Category Archives: Film

GAZE Film Festival 2016 | Ireland’s Flagship LGBT Film Festival is Back for its 24th Year

This article was originally published online on the HeadStuff Website on June 20th, 2016.

The annual GAZE International Film Festival has been a flagship event for Dublin’s LGBT community since its inception in 1992. Now in its 24th year, the festival will continue to highlight LGBT cinema for all its diversity, or so programmer Roisin Geraghty assures: “promoting LGBT film is so exciting,” she says. “You’re trying to find a very fine balance in your programming… between the L, G, B, and T, [as well as]the narrative content and the documentary content, and breaking it down into light content and hard-hitting content. It’s difficult but so interesting.

A glance at the screening schedule seems to reaffirm Roisin’s comments: the festival opens with the documentary Strike a Pose, which follows the seven young male dancers who joined pop singer Madonna in 1990 for her iconic ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. For many, this was a milestone in LGBT history for how it communicated sexual liberation through performance. This tour of course occurred at a time when such freedom was a novelty: prejudice was high and misconceptions surrounding HIV and the gay community were widespread. This film acts as accompaniment to 1991’s Madonna: Truth or Dare, which will also be shown at the festival, alongside a special guest appearance from one of the original seven dancers, Kevin Stea.

Kiki will be show as part of the GAZE International Film Festival 2016. -

The Madonna double-bill is accompanied in the successive days by films that promise to be just as impactful, albeit wholly different in terms of content and approach. One such example is Kiki, an ‘unofficial sequel’ to 1990’s Paris is Burning. A joint American-Swedish production, Kiki offers insight into the lives of LGBT youth of colour involved in the ‘Kiki’ scene, which incorporates a series of social gatherings and ballroom competitions. These gatherings often lead to important dialogues related to Black-and Trans-Lives Matter movements.

Acclaimed director Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats will also be screened at this year’s festival, as part of a strand that aims to celebrate Québec’s rich LGBT cinema. The focus on Queer Québécois Cinema was born of meeting between the people of GAZE and the programming directors of IMAGE+NATION LGBT Film Festival Montréal, who will be welcomed to attend this year’s festival.

GAZE International Film Festival 2016. -

Not only is there a wide range of international content available to view at the festival, but as ever there will be more than enough indigenous content to survey as well. “The Irish content is always to the fore for GAZE,” says Roisin Geraghty. “It’s very important for us to highlight Irish LGBT filmmakers and films. We have an incredibly strong Irish shorts programme this year, [and]we’re also screening Viva just before its release in August. It’s really important to us to have a film like that – an Irish film of such incredibly high standard.Viva is an Irish film by director Paddy Breathnach which follows protagonist Jesus, played by Héctor Medina, who is a Cuban man with ambitions to become a drag queen. This, in spite of protestations from his estranged father.

The festival is once again sponsored by consulting firm Accenture, who have been patrons of the event since 2012. Michelle Cullen, managing director of Accenture, emphasises the important role businesses have in supporting LGBT peoples: “The diversity of our people is very important to us. In our first year we did banners [for the festival]along the Liffey… Some of our clients and other companies have said that seeing it so publicly has helped them join it. If you’re not saying it publicly you don’t know what it could be like [for LGBT people in business].” Accenture is a member of the GLEN Diversity Champions and next weekend its employees will march with GAZE at the Dublin Pride Parade.

This year’s festival will take place in a different cultural climate to that of last year; while in 2015 GAZE showed films to an Irish public still celebrating the numerous pro-LGBT laws that had recently come into effect both at home and abroad, audiences in 2016 are still reeling from the events of June 16, in which 49 people were killed and 53 were injured in a homophobic attack at the famous Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, making it the worst incidence of violence against LGBT people in American history. It acted as a stark reminder of the prejudice LGBT people have to endure, and the ongoing efforts being made to tackle bigotry. Commenting on this is festival programmer Roisin Geraghty: “In the run up to putting the programme together I thought, ‘wow, there aren’t as many hard-hitting human rights documentaries as there was this time last year. Is that a sign that things are positively progressing?’ And then, after what happened last Saturday… It was a real reminder to us that there’s such a long way to go.” Roisin then cites Upstairs Inferno, a documentary set to be screened at the festival, as an example of a film that will strike a chord with contemporary audiences. The film is about the firebombing of a gay bar in New Orleans in 1973: “Up until last weekend,” Roisin says, “it was the second biggest attack on LGBT people in US history. As our programme went to print that was still the case.

And while incidents like the aforementioned attack in the United States inspire fear within communities who dare to exhibit difference, they can also help emphasise the importance of festivals like GAZE, whose narratives of liberation, love, diversity, and endurance – combined with an attendance at the festival by patrons from all across the country, and indeed the globe – prove that however overwhelming prejudice may be, we are stronger and better together, and this can be seen in the stories we tell.

The GAZE Film Festival runs from July 28th to August 1st at the Light House Cinema, Dublin. Further details can be seen at


Short and Sweet: The Firehouse Film Contest

The following article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXII, Issue VII. It appears in print and online.

David Monaghan speaks to content creators at the 18th Firehouse Film Contest in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

Short films are often overlooked. Despite being arguably the most accessible and immediate form of film-making, audiences tend to focus more on the short’s longer, star-studded cousin: the feature film. With the Oscars airing at the end of the month, ardent viewers will undoubtedly be making the journey to their local picture houses to catch most of what’s been nominated at the prestigious ceremony, without considering too much the potential of short films. The Firehouse Film Contest is an event that highlights this potential, with much of its content exhibiting creativity, humour and talent.

Developed by former OTwo stalwarts Conor O’Toole and Conor Barry, alongside their friend Simon Mulholland, Firehouse is an “almost monthly” contest in which creators are encouraged to make short films that are five minutes or less. This appears to be the event’s one restriction, as each and every film produced for it varies in tone and production quality. “We started the Firehouse Film Contest because we had loads of friends who were great film-makers but had no deadlines to encourage them to make things,” says O’Toole. “And so we set an arbitrary one once a month, with the hopes that they would make more films.” Although the contest is open to all genres, Conor Barry notes that the submissions they receive are geared more towards comedy, due to the short film format. “But we’re always very happy when we have dramas, and experimental films,” O’Toole chimes in.

Although normally located in A4 Sounds off Dorset Street, the 18th and most recent contest took place in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. One of the contest’s most frequently featured directors is Séamus Hanly, whose frantically-edited, ‘Tim and Eric-style’ videos have made him a recognisable creator at the monthly event. For its 18th iteration he produced an intentionally clumsy video which lampoons the style of bad video bloggers. Titled ‘2016 (So Far),’ it is indicative of his self-aware, parodic style, featuring awkward cutaways, poor sound quality, and a stilted delivery. “What they said from the beginning was any variety of production quality [is welcome],” he says. “You get some very nicely shot, very nicely sound recorded stuff. Then you get videos by me.” Though he creates content for a film festival, he is hesitant to say he makes short films. “I wouldn’t call them short films, and that’s a complete technicality. I see them as videos; YouTube videos or sketches… When you don’t see it as a short film but as a video, there’s a lot of freedom, and you can mess around and stuff. When it’s called a short film it’s almost as limited as a feature.”

As has been said, there is a great freedom in creating content for Firehouse. Counter to Hanly’s humorous videos are items like ‘White Fluffs,’ a short film that intermittently follows tiny bits of fluff as they blow in the wind, or ‘Creep,’ a music video. “You do get the odd artsy short, and the audience goes quiet, doesn’t laugh, and takes it for what it is.” He also credits part of contest’s draw to its welcoming environment. “It’s genuinely friendly. A lot of people don’t want to say this, but for Dublin that’s kind of special. There are a lot of good, niche things in Dublin, but it really means something when it’s not commercial. There’s no surface level ‘oh, we welcome all kinds of films,’ then you realise they don’t. Here, they really do.”

Each month, special prizes are handed out to certain videos at the contest. The categories are Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Production/Technical Prize, and a Judges’ Prize, which in the past has been decided by the likes of Tara Flynn, director Mark Doherty, andRepublic of Telly host Kevin McGahern. The winner of the most recent Best Picture award was ‘Bigger Cats’ by Donnacha and Diarmuid O’Brien of Dangerfarm, the latter of whom has worked on RTÉ productions in the past and has produced Tara Flynn’s videos. A comedy writer like many others at Firehouse, he edits videos as a day job. He is critical of ‘mainstream’ Irish film-making for stifling creativity. “To make any sort of feature, it’s still someone else’s money. So you always have to answer to all these people and you have to deliver on what they’re investing in, with little freedom to do what you want.”
He continues: “For an actual ‘Irish new wave’ to come about, there needs to be major changes, especially in the dismissive attitude towards screen-writing… New writers need to be properly developed and paid for their apprenticeship by the industry.”

He praises the monthly contest as an outlet for up-and-coming creatives who may be struggling against such a system: “‘Official’ Irish film-making takes itself very seriously. Festivals, academia and funding are focused on arty [and] important endeavours. The Firehouse is a godsend for frustrated comedy-makers like myself. RTÉ’s remit is kind of broad stuff, so here you can pursue quirky odd things.” O’Brien gives particular praise to the people behind Dreamgun whose short feature, titled ‘The Crush List,’ won the Technical Prize at the 18th Firehouse. “They normally make really high production stuff. They didn’t have time this month so they took out a phone and they did it through Snapchat. That shows how good they are because it was a stylistic choice and it was really funny… I think they make the finest videos in the country.”

Running a little over two years, the Firehouse Film Contest has, in that time, drawn a large following. Its 18th contest was filled to audience capacity and drew a record total of thirty short films. Despite not proving as popular with wider audiences as the feature film, events like Firehouse, with its abundance of talent, show that there is life in the short film yet.

The next Firehouse Film Contest is on March 6th in A4 Sounds.

Youth: Review

The following was originally published in the University Observer Vol. XXII, Issue V. It was later posted on the paper’s website.

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Ed Stoppard
Release Date: In Irish cinemas January 29th.

We are all just extras. This is the message director Paolo Sorrentino hopes to convey in Youth, his second English language film after 2011’s This Must Be The Place, and his first cinematic feature to follow his 2013 Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. It acts as a poignant reflection upon life, death, and everything in between.

Set against the backdrop of a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps, Youth follows Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired classical music composer, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker in the process of writing his latest feature titled Life’s Last Day. The pair are close friends who also happen to be connected by their respective offspring: Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard). Their relationship is made complicated when Julian leaves Lena for pop star Paloma Faith, who plays herself in an awkward and clunky cameo. This marital breakdown drives the narrative forward, but narrative and plot are merely secondary in a film preoccupied with symbolism.

Fred and Mick spend the majority of their vacation at the resort discussing the past and the future. Now that they have reached old age their memories have started to fade, and they see little hope in coming times. Their anguish over growing old acts as a counterpoint to the vibrancy of the Alpine setting, which is visually breathtaking – cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is to be commended. The aging pair encounter various other characters at the resort, such as a retired Maradona (who plays himself), disillusioned actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), and a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), all of whom reflect on their lives and careers. They offer levity in a film steeped with heavy-handed visual metaphors, which make the film feel rather bloated at times. Also of note is how wonderful sequences, like one in particular in which Fred flashes back to all the starlets he has worked with over the years, are let down by others, such as when we see Michael Caine conducting a field of cows into musical symphony.

In a Nutshell: Youth is a sometimes-poignant, but often self-indulgent reflection on life, death, and aging; overbearing symbolism does not always work in its favour. It is worth watching for its stunning photography and emotional soundtrack.

Reel Identities: Transgender Representation in Film and TV

The following post was originally published in the University Observer Vol. XXII, Issue V, and was later posted online on the paper’s website.

Following the backlash The Danish Girl has received for casting Eddie Redmayne as a lead, David Monaghan looks at how trans people are represented within film and television.

2015 was the year of trans. We saw a surge of support for trans rights as Caitlyn Jenner came out on social media to a predominantly positive and supportive public, later winning the Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year award. On home turf, the Irish government passed the Gender Recognition Bill, allowing Ireland’s trans citizens the right to self-identify without the need to provide testimony from psychiatrists or doctors. And more recently, in Northern Ireland a Green Party candidate has become the first transgender person to stand for election within the state. Most spectacularly is the fact that a film that deals with trans issues has reached the Oscars: Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl has landed four nominations: for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

The battle for recognition at such a prestigious awards ceremony was difficult, and not without controversy. A lot of criticisms levelled at the film stem from Eddie Redmayne’s casting as the historical Lili Elbe, the first woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery. He joins the ranks of Dallas Buyers Club’s Jared Leto and Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor under cisgender actors cast in transgender roles. To many trans activists such a move is considered a joke, and sends the message out that in order to succeed, even in a world where trans people can finally be depicted in mainstream media, you must still be cisgender.

Of course, there are exceptions to this ‘rule.’ Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox is a trans actress who plays an openly trans person within the show. Her character, Sophia Burset, deals with the stigma and challenges that come with being trans in a despotic and often harsh prison environment: she puts up with inappropriate conversation from fellow inmates, such as prison chef Red who tells her that she could never accept a child of hers who would make such a transition. In season three she faces her biggest stress as she is assaulted in her salon by embittered prisoners. The threat of violence is an unfortunate reality for trans peoples worldwide. Burset’s problems are viewed as somewhat more valid than that of Redmayne’s as Elbe or Tambor’s as Maura Pfefferman, as Cox has experienced first-hand the hardships people face when expressing their gender identity, while the former two come to their work with a degree of separation from the subject matter. It is worth noting, however, that they both depict characters who are in the process of transitioning, and spend a portion of their respective pieces presenting as male. An argument can be made for their casting with this in mind.

Despite the drawbacks listed above, it is a step forward to acknowledge trans people through the medium of film without the need for cloak and dagger storytelling. In years previous, trans people were treated as the butt of the joke. When they did appear, their stories were not treated with the respect or gravitas that they deserved. In a strange coincidence, the rise in support for the trans rights movement happened concurrently with a sudden boom in Irish cinema, with Ireland bagging a total of nine nominations at the Academy Awards this year. Irish director Neil Jordan won an Oscar in 1993 under the Best Original Screenplay category for his film The Crying Game, which deals with a multitude of social issues, among them issues of gender: one of the characters within the narrative is trans. Stephen Rea’s Fergus is overcome with revulsion when he discovers that his love interest, Jaye Davidson’s Dil, is a transwoman, her gender identity reduced to a mere plot-twist. This does not mark the only time Jordan has dealt with trans representation: his 2005 adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto treads similar ground.

The film centres on Patrick Braden, later Patricia ‘Kitten’ Braden, and her journey from rural 1970s Cavan to the bustling metropolis of London in a strange quest to find her mother. The word ‘transgender’ is never uttered however, possibly due to Patricia’s inability to receive education on the transgender movement and/or the social ignorance of such a topic in the 1970s: “I am a boy, not a girl!” Patricia’s adoptive mother forces her to say. While Patricia says she is female and presents as such, different pronouns and descriptions are used to refer to the character throughout. Her childhood friends use female pronouns and are fine with her style of dress, while other characters, such as the deeply-closeted singer-cum-republican Billy Hatchet, call her ‘Patrick’ at times. Some characters see Patricia as male, while others see her as female. In a scene set in a London nightclub, a man flirts with Patricia before exclaiming, “Christ, you’re a bloke,” to which Patricia responds, “Ten out of ten, Sherlock.” When magician Bertie Vaughan falls for Patricia, she is forced to tell him “I’m not a girl.” He responds by saying, “I knew that, princess.” Film critic Roger Ebert spoke about this, writing: “[Patricia] doesn’t care if you think [she’s] male or female, as long as you think [she’s] Kitten.”

Indeed, as the narrative progresses, it becomes less a realistic story of coming out as trans, and more a quest of individuality and acceptance in an inherently oppressive society. While the film fails as a trans narrative, it succeeds in depicting the struggle of being different within a suffocating space. This film, and the earlier Crying Game, are indicative of what trans people had often come to expect from cinema before the surge in support for the movement: stories where trans identities are not concrete or treated with enough gravitas. Exceptions like the biographical Boys Don’t Cry did exist, however, offering hope to a misrepresented community.

But now trans representation is at a point, surely, that suggests we are a more welcoming and accepting society? Perhaps not. Recently, Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes and made remarks about Caitlyn Jenner, using her old name in the process. He also joked about what Jeffrey Tambor does in his role as Maura. Trans people, alongside other members of the LGBTQ+ community, are still treated as the butt of the joke within major Hollywood narratives, as a September 2015 YouTube video from GLAAD, titled ‘Hollywood Must Do Better,’ demonstrates. It shows clips from films such as Ted 2, The Wolf of Wall Street, Grown Ups 2, Instructions Not Included, Anchorman 2, and a host of others, that feature trans people as caricatures or walking punchlines (or in some extreme cases, punching bags). The unfortunate thing is that all of these films were made within the last five years, telling us once again that, while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in creating better representation for trans people within the medium.

Hand Gestures: Review

This piece was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print.

Director: Francesco Clerici

Release Date: 2015, with an exclusive release in the IFI from the 24th November.

History is important, and no one understands that more than director Francesco Clerici. His debut feature Hand Gestures is an ode to the manual labour and history associated with craftwork. He films a group of sculptors in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan, Italy, as they work on one of artist Velasco Vitali’s famous ‘Off Leash’ bronze Dog Scultpures. In doing so he captures each stage of the process of lost-wax casting in great detail, from early to final design, eschewing narration and music in the process.

The film begins by telling viewers that the lost-wax casting method was developed in the 4th century BC and that, despite advancements in modern technology, the process of production has remained completely unchanged since this time. The film cuts intermittently to archive footage of people using this method to create statues, and the chosen images from decades past match each stage of production in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in 2014. Sound effects from the contemporary footage carry over into archive footage as the craftspeople work, making for an engaging way to emphasise the importance of history and intergenerational teaching. The method of lost-wax casting is handed down by generation, so history is important to these craftspeople.

This feature also acts as an ode to craftsmanship and manual labour. Multiple close-ups of workers’ hands are shown, to highlight the grit and grime of their work, and the stages of production of the bronze statue are depicted in meticulous detail. Without narration or music to break the silence, viewers are made concentrate entirely on the techniques, sounds, and procedures associated with this unique field of work. This never feels like a chore to watch, however, as there is something inherently appealing in watching the project come together. Each stage of production is enjoyable to witness, and when the bronze statue is finally completed there is strange satisfaction in seeing it take its place amongst Vitali’s other pieces.

Without the signifiers of traditional documentary filmmaking (narration et cetera), there is an overbearing sense that we, the audience, are there with the craftspeople as they work. It feels like we have been let in on a secret, like we are bearing witness to a centuries old craft that few know. For this reason, Hand Gestures is an unusually engaging film.

In A Nutshell: Hand Gestures is an ode to manual labour, history, and intergenerational teaching. By eschewing narration, dialogue, and music, Francesco Clerici invites us into this world in a captivating way. This is one not to be missed.

History, Reality, and Star Wars

This article was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print. 

In light of comments made about John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars, David Monaghan looks at the importance of history and reality in film, TV, and other popular media.

On October 19th, the trailer for much-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, and fans worldwide took to social media to express their excitement. Two stars of the film were particularly vocal; John Boyega uploaded an Instagram video of himself jumping over a couch in anticipation and Daisy Ridley had a nice cry. The number of tweets about the film reached 17,000 per minute with the hashtags #TheForceAwakens and #TieFighter trending for hours after its initial airing. Everyone was pleased. Or so it seemed.

A small but vocal minority took issue with Boyega. Not for his performance or his costume or anything to do with the trailer as a whole. No, these people took issue with the fact that he was a black actor in what they considered to be a predominantly white world. Angry white nerds took to social media websites to jumpstart hashtags like #BoycottStarWarsVII. “#BoycottStarWarsVII because it is anti-white propaganda promoting #whitegenocide,” writes one twitter user. “If white people aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either” said another. To these people the inclusion of black actors in Star Wars is ‘social justice gone mad.’ They fear that, by making popular franchises multicultural, they will no longer be represented in the things they love.

These fears are unfounded. Never mind the fact that white actors are privileged in the film industry –many white actors have even been cast in roles originally written for people of colour, such as Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in Pan – Star Wars has always been multicultural. The original trilogy featured black actors James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams as Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian respectively, and the prequels featured Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu.

Of course, it is not only the race of certain characters that these people take issue with. When writer Chuck Wendig released his Star Wars novel ‘Aftermath,’ another small but vocal minority accused him of propagating the ‘gay agenda’ for featuring queer characters.  In response to these critics, Wendig wrote: “You’re not the Rebel Alliance. You’re not the good guys. You’re the fucking Empire, man. You’re the shitty, oppressive, totalitarian Empire. If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars.”

The real world is diverse. Ireland and the USA have both recently legalised same-sex marriage, instilling a new confidence in LGBTQ+ people. In 2014, Ireland became the fourth country in the world to celebrate Black History Month as 1.3 per cent of the population is of African origin. It is only normal that creators want to reflect this reality in popular fiction, as these groups are also consumers. The anti-diversity Twitter brigade will claim that blockbuster cinema should be escapist and reject reality, but what they feel to realise is that history and reality are integral to some of the best-loved franchises.


Dominican American writer and critic Junot Diaz, when speaking about representation, said “without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Colour, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense… If it wasn’t for race, X-Men wouldn’t exist… If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense.” Diaz is right.  When writing the X-Men series, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with Professor X acting as a stand-in for Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto acting as a sci-fi version of Malcolm X. This metaphor was carried into the X-Men film series by Bryan Singer, who also included vague LGBTQ+ themes. X-Men 2, considered by many to be a high point for the series, includes a ‘coming out’ scene in which a young Bobby Drake has to tell his parents he is a mutant. In the comics, it was recently revealed the Bobby Drake is also gay.

When conceiving the Star Wars, George Lucas wanted the Rebel Alliance, the ‘good guys’ of the original trilogy, to have American accents, while the evil Empire had to have British accents. This immediately draws parallels with real world history. At the height of its influence, the British Empire was the world’s largest global power and had control over American colonies. In the film series, the Galactic Empire also destroys multiple planets and people in order to gain more power. The influence of imperialism that Diaz discusses is at the very surface of the film franchise.

Reality is intrinsically linked to Iron Man’s backstory. When “quintessential capitalist” Tony Stark is injured during the Vietnam War he designs a power suit that will help him survive, and early Iron Man stories saw him fighting the dangers of communism. When the character was adapted for the big screen in 2008’s Iron Man, he was transported to the modern day, receiving his injury against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan.

Real life is integral to the development and success of popular entertainment, and director J.J. Abrams is keenly aware of this. Shortly before the trailer for The Force Awakens aired, he posted an image to his Twitter that read, “We cannot wait to share the trailer with you tonight. I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, Jawa, Wookie, Jedi, or Sith. I just hope you like it.” What Abrams understands, and what some people fail to grasp, is that popular media is exactly that: popular. It is for everyone, not just a select few. It reflects reality and mimics it. Speaking once again about representation for people of colour, Junot Diaz writes: “Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together.”

Filming a Queer Revolution: Conor Horgan

This work was originally printed in the University Observer in October 2015, both online and in print.

David Monaghan sits down with Conor Horgan to discuss his upcoming documentary about drag queen activist Panti Bliss, The Queen of Ireland.

Conor Horgan is the director of the moment. The man behind the woman of the biggest LGBT documentary to come out of Ireland this year, he has no doubt found himself inundated with interview requests and press junkets. Tapping away on his phone he breaks intermittently to apologise. “Sorry,” he says. “This week has been manic.” No doubt. One cannot make a documentary about the country’s most outspoken drag queen and the biggest social revolution we have experienced in the 21st century without experiencing some attention.

The Queen of Ireland maps the journey of Rory O’Neill from his childhood in the market town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to his accidental activism as Dublin’s charismatic Panti Bliss. Filmed over a number of years, it captures notable events in O’Neill’s life such as the infamous ‘Pantigate’ fiasco, as well as the viral sensation that was the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre, where Panti Bliss made a rousing speech about the RTÉ controversy. The speech went viral on YouTube, amassing over seven hundred thousand views. And finally, he captures the historic marriage referendum in May 2015, which saw the Irish people vote overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. “I always knew that interesting things would happen,” says Horgan. “We had no idea how interesting or what things indeed, but we started filming because I knew Rory and I knew Panti and I knew that we had this really interesting central character who’s very politically astute, extremely articulate, and wildly entertaining… Then when the actual story arrived, it arrived in spades,” he laughs.

“And another thing about Rory is that Panti is always camera-ready. Panti is always very sassy and very quick and very smart and very funny. There’s such a disparity between them as characters.” So at what point does this disparity become noticeable? “All of the front of house stuff happens through Panti, and Rory is really quite shy. If they were both exactly the same kind of character, just one wore a dress and the other one didn’t, I don’t think it would have been interesting.”

Production on this film began immediately after Horgan’s last feature film had been released, and was born of a meeting between him and his producer, Katie Holly. “She knew I knew Rory. I’ve known Rory since the mid-90s, when I started doing pictures of Panti for the Alternative Miss Ireland posters.” The Alternative Miss Ireland was an annual drag queen beauty pageant organised to raise funds for Irish AIDS charities. The very last one, held in 2012, is depicted in the film. “Rory, when we first approached him, said he’d been approached a number of times before but he never really felt like it, but he trusted me enough to say yes. I knew it was a big deal for him, not least because he comes from a small country town… He has a horror about being seen to have notions about oneself, which is a very Irish thing.”

The film ends, rather surprisingly, with Rory returning to do a show as Panti in his native Ballinrobe. Why was this ending chosen over the more obvious passing of marriage equality? “It was our decision [to do that]. When we first approached Rory, he said, ‘you’re not going to ask me to walk down the street in Ballinrobe wearing a dress, right?’ It was quite a big deal for him to agree to that… The film is about the intersection between the personal and the political, so you have a political climax, which is May 23rd, but then the personal. As Rory actually says himself in the film, the personal always trumps the political.”

In the film, O’Neill describes the secrecy that came with being gay in Dublin in the 1980s. As they danced in underground nightclubs, straight people went about their everyday lives, totally oblivious to what was happening. Gay people had to hide away and there are huge gaps in Irish LGBTQ+ history as a result. By featuring footage and interviews from this time, does Conor hope to fill this gap? “Basically, almost everything of that, that exists, is in the film. All a minute and a half of it. RTÉ would have gone in there with a camera crew maybe twice. We looked elsewhere to see what else there was, and there really wasn’t anything else. Does it fill a gap? I suppose any documentary, especially when it’s about, ultimately, how a country is changing is going to become part of the historical record of that country.”

The passing of marriage equality on May 23rd marked a significant turning point in Ireland. With overwhelming support for the ‘yes’ campaign, it signified to many that the country had finally moved on from a repressive past, 22 years after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Irish law. “I think the entire country was gobsmacked by just how big a deal this was,” Horgan says. “Everybody I knew had this emotional investment and really felt it when the thing went through, because it was about the country becoming a better place for everybody.” Conor had the privilege of being at the centre of events. “There was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been for that day, other than chasing Panti around with a camera.”

The Queen of Ireland is the director’s second feature film, following One Hundred Mornings in 2009. A post-apocalyptic drama filmed in the Wicklow Mountains, it details the breakdown of society and the loneliness that would ensue from such an event. “Of all the lies we tell ourselves,” he says, “the greatest is that there’s any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society. A lot of people, especially younger people, just go, ‘well great, it’ll be like Spring Break forever, except with guns, and we can do whatever the hell we want and go tearing around the place and shoot people and all bets will be off,’ and it wouldn’t be like that. It would be boring, and cold, and lonely, and scary, and I just wanted to make a realistic film saying, ‘is this what you want?’”One Hundred Mornings won an IFTA for Best Cinematography and a Special Jury Award at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival.

So what can we expect to see next from the filmmaker? “Nothing. I’m retiring now, that’s it,” he laughs, before his phone starts buzzing once more. “No, I’m working on a science-fiction love story with another writer called Pierce Ryan and we’re having a lot of fun doing that, so that might very well be my next film.” Quite a departure from following a drag queen around Ireland.

The marriage referendum created reverberations all over the world, as did the story of Panti Bliss and her noble call. This film captures that story and acts as a time capsule for this unique period in Irish history, and it is thanks to director Conor Horgan that it is on record. Whether he is detailing the breakdown of society, or following a man in drag, he undoubtedly has interesting things to say about the changing social landscape in Ireland.

The Queen of Ireland is in theatres now.