25 years of films in City of Tribes
Twenty-five years ago, in a very different Ireland, a group of Galway cinephiles decided it was high time their city had a film festival. Led by Miriam Allen, who was and still is the Fleadh's director, they embarked on the daunting task of assembling an international film festival from scratch.
"It was kind of daunting," Miriam admits. "But I suppose we were dreamers, and if you'd asked me when we started it would we be there 25 years later, the answer would have been no. We hadn't thought that far ahead."
But here they still are. The 25th Galway Film Festival gets under way this Tuesday, boasting the usual mix of A-list guests, discussions and public events and an intriguing range of foreign, domestic, arthouse and mainstream films that will be shown at various venues across the city.
Down the years the Fleadh has played host to wild nights and glittering world premieres, and welcomed stars like Martin Sheen, Woody Harrelson, Anjelica Huston, Peter O'Toole, Paul Schrader, Robert Towne, Rutger Hauer, Patricia Clarkson, Matt Dillon, Richard Attenborough, Kathy Bates, Oliver Reed, Pierce Brosnan and Jessica Lange.
It's become a fixed point on the annual festival calendar, and has the reputation of being a less formal, more intimate and more enjoyable event than most. Not bad for a festival that started out with no budget and an office "the size of a wardrobe".
"The first year," Miriam remembers, "we didn't get any financial backing at all. Leo Ward, from what's now IMC cinemas, gave us the old Claddagh Palace cinema as a venue, which was fantastic, but other than that it was all done on a wing and a prayer.
"If you think back 25 years, there were no computers and no mobile phones, so we were using telexes and a fax machine and one landline to try and contact various film people all over the world . . . working out of the smallest office in the world."
Their motivation was simple. "At the time in Galway . . . the only films that you ever got to see were American blockbusters – there was no alternative cinema at all.
"Also, there were a few good Irish film schools at the time, and there were young writers and directors coming out of them and making films in Ireland that weren't always being seen by an audience. That was a big part of our idea for the Fleadh as well, to put Irish films at the forefront."
Miriam and the Fleadh team seem to have hit the ground running, because by year two they'd managed to persuade Italian maestro Gillo Pontecorvo to attend and introduce a special screening of his 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers. "Within a few years," says Miriam, "we'd had people like the Taviani brothers, Istvan Szabo – we're awful chancers down here in Galway."
In truth it did, she admits, take a while to establish the Fleadh in the minds of international filmmakers, but "it's a hell of a lot easier now. We have a really good reputation internationally, and I don't mean to sound trite or anything but a lot of the people who've attended the festival in the past become friends, so you can send them an email saying 'I'm trying to get in touch with so-and-so' and they'll be happy to help."
One of Miriam's fondest festival memories is a visit by the late Oliver Reed in the 1990s. "He was amazing," Miriam remembers. "We screened a lesser-known movie of his called The Lion of the Desert, a great film in which he plays an Italian general at war with a Libyan desert tribesman in the 1930s, and I was sitting with him watching it.
"It turned out he'd never seen it before, and as he sat watching this movie in which he played a cruel bastard, tears starting streaming down his cheeks. He was crying. I'll never forget that."
In 2008, Peter O'Toole visited the Fleadh, and held his audience spellbound during a memorable public interview at the Town Hall. "He was hilarious, such fun, and he told that story about himself and Richard Harris going to The Hole in the Wall pub in Dublin.
"At about three or four in the morning the tired owner said to them 'now come on boys, the cops'll be in, you need to get out', and apparently they bought the pub so they could continue drinking. That's the story anyway."
When Dutch actor Rutger Hauer came to the Fleadh for a screening of the director's cut of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, he made a moving little gesture.
"I was walking him down to the screening from the hotel and I said to him listen we owe you, because he paid to come over on the ferry from Holland himself. So I said tell me how much, and he said to me, 'Miriam, I have looked around this festival, and I have more money than it, so forget about it. Keep the money and put it towards something else.' I thought that was incredible."
One of the things guests like Rutger Hauer enjoy about the Fleadh is its easy intimacy and lack of formality. "The intimate feel is one of the things we try and keep at the core of it, because that is what makes the festival different I think. That's why we don't do things like red carpet events, it's just here we are, with no bell on our bike, as I'd say.
"And it's funny, when you invite people from Hollywood or wherever and you say 'you know, you don't need to bring the tux or the ball gown', they're always relieved. One of the other things we do to keep things intimate is we try to have everybody in the same hotel. Most people walk to the events and screenings, and all of that engenders a kind of nice communal atmosphere, and that's very important."
There's a business side to the Fleadh as well. "Over the weekend we have an event called the Market Place, where we host 600 pre-scheduled one-on-one meetings between producers with projects in development, and film financiers, television commissioners. A lot of serious business gets done, and a good number of films have actually been made as a direct result of those meetings."
President Higgins has been a loyal friend to the Fleadh down the years, and he'll be coming down on the Sunday to mark the event's 25th anniversary and close this year's festival. "Michael D has always supported us, in various guises, when he was just an ordinary TD, and then when he became a minister. And, in fact, he launched his presidential campaign from the Fleadh back in 2011."
A couple of years ago, the Galway Film Fleadh was awarded the great honour of being accepted as a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards, in both the short film and best animation categories.
"There are 7,000 film festivals in the world, and only 68 of them have Oscar qualifying status," says Miriam. "It's fantastic recognition for the Fleadh, and it shows how far we've come."
Logically, spock and saoirse are among Miriam's highlights
"We're very excited that Zachary Quinto, who plays Mr Spock in the JJ Abrams Star Trek films, is coming over for a special screening of Star Trek: Into Darkness. So festival-goers will be able to watch the film and ask Mr Spock anything they like about it afterwards.
"Saoirse Ronan is the subject of our public interview this year, and she'll be talking about her extraordinary career so far. I'm also looking forward to a lot of the Irish features, and in particular Run & Jump, Steph Green's love story which stars Maxine Peake and Will Forte from Saturday Night Live, who'll be coming over for the screening. That's on Saturday night.
"On the Friday night, we have the world premiere of Life's a Breeze, Lance Daly's comic drama with Pat Shortt, Eva Birthistle and Fionnula Flanagan. People will remember Lance's critically acclaimed 2008 film Kisses, and Life's a Breeze is another fantastic film."