Day Three of IrishFilmFesta

First public interview by Kate O'Toole since the passing of her father Peter O'Toole

The third and penultimate day of the IrishFilmFesta began at 15.30 on Saturday 29 March with the screening of Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey in the presence of its director Lelia Doolan.

Doolan's in-depth perspective follows the tumultuous political career of activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, using highly-charged archive footage interspersed with extracts from a series of more recent interviews.

Devlin McAliskey rose to prominence following her central role in student-led civil rights marches in Northern Ireland in 1968. Within a year she was elected a member of parliament for Mid-Ulster as a 21-year-old student, becoming the youngest woman elected to Westminster, a title she holds to this day. Described variously as an "Irish Joan of Arc" or "Fidel Castro in a miniskirt", Devlin McAliskey has fought for civil rights as a feminist, socialist and republican.

Doolan – who herself was once described as “mad, bad and dangerous” by the conservative and powerful Dublin archbishop John Charles McQuaid – said that the motives behind her nine-year film project were to examine what drove Devlin McAliskey, as well as a sense that in some respects the activist had been written out of Northern Irish history in the wake of the peace process. “Certainly I think she has been relegated – said Doolan – wiped out by the media, the same media who created her in the first place.” However Doolan also said that the activist's ideas would never die and neither would her “clear and shiningly intelligent analysis.”

Speaking from the audience, Irish film maker Bob Quinn praised the documentary as a “tough film of ideas” but said he was “astonished” that Doolan could get the film released in Ireland, a place he described as “an anti-intellectual country where to discuss ideas of any depth is considered “boring”.”

Doolan's hard-hitting 2011 documentary was preceded by the short film The Daisy Chain, featuring a series of memories in the context of the flowers used in children's summer games. Directed by Ken Wilson, this nostalgic film was narrated by Fiona Shaw, who is known to many as Petunia Durnsley in the Harry Potter movies, and who recently gave a reading of the late Seamus Heaney's poetry at the Irish embassy in Rome.

The evening continued with the festival's guest of honour, actress Kate O'Toole, daughter of the much-loved actor of film and theatre Peter O'Toole. The public interview, the first since her father passed away last December aged 81, was conducted by Prof. Aine Healy of the Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

Kate revealed that initially she wanted to become a writer and fell into acting by accident. However she said that her father knew her future lay in acting before she did, telling her at an early age: “I can smell an actress.” Kate spoke of how “very supportive and kind and generous” her father always was towards younger actors, and highlighted the importance he put into stage acting. O'Toole made it his business to undertake a play each year, saying in reference to film: “Unless you can do it on stage, you can't really do it.”

Underling her father's Irish heritage, she solved a conundrum many Irish people had in relation to O'Toole's gentrified English accent. She said that while a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) O'Toole sought to rid himself of his Leeds accent, by mimicking the more cultured intonation of actor James Mason.

Kate also revealed that her father – famous for being nominated for an Oscar eight times but failing to win one – was opposed to receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on him by the Academy in 2003. He told the Academy that he didn't want it  she said  that he wanted to win the award by himself. However the Academy informed him that he was “going to receive the award whether he liked it or not and it was up to him whether he showed up.” In the end, O'Toole accepted his award, to a standing ovation, but always viewed it as a “consolation prize.”

Kate said her favourite film starring her father is The Ruling Class in which O'Toole gives “an extraordinary performance of rage and anger.” As to which film he will be best remembered for: “Lawrence of Arabia, of course!”.

Kate also recounted some of the legendary madcap stories associated with her father's larger-than-life offscreen persona. When filming Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor on location in China, O'Toole refused to use the Rolls Royce laid on to ferry him to and from the set. Instead he requested a bicycle, but his “sense of direction wasn't the best” and he would be followed by the Rolls Royce every day to ensure he made it to the set. When filming was over he declared that he never wished to fly again, so opted to come home from China via the Trans-Siberian railway instead.

Kate said that although “nobody wanted him to retire”, O'Toole left the theatre almost a decade before retiring from film, simply because “he didn't have the breath.”

The warmly-received interview was followed by the short film Off Your Trolley, a six-minute dialogue-free dance sequence set in the south-eastern Irish town of Wexford, followed by the screening of the feature film Run & Jump. Set in Co. Kerry in the far south-west of Ireland, the film centres around the spirited Vanetia Casey (Maxine Peake) who struggles to deal with the return home of her husband (Edward MacLiam) whose personality has been severely affected by a stroke. Vanetia takes comfort in the presence of the doctor (Ted Fielding) who is sent to study her husband's condition.

The evening ended with the screening of Byzantium at 21.30, with queues stretching long into the grounds of Casa del Cinema. The work of the acclaimed Irish director of Interview With The Vampire, the film follows the arrival in a small English seaside town of two mysterious young women, on the run for a grizzly crime. Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) both hide secrets spanning two centuries and must face challenges that will change their lives forever.

The fourth and final day of the festival is entitled Belfast Day and takes place in the presence of actors Stuart Graham and Ciarán McMenamin.

The IrishFilmFesta runs from 27-30 March at the Casa del Cinema, in the Via Veneto corner of Villa Borghese.

For full details see website.

Andy Devane

General Info

Address Casa del Cinema, Largo Marcello Mastroianni 1 (Villa Borghese), tel. 06423601.

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Day Three of IrishFilmFesta

Casa del Cinema, Largo Marcello Mastroianni 1 (Villa Borghese), tel. 06423601.