Jack Reynor is returning to the Galway Film Fleadh. "Yes, I am bringing down my spare liver in my suitcase," he says.
The Fleadh does have that reputation. Over the last three-and-a-bit decades, the event has combined festivities with the serious – if not exactly sober – consideration of Irish and international cinema. As ever, casualties of the previous evening’s bibulous revels compared wounds on the steps of the Town Hall Theatre. Then they watched the films.
Reynor’s Bainne, his first short as director, was among those attracting attention. Will Poulter, a friend and frequent collaborator, stars as a young man pursued by spirits in the later days of the Famine.
Based on a story by the Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn, undervalued collector of Japanese myth, the film relishes its sharp monochrome images as it pays homage to the Asian filmmakers Reynor so admires. The picture beat hot competition to win best first short drama at the Fleadh.
In some senses, this festival – cracks about booze aside – looks to have gained greater order than in previous years. Films seem be starting more or less at their advertised time – do we have the lovely new Pálás cinema to thank? – and navigation around the Irish programme is thus easier.
There was a solid turnout from the domestic squad at the 2019 event. There is no sign of a third (fourth? fifth?) wave sweeping us to more Oscars, but the standouts confirmed he health of the medium.
A Dog Called Money
Just look at two documentaries that take similar journeys to different destinations. Both Seamus Murphy’s A Dog Called Money and Paul Duane’s Best Before Death followed artists about troubled parts of the world as they assemble material for their latest work.
A hugely acclaimed photographer, Murphy weaves together footage of PJ Harvey in the studio – watched from behind one-way glass by visitors to Somerset House – with the trips to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Washington DC that inspired her album The Hope Six Demolition Project.
There are some ironic (possibly unintended) connections between the two segments. She notes that she is “the only woman” present at a gathering on one of her visits. Unless I missed it, she doesn’t mention that she also seems to be the only woman present in a packed recording studio. At any rate, this is a beautifully shot oddity that sends one back to the music.
Best Before Death
Best Before Death is the more impressive of the two. Paul Duane, a heavily bearded Fleadh recidivist, has recent form in detailing the eccentric activities of Bill Drummond.
Following on from What Time is Death?, a study of the Former KLF man’s experiments in undertaking, Duane ponders two legs of Drummond’s weird, sometimes moving, sometimes infuriating 12-year tramp about the planet.
In Kolkata and Lexington, North Carolina, he erects stark painted signs and does what those signs demand. He bakes a cake. He builds a bed from timber. He shines shoes.
Drummond is often irritating in his refusal to engage reasonably. A young man offers to drive him about Lexington and, having discovered that Bill was a musician, politely asks if he worked with anyone famous. Does Drummond mention he once had a number one hit with Tammy Wynette? Does he heck?
We, nonetheless, get a sense of the emotional, memory-based mulch in which Drummond's project was developed. Enhanced by lovely, ingenious cinematography from Patrick Jordan and recent Oscar-nominee Robbie Ryan, Best Before Death is a hugely satisfying treatment of an elusive sensibility.
Ciaran Cassidy’s Jihad Jane, receiving its world premiere, studies the case of Coleen LaRose, the American woman charged with terrorist offences in 2010, and her connections to Jamie Paulin Ramirez, a Colorado native picked up in Waterford.
It’s a fascinating tale told in a lucid, unhurried style that makes chilling use of new interviews. Both women have remained within Islam and speak from behind veils. Their families are still recovering from the trauma.
Among other things, Jihad Jane is a story about how the internet now offers troubled people dubious validation. A mother talks about her ordinary American home being invaded by these still emerging technologies. Much to think about.
There was a lot of comedy and the odd dollop of Celtic misery among the Irish features. You could argue there is both in the project that won best Irish film on Sunday night. Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman's Extra Ordinary belongs to co-writer and star Maeve Higgins.
The popular comic plays a driving instructor with supernatural powers who finds her life juddering when she rubs against an American pop singer (Will Forte) – Chris De Burgh out of Dennis Wheatley – prepared to make a pact with the Devil. Already a hit at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, the film just about treads the tightrope between broad comedy and gory horror.
Its greatest asset is Higgins’s own understated comic turn.
A Bump Along the Way
Quieter and less showy than Extra Ordinary – which goes full Hammer Horror at times – Shelly Love’s delightful A Bump Along the Way, deserved winner of best first Irish feature, boasts the finest performances of the Irish features.
Set in (ahem) Derry among (ahem) girls of secondary-school age, the picture is bound to draw comparison with a certain sitcom, but, though a small film, it has little difficulty clearing its own singular territory.
The indomitable Bronagh Gallagher plays a woman of a certain age who, hitherto presumed to be infertile, finds herself pregnant by a young layabout. Her daughter Allegra (the superb Lola Petticrew), already bullied at school, is utterly appalled.
Mum explains that, when she gave Allegra a name that means “joy,” she didn’t “know [she] was being sarcastic.” Tess McGowan’s script dances through a series of comic situations without ever losing its emotional seriousness. Petticrew walked the Bingham Ray New Talent Award. We will hear more from her.
There was more bad behaviour in Sophie Hyde's peculiar Animals. Highly praised at the recent Sundance Film Festival, the adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth's novel – originally set in Manchester – sends Holliday Grainger (aspiring writer) and Alia Shawkat (trust-fund American) on a boozy, Withnailian romp around an attractive version of Dublin.
The film is slick, glamorous and well acted. Its take on the perils of the Falstaff distraction is laid out eloquently. But Animals feels a little formless and over-written.
There are always interesting Irish-language films at the Fleadh and Dathaí Keane's careering Finky carried on that tradition. Dara Devaney is charismatic as a puppeteer who, after angering hoodlums, migrates to Glasgow where he falls in with Bohemian cadre that enjoys dressing like Terry Gilliam characters and proclaiming like street barkers.
The film packs a great deal into its 90 minutes. A conspicuous quote from Tod Browning's Freaks points towards cinema of the macabre. Elsewhere, there's a flea-market Fellini tone to the action. The ragbag of styles is diverting – though the use of Irish becomes increasingly hard to sustain – up to a surprisingly sentimental denouement. Cathal Watters won best Irish cinematography for his sweeping, richly cinematic visuals.
Never Grow Old
The festival closed with a screening of Ivan Kavanagh’s Never Grow Old. Ivan has long been one of the nation’s most inventive filmmakers. Pictures such as The Fading Light, The Canal and Tin Can Man have strained furiously against the constraints of their budget.
Never Grow Old manages the considerable feat (something Dathaí Keane also achieved with Klondike) of shooting a convincing western in rural Ireland. Too often contemporary directors feel the need to “deconstruct” that genre, but Kavanagh plays it largely straight in a worthwhile disinterment of the “man’s gotta do…” genre.
Emile Hirsch, an Irish carpenter (we shan't dwell on the accent), wrestles with the urge to fight back when evil John Cusack takes over the town. Juiced up with muddy violence, allowing bravura shots from interior to exterior, Never Grow Old does more than make you believe Connemara could be in a more distant west, but it does that very convincingly. An unlikely marvel from a genuine Irish original.
AWARDS FOR THE 31ST GALWAY FILM FLEADH
Best International First Feature
The Best of Dorien B
Best International Documentary
Best International Film
A Bread Factory
Best International Short Documentary
After the Silence
Best International Short Animation
Best International Short Fiction
Best Human Rights Film
Don Quixote Award for Best Animated Short Film
Best Animated Sequence in A Short Film
The Donal Gilligan Award for Best Cinematography in a Short Film
Rip to the Rescue!
The Best Short Documentary Award
The Best First Short Drama
The Best First Short Animation Award
The James Horgan Award for Best Animation
Streets of Fury
The Tiernan McBride Award for Best Short Drama
Best Cinematography in an Irish Feature
What Would Rocky Do?
Best Marketplace Project Award
Best Irish Documentary
Best Irish First Feature
A Bump Along The Way
The Bingham Ray New Talent Award
Winner Lola Petticrew (A Bump Along The Way)
The Galway Hooker Award
Best Irish Film