It’s that time of year again, as a slight glimmer of spring breaks through the blue-grey curtain of the winter months, and to brighten it even further, the smell of fresh new festival catalogues mingles in the air at local coffee shops, bars and restaurants around the city. For the second year in a row with its Audi sponsorship, the Dublin International Film Festival’s revamped branding is popping up all over the city and in the majority of its cinemas, big and small.
This year a host of more than 60 Irish and International guests are set to visit the festival, with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Cillian Murphy, Nathalie Baye and Anna Friel hitting the red carpets. As always there’s a huge range of features, documentaries and shorts on offer from across the globe, with an especially strong selection of world cinema this year. From gala screenings in the 1000-seater Savoy, to heart-wrenching gems found tucked away in the smaller screens, and a broad family and young people’s programme, this year’s festival really has something for everyone. Speaking with Festival Director Grainne Humphreys, Totally Dublin gets the low down on this year’s programme.
The main body of the festival kicks off on the 16th February with Irish director Aisling Walsh’s biopic Maudie, starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins as the eponymous artist Maud Lewis. “When I saw Maudie in Toronto, which had a very powerful impact on its audience, I knew it was something that would really resonate and in a way set out a stall for the rest of the programme,” Humphreys begins. “It’s a lovely miniature of a film in which there are very few locations. It doesn’t travel very far, it’s very beautiful to look at, but its emotional honesty is really appealing. It’s always a nice excuse not to see a blockbuster dealing with superheroes but to actually be able to see films about real people, or small life, and I thought Maudie is a statement about the importance of a connection between people, and also a celebration of Irish cinema.”
At the other end of the festival is the Irish premiere of John Butler’s Handsome Devil, another Irish film that has been tipped for international success with a number of big deals in place. “It seemed to pull up certain relevant subjects: obviously the idea of bullying within a school system, but also there’s very strong symbolism between two friends in school, one of whom is gay, and how that plays out within the film,” says Humphreys.
Jim Sheridan’s long awaited The Secret Scripture is the big film on Friday of the closing weekend, with its all-star cast, including festival guests Vanessa Redgrave and Jack Reynor, it delves into the dark history of Irish mental institutions as the protagonist’s past comes to light when her doctor (Eric Bana) uncovers a secret diary she has been keeping during her confinement. “This is the first film of Jim’s we’ve had since In America in the first year of the festival so its nice to welcome him back,” Humphreys points out. “Jim is one of the leading lights in Irish cinema to the point that I think you can see his influence on a lot of Irish filmmakers, and it’s interesting because it’s one of the first book adaptations that Jim has done. I think it’s going to be one of the hot tickets.”
Another kettle of fish then is The Farthest – Emer Reynolds’ remarkable debut as a feature documentary maker about the story of the Voyager space programme. Told with incredible wit and charm, the film mixes spectacular footage with interviews from those involved in the space programme. “It’s something I knew nothing about but came out feeling like a talking-head expert,” Humphreys recalls. “It’s a film that needs a big stage and to be seen by a wide audience.”
UK director Ben Wheatley is in attendance at the festival for the second year in a row with his follow up to 2015’s High-Rise. Jack Reynor and Cillian Murphy (also attending) star alongside Brie Larson in Free Fire, a stylish, high-octane crime caper that also sees Martin Scorcese come on board as producer. Wheatley, whose previous films include the darkly comic Sightseers and his gangster-film-cum-horror Kill List, will also give a director’s masterclass over the course of the festival.
More fresh talent comes by the way of Denis Bartok’s Irish horror Nails and stars The Decent’s Shauna MacDonald as a woman who is paralysed following a car crash, and finds herself haunted by an evil presence as she lies trapped in her hospital bed. The film also stars English comic Ross Noble, who is also in attendance along with the film’s director.
Humphrey’s is particularly passionate about the world cinema selection at this year’s festival. “We have the likes of Terence Davies, Asghar Farhadi, Lone Scherfig, Michael Winterbottom, Pablo Larraín – these are the household names of world cinema,” she explains. “A part of the festival is to have that combination of these leading lights who are making challenging cinema, along with the people who are just emerging. What’s interesting about this year’s programme is that it seems there is a lot more European and world cinema than in previous years, and it seems that this is a reflection of what’s happening out there, but equally we see that the commercial possibilities for some of these filmmakers are quite limited, which is a real shame. We feel quite familiar with people like Terence Davies or Aki Kaurismaki and yet we know that they need the support and exposure because there is always going to be some huge superhero film in town that’s going to be filling all the screens when their film comes out.”
This year’s top picks include Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Chile’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. It centres on the 1948 manhunt for Pablo Neruda, a poet and political figure who goes into hiding as a communist outlaw in Chile. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the go-getting police inspector that is determined to hunt him down. “Pablo Larraín is so talented and has a really distinctive way of telling a story,” Humphreys exclaims. “He’s like a puzzle filmmaker, he loves playing with structure and has a willing accomplice in Bernal who seems to be able to act like a magician and spin the film from one genre to another in a sort of dizzying way.”
“Another film I absolutely loved is Aquarius,” Humphreys continues. “I felt it was shut out in so many different places – in Cannes and obviously from the Oscars. It’s a really spectacular portrait of Brazilian corruption and society. Sonia Braga has all the grace and majesty of many of her contemporary peers, without probably as much access to roles of this quality, and it was just incredible that she wasn’t nominated at Cannes. It’s a really beautiful film to watch. One of the films of the festival.”
Fans of the Korean master Kim Jee-woon will be eagerly awaiting his return to Korean language cinema following his 2013 American action film The Last Stand. The Age of Shadows sees the director reunited with leading actors Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil) and Song Kang-ho (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) in this ultra-stylish and complex period piece. “It’s a spectacular spy thriller, which has a fascinating, intriguing web of deception between the Koreans and the Japanese in the 1930s, but it’s also just incredibly lush and really beautiful to watch. One of the things the festival does is show you why you should go to the cinema, and that scale is a really important reason to go to the cinema, to see things on a big screen rather than on a phone or a laptop.”
Newcomer to the international arena, festival guest Juho Kuosmanen’s debut feature is based on the true story of a young Finnish boxer with a shot at the 1962 world title. Filmed in black and white, Humphreys says The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is one of the most uplifting films you’ll see all year. “It’s just the sweetest film, and it will genuinely leave you feeling happier than when you went in.”
Other highly recommended films from around the world include Sean Foley’s debut feature Mindhorn, a comedy starring and penned by Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh about a private detective with a bionic eye, and Anna Biller’s instant cult-classic The Love Witch with its homage to the technicolour sexploitation films of the 60s. Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki returns with his deadpan comedy The Other Side of Hope, his first feature since 2011’s La Havre, while Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait explores an exotic world of Buddhist rituals. Sandra Oh and Anne Heche get physical in the shocking Catfight and Raoul Peck’s documentary of race in America I Am Not Your Negro is narrated by Samuel L Jackson. Mali Blues provides some musical food for the soul, French screen icon Nathalie Baye is on a quest for revenge in Moka and the voice talents of Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts and Lena Dunham bring added humour to Dash Shaw’s brilliant animated feature My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.
Sharing the screens with the heavyweights of world cinema are a host of Irish directors, from the first-timers to the veteran filmmakers there’s a multitude of talent on offer. “To be able to include new Irish films from Aisling Walsh, Jim Sheridan, Emer Reynolds, Aidan Gillen, John Butler, Neasa Ní Chianán, Juanita Wilson and Ken Wardrop as just some of the Irish filmmakers in the festival is an extraordinary testament to the current strength and depth of the Irish film industry,” says Humphreys.
Adapted from Carol Shields’ acclaimed novel is the Irish/Canadian production Unless starring Catherine Keener as Reta, an accomplished writer living in Toronto. Alan Gilsenan’s drama watches Reta come to terms with her daughter’s sudden abandonment of the family home in favour of life on the streets.
Another Irish adaptation set on the other side of the pond is Juanita Wilson’s Tomato Red.
“It’s a really intriguing, heated, melodrama/crime story,” observes Humphreys. “Anna Friel is fearless in the central role as the mother of an unruly teenager who falls for her daughter’s boyfriend. It’s also really interesting because it’s an Irish director’s adaptation of a novel by Daniel Woodrell who wrote Winter’s Bone, and to see that part of America, I suppose Trump America, and a completely different style to what was employed on her previous film As If I Am Not There.”
Ken Wardrop’s latest film The Piano Lesson is one of two ‘Reel Art’ documentaries at the IFI as it explores the experiences of a number of students as they make their way through the pressures of the Irish exam system, while John Murphy and Traolach Ó Murchú choose to focus their lens on the city of Rochester NY, the birthplace of Kodak, in their beautifully framed film-portrait Photo City.
Fans of bite-sized film magic will find some of our country’s freshest talent scattered throughout the festival’s three hefty shorts programmes. Interspersed with a selection of the best short films from around the globe it’s the perfect opportunity to spot the next big thing while experiencing a broad range of genres and styles at the one screening.
Last but not least is something for the little ones. Since moving to a new sponsor in 2016, the festival has been able to open their doors to the under-18s. As a result a mini-festival for all ages was born. Fantastic Flix is not just for tots, but also features a wide selection of films from around the world aimed at families and teens. Kicking off on February 4th with a preview screening of The Lego Batman Movie, screenings will run right up to the 18th when it overlaps with the main festival schedule.
Highlights include Studio Ghilbli’s first co-production with a European company, as Michael Dudok de Wit takes the helm for their magnificent, Oscar-nominated, animated feature The Red Turtle. Children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson is also in town and has curated three of her favourite films for young people, The Secret Garden, Mandy and Cilla Ware’s adaptation of Wilson’s own novel, The Illustrated Mom. Also up for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, My Life as a Courgette is sure to melt hearts of any age, while Australian filmmaker Rosemary Myers spins a wonderfully off-kilter, coming-of-age yarn for the teenaged audience.
Words: Dave Desmond