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'When we started, there was no Irish film industry': 30 years of the Galway Film Fleadh

The fleadh, which takes place in July, launches its festival programme this evening.

pjimage (6) Top: L - Peter O'Toole at the festival. R - Saoirse Ronan and President Michael D Higgins. Bottom: Binham Ray, Ralph Christians, Lelia Doolan, Bill Pullman at the festival. Source: Andrew Downes

IT’S BEEN 30 years since the first Galway Film Fleadh took place – and its managing director Miriam Allen has watched it go from a volunteer-led event showing archive films to one that’s spotlighting future Oscar nominees.

She’s been doing the job for 30 years. “When we started the fleadh, for the first couple of years we were showing films from the Irish Film Archive, Irish films, because there was no film industry,” she says, recounting how different things were back then.

It was a time before Jim Sheridan at the Oscars, before Saoirse Ronan’s meteoric rise, and before Hollywood knew just what Irish film could do.

It was, as the festival itself says:

…borne out of a sense of frustration at the lack of opportunity for Irish filmmakers to exhibit their work to their peers

“There were [directors] Bob Quinn, Joe Comerford, Cathal Black – they were making a film every two or three years or so. There was no industry, so the fleadh in a way reflects the growth in the Irish film industry,” says Allen.

We started with those three filmmakers, the forerunners, a cottage industry, and suddenly we have this. The film industry is booming in Ireland – so the fleadh reflects that.

Running the fleadh “was an uphill battle at the beginning”, admits Allen, but a look at what’s already been been announced for this year’s event shows how important it is. Already pencilled in are Ross Whitaker’s documentary on Katie Taylor, and Pat Shortt’s new film The Belly of the Whale (the full programme will be announced tonight).

It’s been a long journey for the fleadh. “When we first started, there were two cinemas in Galway – the Claddagh Palás and Town Hall. All they were showing was American movies, that was the diet of cinema,” says Allen.

When the fleadh started and we were bringing Italian cinema, Spanish cinema, that’s when we discovered there is an appetite: people want to see independent filmmaking outside the American studio system.

It probably doesn’t comes as a surprise to hear that the fleadh wasn’t set up to be a money-making exercise. “For the first seven years, everyone who worked on it, we were all volunteering – every single one of us,” says Allen. Once they had “proved themselves”, they started getting funding.

“After being around that long the Arts Council started giving us the few bob – [and] whoever else and wherever we could get it,” says Allen. Today, it has between 10 and 12 key staff members who help make the whole operation work.

The festival was always a labour of love (Allen famously told the Irish Times that she gave birth to one of her children during the 1995 festival, and drove herself to the hospital while in labour), and Allen is hugely enthusiastic about what this year’s event promises us. She knows, too, how important an event it is for those in the Irish film industry.

film fleadh letter A 'manifesto' that the Galway Film Fleadh sent to the then-Culture Minister Michael D Higgins in 1993. Source: Miriam Allen.

‘These filmmakers have grown up together’

“The entire Irish film industry decamps from Dublin to Galway to the week of the fleadh,” she says. “There’s no doubt about that.”

When the festival first started, it used to show archive films, then began to screen shorts made by Irish film students. Allen’s seen young filmmakers like Lenny Abrahamson cut their teeth on short films before going on to be Oscar nominated. Damien O’Donnell, director of East is East, won an award for a short at the fleadh; Kirsten Sheridan (Disco Pigs director) showed her first film at the event.

“All of those filmmakers, we’ve all grown up together,” says Allen. The fact that so much Irish talent is on show also means that people from across the world flock there to see what the Emerald Isle offers on screen. “It puts Irish film on the international stage,” says Allen. Films have been shown at the Fleadh that ended up in Sundance, while guests have included Sir Richard Attenborough, Peter O’Toole and Pierce Brosnan

To help mark the 30 year celebrations, she’s been delving through archive material. Among the ephemera, she discovered a registration page filled out in 1989 by James Hickey, who went on to become the CEO of the Irish Film Board.

“He has been coming for 30 years… People like that, it’s kind of extraordinary,” says Allen.

Can the Irish film industry be too focused on Dublin? “It can be definitely [Dublin centric],” says Allen. “Listen, we just keep asking until you get a yes. I never take no for an answer. You have to keep going back, back, back until they say yes.”

‘When I started going to other festivals, they were all run by men’

Allen is particularly happy to see the latest discussions around getting more women into the film industry, such as the Irish Film Board’s new gender policy and funding for women-led projects.

“I think it’s very important and I’m really delighted,” she says. “Annie Doona, Chair of Irish Film Board, she has made it a priority and it’s fantastic.”

But it’s still hard for a festival like the Galway Film Fleadh to have gender parity, which is something Allen is hoping will change in the future as more women are encouraged to make movies.

As a leading woman in Ireland’s film scene, she’s also someone who’s seen first-hand how females are treated by some film buffs. “Listen, totally, they’re still at that,” she says when asked if she has experienced any sexist behaviour. “You can see it a mile off. I just keep talking. It has got better, I mean it’s like a slow awakening really isn’t it, and people are finally as I would say: ‘[waking] up and smell[ing] the coffee’.”

She says the industry is now “slowly changing”, and it’s something she’s very happy about. There are lots of women on the fleadh organising team, for example.

When I started going to other festivals, first they were all run by men, it was amazing – and that, I even notice, is beginning to change.

As well as showing films, the festival has pre-scheduled over 600 meetings between filmmakers and producers and financiers. There are also masterclasses with people like actor Andrew Scott. When it comes to both encouraging Irish filmmakers of all stripes, and ensuring there’s room for women to get into the industry, Galway Film Fleadh is showing it can lend a helping hand.

“It’s films morning, noon and night,” says Allen of what we can expect from this year’s festival. “And something for absolutely everybody.”

The full programme for the Galway Film Fleadh (10 – 15 July) launches tonight at 6pm. To find out more, visit the website.

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