Galway Film Fleadh: Touch the Light (Tocando la Luz)

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Seán Crosson reviews Jennifer Redfearn’s inspiring documentary Touch the Light (Tocando la Luz), which had its European premiere at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Touch the Light is an inspiring, sensitively shot and moving depiction of the lives of three blind women in Cuba. The film had its European premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh in June, where it shared the award for Best International Feature Documentary. Galway was a particularly appropriate location for the European premiere and important for director Jennifer Redfearn as her great-grandmother Sabina Hernon grew up in the Claddagh and emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. The film is dedicated to Sabina’s daughter Margaret, Redfearn’s much loved grandmother, who sadly passed away during the making the film.

Redfearn and producer and DOP Tim Metzger were fortunate to find such extraordinary women for their production, made over a period of three years. While focusing on the three central female subjects, the film also touches upon Cuba’s turbulent history and finds resonances between personal and political struggles, featuring photos and other archive from the Cuban revolution intercut with contemporary commentary from the women depicted. This is particularly evident in the film’s focus on one of its older subjects, Maragarita, who became involved in the revolutionary struggle through her membership of an army battalion of blind recruits and who is now finding her own personal independence after the death of her husband. Metzger and Redfearn have described Margarita as ‘a kindred spirit’ of Redfearn’s grandmother.

The film’s other subjects include Mily, a young black woman who lives at home with her over protective parents and Lis, a talented singer who supports her family through her art, but doubts her own ability. Each is grappling with personal crises as the film develops – Mily wants to marry and have children, but may not be able to do so, while Lis is unsure (despite her obvious talent and success) that she wants to pursue a career as a singer. The film offers no simplistic resolutions to what are complex familial and personal challenges but patiently documents the lives of all three women and their relationships. A particular strength in all of this is that the documentary is largely told from the perspective of each of the blind women featured; it is their voices we hear on the soundtrack (no ‘voice-of-God’ narration here) and it is primarily they who bring us into the various challenges they face in their lives in contemporary Havana.

As well as providing insight into the lives of the women featured and contemporary Cuba, Tough the Light also foregrounds (perhaps surprisingly for a film concerned centrally with blind people) the important place of the cinema today in Cuba. A crucial cultural program that brings the blind community of Havana together is a cinema club for the blind, which screens Cuban films with audio-description. Over the course of Tough the Light, Magarita attends the cinema several times, watching classic Cuban films such as Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968) and Fernando Pérez’s Clandestinos (1987). Significantly, each film foregrounds the Cuban struggle for independence, a recurring theme within the film itself in its meshing of the personal and political. For Margarita in particular, the cinema provides her with one of the few outlets for independence; as she remarks ‘As a blind person I depend on other people to do many things. But in the cinema, for a moment, I feel completely independent.’

Touch the Light is perhaps all the more important given the changes Cuba is undergoing today; in its rendering of what may well be the final years “Castro’s Cuba”, it is an important documenting of a unique and extraordinary society and its people.

Touch the Light screened on Friday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: I am Belfast

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Seán Crosson heads North in Mark Cousins’ documentary I am Belfast, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Personifying places and indeed the entire island of Ireland as a woman has been a recurring trope in Irish literature and culture for many centuries, including seminal texts such as W.B. Yeat’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Pearse’s Mise Éire. Mark Cousins’ I am Belfast provides an innovative updating of this trope in the figure of a 10,000 year old woman (Helena Bereen) who claims to be the city itself and takes the filmmaker on a journey through time and space, recounting its historical development while travelling through its distinctive streets and landscape. In the process Cousins offers one of the most innovative studies of an Irish city; his film is partly a paean to its people, language and culture, partly an impressive rendering of the distinctive colours and shapes one finds while walking the streets of Belfast, and partly a hopeful song to a future without bigotry and division.

Cousins is fortunate to have collaborators such as acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer David Holmes who visually and aurally complement Cousins’ own refreshing and engaging dialogue with the elderly woman as he travels across the city and into its past. Few previous films have managed to render the distinctive architecture and colours of Belfast as effectively; there is also a patience to the film’s pacing that allows for the viewer to fully appreciate the film’s aesthetic achievement. Cousins even manages to find a peculiar beauty in the play of light and colour on the ‘peace walls’ that continue to divide communities across the city – more now even than during the height of the Troubles.

Belfast is unfortunately still primarily associated in film and television with recurring generic depictions of the Troubles and its aftermath; and Cousins, despite his own stated reluctance, does not shy away from confronting the legacy of Belfast’s traumatic and violent past. Indeed, he engages directly with some of the most disturbing events, including the horrific bombing of McGurk’s Bar in 1971 in which 15 civilians were killed and a further 17 seriously injured.

I am Belfast includes archive footage to incorporate events during the Troubles into its narrative; however, the film’s principal focus is on Belfast today and the hope that may lie in the future. Cousins films the mock-up of McGurk’s bar created under a Belfast underpass in 2011 and ponders the possibility of a different encounter between ‘salt and sweet’, Protestant and Catholic, beyond the traumatic legacies of the past. He personifies this evocatively in the imagined funeral of the ‘last bigot in Belfast’, and an upbeat funeral procession is featured towards the film’s close.

At a time when filmmakers have been hesitant to engage with the difficult legacies of Belfast’s past, Cousins provides a timely intervention while pointing to a future where all the city’s inhabitants could take pride in the spaces and places they inhabit.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)

 

 I am Belfast screened on Sunday, 12th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: Older than Ireland

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Seán Crosson scores a century for Alex Fegan’s documentary Older than Ireland, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Among the most anticipated productions premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh was Alex Fegan’s Older than Ireland, which had already sold out by Wednesday afternoon. Based around interviews with thirty Irish centenarians, Fegan’s film – produced by Gary Walsh – was one of the major successes in Galway, receiving two standing ovations and eventually the award for Best Irish Feature Documentary.

In a work reminiscent stylistically of Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers (though in other respects a superior production), Older than Ireland evokes the full range of emotions, from laughter to tears, in an ultimately inspirational film. Particularly striking is the candour and frankness of the individuals featured, both men and women, as they recount their views on life, love and Ireland. While Fegan was blessed with extraordinary subjects, the direction, cinematography, editing and accompanying soundtrack all perfectly complement the interviews included and contribute greatly to the achievement of the film. Fegan’s direction, and the cinematography of Colm Nicell, patiently captures the testimonies of those featured – there is no rush here to move on and the space provided allows for moments of genuine revelation.

The interviewees featured come from counties across the island – from Antrim to Cork, Dublin to Galway – and each has a unique perspective to share from their lives. Their memories encompass the revolutionary period, and the emergence of the state but also reflections on a very different Ireland of modest means and limited opportunities where emigration was often the only option for many. The oldest woman featured, 113-year old Kathleen Snavely (who sadly passed away shortly before the screening), spent most of her life in the United States after leaving Clare in 1921. ‘I was happy but lonely’, she poignantly recalls.

While the interior set-ups are reminiscent of Wardrop’s work, a distinctive aspect of Fegan’s film is how often he follows his subjects outside of the home space and the insights this provides into their lives. This includes scenes of subjects playing golf, gardening, driving (including in one of the film’s funniest moments on a drive-on lawn mower), and walking. It is in his rendering of these seemingly ordinary moments that Fegan manages to capture most affectingly the extraordinary individuals depicted.

Among the film’s most memorable interviewees is 103-year old Dubliner Bessie Nolan (who was present in Galway for the première), who provides very frank reflections on her life and relationships. She is also filmed walking from her home to the local shop for her groceries, including her daily box of Superkings. While hardly an example of healthy living (another interviewee talks about her dislike for vegetables), Bessie’s depiction, in common with those of other subjects throughout the film, is more concerned with affirming her dignity and the significance of her insights and perspectives. This is perhaps the most important message of Older than Ireland, particularly at a time when Irish society has successively diminished and marginalised the role of the elderly, as evident in recent scandals involving care-homes, and centenarians left on hospital trolleys for several days.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

Older than Ireland screened on Friday, 10th July  as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: A Turning Tide in the Life of Man

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Seán Crosson delves into the waters of Loic Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the Life of Man, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

The islands off the West coast of Ireland have been the subject of many books, paintings and films. The lives of those who inhabit these often neglected areas have provided the inspiration for such seminal figures as W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and documentarian Robert Flaherty. However rarely has the perspectives of islanders themselves (before the advent of TG4) been the central concern of film work, particularly work that has emerged from outside of Ireland.

French director Loic Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the life of Man, which includes TG4 among its funders, goes to considerable lengths to foreground the challenges faced by islanders off the West of Ireland (and indeed across Europe as a whole) in a work narrated by an Irish-speaking fisherman from Inishbofin (off Donegal), John O’Brien. O’Brien has been engaged in a campaign for almost ten years to save his livelihood as a fisherman against the imposition of laws by both the Irish state and the European Union hampering his efforts to do so.

Watching Jourdain’s documentary, I was reminded of a line from John Doyle in Cathal Black’s Korea (1995): “We impoverish the fishing for the tourists”. In Black’s film, based on a short story of the same name by John McGahern, Doyle is the last to fish his local lake in county Cavan for his living before his licence is taken away to preserve stocks for the increasing numbers of tourists arriving to Ireland in the late 1950s. Similarly, O’Brien finds his own livelihood as a fisherman threatened as the government places increasing limits on what salmon he can fish, in order (it is claimed) to save stocks for visiting anglers to Ireland.

However, a core focus of the film is the close connection between fishermen such as O’Brien and his local environment, a connection that is informed by generations of fishermen who have learned to fish sustainably and responsibly from their local environment. This includes rotating the fish caught each season to avoid overfishing a single species, unlike the massive factory boats that plunder the fish stocks close to Inishbofin. However, as a consequence of Irish and EU policies, O’Brien is forced to overfish single species throughout the year given the limitations placed on his work. Unsurprisingly, most coastal fishermen are forced to leave their livelihoods behind, with O’Brien (like Doyle) one of the very few left still trying to make a living from fishing on Inishbofin.

In a beautifully shot work, Jourdain follows O’Brien’s campaign for recognition of the needs of coastal communities from Inishbofin to Brussels. He also visits other European island communities, from islands off Bittanny to Corsica, as part of a campaign to build a significant lobby group to save the fishing livelihoods of coastal communities. One is struck in watching the film by O’Brien’s sincerity and humanity; his journey to Brussels and growing understanding of the political and bureaucratic systems that decide his own livelihood is also our own journey.

In this respect, the film is one of the most accessible and informative studies of the role the EU now plays in our lives – often largely ignored or misunderstood – as O’Brien grows to understand the importance of making common cause with other island communities across Europe and with a non-governmental organisation to support his lobbying efforts for recognition for the rights of coastal communities. He does eventually achieve some recognition, following meetings with the EU fisheries commissioner and an address to the European Parliament. However, the film closes on a pessimistic note; it seems further EU regulation on natural environments may make all the gains made irrelevant.

In the context of the continuing fallout from the Greek crisis, A Turning Tide in the Life of Man is a sobering reminder of the disconnect between the political and bureaucratic institutions in Brussels and the needs of communities on Europe’s periphery.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

A Turning Tide in the Life of Man screened on Saturday, 11th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: ‘An Náisiún’ & ‘Deoch an Dorais’

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Seán Crosson takes a look at two TG4-commissioned documentaries that screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh – An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) and Deoch an Dorais (Name Your Poison).

 

Since its launch in 1996, TG4 (or TnaG as it was then) has rightfully developed a considerable reputation for the excellent documentaries it has commissioned and the Galway Film Fleadh has provided an important forum for the premiere of many of these works in recent years. An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) and Deoch an Dorais were two further impressive examples of TG4’s súil eile approach in its examination of the experiences of Irish people at home and abroad.

In An Náisiún the subject is the Irish civil war, and particularly that part of it fought out over Limerick city and its hinterland. Narrated by Macdara Ó Fatharta, the doc features impressive archive footage and photographs that are beautifully rendered to bring the viewer into the lives and tensions of the period considered. The most affecting aspect of the work is the director’s – Andrew Gallimore – decision to offer most of the commentary from the perspective of participants involved in the war itself, on both the Free State and Irregular sides. Arguably no war is more brutal or more poignant than a civil war and the words of those involved, whether from letters, memoirs or interviews, make this all the more apparent.

 

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Set slightly later in the early 1930s, Deoch an Dorais (Name Your Poison) examines the legend of Mike Malloy (nicknamed “Rasputin of the Bronx” or “Durable Mike Malloy”), an Irish emigrant to New York at the time of prohibition. Malloy was the unwitting subject of insurance fraud when a policy was taken out on his life by an Italian-American New York gangster and speakeasy owner, Tony Marino. However, despite repeated attempts to collect the policy by killing Malloy in a manner that would suggest a natural death – from poisoning him with drink and food, to hitting him with a car and dumping his soaking body overnight in freezing weather – Marino and his accomplices were unable to collect.

The documentary is presented by All-Ireland winning Donegal captain Anthony Molloy, who also reflects on his own struggle with alcoholism and the larger story of Irish emigration to the United States of which Malloy was but one of many examples. Incorporating contemporary footage of New York and interviews with a range of scientific and academic commentators (including historian J.J. Lee), Deoch an Dorais also includes reenactments of the events from the 1930s involving Malloy, Marino and his co-conspirators (including undertaker Francis Pasqua); the scenes in Marino’s speakeasy offer a convincing rendering of the period, with the lighting particularly impressive. Under Paddy Hayes assured direction, Deoch an Dorais is an engaging and thought-provoking account of an extraordinary story.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

An Náisiún screened on Thursday, 9th July & Deoch an Dorais screened on Saturday, 11th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

 

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