Great chat with Cathal Ó Cuaig, Irish director, producer and writer, about his past, present and future work.
First of all: we have, somehow, already told something about your work on Italish, as you have teamed up with Sónta Films for Lon sa Speir / Men at Lunch. You have been a researcher for Seán Ó Cualáin documentary (we interviewed him last February), you have been earlier a producer for At Home In India and Searching Che Guevara. What can you tell us about these works?
In 2007 I was completing a Masters in Modern History at NUI Galway, and doing research in Connemara.
My thesis concerned the transmission of ideas in traditional oral narratives in my home parish of Iorras Aithneach.
I had known Seán Ó Cualáin since childhood as we had both attended the same primary school and he approached me with news of an upcoming Producer Scheme.
It was a one year training programme aimed at Irish speakers with experience in media production.
As I had previously worked for many years as a broadcaster and journalist on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta (National Irish Language Radio) and had also worked as a researcher on a number of Television programmes, I was one of the twelves who was offered a place. The twelves trainees were given placements with twelve production companies and during the year attended short training courses.
For example I attended a Creative Thinking Course with Pam Relton from the BBC and also attended the great Robert McKee’s Story Structure Workshop in London.
The greatest boon of the Trainee Producer Scheme, was a monthly tête à tête with TG4’s commissioning editors where we could pitch our documentary ideas. Working with Seán Ó Cualáin’s company, Sónta Films, was a wonderful experience and I received an excellent grounding in all aspects of Television and film production. I got to work on a number of their films, in particular, Lon sa Speir / Men at Lunch, which has taken the world by storm since its première at the Toronto Film Festival.
Thanks to the Producer Scheme, I was able to develop a number of ideas that were eventually commissioned by TG4.
The first project I made with Sónta was a four part documentary series entitled Ag Lorg Che Guevara / Searching Che Guevara.
In the Autumn of 2008, the Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins set out to discover what this man – whose courage and integrity he has always admired – meant to the people of Che’s homeland. We travelled throughout Latin America, filming in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba.
It was 40 years after Guevara’s death and Latin America was in the midst of sweeping political change.
After decades of ruthless dictatorships, a powerful democratic Left had emerged, echoing Che’s ideals of unity and independence. Joe was on a mission to follow the route taken by Che, who in 1952, explored the continent on the back of a motorcycle.
What Che witnessed changed his life, but Joe wanted to know how much had changed for the people whose freedom Che fought and died for. The series was broadcasted on TG4 and has been shown again a number of time. The series was directed by the talented Kim Bartley whose film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (aka Chavez- Inside the Coup) about the failed coup against President Chavez in Venezuela brought her international recognition in 2003 and remains her most well known documentary.
My second film with Sónta was Sa mBaile san Ind / At Home in India, the story of two sisters from a small village in the west of Ireland as they made their first visit to their ancestral home in southern India.
Farah and Rebecca Taqi were brought up in the Gaeltacht region of Connemara, an area steeped in Gaelic culture and heritage. Their mother Nuala is from Cill Chiaráin, a small rural fishing village, where the girls spent most of their childhood. Their father Syed however, hails from Hyderabad, one of the largest metropolis and most populous cities in India. The girls grew up an a multicultural and bilingual home where exotic India music and food mingled with Irish traditional dancing and song. Farah and Rebecca had never been to their fathers homeland and embarked on a personal journey that will brought into question their sense of identity and their sense of belonging.
They met their Indian relatives for the first time in their lives, saw the culture their father grew up in and immersed themselves in the enchanting customs of Indian life. Before their journey, Rebecca believed that she felt more Irish than Indian and believed that India would make her feel alienated. Farah believed the opposite, looking at the adventure as a chance to connect with her roots. Both were surprised by the end of their journey. Sa mBaile san Ind was adeptly directed by Cathal Watters, exploring the realities of multicultural families living in Ireland today.
It showed how cultural identities are formed and brought into question the way we see ourselves ethnically. The film also highlighted the changes happening in India today as a growing middle-class strives to make room for itself in an evolving society.
What can you tell is about the perspective that the movies industry has from Connemara? Issues, problems, challenges and things to be proud of?
I can of course only give my own perspective on the industry in Connemara. I think that there is a lot to be proud with regards to film and Television in Connemara. I feel we owe most to Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht civil rights movement, which was founded in 1969 and from the start sought to tackle both the high unemployment in Connemara but also the inadequate Irish language programming available on television and radio.
Central to this was the foundation of CINEGAEL, founded by independent filmmaker Bob Quinn and civil rights activists Tone Cristofides and Seosamh Ó Cuaig.
The independent and experimental nature of their films, which they screened in local halls, were in many ways the beginning of the audiovisual industry in Connemara as we know it today.
Avant-garde films like Poitín (1977), the first feature film to be made entirely in Irish, broke new ground and gave later generations of filmmakers the belief that we could make our own films, in our own community.
Today there are many filmmakers in Connemara creating Irish language films, and with a lot of success.
Darach Mac An Iomaire‘s noir crime series Corp + Anam is going into its second season and is a great example of what can be achieved as Gaeilge.
Speaking about your actual projects. Síle, for example, is another Irish story with a young character. We were speaking recently with Catherine Dunne about this topic, and with Cathal Black about the so many parents / sons stories in Irish books. Why young characters are important in Irish culture productions, and why a character such as Síle has been important for you?
I think that parent/child stories are probably as common in Irish literature as they are anywhere else. It is something that everyone can relate to in one way or another.
My film Síle (2013) was written by Séamus Moran and I immediately found it moving. It was the story of Síle, a sensitive and vulnerable teenager who has never overcome the sudden death of her mother and wishes her life would return to what it was before she died.
Her father, Dónal, pampers her like a little girl and this leads to tensions with his girlfriend Áine, who feels he is over indulging his daughter.
It explored issues of love and loss, and I wanted to try and portray the difficulties faced by stepfamilies today in a realistic manner.
Speaking about An Cluiche / The Match: tell “calcio” and that should be an Italian story… ;-) Can you tell us more about it?
I will let you decide for yourself if it is an Italian story or not, but An Cluiche is a short film telling the story of a man who loves his team more than his girlfriend.
The cast included Seán T. Ó Meallaigh, Spanish actress Susana Bas who played the part of Judy, and with supporting performances from Sibéal Davitt and Andrew Lynch. I wrote the script while doing an internship in Barcelona with Full Emotions, a Spanish film production company. The idea came to me about a guy who is crazy about football, something that was common in Barcelona. I decided to make it an “international” couple so that the couple would speak some Irish, some English and some Spanish – as “international” couples often do.
The film was produced as part of Físín, a competition run by the Dingle International Film Festival to promote Irish language filmmaking.
As part of the scheme, Teach Solais sponsored the lighting equipment. The camera and lenses were provided by Panavision Ireland. It was my directorial debut and a steep learning curve. The film was shot in one weekend in Dublin by Frankie Leonard, and we premiered the film at the Dingle Festival. Since then it has been screened at quite a few festivals in Ireland and in the United States. It was also screened at the Galway Film Fleadh which was another big honour.
And what about Grá Mo Chroí / Love Heart?
Grá Mo Chroí / Love Heart is the latest film I have just completed it a few months ago. It is the story of Eimear, a young widow haunted by the memory of her late husband Steve. Disillusioned with life, she has become increasingly isolated and risks ruining her promising career as a cellist. In an effort to come to terms with the past, she returns to the hotel where she had her wedding.
A chance encounter with Tommy, a charming man full of optimism, begins to renew her belief in destiny. In a maelstrom of conflicting feelings, Eimear is brought to the brink as she is torn between her heart and her mind.
I wanted to experiment with style in this film and tried to create something very lyrical. Music is central to to the narrative and the visual style of the film. I attended the Berlinale Talent Campus earlier in the year and met a wonderful young Polish composer, Krzysztof A. Jancek.
I discussed the film idea with him and when it went into production he came onboard to write an original score. We shot the film in five days in a a 16th century castle in Co. Galway. Grá Mo Chroí was shot by cinematographer Cian de Buitléar who has worked on many major productions including shooting all the underwater sequences on Saving Private Ryan. The film was made as Scéal – a six part series of short films for TG4 that are produced by Gréasán na Meán and the BAI and should air in 2014.
You use Gaeilge in your work. Can you tell us about your choice, and the pros and cons of this choice?
I work a lot as Gaeilge as it is my first language. Of course I also work in English and while working in Barcelona had to try and work in Català which was a challenge. It is as much a privilege for me to work as Gaeilge as it is a pleasure. I’m delighted to be able to work in film and Television through my native tongue. Of course there are disadvantages since English is such a globally dominant language, but I’m sure Italian filmmakers can also attest to the problems of trying to finance or market a film in a foreign language (although Italian is far from a minority language).
Last but not least: what are your connections with Italy, with Italian culture and movies (and why your Italian is so good?) ;-) ?
My first trip to Italy was in the summer of 1998 to visit friends in Lerici, a small town in Liguria. I had planned to spend only a few weeks there before backpacking to Germany and Hungary. I ended up spending the whole summer in Lerici and only leaving the day before my flight. I made such good friends in Italy that first summer that I spent many years returning to visit them, and to explore other regions in the country. When I studied for my B.A. in Galway I decided to take Italian language and culture for my degree. I guess I wanted to finally speak Italian having spent so many years visiting. In 2004 I was delighted to received a scholarship from the Italian government to study at the Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia in the Università per Stranieri di Perugia.
The following autumn I started my Erasmus exchange programme in the University of Genoa, where I spent an academic year – meaning that I had come full circle and ended up in Liguria again. Wandering the medieval vicoli of Genova, the lyrics of De Andrè’s Crêuza de mä floating around my head, I felt in a way that I home again. I guess that is the best way to sum up Italy – a land where you don’t feel like a stranger.
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