A little more than 12 months ago, when the Galway Film Fleadh went entirely virtual, we were already getting the sense that the Covid crisis was unlikely to end with a sudden happy jolt into total freedom. As we edge into the second half of 2021, the Cannes Festival spends €1 million testing its guests for the condition and the Fleadh wisely goes for a hybrid event – partly digital, partly al fresco, a little bit indoors.
Conor O’Toole, writer and director of the charming ramshackle Bicycle Thieves: Pumped Up, was among those screening his film to an audience in Father Burke Park. The organisers will have known they were taking a gamble here. Some Fleadhs have played out in near-tropical conditions. Others have struggled with hurricanes.
“It was really good,” O’Toole said of the experience. “It couldn’t really have gone better. They had a big park and it was well spaced out with an LED screen and, thankfully, the weather held.”
Making explicit reference to the less merry Vittorio De Sica film referenced in the title, Bicycle Thieves: Pumped Up stars Roxanna Nic Liam as a pizza-delivery person searching Dublin for her stolen vehicle. Its good nature helps smooth out its rough edges.
For more than three decades, the Fleadh has been the prime spot for Irish film-makers to premiere their features. The current programme was, perhaps, not so stuffed as in years gone past, but a decent array of fine domestic work competed for prizes.
Best Irish film went to Stacey Gregg's spooky thriller Here Before. Andrea Riseborough, a contender for the best actor of her generation, stars as a woman still trying to process the death of her daughter a few years earlier. The drama darkens as she senses spiritual echoes in the young girl who has moved in next door. Gregg makes a uniquely shadowy nowhere of Belfast's outer suburbs as the film moves towards an effective, ambiguous climax. After Shadow Dancer a decade ago, Riseborough, raised in Tyneside, confirms that, not only can she deliver an unsettlingly good Ulster accent, she can deliver two different unsettlingly good Ulster accents.
Best first film was awarded to Seán Breathnach's powerful, if oppressive, Irish-language feature Foscadh. The reliably convincing Dónall Ó Héalai, looking more like a rural Cumberbatch than usual, stars as a lonely man rendered rudderless when his parents die and bequeath him a wind-battered farm. He hangs out with his useless pal. He gets beaten up by the town bullies. Despite crippling inexperience, he attempts a relationship with a nurse. Shot in forbidding winter shades by Colm Hogan, the film manages the impressive trick of stirring sympathy for a man with little charm and less courage. Very well made. Not easy to watch.
Best documentary went the way of Kim Bartley's terrific Pure Grit. Elegantly shot, with a drifty score by Kevin Murphy and Stephen Shannon, the film tells us about bareback horse rider Sharmaine Weed. Raised on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Native American woman talks us through her many struggles in an elegantly composed film that makes its own rhythmic rules. Much hardship. A captivating sense of place. A fine collection of cats.
Mark Cousins's documentaries are always a treat, but, for this currently monocular writer, the Belfast man's The Story of Looking had particular resonance. As he prepares for an operation to correct a cataract, Cousins ponders the power and complexity of visual culture. Beginning with Ray Charles discussing his own blindness, moving on to considerations of Frida Kahlo, The Wizard of Oz and the greens in Vertigo, Cousins keeps us with him throughout this oddball journey. We wish him years more creative seeing.
The industrious Graham Cantwell has been making films since the end of the last century. Who We Love, his latest, adapts his award-winning short Lily into an intermittently successful tale of growing up gay in contemporary Ireland. The acting is a bit hit-and-miss, but Clara Harte is first class – empathetic and spirited – as a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality in a school whose savage cliques conjure up unavoidable memories of Brian De Palma's Carrie. At times, the story hits its tropes so hard they resonate like clichés. Do scandals still get kicked off by the discovery of polaroid photographs? Need all these threads be tied up quite so neatly? Who We Love does, nonetheless, feel like a sincere effort to dissect the contemporary adolescent psyche.
The always welcome Gabriel Byrne won an Ifta award recently for his performance as a mortally ill professor in Matt Bissonnette's Canadian-Irish drama Death of a Ladies' Man. The songs of Leonard Cohen are woven into a drama that takes the protagonist – fond of a drink – from Montreal back to a hallucinatory confrontation with a young version of his late father. Brian Gleeson does good work as the da. Byrne greatly savours the chance to stretch into a rogue of the old school. Not all of it works, but Death of a Ladies' Man will push at the already open doors of sentimental Cohen fans.
The growth of Irish horror in recent years has been remarkable and Tom Cosgrove’s Hillwalkers should find an audience among those weaned on Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A group of variously hopeless yuppies head out into the wilds and, when one gets injured, immediately forget all the messages of the formative blood-trenched texts. You really think it’s wise to walk through the private forest? It ends in a satisfactory version of yokel hell. No better man then veteran Gerry O’Brien to wield the scythe.
A successful Fleadh closed sombrely with a screening of Teresa Lavina's Untold Secrets. Dealing with survivors of the Irish mother and baby homes, the documentary is laid out in uncomplicated fashion: loosely structured interviews underscored by keyboard tinkles. Few will, however, have grounds for complaint with this invaluable record of a still scarcely plausible injustice. Many heroes emerge, but none so impressively as the brave Anne Silke. A survivor of the Tuam home, Ms Silke died earlier this year. Untold Secrets is a fitting memorial.
AWARDS OF THE 2021 GALWAY FILM FLEADH
Feature Film Awards
Best Irish Film (in association with Danú Media) Here Before
Best Irish First Feature Foscadh
Best Irish Documentary Pure Grit
Inaugural Young Audience Award Ride the Wave
Peripheral Visions Award El Planeta by Amalia Ulman
Short Film winners
International short winners
Best international documentary short Mama Directed by Pablo de la Chica and produced by David Torres
Best international animation short Homebird Directed by Ewa Smyk and produced by Leah Jones
Best international fiction short Leylak Directed by Scott Aharoni, Dennis Latos
Best debut fiction short Bump Written and directed by Rory Keenan, produced by Roxanne Holman
Best debut animation short Bardo Written and directed by Aisling Conroy, produced by Claire Lennon
Donal Gilligan Award for best cinematography in a short film (in association with Irish Society of Cinematographers) Faitíos (The First Fear) Directed by Martha Fitzgerald, cinematography by Alba Fernandez
Oscar Qualifying Awards
Tiernan McBride Award for best fiction short (in association with Network Ireland Television) Saul & I Written and directed by Jon Beer, produced by Brian J Falconer
Best Short Documentary Award (in association with TG4) Nothing to Declare Directed by Garrett Daly
James Horgan Award for best animation short Memento Mori Directed by Paul O'Flanagan, written by Paul O'Flanagan and Laura O'Flanagan, produced by Louise Ní Chonchúir
Individual Artist Awards
Pitching Award Giles Brody with his teen caper, Top Marks
Bingham Ray New Talent Award (in association with Magnolia Pictures) TJ O'Grady Peyton
Best marketplace project (in association with Bankside Films) Lakelands Production company Harp Media (Ireland ), producers Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney