Earlier this year, An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) made history as the first Irish-language film to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, winning the Generation Plus International Jury Grand Prize for Best film. Director Colm Bairéad’s narrative feature debut was subsequently named Best Irish Film by the Dublin Film Critics Circle at the Dublin International Film Festival and swept the boards at Iftas, converting some seven of the 11 nominations in the categories that have pitted the film against such heavy competition. like Passing, The Lost Daughter and Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning Belfast.
“It’s something that every filmmaker probably dreams of,” says Bairead. “But it exceeded all of our expectations. I remember when we were filling in forms at Screen Ireland regarding our hopes for the film, and we specifically indicated that we wanted to enter the Generation program in Berlin. It was amazing to get into that. And then earn something. The very idea of an Irish-language film that could go hand-in-hand with world cinema was really special. And going home and winning the People’s Choice Award and the Film Critics’ Award and getting that recognition from a local audience was also very meaningful.
“It shows that elements of the Irish language are handled in a way that feels organic, that people react to it like a movie, not something contrived like something with people walking down Grafton Street speaking Irish without specific reason.”
An Cailín Ciúin is adapted from Claire Keegan’s Foster – the author prefers to call the project a ‘long story’ rather than a short story – a much-admired work currently on the Leaving Certificate program. Set in the early 1980s, the film is about Cáit (tried by Catherine Clinch), a withdrawn nine-year-old girl, who is sent away by her pregnant mother to relatives for the summer. Cáit is immediately pampered by Eibhlín, played by Carrie Crowley, with a care and attention that the young girl, coming from a large family, is not accustomed to. Eibhlín’s husband, Seán (Andrew Bennett), is initially gruff about his new charge, but slowly the pair bond, just when Cáit realizes the sweet couple has a secret.
“Reading Claire’s story, I was definitely seeing some sort of form of the film, in my head it was building,” says Bairéad. “And also kind of a fear of, well, I get pretty excited about this material, but is this material actually available?
“I fell in love with the story. I guess it touches on a lot of the themes that have been present in my shorts, because almost all of my shorts are youth-centric. But Foster, because it’s written in the first person, present tense immediately feels quite visual and empathetic and character driven.With a few theoretical exceptions, the film is a medium in the present tense.
“I guess at the same time I’m reading it and I also think there’s not a lot of plot. I realized early on that I would need to add details, built from references to events in the character’s home life, so I kind of took some of those things and expanded on them in the opening act of the movie, and it was a leap of faith because the movie doesn’t depend You can sum it up like this: a girl goes and stays with relatives.
“So the narrative tension of the film is entirely derived from the point of view, putting the audience in the shoes of this girl. You want to engage your audience with emotionally compelling creativity. There’s a great quote from Mark Cousins in The Story of Children and Film documentary series. He says: if you look carefully and openly at one small thing, you can see a lot. It was our story.
The relevant little details of An Cailín Ciúin’s delicate text are articulated by a formidable ensemble, and in particular by the extraordinary lead performance given by newcomer Clinch. Speaking recently on the Late Late Show, Crowley described his 12-year-old co-star’s turn as “a masterclass in filmmaking”.
“My wife is the producer of the film and we spent a lot of time looking for Cáit,” says Bairéad. “It’s our first feature, we kind of naively decided not to hire a casting director and save ourselves that part of the budget. We were like, ‘oh, well, we’re both Irish speakers and language is obviously very important.’ We were afraid that a casting director wouldn’t have an ear for language.
“We had open auditions and calls for gaelscoils for a few months. And then Covid raised its head. and we had to use tapes ourselves, and we got this amazing tape at the last minute from Catherine, just down the street in Rathgar. He had a really striking interiority. You were leaning forward in that little phone video, completely engrossed in her character, engrossed in what she was doing, by what she wasn’t showing you. And that’s the essence of great screen acting.
A natural evolution
Bairéad grew up in a bilingual home in Donaghmede where her father, a schoolteacher who taught German, spoke exclusively in Irish.
“My dad was involved in setting up a local gaelscoil so we all ended up going there,” says Bairéad. “It was a bit unusual in the north. And when you’re a kid, you really don’t want to be different because it scars you. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the way we grew up. But I’m very grateful to him now.
As young Colm grew up, the family television flickered on, leaving the family with books and the occasional cinema visit to keep them entertained until the Republic of Ireland’s presence at Italia 1990 demanded a new television unit. and a VHS that was later used for 1950s Hollywood musicals and classic Chaplin movies like Modern Times.
The Irish language, however, became part of the writer-director’s practice early on, thanks to a 2010 TG4 program run by Filmbase.
“I took part in a program called Údar – which is the Irish word for author – which had an element of mentoring,” the director recalls. “And then you can do a short film at the end. So I did that with Paddy Breathnach (I Went Down, Viva). And then with Declan Recks (Eden, The Flag). I was lucky enough to meet people who had foresight and vision. So when an opportunity to develop a feature presented itself, it felt like a natural progression.
An Cailín Ciúin arrives as part of a new wave of Irish-language films, including rural drama Foscadh, award-winning famine-themed film Arracht and new canine comedy, Rósie and Frank. Produced by Cleona Ní Chrualaoi for Inscéal, the production company she co-founded with Bairéad, An Cailín Ciúin was funded through the admirably bold Cine 4 production and development funding initiative led by the television channel in Irish language TG4, in association with Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
“I’ve been saying this for years, but I’m so excited,” Bairead says. “I’m really excited to see more Irish-language films, regardless of my own interests and involvement. It’s so edgy and refreshing and it’s a great fix too. You look at the history of Irish cinema and – I don’t know the exact number of Irish language films – but it must be quite small. There’s Mise Éire and Poitín and I’m probably forgetting a few, but it’s no more than a handful. And now, thanks to this scheme and TG4, the cannon has multiplied almost overnight.
“I think there’s been this sort of latent talent pool of Irish-language filmmakers and the desirability or feasibility of doing an Irish-language was more tricky before. It needed this kind of flag in the ground from these stakeholders to say: we want to support this; we want to create a movement.
The new wave the director is currently surfing on, as he notes, is part of a larger revival. In recent years, three films in Basque have been acquired by Netflix: Loreak (2014), Handia (2017) and Errementari (2018); the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival has featured films in Siberian Yupik, Maxakali, Gujarati, and Haitian Creole; and 21st century Chinese eco-cinema has produced global hits such as Lu Chuan’s Mountain Patrol, which was written in the Tibetan language, and Liu Jie’s Lisu-language Deep in the Clouds.
“I think what has happened in Basque and Catalan cinema in recent years, for example, should be a real source of inspiration for us,” says Bairéad. “Carla Simon’s summer of 1993 was a real touchstone for me with our film. I think it’s a masterclass in terms of presenting a child’s point of view and being totally true to it. An Cailín Ciúin is aesthetically quite different, but the two films share the same intention. And of course you have a Catalan film that won the Golden Bear this year. Simon again, of course!
“There’s no reason Irish-language cinema shouldn’t think in those terms. There are works of Irish language literature that can and have been recognized as great works of world literature. Why shouldn’t we aspire to the same for Irish language films? »
An Cailín Ciúin opens on May 12