Dreams, Docs and Dolphins: Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival 2010

When I was putting together a list of links for the Guth Gafa blog post today I came across an interview with UK filmmaker Kim Longinotto, who was a special guest at this year’s festival. In the interview she explains that she starts off with an a idea of what her next documentary is going to be and says it usually ends up being much bigger, much more life changing than she ever thought it could turn out. This is exactly how I felt about Guth Gafa!

It was my first time as a volunteer with the festival and while my expectations had been high before heading up to Gortahork (good news always travels fast), nothing could have prepared me for how brilliantly this weekend went. Seriously, 10 out of 10, and not just where the actual films are concerned. David and Neasa have really managed to build a community that is a very rare and magical thing to achieve. When we first got to Gortahork on Thursday and still had to decorate the place and prepare the venues I wondered how it would all pan out. But from the moment we welcomed the first filmmaker at the guest desk and people started pouring in, things just organically became this wonderful tapestry of ideas and goodwill, people meeting and sharing their thoughts, eating together, laughing and dancing.

There were so many memorable moments that if I strung them together they would surely reach all the way from Donegal to Dublin and possibly further. I had always loved documentaries but I don’t think I have ever been moved this much by them before. This has a lot to do with David, Neasa and the rest of the team setting the scene for experiences to unfold that are hard to replicate in a once off screening in a random urban cinema. The beautiful Donegal landscape and the generous spirit of the many different people who came together at Guth Gafa all helped to make this such a special weekend.

I had told a few of my friends about coming here and was glad some had decided to share it with me. At the same time it was brilliant to meet so many new people who felt like old friends after half an hour discussing film projects over a coffee. Having most of the filmmakers attend the festival was one of the many beautiful aspects of the festival. Almost every film was followed by a Q&A and as everything revolved around the Loch Altan hotel (or ‘L.A.’ as I dubbed it from day one) you would be able to just walk into the lobby and have a chat with a filmmaker from New York, Reykjavik or Edinburgh who were all incredibly approachable and generous about sharing their expertise.

I’ve been attracted to filmmaking as a medium for storytelling for a long time but have always felt a bit put off by the amount of technical skills, financial support and collaborators that seemed to be required. This weekend taught me that all these things will fall into place (sooner or possibly later!) if you follow your instinct and make a film about people or concepts that truly, truly mean something to you. The most moving stories on screen this weekend were those where the filmmaker or the main characters or both shared their own vulnerabilities and insecureties, which is really the greatest gift of trust anyone can give to another person. This trust and the enthusiasm for exploring the human condition was very infectious and cathartic and in turn inspired the audiences again and again to open up themselves and speak about their own, often extremely personal, experiences.

To call a festival group therapy might take it a bit far, but that’s what it really felt like on some level. I often get excited about events that touch me in some way, but have never felt quite this emotional at a festival for such an extended period of time. I could really be myself during this weekend and feel transformed in the most positive way possible. The most important themes of the festival for me were self-awareness, letting go of the past, embracing life, exploring memories and dreams, love, joy and forgiveness – pretty much all there is to learn in life. There is a book by Canadian author David Gilmour called ‘The Film Club’ in which he talks about allowing his teenage son to drop out of high school for a year and instead father and son watch three films per week together and discuss them. This weekend made me wonder about the value of the education we give our children and our adult selves. I think I learned more about film, and most importantly about life, in those couple of days than I did during all the years sitting at a desk in school and uni. If films and talking to people can have such a profound impact on people’s lives why are we bothering with the rest?

In the same interview I referred to earlier, Kim Longinotto also says: ‘Every time I go and make a film, I meet wonderful, wonderful people that I, sort of, fall in love with. It makes me feel good about being alive and about being a human being.’  That pretty much sums up what this weekend meant for me. If it was a documentary, there would be lots of wonderful characters in it. The amazing people I met, the emerging filmmakers excited to test and develop their ideas, the little Polish/Irish boy dancing to the trad music in the hotel lounge, the festival team that somehow made everything happen in a way that left everyone enough freedom to be spontaneous without losing sight of the overall project, Lucy the dog who was the ‘side show’ for a children’s event in the Parish hall, the brilliant bands at the festival club, the dancing somehow helped both to settle the many ideas of the day as well as shake our heads free from regrets of the past, our dream discussion in the Mongolian tent and the girl with the dolphin dream that came true, sleeping on the sofa of the hostel on the night after the party at David’s and Neasa’s because my friend had taken the room key with her to Dublin by mistake, the (partly quite emotional) drive back to Dublin with two other film fanatics (strangers before the festival) who I hatched at least two or three amazing projects with, which I’m going to follow up right after posting this, and last but not least at all, meeting Amy, Kim, Gabriel, Jan, John, Mika, Peter, Hana, Patricia, Liz and all the other film people who attended the festival for being so inspiring and so much fun to be around.

A huge thank you above all to Neasa and David for making this festival such a life changing experience for us participants. It somehow doesn’t come as a surprise that it is two filmmakers who made this extraordinary weekend happen, you’d need to have resilience and a special eye for envisioning this kind of event to unfold and they most definitely have that. Also thanks to Melanie for pulling me out of a shift at a screening at the right moment so I could talk to Kim for a minute before she left. And to all those of you who I met and shared a coffee, joke or film idea with. You are brilliant and really hope to keep in touch!

P.S. If you’re wondering which films I liked most at the festival just go to the Guth Gafa website and take your pick, the film choices were so spot on, you will not go wrong with any of the documentaries listed there. Having said that, Amy Hardie’s ‘The Edge of Dreaming’ is still holding my heart hostage and looking at the poster for her beautiful film on the wall opposite me now makes me really determined to keep writing about the things that move me most and the kind of people I most enjoy being around.

6 responses to “Dreams, Docs and Dolphins: Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival 2010

  1. Lovely review of a wonderful festival. I arrived feeling low and lonely and I left recharged, positive, excited about life and all it’s possibilities (and this wasn’t just from meeting you 🙂 ). A wonderful programme that even kept me away from surfing… but as always as much as the films it was the people, lots of big hearts and no (noticeably) big egos!…got festival withdrawals already…

  2. You express what we felt! We had no idea what to expect except some interesting films. Getting there takes a bit of time and effort, but the rewards are huge. We managed to fit in eleven films, all superb, all very different styles of documentary. There was tremendous discussion at every point about what constitutes a documentary, what styles appealed, what moved us to tears (both “Steam of Life” and “Mario and Nini”), what haunted us after we left (“If these walls could talk” and “The Player”, and of course characters in “Steam of Life”), what was a funny surprise (“Cowboys in India”), what was just rivetting viewing (two from Kim Longinetto – “Pride of Place” which was horribly familiar, and “Divorce Iranian Style” which was very reminiscent of the ultra Catholic Irish environment of our youth, where people endlessly bent the law to suit the circumstance rather than change the law). I digress here, but that was what the whole weekend was about, listening to different views, taking stock, talking, exchanging, linking up with what we’d already seen. We hardly ate over the weekend, we were so busy having a fantastic time. The food was absolutely brilliant when we did eat, very good quality and cheap. When we finally got through all the movies we wanted to see, the Festival Club was just marvellous. Friday night we were too tired to enjoy it late, but Saturday, we prepared ourselves and danced our socks off to a tremendous band called “Sound of System Breakdown”. The place we stayed was out of this world, in Dunlewy, overlooking the lake, with Errigal right behind us. Myself and Clare shared a room with three others, Mia, Miriam and Judy, who became out friends and fellow viewers/dancers for the weekend. I didn’t notice the weather, it didn’t matter as we were so immersed in wonderful wonderful times – it was like a feast for my head. Donegal is one of our favourite places on the planet anyhow, it’s so beautiful, so wild and so friendly, and this just added to all the memories we already have. One of the great plusses of Gortahork seemed to be that it’s proximity to the sea seemed to mean no midges in the evening (or was I just watching movies then?). When I mention the films above, it doesn’t mean that the others were less enjoyable. All of them had a certain something that made them unique, and I learned from all of them, especially I learned from the Q&A sessions with the directors after the films – many many thanks to all of them, it was a great priviledge to meet them all. Thanks to you especially, for telling me about this festival, just wish I could have attended even more of them, and stayed on for an extra week! Love and harmony, Lulu

  3. Wonderful article! I’m absolutely delighted you enjoyed the weekend; your experience is exactly what we hope people will have.

    On a more particular note, I love that Parish Hall dog! I was great friends with her last year, didn’t get down as much this year. I think I’ve made friends with all the dogs in Gortahork now (and at the Dunlewey hostel)!

    Great feedback from other commenters too, which is brilliant. Here’s to a wonderful 2011 festival!

    Louise, Guth Gafa Festival Manager.

  4. It’s a great article!! It made me regret not being there with all these great people! Maybe next year!

  5. Guth Gafa as meditation on childhood and parenthood.

    The theme that seemed to run through the films (for me) was the power of the parent, for good or otherwise. Of course, this is my regular soapbox, so in a way, the films spoke to my condition.

    In the “Steam of Life”, moving stories are told from the point of view of father and son, showing just how lifelong that influence is. “The Edge of Dreaming” had us feeling the filmmakers ache at the potential loss of her children. “Cowboys in India” was relatively lighthearted until one of the guides broke down, seeing the situation of a man with his baby, living in conditions ruined by bauxite mining. I found “Divorce Iranian Style” exceptionally upsetting, seeing the children on the sidelines watching their parents fighting over their custody and their future, very much as owners.

    We started the day with “Pride of Place” an amazing film about an exclusive English boarding school. The children here are sent to a cruel and snobby atmosphere to form them, to make them into properly functioning members of an upper-class Britain. Kim Longinotto, in a fascinating Q&A afterwards said “our parents didn’t want us, they weren’t very interested in us”, and you can see how the girls parrot the school policy when they speak to the camera. “His and Hers” was almost disappointing after all these very real emotional situations. It portrayed an Ireland full of happy mammies who only thought good and kindly thoughts of their spouses and children – really more a film for Bord Failte. We followed that with “talhotblond”, which showed very much the other end of the spectrum of family life, with parents behaving as bold children, unthinking of the consequences of their actions.

    The following morning, we watched “Through Kids Eyes”, a series of films portraying childrens lives. “On the Block” was a film about the childrens idyllic lives in Tory Island, followed by “Mario and Nini”. The kids in this film are struggling and are helped by the documentary maker (as sort of house parent, if you like) to examine issues in their lives with the help of a video camera. In “P-Star Rising” we saw a little girl (9) being promoted as a rap singer in a very adult world. Your heart couldn’t but go out to the whole family, torn apart by their circumstances, grabbing at the opportunity of fame and fortune.

    The last two films we watched were about lonely people, one a fictionalised account of a suicide “The Sound of Insects”, and the other, “The Player”, about gamblers, who live a sort of private double life, often devastated by loss, but pretending otherwise. With these films, I found myself wondering about these mens lives, and who had formed them, who had been their mum and dad. My theme of the power of the parent didn’t surface here, but ran underground. In fact, the overriding feeling with these two films was a motherly concern for these loners and in what drove them to the edge.
    Lastly, we had to miss “Beyond this Place”, about a father-son relationship, hope to maybe catch it in Galway.

  6. I know what you mean Lulu about ‘divorce Iranian style’, I found it very upsetting to watch that little girl as her mother fought for custody, I also felt a little uneasy observing such personal drama… it’s a big debate in docs I think. I was also a bit disappointed with His & Hers given the hype… I loved the way he filmed the houses though…

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