Documentary flair makes for a Fleadh to savour

Irish road movies, documentaries and even a Western ensured that this year’s rainy but characterful Galway Film Fleadh was as full of interesting surprises as ever


Hello, Galway Film Fleadh. It’s time to take the temperature of Irish film again. Not literally, of course. If that were the case then, by Saturday, as squalls rumbled in from the Atlantic, we’d have been nailing the medium in its coffin and returning to tableaux vivant.

In recent editions, festival programmer Gar O’Brien has brought great energy to the Fleadh and, this year, there were no shortage of singular events and rare experiences. John C Reilly spread joy and played a rootsy gig at the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the legendary Iranian film-maker, was here to introduce his new film, The President.

When everything went well, the premieres themselves became events worth savouring. Such was the case on Friday night when Alex Fegan brought Older Than Ireland to the Town Hall Theatre. Following up his likable feature debut, The Irish Pub, Fegan set out to gather thoughts from a decent proportion of the nation’s centenarians. Showing the influence of Ken Wardrop’s much-loved His & Hers, the film swells with indecent amounts of poignancy, wisdom and irreverent humour. The medical establishment will, however, have mixed feelings about some of the messages being sent out. Just about the first thing we see is Bessie Nolan, a 103-year-old Dubliner, sucking back a kingsize cigarette. Another contributor proudly boasted that she’d “never eaten a vegetable in [her] life”.

The film is, however, most valuable for the way it frustrates stubborn preconceptions about the elderly. They wisely hate plenty about the modern world – the fact that kids don’t “do anything” – but they are also prepared to concede that men are now more open and that teachers are less fearsome. Bessie joined Michael O’Connor, who is 101, and Kathleen Fosdike, a stripling at 100, to take the applause in the Town Hall. O’Connor was happy to receive a bottle of Crested Ten whiskey, a tincture that, to the horror of gerontologists, he recommended heartily.

Older Than Ireland joined a wave of interesting and original documentaries at this year’s event. Having already played for a month at the Irish Film Institute, Fortune’s Wheel, Joe Lee’s tale of Bill Stephens, the Dublin lion tamer, managed to sell out again and reinforce its position as a breakout hit.

More sober in its subject, but just as fascinating, was Loïc Jourdain’s A Turning Tide in the Life of Man. This rigorous film follows John O’Brien, a fisherman from the island of Inishbofin, Donegal, as he seeks to fight EU restrictions on the fishing of salmon. Made over eight years, A Turning Tide in the Life of Man offers a gripping portrait of a quietly stubborn, impressively ingenious personality. It also puts a few tricky questions before audiences who might have felt they knew where they stood on conservation. Maybe, as an official tells O’Brien early on, a salmon got by an angler generates more concomitant revenue than one trawled by a professional fisherman. But it is, surely, more important to maintain communities in their traditional professions. There is much to chew over a rich, occasionally frustrating odyssey that brings us from Corsica to Brittany and on to Brussels conference rooms.

Also worth keeping an eye open for is Gary Lennon’s A Doctor’s Sword. The picture examines the extraordinary – indeed, scarcely believable – adventures of the late Dr Aidan MacCarthy during the second World War. While in the RAF, the Irishman survived Dunkirk and the fall of Singapore to find himself imprisoned in Nagasaki before the second atomic bomb fell.

The film is posed as a mystery: Niki, his daughter, seeks to discover the provenance of a Japanese sword that Dr MacCarthy brought home from the war. The story that emerges locates decency and humanity in a world otherwise characterised by brutality. Lennon works effective drawings into the piece to flesh out archive footage and contemporaneous interviews in a film that grips throughout.

The festival kicked off with the much-anticipated premiere of Simon Fitzmaurice’s My Name is Emily. Fitzmaurice, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008, raised much of the cash for the film through crowd-funding and has, thus, already been identified as something of a hero to the film-making community. Communicating via a computer that senses his eye movements, Fitzmaurice told The Irish Times that the invitation to open the festival was “ a very special honour. I’m excited about travelling down to the Fleadh, and celebrating our film with cast, crew, friends and family”.

My Name is Emily turns out to be a moving road movie with moments of reverie in the style of Terrence Malick. Evanna Lynch, best known from the Harry Potter films, plays a young woman travelling across country to seek out her troubled father (the always superb Michael Smiley) on her 16th birthday. George Webster plays the dreamboat – son of an emotionally astringent father –who elects to accompany her. It’s a funny piece of work, flavoured with real sadness about the difficulties of human connection. Fitzmaurice made it to the premiere, but, such was the length of the ovation, had some difficulty escaping the auditorium.

Saturday night saw the unveiling of another Irish road movie. How is this possible in such a small country? Actually, Mark Noonan’s You’re Ugly Too (name that joke) begins on the road and then settles into a trailer park. The reliably intense Aidan Gillen plays a decent man, recently released from prison, who has to care for his cheeky niece while checking in regularly with parole officers. We already knew Gillen can do hooded intensity, but young Lauren Kinsella is a revelation as his charge: sassy, difficult, funny. She helps make something properly moving of an elliptical tale. Kudos to Gillen, who, while colleagues from Game of Thrones were soaking up sun and applause at Comic Con in San Diego, made his way to the rainy, but more characterful, Fleadh.

Stephen Fingleton’s feature debut, The Survivalist, has already won applause at the Tribeca Film Festival and was similarly well received in Galway. This writer’s favourite of the Irish dramas viewed, the film stars Martin McCann as one of the few survivors of a future environmental catastrophe. His grim solitude is disturbed when a mother and daughter (the excellent Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth) stumble upon his small farm.

The film is diligently researched and features some stunning photography from Damien Elliott: one bravura crane shot is worthy of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It is, however, most notable for its apparent conclusion that morality might be a luxury we will cast aside when the food runs out.

The Fleadh ended with an admirable oddity: a Western shot in Galway and delivered largely in the Irish language. Regurgitate tobacco, hoist your chaps and tip hats to the impressive An Klondike. Made with the good people of TG4, Daithí Keane’s film tells the story of three brothers who make their way across Canada (a better double for Galway than anywhere in the United States, obviously) with a treasure map and hopes of striking gold. The closest model is, perhaps, the much-missed TV series Deadwood.

The film is a little cluttered in its storytelling, but it has sweep, character and it looks messily convincing. A good way to send the attendees sauntering into the sunset. Till next year, pardner.

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