“What is it that makes Ireland a remarkable place to live?” This line was all at once the innocent opening question posed at the outset of Our Land, and—given its prominence as the first line of dialogue heard in this year’s Galway Film Fleadh Irish shorts slate—a tongue-in-cheek teaser for a loaded week to follow. Or such, at least, is the motivation one ascribes in struggling to make sense of such a wildly varying barrage of glimpses at the social and cinematic growth of our island, especially one encountered in such rapid succession at so early an hour of the morning. Galway’s steady accrual of a reputation as the premiere debut stage for indigenous short film talent makes it difficult not to take the totality of the programme as a grand snapshot of the state of the national cinema; it is a remarkable place to see Irish film—and its future.
Its future, as ever, seems intimately entwined with its past; if this year’s selection of subjects dipped less into the traumas of Ireland’s ugliest social legacies than 2018’s bumper crop, their lingering impact at least loomed ever large. The best of the batch was Fleadh regular Shaun O’Connor’s superb A White Horse, an astute pairing of thriller trappings and meticulous dramatic pacing that deploys handsomely minimal settings to give voice to the hidden histories of Ireland’s fallen women—and to ask how hidden they ever really were at all. That was the concern too of The Ferry, Niall McKay’s tonally deft take on the forced adoption culture, hinged on a dynamic trio of female performers whose dry delivery had the house howling. First-timer Matthew McGuigan’s Limbo staked a similar claim too, taking its dark deathbed revelation as the starting point for a tough reminder of lives left in ruinous pain. All three films display a remarkable versatility in tackling tricky subjects, each so sensitive and searing in its uprooting of unsettled upsets as to attain a kind of profound cinematic catharsis.
That held true too for films tackling more contemporary concerns: both 134 and In Orbit touched on LGBT+ issues with a diversity of perspective and confidence of approach to similarly provide much-needed reprieve to long-underserved audiences. The former, from Sarah-Jane Drummey, ably establishes the strict confines of Irish family life, seeing in coded kids’ activities a rigid gender binary it proceeds to reject in a moving, much-needed case for self-identification support. There’s more striking scope in the latter, a bold sci-fi vision from debut director Katie McNeice, whose capable queering of genre with a flashback lesbian love story stands out as one of the most admirably ambitious efforts of the slate. Both demonstrate a recurrent trend of the programme, shaking off the lingering strictures of a country too long consumed in conservatism and coming to terms with the repressive scars left in its wake
Such ideas found an effective outlet too in Ciúnas, an Irish-language effort from Tristan Heanue that tackles mental health stigma in a traditional Irish context with powerfully concise staging. Hazel Doupe’s tender performance here stands out among the programme’s finest, and one of a distinctly rich crop of female perspectives on youth in a shifting cultural landscape. Myrid Carten’s Wishbone was notable here for its unsentimental take on the vicissitudes of female friendships and social performativity. Elsewhere genre made for an interesting entryway to such ripe explorations: Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair delivers an efficiently taut heist thriller with a twisted romantic core and a hovering sense of social injustice in Break Us, while Suri Grennell’s Wrath creates a strong sense of apocalyptic unease with a slyly satirical edge.
Few stood out so well as Starry Night, Emma Smith’s fine flats-set debut that offsets its more difficult family dramatics with a vibrant palette and sharp comic sensibility. Its moving tale of a young woman torn between tending her young sisters and breaking free for herself achieves wrenching tension in commendable time—a sure sign of things to come from Smith. In giving welcome voice to working class stories it feels of a piece with Grace Dyas and Barry O’Connor’s Aftermath, which while recognisably aligned to a more familiar social realist style similarly trades in precise formalism to quickly establish and impact. Its assured framing follows a family’s daily routines as it reels from the death of a teenage son, reaping raw emotional force from its reserved aesthetic. Both brought to the selection a diversity of class perspective stood in stark opposition to best short drama winner Cynthia; there’s nothing intrinsically unworthy in the Portobello dinner party dramatics of that capably-mounted outing from newcomer Jack Hickey, but beside such vividly-realised settings its laboured philosophical dialogue couldn’t but seem a little pat.
It wasn’t the only award to arch this columnist’s eyebrows, as the most high-profile premiere of the programme walked off with the best first short drama crown. Jack Reynor’s black-and-white Bainne barges its way into the Black ‘47 space—quite literally, in one questionable use of a shared location—with a slanted genre take on the Famine’s final years. Steady support from Will Poulter’s lead performance as Gaeilge and the handsome monochrome of DP David Grennan can’t quite compensate for the messy excesses of Reynor’s overzealous imagery, uneasily invoking everything from Béla Tarr to Kaneto Shindo and making clear that an awareness of great films doesn’t amount to an acumen for making them. There were better highlights to be seen in short documentary winner Hydebank, a lyrically-paced prison piece from Ross McClean with stunning shots of animal husbandry yielding unlikely effect, and best short cinematography selection Rip to the Rescue!, an inventively ironic culture clash between American derring-do and a no-nonsense Irish mammy.
She wasn’t the only older player to make her presence felt; for all its focus on the concerns of youth, this year’s shorts programme saw its best crowd-pleasing success in the uproarious antics of two pensioner comedies. Pat is a plucky delight of cultural contrast, cross-cutting from a one-phone County Cork village to New York City in the ‘70s for a feast of hearty humour rich in the specifics of rural life. But it was Michael Creagh’s Ruby that stole the show, mining its genius Down double act dynamic for what felt like more laughs than the rest of the slate combined. Indeed it manages to make a strong case for the institution of a best short comedy award, lest the self-serious tone of the trophies give a mistaken sense of the sort of cinema sought to be celebrated.
There is, of course, no single sort, and the Fleadh’s great success this year as ever is in celebrating so rich and diverse a crop as to resist any singular summation, leaving little scope to link in stray standalone treasures like Paddy Cahill’s community-minded Stoneybatter bird doc Pigeons of Discontent, the brilliant backward single shot setup of Réamonn Mac Donnacha’s Was That a Yes?, or the horror comedy cleverness of Fergal Costello’s Something Doesn’t Feel Right. Such broadening diversity of topic and tone all at once offers an avalanche of answers to that question we set off with in Our Land and suggests its superficiality. What is it that makes Ireland a remarkable place to live? It’s to the Fleadh’s credit, as ever, that these dozens of answers above all leave its audiences with the appetite to keep on asking.