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


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

City of Ghosts

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


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

School Life

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

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

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

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


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

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