Sinéad O’Connor’s viral SNL moment generates cheers and applause at 34th Galway Film Fleadh

New documentary confirms singer dismissed in Ireland for speaking uncomfortable truths — most conspicuously those concerning the Catholic Church — that are now little disputed

Thirty years after the US monstered Sinéad O’Connor for tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, a replay of that incident generated cheers and applause at the 34th Galway Film Fleadh. The response to Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares — a moving, well-ordered documentary on the singer — confirmed how much the pendulum has swung in the intervening years.

At the Town Hall Theatre, Ferguson told the Fleadh programmer Will Fitzgerald how the media had unfairly portrayed O’Connor as flippant and inconsistent. “Studying hours and hours and hours of archive footage, we found she had been rock solid on every issue she stood behind. It was amazing to witness that.”

The SNL controversy was largely an American phenomenon, but Nothing Compares confirms that, during her period of high success, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, O’Connor was dismissed at home for speaking uncomfortable truths — most conspicuously those concerning the Catholic Church — that are now little disputed. Employing similar techniques to those Asif Kapadia developed for his films on Amy Winehouse and Maradona — audio, but no video, of contemporary interviews, played over archive footage — Ferguson reclaims an utterly original from still lingering misunderstanding.

The Fleadh has, however, long been best known for its presentation of new Irish features. A wealth of titles bounced out from the vanishing Coronavirus gloom

Ferguson was among many enthusiastic guests zooming about the Fleadh’s return to full in-person festivities after two years of Covid compromises. “It’s been very interesting because we had to learn all over again,” Miriam Allen, chief executive of the Fleadh, told The Irish Times. “You forget half of the things we used to do. Everyone is still in a post-pandemic headspace.”

Among those manoeuvring the Fleadh back to something like normality was the creator of Derry Girls. Lisa McGee popped up to discuss the comedy phenomenon after a delightful screening of the final episode at the Pálás cinema. “It sort of happened in stages,” she said of the success of her Channel Four series. “The first episode, unusually for a comedy, happened right away. It was a shock when we got the figures the next day. I can’t really say why that happened. We had a really good trailer and people were ready to see a female-led show.”

The festival boasted an impressive international line-up. Panels were convened to pull apart the challenges facing the industry in weird times. The late-night buzz returned. The Fleadh has, however, long been best known for its presentation of new Irish features. A wealth of titles bounced out from the vanishing Coronavirus gloom.

Emer Reynolds’s Joyride, which opened the event, was, not an unqualified triumph. Olivia Colman stars as a new mum who hitches a ride with Charlie Reid’s young tearaway in a film whose reach somewhat exceeds its grasp. The road movie finds amusing ways of diverting top-notch Irish character actors, but the motivations are confusing and the tone somewhat inconsistent. It will receive commercial release in a few weeks.

If you wanted still more rural meltdowns you could do worse than seek out Antonia Campbell-Hughes’s debut feature It Is in Us All

Robert Higgins and Patrick McGiveny’s harrowing Lakelands, deserved winner of best Irish film, was more successful in its investigations of very different rural anxieties. Kicking up some reminders of Friday Night Lights, the drama follows a spirited GAA player as, concussed following a scuffle outside a bar, he faces up to the grim truth that he may never again excel in the sport he loves. The midlands are conjured up with muddy affection. The directors’ own script winds together endless competing pressures. But it is the faultless performances that really stick in the brain. Éanna Hardwicke, a rising star for some years, confirms main stage arrival with his soul-scarring lead turn. The charismatic, busy Danielle Galligan deserves mention for her thoughtful treatment of a close pal who may or may not become something more. The two actors shared the Bigham Ray award for new talent.

The eminent Mr Hardwicke also appeared to advantage in Michael Kinirons’s fine The Sparrow, winner of best Irish debut feature. He plays older, more assertive brother to Ollie West’s nervous, wounded protagonist in a rural drama that works dark magic with the dynamics of guilt and grief. The metaphorical weight of the eponymous wounded sparrow occasionally threatens imbalance, but Kinrons’s script keeps pulling us back to grim reality. The great David O’Hara always arrives with threats of menace and his turn as the boys’ overpowering father does not disappoint. Little wonder he is rarely off our screens.

If you wanted still more rural meltdowns you could do worse than seek out Antonia Campbell-Hughes’s debut feature It Is in Us All. Hitherto best known as an actor, Hughes directs the simmering Cosmo Jarvis in the tale of a man arriving disastrously to the Donegal town in which his mother grew up. The stranger is involved in a fatal car crash before he has had time to introduce himself and spends the rest of the oblique drama rubbing abrasively against puzzled citizens. Already strongly reviewed at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, It Is in Us All reveals its secrets with great subtlety as it pokes around concealed tensions. Piers McGrail’s liquid cinematography locates the action in space. Polymath Mark O’Halloran confirms his status as unofficial Fleadh authority figure with turns as a priest here and as a policeman in The Sparrow. We await his high-court judge with eager anticipation.

The fascinating Million Dollar Pigeons took us about the globe as it investigates the mysterious pursuit of pigeon racing

Much credit must go the way of Luke Hanlon for fastening together an unusual — if sometimes narratively shaky — crime melodrama in the violent Troubles, A Dublin Story. Working-class twins (Ray Malone and Adam Redmond) join the Provos in the early 1980s and, while the conflict burns hot a hundred miles to the north, get sucked into less volatile, but still dangerous messes in a changing Dublin. The film is responsible in its treatment of the paramilitaries. One brother drifts towards psychosis, the other faces up to the grim realities of his early questionable decisions. It is a rough-hewn piece of work that wears its American influences a little too conspicuously, but there is real promise here.

As ever there was a rush of fine documentaries at the Fleadh. Ciara Nic Chormaic’s Aisling Trí Néallaibh (Clouded Reveries) focused closely on the life and working practices of the acclaimed writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa. The author of A Ghost in the Throat is more or less the only person seen in this delicately structured film. Talking us through her upbringing in County Clare, she bafflingly explained that her way of rebelling was to study dentistry. That dry off-centre humour characterises a film that relies heavily on your affection for — literally and figuratively — one, often eccentric voice. The creative process is addressed. We learn about her unusual diligence. But (quite properly) mysteries remain.

Classic cinema such as Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon Amour and Kaneto Shindō's Children of Hiroshima generate meditations on unimaginable horror

In contrast, the fascinating Million Dollar Pigeons took us about the globe as it investigates the mysterious pursuit of pigeon racing. One John O’Brien, an Irish fancier of some enthusiasm, acts as the film’s anchor as we move from a glitzy event in South Africa to a more disciplined race in Thailand. The story loses a bit of energy its later stages, but this is a well-composed film that shows how wider global changes work their way through all human endeavour — even the racing of birds. Americans manage their avian interests like industries. Chinese fanciers look set to take over.

Better still was Maurice O’Brien’s constantly surprising The Artist and The Wall of Death. The documentary follows Glaswegian performance artist Stephen Skrynka as he seeks to teach himself how to ride a motorbike horizontally in the eponymous structure. Inevitably, Skrynka is, after initially bruising failure, brought to Peter Ormond’s 1986 comedy East the Peach and onwards to Michael Donohoe and Connie Kiernan, the real-life eccentrics whose rural wall inspired that pioneering Irish film. John Kelleher, producer of Eat the Peach, returns to repeat those duties on this oddball odyssey.

There was experimentation on display. Paula Kehoe and Feargal Ward’s City of a Thousand Suns worked stories from Hiroshima in with meanderings about contemporary Dublin. Classic cinema such as Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon Amour and Kaneto Shindō's Children of Hiroshima generate meditations on unimaginable horror.

There was no end of reversals and creative illusions in Dean Kavanagh’s terrific Hole in the Head. A meta-text that is as funny as it is perplexing, the picture appears to follow an eccentric, mute projectionist (people holding that job are invariably odd in art-house films) as he encourages actors to recreate his astringent parents’ weird relationship while huddled away in a remote country pile. The word “appears” in that previous sentence is there to confirm that little is certain in the multimedia waxes and wanes that constitute Kavanagh’s film. We see apparently ancient photographs. We hear recordings on 20th-century equipment. It sounds forbidding, but like the films of Peter Strickland, Hole in the Head is always at home to the pleasures of creative play. Kavanagh has been plugging away at his curious art for over a decade and, while Hole in the Head is not an obvious mainstream sell, it demands attention every bit as forcefully as the more conventional narratives mentioned above.

Aside from anything else, the contained shoot showed one way of using Covid complications to creative advantage. It was thus a fitting film to break through at the first conventionally mounted Fleadh after the great shutdown.

The awards of the 34th Galway Film Fleadh

BEST INTERNATIONAL ANIMATION SHORT Zoon, directed by Jonathan Schwenk

BEST INTERNATIONAL FICTION SHORT Too Rough, directed by Sean Lionadh

BEST INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY SHORT Nuisance Bear, directed by Jack Weisman and Gabriela Oslo Vanden

BEST FIRST ANIMATION SHORT in association with Brown Bag Films Soul Office, directed by Ryan Loughran, produced by Fiona McLaughlin, Tom Getty and Grace Loughrey

BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY in association with TG4 Call Me Mommy, directed by Tara O’Callaghan, produced by Aaron McEnaney, Louise Byrne and Ross Killeen

Special Mentions: Where Do All the Old Gays Go, directed by Cathy Dunne, produced by Maggie Ryan and Cathy Dunne

For the Birds, directed by Ciarán O’Connor, produced by Nuala Cunningham and Jen Dunbar

BEST IRISH FIRST SHORT FICTION Homebird, directed by Caleb J Roberts, produced by Brian J Falconer, Callum Harrison and Jonathan Beer

THE DONAL GILLIGAN AWARD FOR CINEMATOGRAPHY IN A SHORT FILM in association with the Irish Society Cinematographers, supported by Celtic Grips Burn It All, directed by Jack Hickey, produced by Lara Hickey, cinematography by Phillip Blake

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY IN AN IRISH FILM in association with Teach Solais Tarrac, cinematography by Patrick Jordan

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM The Score, written and directed by Malachi Smyth

BEST INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY The Job of Song, directed by Lila Schmitz, produced by Fengy Xu and Anika Kan Grevstad

PERIPHERAL VISIONS AWARD Bad Women, directed by Niklas Lindgren, written by Niklas Lindgren and Karolina Lindgren, produced by Mila Haavisto

BEST HUMAN RIGHTS FILM in association with Amnesty International Afghan Dreamers, directed by David Greenwald, produced by Beth Murphy and David Cowan

PITCHING AWARD Haven, by Maureen O’Connell

BEST MARKETPLACE PROJECT AWARD in association with Bankside Films Shoal, directed by Clare Strong, produced by Jeanie Igoe

THE BIGHAM RAY NEW TALENT AWARD: in association with Magnolia Pictures Joint Winners: Éanna Hardwicke and Danielle Galligan, Lakelands

THE JAMES HORGAN AWARD FOR SHORT ANIMATION Soul Office, directed by Ryan Loughran, produced by Fiona McLaughlin, Tom Getty and Grace Loughrey

THE TIERNAN MCBRIDE AWARD FOR BEST FICTION SHORT Drama in association with Network Ireland Television Wednesday’s Child, directed by Laura O’Shea, produced by Caroline Harvey and Charleigh Baileigh

BEST IRISH DOCUMENTARY Nothing Compares, director Kathryn Ferguson, writers: Kathryn Ferguson, Eleanor Emptage & Michael Mallie, producers: Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie

BEST IRISH FIRST FEATURE in association with Saffery Champness The Sparrow, written and directed by Michael Kinirons, produced by Alicia Ní Ghráinne

BEST IRISH FILM in association with Danu Media Lakelands, written, directed and produced by Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist

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