergal Stanley’s wonderfully spirited central performance alone, the film should be more widely available.

Collections like this are important because they help us to smooth out the rough edges of our perception and cast a fresh eye on the streets we walk every day. The films which reside in the rich, illuminating depths of the IFI film archive bring us closer to our local history and heritage with unique immediacy. That such a small selection of the films available can have such a sobering effect is testament to the continuing power and vitality of the visual archive.

 

 

Local Films for Local People: Cork on Camera screened on 12th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival

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