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'Our moonshot vision is to win an international Oscar for an Irish language film'

The prospect is perhaps closer than ever before.

LAST NIGHT’S ACADEMY Awards saw Kenneth Branagh win an Oscar for a film about his childhood in Belfast. Van Morrison was nominated for a song written for the same movie with Ciarán Hinds nominated for Belfast too, while Irish actress Jessie Buckley was also nominated for her role in The Lost Daughter. 

It was of several big nights for Ireland at the Oscars in recent years – but what about our language? What are the chances that one day an Irish language film could bring home a golden statue?

The prospect is perhaps closer than ever with Irish-language cinema having something of a moment, both here in Ireland and internationally. 

Earlier this month, An Cailín Ciúin broke a major barrier by winning the most awards at the IFTAs, beating competition from Belfast among others. 

The film, which will be released here in May, also last month won a major award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

This week, actor Dónall Ó Héalai was honoured at the Oscar Wilde Awards in Los Angeles which celebrates the best of Ireland’s influence in Hollywood. 

Ó Héalai was honoured following starring roles in Irish language films Arracht and Foscadh, the latter of which is currently in cinemas and was Ireland’s entry in the Best International Feature Film category in the Oscars this year. 

Arracht was similarly entered last year, meaning it’s the second year in a row that an Irish-language film was put forward in that Oscars category. 

The award for Best International Feature Film was formerly known as the Best Foreign Language Film and to be eligible a film has be made outside the US and be over 50% in a language other than English. Only one film from each country can be accepted as an official selection.

Historically, the award was dominated by films in Italian, French and Spanish but in recent years there have been example of minority languages being nominated. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, for example, was in both Spanish and the regional Mexican ;language of Mixtec. 

Cine 4 

Arract, Foscadh and An Cailín Ciúin were made as part of the Cine 4 scheme, a joint initiative by TG4, Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. 

The plan for the scheme is to create a pipeline of Irish-language features and provide a cinematic experience through the language. 

TG4′s Ardstiúrthóir (Director General) Alan Esslemont tells The Journal that Cine 4 aims to examine four or five different ideas every year and put two into production. 

“TG4 does some really, really good programming but our producers have never been afforded that big stage of being able to go and do a drama feature film in Irish. Now that they are, they’re really standing up to the plate,” he says, pointing to the recent awards success. 

It all shows that the scheme is tapping into something that shows the strength in the Irish language sector. An Cailín Ciúin is a wonderful, wonderful film. 

“The moonshot vision that we had when we launched this several years ago was that one day we would achieve an international Oscar for an Irish language film. I didn’t set a timeline for that but the way that people have been willing to go to the cinema and watch Irish language films is part of what I see as the normalisation of the Irish language in Irish society.” 

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The pipeline of films being created by Cine 4 is primarily about the big screen but it’s also about showing Irish-language films as a normal part of TV watching. 

Arracht, for example, will be TG4′s prime time film this Easter Monday, a slot that’s usually home to an English-language film. 

Esslemont says TG4 is always trying to serve its “audiences, plural” meaning that it must be conscious of people with differing levels of the language tuning in. 

I think language is important for all television stations but for stations that broadcast in a majority language, language is almost invisible. When you’re broadcasting in a minority language then you have to be aware that there are different levels, from a fully functioning community who speak Irish from cradle to grave, and that still exists but in Ireland, you’ve also got a huge variety of levels of Irish, both passive and then people without any Irish.

“People who habitually speak Irish will use us like an English person would use BBC One -  anything that’s important on telly they expect to see on TG4. But then there are other parts of the Irish national community that will dip into us for various bits; that could be sport, that could be music, it could be documentary, and they’ll come in big, big numbers.

PastedImage-20838 Ard-Stiúrthóir TG4 Alan Esslemont.

Esslemont says the biggest problem for TG4 in producing drama has always been budget, pointing out that the Welsh-language S4C across the water has three times the funding of TG4. 

He says the situation in Wales “couldn’t be more different” where the station is “very strongly supported by the State”. 

There’s a lot of lip service, or in Irish ‘béal grá’, paid to the Irish language. But when it really matters I feel that the Irish State is staunchly monolingual. It’s almost as if someone at the very top of the Department of Finance or DPER has run a cost-benefit analysis and decided that the Irish language fails.

Esslemont himself speaks from the position of experience. A Scotsman who had no connection to the Irish language growing up and who only learnt Scots Gaelic as an adult, he previously worked with BBC Alba in Glasgow.  

He moved to Ireland in 1984 and has lived here since, thanking the people of Connemara for how they “opened the doors to their community”, something he describes as “probably the biggest privilege of my life”. 

He acknowledges that speaking the language is more of a challenge for people outside Gaeltacht communities. 

“Monolingualism is a big, big trap for people and it’s the easiest thing for people in the UK, Ireland and the US to be monolingual because everyone speaks English. But I do think if you don’t have that added terms of reference that you get from another language, then your world is smaller and it doesn’t allow you see the variety and probably the choices that we all have in our world. 

“I’m not saying it’s easy to learn your language, and especially a minority language. It’s not like when you can go to Spain and you’ve got lots of people who don’t speak English and you can learn Spanish. It’s more difficult here, I accept that, but it’s very, very doable.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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