My Galway Film Fleadh horror

Tue, Jul 17, 2012, 01:00

NOBODY NEED PLACE a mirror over the mouth of the Irish film industry. Times are certainly hard. Despite the staggering success of The Guard, cinemas still have trouble flogging domestic releases to mainstream audiences. But this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, which ended on Sunday, confirmed that young (and not-so-young) film-makers are still determined to get their visions on screen.

Already a young wizard of cut-price film-making, Mark O’Connor, director of 2011’s fresh Between the Canals, somehow managed to deliver two films to the festival: King of the Travellers and Stalker. That last piece, unveiled at a rather festive screening in the Cinemobile, is certainly not backwards in coming forwards. Stalker was, of course, also the title of a great film by Andrei Tarkovsky. The film features pigeons named, if my hearing is not wrong, for the directors Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But it’s hard to begrudge this year’s Stalker its occasional pretensions. Though disordered, it gets by on vivid fury and a taste for urban absurdity that is all the director’s own.

Stalker follows a voluble homeless person – part righteous avenger, part irredeemable psychopath – who takes a young fellow (the superb Barry Keoghan) under his wing in a heightened, nightmarish version of contemporary Dublin. The microbudgeted film is often indulgent. But O’Connor makes sure we are never too far from an excellent joke, and John Connors is first rate as the disturbed protagonist. Why does the dishevelled street prophet wear a tie? “In case I get an interview,” he explains as if to a fool.

Kieron J Walsh, the experienced director of When Brendan Met Trudy, takes a less confrontational, more digestible approach to urban discontent in his feisty Jump. Set in Derry on New Year’s Eve, the film uses a temporally shuffled narrative – the Tarantino influence lingers – to tell the story of a young girl (Nichola Burley), daughter of a hoodlum, and her whirlwind romance with a wide-eyed youth (the ever reliable Martin McCann) in search of revenge. Burley, a rising English star, experiences a few slight wobbles with her accent, and the film relies on a series of somewhat outrageous coincidences, but Jump exhibits a feisty zing that should secure it an audience. “There has to be more to life than Derry,” one character ponders. As if!

The fleadh also unveiled a dizzying array of documentaries. Sean McAllister’s The Reluctant Revolutionary addresses the recent Arab revolutions by following the political awakening of a good-natured Yemeni tour guide whose initial wariness is eventually brushed aside by escalating events. The picture reminds us how often the news treats discontented protesters as homogenous mobs.

Before the fleadh kicked off, publicity had gathered around two very different documentaries: Valeri Vaughn’s Art of Conflict and Seán Ó Cualáin’s Lón sa Spéir (Men at Lunch).

Vaughn was clever enough to invite her brother, Vince Vaughn, to narrate her film on the murals that decorate gables in Northern Ireland. It’s a mixed bag. Its explanation of the tribal disputes is, for a domestic audience, painfully pedantic and facile. The film reveals its lengthy gestation by including interviews with the loyalist politician David Ervine, who died in 2007, and undermines the cause of reconciliation by identifying each contributor as Protestant or Catholic. Still, it’s a useful record of a guerrilla art form that is struggling to survive in changed times.

Lón sa Spéir, made for TG4, is much more successful. The film seeks to investigate that famous photograph of construction workers lunching on a girder many storeys above New York city. There is a tense moment about halfway through when the film-makers ponder whether the image might have been faked. Happily, there seems to be little evidence to support such conspiracy theories, and the picture goes on to identify the two Irish workers who bookend the celebrated tableau. Lón sa Spéir manages, without becoming overstuffed, to accommodate some moving meditations on the overall immigrant experience and the lasting power of hastily snapped images. The vertiginous film should travel.

WE HAVE, IN THESEpages, already noted that this year’s fleadh, managed by the indomitable Miriam Allen and programmed by the energetic Gar O’Brien, found itself celebrating an apparent surge in Irish horror.

At least four new domestic features could be described in those terms. Bing Bailey’s impressively disgusting Portrait of a Zombie takes its lead from George Romero as it weaves social commentary into a tale of the walking dead.

The largely self-financed picture concerns itself with an ordinary Dublin family who are trying to care for a son who has taken to chewing live flesh while growling in supernatural fury. There’s plenty of black comedy here. “He’d eat anything. So not much has changed,” somebody says. But the film also manages to address economic decline, organised crime and the arrogance of contemporary media.

There is, perhaps, a little too much going on: it’s partly a faux documentary and partly a drama studying the making of that documentary. But Bing deserves serious praise for locating real emotion in such a fantastic tale.

The best Irish shocker I saw was, however, unquestionably Ciarán Foy’s absolutely splendid Citadel. Foy, known for his extraordinary short The Faeries of Blackheath Woods, offers us a tale about an agoraphobic young man (a convincingly shaky Aneurin Barnard) who is forced to watch hooded maniacs (or demons?) savagely assault his pregnant wife. The main body of the picture finds the hero skulking desperately about a supernaturally bleak Scottish housing estate that appears to be infested by the mysterious beings. There’s something of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in the film’s obsession with the horror that lurks just beyond closed doors.

Tim Fleming, who shot John Carney’s Once, creates an icy limbo that suggests life on some more than usually forbidding satellite. And the malign creatures are impressively unsettling. Certain expositions suggest that Foy, who also wrote the piece, has once again got faeries on the brain. But nobody is likely to confuse the hoodies with Tinker Bell. This is a really special piece of work.

With all this urban mayhem and supernatural jiggery-pokery afoot, one could be forgiven for suspecting that Irish film-makers had finally abandoned interest in the quieter affairs of rural Ireland. Happily, young Gerard Barrett was on hand with his masterful debut feature, Pilgrim Hill. At the premiere, Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan compared the picture to Michael Haneke’s upcoming Amour. This splendid picture almost lives up to that billing. Joe Mullins plays a farmer living a lonely life on the outskirts of a small town. He takes occasional trips to the pub. He pathetically contemplates the life he might have lived. He cares for his father – never seen by the audience – who has recently had a stroke.

Barrett demonstrates some admirably original thinking: the piece has some straight-to-camera sequences; it offers no nondiegetic music until a final, appalling catastrophe.

We nominate this brilliantly played film, with an apologetic nod to Citadel, as the best we saw at this year’s event.

Thumbs up are, however, also offered to the excellent closing film. James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer stars (of all people) the fine-featured Andrea Riseborough as a Northern Irish woman who, during the worst of the Troubles, finds herself being bullied into informing for the British secret services. Beginning with a knuckle-whiteningly tense dialogue-free sequence, Marsh – known for the documentary Man on Wire – makes something queasy and repellent of a story that could very easily have slipped into cheap sensationalism.

Shadow Dancer was a fitting end to a very encouraging fleadh. Next year is the 25th. We demand a mighty celebration.

Fleadh favourites

* Shadow DancerJames Marsh’s Northern Ireland-themed film offered a fitting end to a very encouraging fleadh.

* Pilgrim HillGerard Barrett’s masterful debut, with much original thinking, was the festival’s best.

* CitadelCiarán Foy’s film, set in a supernaturally bleak Scottish housing estate, was the best Irish shocker.

* Lón sa SpéirSeán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about a famous photograph accommodates moving meditations on the immigrant experience and the lasting power of hastily snapped images.

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