Celtic cinema’s quiet coming of age

With interest and investment both increasing rapidly in Irish-, Welsh- and Cornish-language films, it feels like a breakthrough moment.

11 May 2022

By Derek O’Connor

The Quiet Girl (2022)
Sight and Sound

► Iorram is available to stream now.
► The Quiet Girl is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 13 May.
► The Feast is out in UK cinemas on 19 August.

When Colm Bairéad’s debut feature The Quiet Girl (An Cáilín Ciúin, 2021) won the Grand Prix Award at this year’s Berlinale, it made history as the first Irish-language feature to land a prize at one of the ‘big three’ festivals (the other two being Cannes and Venice). A beautifully realised adaptation of Claire Keegan’s delicate coming-of-age novella Foster (2010), writer/director Bairéad’s film also received a Special Mention for the Crystal Bear from the Children’s Jury.

Originally written in English, the bilingual nature of Bairéad’s take on Keegan’s tale of a young girl, Cáit (a remarkable performance from 12-year-old newcomer Catherine Clinch), who is sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with “her mother’s people” for a summer, adds another layer to the story. “I was raised speaking Irish in a bilingual household in Dublin,” says Bairéad, “and now I’m raising my own kids through Irish, so the language has been a common thread throughout my life. Ironically, in a way An Cáilín Ciúin is a film about the limitations of language when it comes to people expressing their emotions.”

The Quiet Girl (2022)

The Berlin award also served as a vindication for Cine4, an ongoing initiative to develop original Irish-language features created in partnership with Irish broadcaster TG4, Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland and BAI (the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland). Its fund is committed to producing two new features a year, chosen from a rolling development slate, with a firm commitment to a theatrical release.

“I was interested in creating a normality where people in Ireland could go out and see films in the Irish language,” says TG4’s director general Alan Esslemont, a founder of pioneering Galway-based production outfit Telegael and former head of content for Scots Gaelic television channel BBC Alba. “There had been films in Irish before, but what’s important about Cine4 is that it’s made to run and run. Every year we’re developing four or five scenarios and two go into full production. Although budgets are tight, the companies don’t have to go chasing for deals or further funding. There’s a huge talent pool working in the Irish language and this is the first sustained platform that offers the opportunity to use that talent on an international scale.”

Since its launch in 2017, the response has been extremely promising. To date, two critically acclaimed Cine4 features, Tom Sullivan’s potato famine drama Arracht (2019) and Seán Breathnach’s Foscadh (2021), an adaptation of Donal Ryan’s novel The Thing About December (2013), have been selected as Ireland’s official Academy Awards entries and enjoyed lengthy runs on the international festival circuit. The Quiet Girl, the winner of eight prizes at this year’s Irish Film & Television Awards, pipping Belfast (2021) to Best Film, is already a likely contender for Oscar selection in 2023.

The Feast (2022)

While talk of a new golden age of Celtic cinema might be premature, there’s no mistaking an eclectic new wave of projects making an impact elsewhere: cinemas, television and streaming platforms. Lee Haven Jones’ Welsh-language horror movie The Feast (Gwledd, 2021), shortlisted for the Sutherland Award at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival, was released in US cinemas last year. The first Breton-language drama series, Fin Ar Bed (2017-), was a major hit with French audiences. And Alastair Cole’s acclaimed Boat Song (Iorram, 2021), a lyrical portrait of the Gaelic-speaking fishing community in the Outer Hebrides, is the first cinema documentary entirely in Scots Gaelic.

“There have always been fantastic artists,” says Catriona Logan, director of the Celtic Media Festival. “The Celts are storytellers, second to none. What’s been missing is funding and recognition of that talent. The newer generation are growing more confident in their abilities and distributors are willing to embrace that.” Founded in 1980, the festival champions the cultures and languages of the Celtic countries (encompassing Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Galicia and Brittany) in film and on television, radio and digital media, building a formidable network of Celt creatives.

“Like a lot of the work being made right now, when you’re flying under the radar, staying nimble, small and lean, you can have fun and be more creative,” says Logan. “And word of mouth has never been more important. When the landscape is so vast, and growing, especially with the addition of new streaming platforms, a recommendation is everything. That’s worked in our favour. The films are good and getting better. And people are finally getting to see them.”

Enys Men (2022)

Cornish culture and language feature prominently in Enys Men (Cornish for ‘Stone Island’), the second feature from Bait (2019) director Mark Jenkin, set to debut at Cannes. A folk-horror tale unfolding around a wildlife volunteer (returning Bait actor Mary Woodvine) who lives alone on an uninhabited Cornish island, the film again utilises the hand-cranked 16mm post-sync sound approach used to memorable effect in Jenkin’s debut. While largely dialogue-free, the soundtrack features music by Cornish/Welsh musician Gwenno – a song from her 2018 album Le Kov plays in the background of a pub scene in Bait.

“Cornish is important to us in our work,” says its producer Denzil Monk, “because it is the agan tavas [our language] of this place, Kernow [Cornwall], that we identify with as home. It is an important marker of intangible cultural heritage and over recent years both its use and broader awareness of Kernewek, the Cornish language, has seen significant growth.” Monk cites FylmK, an annual short film commission from Screen Cornwall, and the success of Alba’s Gaelic FilmG short film competition as positive signs of progress in the local filmmaking ecosystem.

For some directors, the film they are making is so firmly rooted in their own culture that the very idea they might consider shooting it in a language other than their native tongue leaves them bemused. As Lee Haven Jones puts it: “Expressing oneself in anything other than English is a ‘decision’. I am Welsh and this film is a fundamental expression of who I am. The Feast is Welsh to its core and the language is central to its identity as a piece of filmmaking: it’s a starkly contemporary horror film whose roots are embedded deep in our nation’s past and [it] is fed by the myths and legends of my birthplace. It wasn’t a decision to tell this story in Welsh. Rather, this story is Wales.”

For Colm Bairéad, with The Quiet Girl set to receive the widest release for an Irish-language film in the UK, it’s the emotional connection that matters: “In a way, as a republic, Ireland is a relatively young country, still coming to terms with having our own independence and identity. After the recent recession, there’s been a reappraisal of what our core values are, what we represent. There’s a newfound confidence in the Irish language, in film, music and literature, and an audience that’s more receptive to it. People are more willing to listen.”

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