Compared to the past two years, this year's Galway Film Fleadh feels positively idyllic and director of programming Will Fitzgerald makes no bones about it. He was gushing with enthusiasm when we spoke this week.
"Well, compared to the last two years, I’m excited it will be back in the Town Hall and Pálás. I’m tremendously proud of the two ‘covid editions’ we produced, but now its time to get back to what we do best – celebrating the magic of the movies together, in a theatrical setting.
"I’m excited that we’re celebrating a record number of Irish film selections – over 30. What a comeback! I’m excited that we’ll be hosting the first in-person edition of our European film competition, Peripheral Visions, a legacy project of Galway2020 that we were forced to launch online.
"I’m excited about our Ukrainian film focus, and for the audience to discover how close to home some of those films are hitting, now that we have a large new Ukrainian community in Ireland. And I’m excited to see which films the audiences respond to the most. Every year, I have pre-conceived ideas of what I think will be the break-out films. Oftentimes I’m right and sometimes I’m taken completely by surprise."
With so many premieres, what it is about the Galway Film Fleadh that has film makers so enthused to use it as a launchpad?
"It’s a festival that was started by filmmakers for filmmakers," he says. "It’s the Galway ‘vibe’ that is part of the festival. That means there’s no notions. No red carpets. No velvet robes. Just a pure celebration of good storytelling.
"And that informality and intimacy is what has attracted so many international peers over the years, and that turned into valuable relationships that we have been able to leverage to launch films from Galway to festivals and markets all over the world.
"It’s also the industry marketplace that we have running alongside the Fleadh, which means that, for filmmakers, it’s a chance to do business and perhaps finance your next film, as well as getting your current one seen by important decision makers – first among them being the Galway audience."
Will does not start out with any overarching theme in mind.
"Perhaps I’d have an idea for specific sections in advance, like this year’s strand of films commemorating the centenary of the Civil War and the death of Michael Collins, for example. But really, it’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle and you keep fitting different pieces until eventually the bigger picture starts to reveal itself.
"This year, it became obvious at a certain point that a theme of ‘sanctuary’ was emerging across all the different sections in the progamme. One of the funniest films in this year’s line-up is a Finnish comedy about a busload of Russian sex-workers who take refuge in a sleepy parish community hall in Lapland.
"We’ve got an inspirational, moving documentary about the all-girl’s robotics team from Afghanistan who defied Taliban rule to compete internationally in engineering tournaments.
"And then we were approached by Jess Murphy at Kai Rastaurant and the UN Refugee Agency who, along with Galway videographer Emilija Jefremova, had made four lovely short films with people from refugee backgrounds cooking their indigenous dishes. Add to that our focus on Ukrainian films, and the shape of the programme started to reveal itself."
Is the Covid impact on the Irish film sector reflected in some of the work being submitted?
"I think so. I’ve noticed an uptick in films with the motif of ‘returning home’ being submitted post-Covid, which of course a lot of people did during the pandemic. Some of them are quite literal – people documented their experience of returning home to care for a sick or at-risk loved one. Some of those made for heartwarming personal films.
"Then there are the original stories like this year’s new Irish language drama Tarrac, about a woman who returns to her home in West Kerry to care for her father and re-discovers her love of namhóg racing.
"Or Antonia Campbell-Hughes’ film It Is In Us All, about an Englishman who travels to his mother’s native Donegal and comes to a reckoning about how he’s been living his life."
It’s back to some sense of normality with the Fleadh back in full swing and films being shown indoors sans masks and social distancing. Are there some of those lockdown trends that will be maintained?
"I’m excited for that alchemy that comes from having the filmmakers and the audience in the same room again," he replied.
"I’m excited for real-life and respectful debate that comes from looking the artist or your fellow audience members in the face when you have lively discussion about art or film, as opposed to the toxic, pile-ons that occur online.
"As for online elements, we decided to nail our colours to the mast and 100% embrace the theatrical experience. I think now more than ever, it's important for festivals to offer a diversity of experience and programming from the streamers that are creating a new cultural monoglot in our film and television."
Women in film have always been left somewhat in the shadows, does Will think that’s changing and if so how are the Irish film industry and Galway Film Fleadh helping to provide more of a spotlight?
Increase in work by female directors
"Well we’re continually striving to reach our commitment of 50% gender parity in our programming, as we agreed to when we signed the 50:50 x 2020 pledge. We all know how disruptive 2020 was, but at the least the Fleadh didn’t backslide during that time, and this year the number of female directors has increased to 45% of new films selected.
"We’re opening and closing with films directed by women, and women directors are represented across the full spectrum of our programming – drama, documentary, animation, comedy, horror, you name it.
The Film Fleadh is providing newly made space for Ukrainian film makers in an effort to show support and solidarity against the Russian invasion.
"We knew from early on that we wanted to make Ukraine our country-of-focus this year. The question was asked: would the audience sign-up for more content on the war in Ukraine by the time July came around?
"The answer was: the power of cinema to create empathy means its more important than ever to spotlight their stories and make their voices heard.
"And just from planning the event, I can promise you that you will be moved by these stories. As an example, one of the Ukrainian producers that we were corresponding with, at one point apologised that he would no longer be able to answer his emails, as he had joined the army to defend his home."
Does he think more could be done as regards support and funding for film makers, what kind of investment would you like to see to help this burgeoning area of the Arts Industry in Ireland?
Are there any other countries that have served as a good example of investing in and expanding this sector and retaining people with industry skills?
"One area where I have seen more investment happening is in script development. I can see that being led by Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland and I think it’s a welcome move. I think we’ve had a very good production pipeline going for a while now, and now I would like to see the writer and director being elevated to the authoritative position where I believe they belong.
"There are creative producers doing this work as well by being selective in the projects and the people that they work with and I credit them also.
As Irish Language films are gaining more attention and it is becoming more popular for people to go see foreign language films. Is there any space for potentially collaborating with other Film Festivals from Europe or even further afield?
"Well Irish language films in particular are gaining more attention right now. We have five new scannáin Ghaeilge in our programme this year, including the dramas Tarrac and Róise & Frank. I think they play better on the international festival circuit because the Irish language affords them a more European flavour than Irish films as Béarla.
"As for collaborating with other European festivals, we launched a European festival network, Europa Film Festivals, as part of our Galway 2020 project. That will bear some exciting fruit at this year’s Fleadh, when the twelve member organisations will meet in Galway to sign an agreement with our colleagues from Europa Sales Agents to formalise the trojan work we’ve been doing the past few years to agree on common principles and best practices. This will be a major asset to festivals everywhere going forward. And it all started here.
The 34th Galway Film Fleadh runs from July 5th – 10th in the Town Hall Theatre and Pálás Cinema, Galway.
For tickets and information on the films, see www.galwayfilmfleadh.com