Outposts for Irish film, in Rome and Georgia

Fri, Dec 21, 2012, 00:00

There’s an enthusiasm for Irish film abroad that is manifesting itself in festivals around the world

It might be half past three on a bitterly cold Roman December Saturday afternoon, but the house is full. Indeed, it seems that for the entire duration of the four-day Irish Film Festa at the Casa del Cinema (House of Film), the house is always full.

Of course, it helps that the films are free to the public. Furthermore, the splendid Casa del Cinema occupies a unique location in ultra fashionable Villa Borghese in central Rome. However, it would be less than fair to suggest that those are the only reasons why lots of Romani and others turn up to support this annual event, now in its sixth edition.

For a start, the quality of the programme merits attention. On the afternoon I went along, the Dutch-Irish feature film Milo turned out to be a not-so-little gem that held its audience spellbound. Brilliantly acted, beautifully filmed and well directed, Milo tells a coming-of-age tale that is both universal and also of particular relevance to post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

It is always slightly disconcerting to see the main actor, whose dramatic vicissitudes you have just followed on screen for an hour and a half, standing in front of you when the lights go up, but that is the way a good Film Festa should work. So there he was, Stuart Graham (whose credits include Hunger and Grabbers) smiling at us and doing his best to field the rather drawn-out questions/dissertations offered by the enthusiastic audience.

Nor was Graham the only Irish actor on hand to explain his work: Fionnuala Flanagan (Some Mother’s Son), Una Kavanagh (Keys to the City), Joe Mullins (Pilgrim Hill) as well as director Laurence McKeown (Life As An Interface) were all present for screenings of their work.

This Irish Film Festa owes much, if not everything, to the enthusiasm and energy of its artistic director, Susanna Pellis. A lecturer in film at Rome’s La Sapienza university, she has long been interested in Irish cinema.

So some years ago, when the Irish Film Institute asked if she could help out with a one-off Irish Film festival, she jumped at the opportunity, in the process hoping to herself that she could transform it into an annual event.

Nowadays the Irish Film Institute, the Irish Film Board, the Arts Council, the Irish Embassy to Italy and Culture Ireland all contribute to her budget, while Rome city authorities provide the splendid Casa del Cinema. The festival’s budget is a modest €20,000, which is not bad for a four-day, 14-film festival.

Next up on the Italo-Irish cinema scene is a one-day Irish cinema event on St Patrick’s Day before the next, and seventh, Irish Film Festa in autumn.

Once upon a time in Georgia

Two Irish cineastes living in Georgia saw their unlikely dream come true recently, when Tbilisi hosted the inaugural Georgian-Irish Film Festival.

Irish film-makers attended the three-day event, held workshops with local film students and helped judge a short film competition, as months of hard work by Elaine Mullan and her husband Raymond Mullen came to fruition.

An eclectic selection of films including Garage, Once, Jump and The Weather Station drew enthusiastic audiences and festival organisers are already making plans for an expanded event in 2013.

“It’s been a huge learning curve,” says Mullan, who juggled her marketing job with the travails of launching a film festival in an ex-Soviet state that is as chaotic as it is charismatic, and where a deep love of culture is not matched by resources.

“We had mornings when we woke up thinking, why are we doing this again?, but we never thought, let’s drop it,” she says, with a nod to her husband Raymond, a drilling contractor and the festival’s artistic director.

“We’re thinking about what more we can do next year. Lots of things are in place now that make it much easier to move ahead, and overall we’re very happy with how it’s gone,” says Mullan, who received most of her funding from Culture Ireland.

Mark O’Halloran, writer of Garage, a poignant comedy starring Pat Shortt, says he was impressed by Tbilisi and the festival.

“It’s a great city, and I hope the festival grows from here. We had a great crowd for Garage and a good question-and-answer session. It’s always interesting to see how the film works on different audiences.”

Johnny O’Reilly, the Moscow-based director of Russian-language thriller The Weather Station, says the festival tapped into a clear “affinity between Georgia and Ireland. Both are countries surrounded by bigger neighbours, and they feel like kindred national spirits. Irish culture is very popular here, and people do seem to have an affection for Ireland.”

O’Reilly shared his experience as the organiser of the annual Moscow Irish Film Festival, which was founded in 2008. He is now working on his next film, Moscow Never Sleeps, an interweaving of tales from one day in the Russian capital.

The short film competition was won by 21-year-old Salome Jugeli for House on Crossroad, which will be shown at the Dingle International Film Festival in March.

“The problems and dreams Ireland and Georgia have are reflected in our films. So we have a great understanding of each other,” says Georgian director and producer Nicoloz Khomasuridze.

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