Doing justice to the entire cinematic output of a nation in just one festival program is ‘very challenging,’ Irish Film Festival Australia Festival Director Dr Enda Murray tells ScreenHub.
‘Our aim is to tell contemporary stories from Ireland … I started off with 43 firms on a shortlist – there’s a lot of films coming out of Ireland at the moment – and I choose the films according to both the quality of the films and how I think they’re going to work for our audience here in Australia.’
Tellingly, given the strength of the Irish diaspora in Australia (with the current housing crisis in Ireland significantly increasing the numbers of young people emigrating from the Republic), the festival’s audience skews significantly towards Irish expats.
‘Our audience is actually [made up of] about 84% Irish background, which is very, very different to say the Japanese Film Festival, whose director I’ve talked to; those guys have 90% Australian [audiences], 10% Japanese background, so we have a very discerning audience but a very knowledgeable audience,’ Murray says.
A key aspect of assembling the program – other than the usual juggling of films that have been snapped up by distributors or negotiating with filmmakers who may be hoping for a TV or cinema screening instead of a festival audience – is ensuring that the festival reflects contemporary Ireland.
To this end, Murray – himself an award-winning filmmaker and educator – regularly travels home to Ireland (pandemics permitting) to attend the likes of the prestigious Galway Film Fleadh, in order to ensure the festival program is keeping its finger on the pulse of Irish society as well as the cultural trends and concerns being explored by Irish filmmakers today.
Lakelands, written, directed and produced by Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney, won the award for Best Irish Feature Film at the 2022 Galway Film Fleadh, and Murray is delighted to have secured it for the Irish Film Festival’s opening night this year.
Set in a small midlands town, Lakelands explores the cultural importance of Gaelic football in the community and the tensions between a young woman returning to her home town after living overseas and a young man who stayed – but also the pressures of conforming to a particular type of masculine stereotype and the impact of injury and associated mental health challenges on the lead character’s sense of self-worth.
While comparing the cultural importance of Gaelic football in Ireland to the AFL in Australia, Murray notes: ‘There’s really no equivalent in terms of the reach that the Irish Rules Football Association, the GAA has into towns and villages, because it’s tribal back there, so. But I liked the film because it respects that tradition, but it also deals with men’s mental health and it also deals with that idea of coming back and what it is like for young people who are staying on the farm and staying where they grew up as well,’ he tells ScreenHub.
Other festival highlights include the BAFTA and Academy Award-winning short film An Irish Goodbye, directed by Tom Berkeley and Ross White, and Róise agus Frank, a new feature as Gaeilge and the latest in a series of successful Irish-language films including Arracht (2019) and the critically acclaimed global hit An Cailín Ciúin (2022).
The documentary North Circular, featuring a host of contemporary Irish musicians including John Francis Flynn, Lankum’s Ian Lynch and Gemma Dunleavy is another welcome addition to the program. Shot in black and white and exploring Dublin’s gritty northside, from Phoenix Park and legendary pub The Cobblestone through to Dublin Port, the 4:3 Academy ratio documentary is both a snapshot of modern Dublin and a celebration of the city’s geography and history.
In recent years, a fast-evolving Ireland has cast off the restrictive shackles of the Catholic Church and broken new ground in terms of both marriage equality and abortion rights for women, the shadow of the latter a legacy that is explored in two powerful films at this year’s festival.
Directed by Ciran Creagh, Ann dramatises the events that led to the death of 15-year-old Ann Lovett while giving birth in 1984 – a tragedy which helped spark the movement that culminated in the end of Ireland’s abortion ban.
‘I was talking to the director Cieran Creagh, and he said this was a very, very difficult film to make. Nobody wanted to fund it. They couldn’t they couldn’t go back to the town where this happened, so it was filmed in another town, Boyle in County Roscommon. But he said that it was such an event that it needed to be acknowledged and her memory needed to be respected – and her child’s memory needed to be respected,’ Murray explains.
‘A lot of what has happened – the huge changes in Ireland in the last 30 years, where we have embraced gay marriage, we have embraced women’s rights – they are due in no small part to the events that that happened in Granard in County Longford in 1984. That was his reason for making the film: to respect that memory, and it is a tough film to watch but I think he has done a wonderful job there.’
Similarly, the documentary Pray for Our Sinners tells the story of the Irish campaigners who took on the Church’s brutal abuse of pregnant young women in a small Irish town and the shameful legacy of the Irish State’s support of the Church-run Mother and Baby Homes.
‘Pray for Our Sinners is very close to home for me, because the town where it’s made is Navan, and if you go 15 miles up the River Boyne you come to my hometown, Drogheda. Pray For Our Sinners involves Sinead O’Shea, a very smart journalist/director who has come back [to Ireland] after working with The Guardian and the BBC and Al Jazeera; she’s come back to her hometown to look at what happened in the 1950s and the 60s in terms of how women were treated.
‘And some of the storyline is about a young woman who was 17, was pregnant, was single, and her baby was about to be taken away. And the people in that small town stood up to the Church and said “No, the baby stays with the mum”. And they were pilloried for doing that but again, it was people like that whose shoulders we stand on today in terms of having respect for women’s rights and having respect for people of all sexualities,’ Murray concludes.
The Irish Film Festival Australia 2023 runs in cinemas in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Melbourne from 5 October – 5 November and online from 5-15 October. Visit website for details.