FILM REVIEWS: Foyle Film Festival

Garbhan Downey enjoys The Boys of St Columb's and Hush-A-Bye Baby

There was a strong Irish flavour to the opening weekend of the 22nd Foyle Film Festival, with two Derry-based films drawing both large crowds and popular acclaim.

The Northern Ireland premiere of The Boys of St Columb’s was so packed that the organisers at the Nerve Centre had to schedule a second showing for those who walked in off the streets without pre-booking. Meanwhile down at the Strand Omniplex, there was a warm and welcoming homecoming for Hush-A-Bye Baby, which was celebrating both its 20th anniversary and its belated Irish premiere.

The Boys, which will be shown on RTE and BBC in the spring, is an extremely engaging documentary focusing on the experiences of eight of St Columb’s most internationally-renowned alumni – Messrs Brady, Coulter, Daly, Deane, Heaney, Hume, McCann and Sharkey.

It could have been oh-so-dull. But producers Maurice Fitzpatrick and Kevin McCann resisted the safe option of an anodyne love-in and instead fashioned a no-holds-barred portrait of a school that was in its day cruel and brutal - but also liberating and energising. At times, indeed, it seemed the former students were trying to outdo one another with Pythonesque zeal, as they recounted horror stories of bullying, beatings, strappings, loneliness and, in the case of the boarders, near-starvation.

Singer Paul Brady recalled teachers 'foaming at the mouth' with rage; Seamus Heaney remembered 'executive strapping' and the sense of 'violence and fear' in the air; Seamus Deane talked about men who had embarked on a 'crime rampage called a teaching career'; while Eamonn McCann pronounced that some of the priests who taught him were 'clinically insane'.

McCann also revealed that he had been the subject of a homosexual pass from a predatory teacher. 'I’m not aware that it did me great psychic damage,' he comments drily, 'but it couldn’t have done me much good either.'

The Boys of St Columb'sToday the survivors enjoy the camaraderie of those who had fought in the trenches together. But there is also an underlying respect for the education they received and gratitude for the opportunity, which had been denied their parents’ generation.

Bishop Edward Daly points to the emergence of the civil rights movement and praises the key role St Columb’s played in fashioning leaders who could skilfully articulate their grievances to the outside world. James Sharkey, later Irish ambassador to Russia, was one of them. 'When we wanted equality,' he states simply, 'we wanted all our community to prosper.'

Even McCann recognises that St Columb’s instilled him with some positive qualities – not to mention a lasting love of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The film also features some lovely cinematographic vignettes. When the gang first reunite for a shoot at their old alma mater, John Hume pretends to be surprised at the inclusion of McCann in their number. 'What are you doing here?' he sniffs at him, turning his head away in distaste. He then bursts out laughing and shakes his old tormentor’s hand.

Hume also performs a moving reading of Heaney’s poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, which tells of the author’s return from the school after his brother was killed in an accident.

Coulter and Brady swap stories about playing rock songs on the college organ, under the nose of the Dean. The trick, Brady explains, is to play them really slowly, so he thinks they’re hymns. The two white-haired Seamuses then go for a walk through the Bogside, ambling around Free Derry Corner like latter-day druids, chatting with the ease of lifelong friends.

And McCann, (whose dramatic red scarf deserves its own special award for upstaging Phil Coulter’s Indiana Jones hat), recalls his first moment of subversion, berating a college priest on the altar for demonising Elvis 'when Mr Presley is not here to defend himself...'

Given the lives these men have lived it is no surprise that there is much more besides: civil rights, Bloody Sunday, gold discs, platinum awards, Whitbread prizes and two Nobel prizes – and that’s before Seamus Deane’s illuminating thesis on priests as God’s (vicious) policemen.

If anything, the documentary is too short at 54 minutes and could have easily made a 90-minute feature. But it’s compulsory viewing for anyone who ever went to a Catholic boys’ school – or, indeed, any school anywhere.

Tom Collins, who directed Boys, was also the producer on Hush-A-Bye Baby, which received its first ever big-screen showing in Ireland on Sunday night.

Made in 1989, the film provoked massive controversy in its time, centring as it does on unwanted teen pregnancy in war-torn Catholic Derry. Goretti – a mischievous 15-year-old sprite, superbly played by Emer McCourt – has her life turned upside down when she finds herself pregnant, just as her republican boyfriend is arrested.

Deeply distressed by both the pregnancy and the potential stigma of unmarried motherhood, she attempts to induce a miscarriage by mixing hard booze and medicine. And when this fails, she hides her condition from her parents, endangering her own life in the process.

The abortion issue was red-hot in Ireland following the 1983 referendum to formalise the ban in the constitution. And the storyline evokes poignant echoes of 15-year-old Anne Lovett, who died while giving birth outside a grotto in Granard, Country Longford in 1984. Her baby son also died.

For all that, Hush-A-Bye Baby is very entertaining and fiercely funny, featuring scores of examples of deadpan Derry wit. (In one scene, Goretti’s pal eyes up a statue of the Virgin Mary cautiously, and warns it: 'Don’t you fucking move.') It also features the screen debut of Sinead O’Connor, who wrote and performed the score.

In a special Q’n’A session after the showing, director Margo Harkin regaled the audience by reading from the letters of complaint after Channel 4 broadcast the film. There was particular outrage in Derry at the 'bad language'. One woman caller to Harkin’s office got very worked up about how the city had been portrayed in such a negative light, telling Harkin it was 'fucking disgraceful'.

And there was also a full debate on BBC Radio Foyle about a scene in which Goretti is shown nude in the bath, attempting to vomit into the adjacent toilet. The campaigner Mary Nelis silenced many critics by pointing out that she, for one, normally took off her clothes before getting into the bath.

This is a great film which still resonates two decades on – and certainly merits another TV outing. Well done to the Foyle Film Festival for giving it its much long overdue Irish bow.

For information on the Foyle Film Festival check out the festival site here.