Maeve McGrath, Miriam Allen

Source: Galway Film Fleadh

Maeve McGrath, Miriam Allen

It has been an almighty year for Irish film. Irish-language Kneecap scooped the audience award at Sundance ahead of opening the Galway Film Fleadh tonight (July 9); Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was the first Irish independent film to open the Berlinale; the country was well represented at Cannes; and Cillian Murphy became the first Irish-born actor to win best actor at the Oscars.

Galway Film Fleadh festival heads, CEO and co-founder Miriam Allen and director of programming Maeve McGrath, are anticipating this energy will underscore this year’s event, which runs until July 14.

“The power of Irish film is so strong,” says McGrath. “That’s why you see decision makers beating the path here to Galway.”

As well as a line-up featuring 94 Irish and international features including 20 world premieres, there is a packed industry programme, with the marketplace providing Irish filmmakers the chance to connect with representatives from international film sales and financiers such as Bankside, BBC Film, Curzon, Dogwoof, Embankment, Film4, Film Constellation, Lionsgate, Mubi, Mister Smith, Netflix, Neon, Protagonist Pictures, XYZ Films and Shudder, with 700 one-to-one meetings expected.

There’s also a roster of talks including a keynote from US indie producer and former Amazon executive Ted Hope on championing new directorial talent as an independent producer, plus a fireside chat with Jay Roewe, the man credited with bringing Game Of Thrones to shoot in Northern Ireland and a senior vice president, production, planning and incentives at HBO. Panels will cover topics including women in craft roles in the film industry and the launch of a new work- life balance best practice guide from Screen Producers Ireland and Screen Guilds of Ireland. 

Allen and McGrath spoke to Screen about crafting this year’s line-up and the challenges behind building an ambitious long-term vision for the Fleadh.

What are some of your highlights from the programme line-up?

Maeve McGrath: We have six Irish-language feature films this year, opening with Kneecap, that’s so popular we have to do a second screening, even though we don’t normally do second screenings.

Our country focus is Palestine. Palestine really stood out to us, not only because of the quality of the films, but the film artists that were involved in telling them. We have three narratives [Farah Nabulsi’s The Teacher, Mahdi Fleifel’s Cannes title To A Land Unknown and Bassam Jarbawi’s Screwdriver] and two documentaries [Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham’s Berlinale prize winner No Other Land and Inas Halabi’s We No Longer Prefer Mountains]. It’s really important in a time of crisis to look to the artists and to support them. Irish people are big supporters of Palestine, so I think we’ll see some great feedback from those films.

Why is there such an affinity for many Irish people with the cause of Palestine? The Kneecap band, for instance, have spoken out consistently in support of Gaza in light of the Gaza-Israel conflict while promoting their film.

Miriam Allen: There is a special bond between Ireland and Palestine, it has been there for years. It has been reflected in our own history, ‘the troubles’ as they were called. It’s about supporting the artist, the filmmakers, their voices and shining a light on it, without being overtly political.

MG: Each film is very, very different.We No Longer Prefer Mountains is about the Druze community in Palestine, The Teacher is about conflict, To A Land Unknown is about two men in a completely other country, looking to get out themselves, but in turn double crossing other people. This year in particular felt like a really good year for us to put Palestine as our country of focus.

Have there been any key changes to the festival’s structure?

MA: We have introduced some new awards this year – there is going to be a best Irish language feature film award with the increase in Irish language films, and there’s going to be an audience award this year as well. That expansion is really important to us.

What is unique about the Fleadh?

MG: We don’t do red carpets – you might be at a screening and see a director you’re really interested in, and find yourself having a pint with them later on. [Past Lives director] Celine Song came last year, it was brilliant to have her among the audience that loved her film. You’ll get everybody here from the very early, coming through directors and producers, right through to those at the top of their game.

The past year has seen positive strides in investment in Irish film, with the government increasing Screen Ireland’s budget and funding for production. Has that trickled down to increased funding for the Fleadh?

MG: It’s difficult, if you look at how many festivals have hit the ground, or you can see are having difficulties keeping the ship afloat. Make no mistake, Miriam and the team have been here for 36 years. It is so important that the festival is still here, and it’s because of them. It isn’t always the funders who will keep you here [2024’s funders include Ireland’s Arts Council, Screen Ireland, Creative Europe Media and Irish-language broadcaster TG4]. We haven’t increased the price of tickets in three years, we want people to still be able to get a cinema ticket.

MA: The other kind of battle is films inevitably going to streamers, so they’re not actually having a festival life or theatrical release. That’s why I’m looking forward to talking to Ted Hope – he will touch on that as well, he was at Amazon for a number of years, now he’s gone back again to being an independent producer.

MG: We have very good relationships with producers and directors and sales agents and distributors, and the large-scale studios. We have to live alongside the streamers, we have to work together.

What are your future plans for the Fleadh?

MA: When we’re in Galway this year we’ll be launching our new strategic plan for the next five years. One of the most basic things in running a festival is having the finances. Depending on the state of the world at any given time, that can be very precarious. A downturn in the economy, and budgets get slashed across the board. That’s something completely outside of our control, but that can impact every decision. In an ideal world, multi-annual funding would be marvellous because it gives people a basis to plan going forward for at least three years. When you’re reliant on annual funding, it can be hard to be ambitious.