Galway fest, Ireland's biggest film event, turns 19

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Irish production booms along with its economy.

Cannes has its Croisette and beach-side restaurants, Berlin has its metropolitan exuberance, Venice has its canals and gondolas. Ireland's Galway has -- well, Galway simply has Galway, a jewel of a little city that sits alongside a hinterland called Conemmara, a place of grass-banked loughs and parishes with names like Balindoon and Ballynakill.

A combination of Celtic charm and almost two decades of gut-wrenching hard work on the part of its organizers has made the Galway Film Festival, which runs July 10-15, a "must call" on the European fest calendar.

"It's the main industry event of the year in Ireland," says Irish Film Board CEO and award-winning filmmaker Simon Perry.

Although it began 19 years ago primarily as a showcase for Irish filmmakers, the Galway Fleadh (fleadh, pronounced "flah," is Gaelic for festival) has grown exponentially into a major pan-European event with the added benefits of a lively commercial market adjunct.

This summer's fest is shaping up to be one of the liveliest yet with a bevy of major Irish films premiering and new projects from around Europe screening there. Additionally, world-renowned filmmakers will lead master classes, and a small army of financiers are booked in to do meet-and-greets with producers.

It's a long way from the early years of the Fleadh, when founders Miriam Allen and Lelia Doolin were desperate for sponsorship and the event was being run "on the smell of an oil rag," as Allen, now the festival's managing director, recounts.

"Initially, the reason the festival was set up was because here in Galway we only had four cinema screens at the time and we were all on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters," she says. "Lelia (a filmmaker and lecturer) and I saw a need to show people films that were not on the top of the distribution list. So it started very small and has grown organically over the years."
While much of the focus of the festival remains on showcasing new films and filmmaking talent, the commercial side of the gathering has become hugely important as well. Bankers and film financiers from all over the world fly to meet with producers in Galway, the principal city on Ireland's rugged Atlantic west coast.

"The whole market side of the event began when we started to bring people in from the various film funds around Europe," Allen says. "There were just so many funds and schemes throughout Europe that it was really confusing for independent filmmakers. So we had the experts come in and explain. Then the filmmakers started looking for one-on-one meetings and so we were really responding to producers' needs at the time."

This year's Galway Film Fair, which will help pair up those film-makers with financiers, runs July 12-14.

Today, the combination of the Fleadh and the Fair means sponsorship is thick on the ground -- no oil rags needed. Principal financing comes from the Irish Film Board, the government agency responsible for supporting and funding filmmaking in the country, the Arts Council and Northern Ireland Screen. The indigenous film industry is much healthier today than even a decade ago, thanks to both the IFB's work and a beneficial government tax scheme for film investment, but the climate for the sector is still challenging.

"The market is tough these days for independent filmmakers of any origin, and for a small country to attract presales or distribution advances on the basis of a script is difficult now, so we have to be more ingenious as to how we raise money," says the IFB's Perry.

He points to the Broadcast Council of Ireland as an "invaluable" resource for government funding of television dramas, documentaries and other projects and adds that Ireland's national television and radio broadcaster, RTE, now is involved with the IFB to fund Irish film. "But co-production is the lifeline," he insists.

To that end, the IFB is involved in co-productions with its counterparts in  countries such as Canada, Australia and South Africa. With some $25 million available for film funding, the Board also is injecting vital direct cash flow into the local industry. Additionally, the Galway event sponsor Northern Ireland Screen recently announced a new tranche of funding.

"We are definitely one of the richer regions -- and our new money, coupled with the U.K. tax incentives, are proving a real draw," says Northern Ireland Screen head of marketing Moyra Lock.

Just as the funds are beginning to pick up steam, many young filmmakers are rising to the challenge of moviemaking without state support, Allen says. To recognize that growing trend, festival organizers created a "Wild Card" section consisting of five features and two documentaries made outside the usual state-backed system.

In terms of the actual programming, the event kicks off this year with Italian Cristiano Bortone's 2006 feature "Red Like the Sky," about sound editor Mirco Mencacci, and closes with "Seraphim Falls," which features Irish natives Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan in a post-Civil War America. (Samuel Goldwyn Films released the film domestically in January.)

Sandwiched between those titles are a raft of projects with Irish roots, including Nicolas Roeg's supernatural thriller "Puffball"; director Leonard Abrahamson's 2006 dramedy "Garage"; and at least three debuts -- Marian Quinn's tender coming-of-age feature "32A," Brendan Grant's Kosovo-based love story "Tonight is Canceled" and Brian Launders' "Bitterness," the story of a man jilted at the altar.

The program also is spotlighting world cinema -- with projects including Spain's "La Vida Abismal," which has earned comparisons to Martin Scorsese's 1990 drama "Goodfellas" -- and includes a new section called Out on Film, which features titles of relevance to the gay and lesbian community.

This year's selection of documentaries is among the strongest that the Fleadh has ever hosted, Allen says. Included in the lineup are 2006's "The War Tapes," which was shot by American soldiers during an active tour of duty in Iraq; Sony Pictures Classics' upcoming child-genius painter docu "My Kid Could Paint That"; and last year's "God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan."

Additionally, each year the festival pays tribute to figures who have made  indelible impressions with audiences via their cinematic work. This year, Jeremy Irons, Terry George and Volker Schlondorff are being honored for their acting, screenwriting and directing respectively, and each will teach a master class.

Fionnula Flanagan is the subject of this year's Irish Tribute, and, like Irons, will participate in a public interview. Flanagan, who has been a big part of Ireland's burgeoning film industry -- she recently completed Gaelic-language mini-series "Paddywhackery" -- says she has great support for Irish film, particularly shorts: "The very best short films in the world are coming out of Ireland, and that may have something to do with our history as short story writers," she says. "It's interesting to me that (makers of Irish short films) have shot up like sprouts."

Not a bad endorsement for the now-thriving Irish film sector that just two decades ago had only a handful of projects to offer at the Galway Film Fleadh.
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