There was a time when you could take the temperature of the nation by glancing at the tight handful of Irish features premiering at the Galway Film Fleadh. It is still a fight to get pictures made. But the event is now flooded with domestic premieres. Absorbing them all is akin to drinking water from a fire hose. No overall mood prevails. But certain trends do emerge.
This was a festival rich in contrasting documentaries about very different social and political campaigns. Chris Kelly's A Cambodian Spring, co-produced by Irish veteran Edwina Forkin, is a disciplined epic on the fight for land rights in a country under attack from bandit capitalism. Utilising some striking imagery – the footage of lakeside property being washed away stays in the brain – A Cambodian Spring tells a gripping story across six troubled years.
Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan's Jaha's Promise plays out in a narrower frame, but it no less arresting for that. The film-makers, who previously directed an impressive documentary on Nuala O'Faolain, follow a young woman from Gambia – now resident in New York – as she forwards a vigorous campaign against female genital mutilation. Jaha calmly and chillingly talks us through the process. She returns home and encounters everyday resistance. But she ultimately triumphs. There are lessons here about the power of commitment.
There was another campaign at the heart of Katrina Costello's breathtakingly lovely The Silver Branch, but her film is first and foremost a character study of a remarkable man. Patrick McCormack has, like generations of antecedents before him, worked a patch of land that rubs against the beautiful, austere Burren. Costello's rich images offer elegant underscores to the subject's pastoral verse. A fox lowers itself. A horse makes efforts to care for a calf. The film gains a different momentum when McCormack gets drawn into the campaign against the controversial Burren Interpretive Centre. The film does trust that we share its subject's passion for nature, but it will win over even those agnostic about the philosophy.
There were obvious connections between The Silver Branch and Pat Collins's characteristically persuasive Song of Granite. Collins has already established a strong reputation with eccentric films – often perched on the ridge between drama and documentary – such as Silence and Living in a Coded Land. Song of Granite may be his best yet. Shot in luminous, often deeply focused monochrome by Richard Kendrick, the picture tells the story of traditional Irish singer Joe Heaney as he moves from the west of Ireland to Glasgow and on to New York. The history of the diaspora is addressed in microcosm. Human frailty is considered. Song of Granite – slyly incorporating contemporaneous interviews with archive footage – is a subtle triumph that should play well to audiences throughout the world.
Gar O'Brien, the genial, clever programmer of the Fleadh, has, since his arrival, made the event a more comfortable event than ever (if one that remains stubbornly casual in its timekeeping). It's a place where argument is as welcome as adulation. To some surprise, the debate after the screening of Maurice Fitzpatrick's In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, caused little such tribulation. Bertie Ahern commented that he "would not like to be a John Hume".
The film itself speaks of mighty effort on Fitzpatrick's part. Such luminaries as Bill Clinton, John Major, Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair appear to explain how the co-founder of the SDLP manoeuvred his way through corridors of American power. In the Name of Peace occasionally loses a little focus – becoming absorbed with wider arguments – but it remains a vital, rigorously researched study of a politician whose legacy has recently been elbowed aside.
Further Northern Irish discontents were aired on Saturday night when Stephen Burke's Maze premiered to a packed, enthusiastic house. The story of the mass breakout from Long Kesh in 1983 has been crying out for dramatic interpretation and Burke has succeeded in making a lucid, mainstream entertainment from the material.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is icily dedicated as a former hunger striker who sees the escape as way of demonstrating that he and his colleagues remain undefeated. Burke has decided to focus on the events leading up to the escape rather than the chaotic aftermath and, as a result, we end up with something like a domestic version of The Great Escape. Barry Ward, strong as the warder who gets duped by Vaughan-Lawlor, is part of a subplot that adds context and balance. The picture is conscious of history. But it works best as an old-school escape movie. Martin McCann, who plays the IRA commander, will surely have enjoyed taking the Richard Attenborough role in our Great Escape simulacrum. The late lord Attenborough helped discover Martin in his film Closing the Ring.
Could Maze score the commercial success enjoyed by such films as The Young Offenders or A Date for Mad Mary after last year's event? It's possible. But Northern Irish stories remain a depressingly hard sell. The fact that we are even asking these questions says something positive about the commercial surge in Irish film.
Some film-makers have been on this journey forever. The perennially dogged, endlessly friendly Liam O Mochain (who once played Joe Heaney, hero of Song of Granite, in a TV movie) has finally directed another feature. Ten years after WC, which revolved around a loo, he brings us Lost and Found, which revolves around the Lost and Found office in a train station. It's a rough hewn, often crazy anthology film that gets by on energy and charm.
Gerard Walsh, whose promising South played at the Fleadh last year, was back with an interesting picture called Release. David Ryan stars as a boxer released from prison to discover his neighbourhood awash in crime and fight fans obsessed with Mixed Martial Arts (two men "riding one another" as the great John Connors says in a cameo). He finds a kind of redemption in the sport. The brief feature doesn't feel fully formed. Some of the dialogue is too expository. A few jokey sequences are unnecessary elongated. But Walsh can shoot and all the actors are strong. A closing fight sequence makes something surprisingly gentle of the grind and wallop that is MMA.
We also got to welcome back the veteran Tom Collins. It is a whole decade since the director's excellent Kings outlined new directions for Irish language features. His latest film Aithrí (Penance) is both more ambitious and more conventional. Collins tells two parallel, but linked, stories from different ends of the 20th century. A Catholic priest copes with the disturbances in Derry at the end of the 1960s. Fifty years earlier, as a Republican in the days before the Easter Rising, he urged his congregation to resist the forces of imperialism. The symbols of differing factions and ideals are a little too on-the-nose: a responsible RIC man stands in for the state; the boy's mother occupies middle ground. But the story is told with much gusto and sincerity.
After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Volker Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk made its Irish premiere at the Fleadh. The picture, which closed the event, hangs around a first original screenplay by Colm Tóibín.
Stellan Skarsgård plays a novelist who meets up with an old love (played by the considerably younger Nina Hoss) on a book tour and takes her on a weekend to the titular Long Island locale. The picture is tastefully designed and loaded with smart conversation on all corners of culture. (Every writer at this party wants to be David Foster Wallace, we're told. Bob Dylan's I Want You still fills a void.) Both actors are committed to the text. But this feels very like the sort of film a novelist might write. One wouldn't be altogether surprised to learn it has been adapted (with all the rude bits removed) from a Philip Roth text. Return to Montauk is a class act. But it needs a damn good shake.
At the centre of the festival, on Friday night, the Fleadh team scored two undeniable hits. Nick Kelly, once of the Fat Lady Sings, packs a great deal into his funny, sentimental fable The Drummer and the Keeper. Dermot Murphy is charismatic as a rock musician with bi-polar syndrome who is befriended by a young man with Asperger's Syndrome (Jacob McCarthy).
The Drummer and the Keeper is undeniably sentimental. It is also deeply felt and very beautifully acted. The relationship between McCarthy and Murphy is shaped like that in a classical romantic comedy. They are close. They're less close. They . . . well, let's not spoil a very satisfactory ending. Kelly explained that, in the deranged world of rock music, it's very easy for mental illness to be overlooked. Such insights were useful. His experience also helps turn the film into something like a musical. It's a lovely thing.
The best new Irish film I saw at the Fleadh was undoubtedly Frank Berry's Michael Inside. Over the last few years, Berry has been honing his own school of poetic naturalism with films such as Ballymun Lullaby and I Used to Live Here. With his new picture he has surely perfected the form.
The talented, good-looking Dafhyd Flynn plays a young Dubliner who, sentenced to three months for a relatively minor offence, finds himself nudged towards more serious transgressions. It's a familiar story. There are bits of A Prophet, Scum and Starred Up in here. It is to Berry's credit that the piece – workshopped with former prisoners from the Irish Prison Service's Pathways Programme – escapes all those predecessors and manages to breathe its own air.
Flynn is a star. The exhaustingly terrific Moe Dunford spits out charisma as the hood who runs the young man's wing. Another truly great Irish film. Another delicious Fleadh. Roll on next year's 30th anniversary.