“This is like Sophie’s Choice,” exclaims Gar O’Brien when asked to choose his hottest festival picks from this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
It’s an understandable dilemma. Not only has Galway strengthened its reputation as the go-to festival for new Irish cinema in recent years — the sheer level of domestic film talent on offer makes it a challenge to narrow down.
O’Brien, born and raised in Clonakilty, studied English and psychology at UCC before moving to Galway to take a masters in film at NUIG.
On moving, he volunteered at the Fleadh before quickly getting a job there. Seven years ago, he became director of programming, sifting through the very best of what Irish and world cinema has to offer.
Because it’s a market festival — where filmmakers pitch their projects and finance and distribution deals are brokered and agreed — the Fleadh is known for attracting attendees from all over the world, and creating an incredibly diverse programme of screenings, events, and masterclasses.
It’s also a launchpad for some of our most anticipated native cinema. Last year’s programme included such breakout smashes as The Young Offenders and A Date For Mad Mary.
Gar loves the sense of anticipation that the programme brings. “We’re trying to give a synopsis of the best of new Irish cinema. But I’m always taken by surprise, every year, by the reaction when films are screened. People are very vocal, which I love.”
Here are six of his Fleadh picks:
Heat is building in advance of the world premiere of this prison-set drama which was filmed on location in Cork. It tells the story of Michael McCrea, an impressionable teenager sent to prison for holding a bag of drugs for his friend’s older brother.
It explores how prison affects his thinking and behaviour, and was researched with the help of former prisoners from the Irish Prison Service’s Pathway Programme.
“It’s written and directed by Frank Berry (I Used to Live Here) who is a quality filmmaker and exceptional talent,” said O’Brien. “This is a huge step up for him — it’s an intense and powerful film with incredible performances.”
This revenge thriller from Northern Ireland centres on Donal, a hard-working farmer who cares for his mother.
But he is not to be messed with, and when Donal’s life is upended, his quest for justice is thorough.
The film debuted at the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival. “This is the first feature film from a director named Chris Baugh and it’s a really strong piece of work,” said O’Brien.
Tom Collins’ latest feature gets its world premiere at Galway and is told over two separate timelines. It focuses on a priest in 1916 who is convinced that only violence will force Britain out of Ireland, and influences a young teenager to fight.
Fifty years later, the priest is reconnected with the man, and is forced to examine his decisions.
“It’s a very powerful film, told mostly in Gaelic, and a really meaty role for Peter Coonan — something very different for him,” said Gar.
The latest feature from writer/director Gerard Barrett (Pilgrim Hill, Glassland) is set around 24 hours in the lives of a young Irish mother and her child as they battle homelessness and struggle to cope with daily life in emergency accommodation.
Faced with leaving the hotel that is their temporary home, the film depicts the mother’s numerous efforts to find a place to stay for one more night.
“It’s closer in style to Pilgrim Hill and tells the story of a woman in emergency accommodation with her daughter,” said Gar. “It’s very subtle but really hits you sometimes. It’s a really intimate and special film.”
Filmed on location in Cork, and based on the true story of the 1983 mass break-out of prisoners from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, this Saturday-night screening is one of the Fleadh’s hottest tickets.
It’s already a fine film, said O’Brien, but its real victory is that it focuses on the complex interactions between the chief architect of the escape (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and a prison warder (Barry Ward).
“MAZE is terrific — a taut 90-minute thriller that is just tension from start to finish and really brilliantly done. The cast are terrific.”
Irish Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, who previously featured in Gerry Gregg’s Close to Evil, journeys across Europe in his 80th year to discover a continent in turmoil.
In Bosnia, in Poland and Slovakia, he talks to the survivors of various atrocities and puts himself into the shoes of “the new Jews”.
“It’s a strong year for documentaries and this is a great piece of filmmaking,” said O’Brien. “It looks at how we are making the same mistakes again.”