What economic crisis? Irish film is competing strong as ever on the international circuit, and for proof see the three new Irish films debuting at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, the brainchild of Robert De Niro, who created the event in the aftermath of September 11.
First up comes the Irish writer and director Macdara Vallely’s debut Tribeca feature film Babygirl. When a young girl’s mother gets sweet talked by an on-the-surface thoughtful young man, she sets out to expose him for the player he really is.
There’s a little more to it than that of course, because Babygirl is set in a section of the Bronx that will be familiar to many Irish New Yorkers.
What emerges is an intimate portrait of a community and its daily struggles, as seen through the eyes of the Irish writer and director who makes his home there. It’s a skillful film brought to life by subtle performances, and its familiarity with its subject frames every scene.
The festival itself was founded in 2002 as a way to revitalize the neighborhood after the 9/11 attacks. Ten years later the skyscraping Freedom Tower is nearing completion in the World Trade Center’s shadow, and the film festival has grown into one of the most important shop windows on the international calendar.
In recent years Tribeca has been the international launch pad of Irish Oscar winner Once, and profitable crowd pleasers like The Guard, Swell Season and The Eclipse.
All of these were independent films but more and more name directors and studio films also join the lineup each year. For Vallely, who’s making his Tribeca debut with Babygirl, it’s the best possible shop front for a film that’s by and for New York City.
“It was one of those things were I was on the number two train one day and I saw this vignette of a mother and daughter on the train,” Vallely tells the Irish Voice.
“The mother was in her thirties, the daughter was in her teens and I saw this 20 year old guy eyeing them up. First I could see him looking at the daughter, but she wasn’t having any of it, then he turned his attentions to the mother. It was one of those things that you see in New York every day.”
But it stuck with him, and he decided to write a script about it. He started to wonder what would happen to them if the young man had pursued them rather than got off at the next stop.
Something about the young girl’s situation made him want to know what would happen to her, and the script for Babygirl arouse out of that.
Vallely had previously met with David Collins, the producer of Once, and he discovered Collins was a fan his debut feature Peacefire, a hard hitting tale of life in the still at war north of Ireland in the 1990s.
“I had just finished the script to Babygirl and he really liked it,” says Vallely. “But it was outside the kind of Irish script he usually liked, so he wanted a New York based producer to come on board.”
They convinced Paul Miller, the producer of The Secret of Roan Inish to get involved. With help from the big name pair, the Irish Film Board and private equity they raised together they raised the budget and shot the film in the Bronx in the summer of 2010.
During postproduction, Vallely and his wife had a child together, which was a pleasant development that held up the work a little.
“We also decided to invest a lot of time in the music. So the composer Brendan Dolan and I spent a lot of time getting it right,” Vallely said.
Although on the surface there isn’t an immediate Irish connection between the film and Irish viewers, the script was written, directed and produced by Irish people and the tale is universal, which is how it transcends any narrow assessment.
“The hardest part to cast in Babygirl was the 15 year old herself. The film rests on her shoulders. I spent a year and a half looking for her and finally she walked in on our last open call. She was second to last on our list that day,” Vallely said.
As luck would have it, the details of young Yanis Yanoia’s life (she plays Lena, the lead) closely resembled that of her character. Hailing from the South Bronx, she already had a kind of maturity and strength to her character that you don’t often find in teenagers that young, Vallely says.
“Ninety percent of your work is in casting,” he adds. “I felt very lucky that way. They all understood their characters in a very intimate way. They were really able to embody their roles.”
Meanwhile, fellow Irish director Terry George has been on a creative roll since his short film The Shore, starring Ciaran Hinds and Kerry Condon, won an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.
George, most famous for his mature dramas like Hotel Rwanda, is changing gears this year with the sparkling new comedy Whole Lotta Sole, his latest feature film starring screen favorites Brendan Fraser and Colm Meaney.
Set in the back streets of Belfast, Whole Lotta Sole starts local up-and-coming Belfast native Martin McCann as young father Jimbo Reagan, who’s about to have the unluckiest week of his life. Jimbo owes Mad Dog Flynn $5,000 and it’s payback time.