I’ve been incredibly quiet on DN this year. Apologies for that, but the reason is I have been studying for my doctorate in cinema and writing a feature screenplay. Let’s just say you aren’t the only people I’ve been neglecting. The past week however saw me leave my relative hermit’s existence to see my short It’s Natural To Be Afraid at the Kerry Film Festival in Ireland, the closest it’s shown to home.
We had heard good things about the festival from filmmaker Declan Cassidy who won there when he was attending one of our last Filmstock festivals, and we leapt at the chance to see the film with the audience there. Justin (director and co-producer) has been on tour with the film for much of the year [MarBelle: including an interview stop here at DN], but this was the first chance myself and producer Steve Clarke had to see it with a crowd, and I was itching to see some shorts and talk to some filmmakers, as I have definitely felt out of the loop.
I arrived on Sunday 30th October, grabbed a quick coffee and then headed straight with the others, who had already been there a day to see some short docs. Of the four two really stood out. Challenging Impossibility, a film by Sanjay Rawal and Natabara Rollosson about spiritual weightlifter Sri Chinmoy. I love the way docs can show the amazing lives of real people you have never heard about and it is a wonderful little film. The best of the session though was Guy Natanel’s Scent of Strawberries. Guy is an Israeli filmmaker and his film is the beautiful story of his 62 year old Mother going to film school and inspiring him to do the same; Guy documents the making of her student project for his student project. It’s much more than a student project though, it is a movie portrayal of family, death, age and perceptions and the catharsis of creative realisation. It was a joy to watch and Guy was at the screening, and the warmth of his personality is reflected in the compassion and humanity of his film.
The second screening featured a selection of shorts from other festivals, Rushes Soho (a fest we didn’t get into) and Nickel, Newfoundland (a fest we won at). The highlights were Jordan Canning’s realisation of a troubled relationship in animated egg form Not Over Easy which was a local Newfoundland delight. From the Rushes selection the only thing that stood out (and I’m not just being bitter) was the German short Hermann directed by Hana Geissendorfer which was a familiar tale of age and unrequited desire anchored by some nice camerawork and a really strong central performance by Dietrich Hollinderbäumer.
After the screening we went out to dinner, us filmmakers few including Guy and Australian filmmaker Kelly Hucker. Kelly’s film Kwik Fix screened later in the week and we missed it but I have subsequently viewed it and can say it’s a surprisingly ambitious graduation film, full of heart and melancholy. Delicately directed and with strong performances.
A good eat, and some good talk. It felt really good to be a filmmaker talking filmmaking at a festival again.
Monday evening was our screening in the international shorts competition. The film looked and sounded amazing, thanks to some real care from the projectionists Paddy and Niall. Other films that stood out in the session for us were Danaan Breathnach’s Friends of the Earth animation A Love Story…In Milk and the strange and compelling Turkish political film Kirmizi Alarm (Red Alert). Craig Pickles’ Nancy, Sid & Sergio, a rock climbing allegory starring Johnny Harris (This is England ’86) had its moments but a weak opening and a dodgy DVD let it down.
From our screening we raced to a special outdoor screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (it was Halloween after all), projected onto the side of a Windmill. We caught the final few minutes which was good and then headed to a local pub where we caught up with newly arrived screenwriter Paul Fraser (A Room For Romeo Brass, Dead Man’s Shoes) who was presenting his directorial debut My Brothers at the festival. We would miss the screening as we flew back the next lunchtime but Paul invited me to see it close the London Irish film festival instead.
And, following some drinks and some lovely conversation and songs with locals and the dedicated festival team, we walked back to our hotel pleased with how our film had played and been received and having seen some decent work and met some great filmmakers.
We knew there were awards for the shorts, and that judges such as Paul Greengrass and Cillian Murphy were presiding, but it still took us by great surprise when we were invited back to the festival for the awards ceremony and told if we could make it back it would be worth our while. The festival supported our costs so we had a good feeling and so, with the blessing of my wife I headed back to Kerry, and the town of Tralee, with Steve unable to travel because of his ill father and Justin out in the States representing the film at the brilliant Indie Memphis fest. Sharing the flight was documentary filmmaker Guy, who also had a good feeling.
Picked up, we headed straight to the ceremony where I was reacquainted with the team and some of the filmmakers I’d bid farewell to not four days before. It was also great to see filmmaker Declan Cassidy there as he was the person who alerted us to the festival in the first place. He was at the festival with his latest short The Bouquet, which I sadly missed. The ceremony unfolded with Guy deservedly confirming his win for Best Documentary for Scent Of Strawberries before heading straight back to London to prepare for the premiere of his new film at the Tricycle Cinema on Sunday. Other awards included Best Animation for Anna Fitzsimmons’ The Life, Death & Suffer Story‘ and Best Irish Short for Bulldog which is a subtle and elegant tale of a young bullied boy and his need but inability to share his trauma. Director Steve Earls was there as was animator Pedro Rivero whose film Birdboy (he co-directed with Alberto Vázquez) received a special mention. Pedro gave me a copy of the film and it’s a haunting and beautifully animated socio-political fable. I personally preferred it to the worthy winner.
The final award of the evening for films was for the Grand Prize; Best Short Film and we won it. It was an honour to receive the award in person. We have had some success with this short, this award was our 6th but it was the first we had all seen with an audience together and the first we could accept in person. The fact it was judged by Paul Greengrass also means a lot to us, a sense of validation on a joyous yet difficult and tempestuous journey.
The film screened beautifully again and the large crowd loved it, they got the nuances and I received some really lovely comments from audience members and attendant filmmakers, which was really heartwarming.
The ceremony ended with the Maureen O’Hara award for achievements in cinema by a woman being presented to Fionnula Flanagan (The Guard, The Others) who described our film as “courageous“. It was amazing to be in the presence of Hollywood royalty in the shape of O’Hara (The Quiet Man, Miracle on 34th Street) and was a wonderful end to proceedings.
After the awards I said goodbye to some filmmakers, had dinner and conversation with others, then headed out to a birthday party at the invitation of co-ordinator Mai and her family. Mai is one of those people that make film festivals so special. Her care for visitors is exemplary and it’s married to a will for her pride in the event, her town and her family to be shared. Being from a large Irish family I felt immediately comfortable and was made to feel like one of the family as we celebrated her brother’s 50th birthday. And the following morning it was her mum and another brother who ensured I got to the airport okay.
The whole team, from director Sarah Smyth down are a credit to Tralee and film festivals and made the whole experience, both parts, so easy, rewarding and so much fun. I can’t wait to go back.
On arrival back in England I walked the dog with my understanding wife and then we headed into London for the screening of Paul Fraser’s My Brothers. The film closed the first Irish Film Festival London and is an absolute gem of a film. Beautifully made for a first directorial outing, it’s anchored by beautiful photography and three brilliant performances. I heartily recommend it. And here, following a Q&A with Paul and lead actor Timmy Creed was where my Irish odyssey ended. In perfect fashion.
Neil Fox is a Cultural Saboteur. As well as being an accomplished film critic and filmmaker, he was co-founder/director of the mighty Filmstock Film Festival throughout its far too brief 10 years of cinematic curation. Twitter: @drgonzolives