Why Ireland’s Galway Film Fleadh Has Made Palestine Its Country of Focus: ‘Solidarity’ and the ‘Quality of the Work’

The 2024 Galway Film Fleadh on Ireland’s tranquil and picturesque west coast is set to open with one of the noisiest films of the year, “Kneecap.”

A comedy biopic about the real-life Belfast rap group of the same name, the feature became a breakout hit in Sundance (where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics) and has since been gathering steam in various festival ahead of its August release. The band — who all play themselves in the film — have been amassing fame and notoriety along the way, releasing a new album last month, going on sell-out tours and recently playing Glastonbury to what was described as a “headline-worthy crowd.”

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Unashamedly and refreshingly outspoken, the trio rap and talk openly about their desire for a united Ireland, the history of British oppression in the country and the power of the local language in battling colonialism (“Kneecap” is predominantly in Irish and should qualify for the international feature Oscar). They’ve also been speaking out about the war in Gaza, regularly calling for a “free Palestine” and denouncing what they describe as Israeli military aggression. Wherever they’ve gone, they’ve brought Palestinian flags with them and joined pro-Palestinian protests (except in SXSW, which they pulled out of in March due to its links to U.S. arms manufacturers) — and this is something likely to continue when they land in Galway for the Irish premiere of “Kneecap” on July 9.

But that won’t be the only mention of Palestine at the festival.

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel in October, which killed 1,200 people and saw 250 kidnapped, and Israel’s ongoing retaliatory strikes on Gaza that have killed an estimated 38,000 people according to the health ministry, film festivals have largely shied away from what is a hugely sensitive hot-button topic. Before Cannes in May, Thierry Fremaux, said he wanted it be a “festival without polemics,” which many took to meaning that he wanted to avoid it becoming a platform for debate on the conflict.

But in Galway, organizers have gone against the grain and have made Palestine its country of focus, with various features from Palestinian filmmakers on the lineup.

Among the films being screened across the six days of the festival are “The Teacher,” from BAFTA-winning and Oscar nominated director Farah Nabulsi; Bassam Jarbawi’s debut feature “Screwdriver,” about the toll on a man after 15 years in an Israeli jail; the documentary “We No Longer Prefer Mountains”; Mahdi Fleifel’s “To a Land Unknown,” which was the only Palestinian film that screened in Cannes this year; and “No Other Land,” made by a Palestinian-Israeli collective of activists and winner of the Panorama audience award for best documentary at this year’s Berlinale (where the directors’ acceptance speeches criticizing what they described as Israeli “apartheid” sparked condemnation from German politicians).

For the festival organizers in Galway, there were several reasons for focusing on Palestine this year, but high among them was to show solidarity in the midst of the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza.

“All art is political and we’re not afraid to show films that skirt the edge, so for us to say we’re going to show films from Palestine and it’s going to be our country of focus is clearly a standpoint saying, ‘We understand the politics there, we are showing solidarity with the Palestinian people and their artists,’” says Galway’s director of programming Maeve McGrath. “Because it can be hard for any artist to continue to practice their art in a landscape that is intolerable, which it is at the moment.”

But McGrath notes that the decision was also very much about the “quality of the films” being shown. “We wouldn’t show a country of focus if the films are rubbish,” she says, adding that “The Teacher,” which garnered acclaim following its world premiere in Toronto, was one of the first to be submitted (and also stars two Irish actors in Stanley Townsend and Andrea Irvine).

“For us to be able to say that we have these fantastic films from Palestine… it felt like it was the right time to do that.”

The Galway Film Fleadh’s tribute to Palestine is perhaps unsurprising, with Ireland — which has a common historical experience of occupation — having become one of the most prominent on the global stage in voicing solidarity with the Palestinian cause. In May, Ireland formally recognized a Palestinian state (a move that prompted Israel to recall its ambassador, accusing it of encouraging terrorism and further instability), while it was Irish human rights attorney Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh who made the closing statement at the International Court of Justice in January when she accused Israel of committing “genocide against the Palestinian people” (a claim fiercely disputed by Israel).

As such, Galway festival co-founder and CEO Miriam Allen says the reaction to its country of focus this yeawr has been “hugely positive.” But she admits that there has been “some negativity, which was expected,” with a handful of executives who were due to fly in to attend the festival’s marketplace now saying “they weren’t coming” and organizers receiving several angry emails (one describing them “as a disgrace”).

“But we can’t avert our gaze as to what is happening, and given our own history of colonization, that underpins it as well. But at the heart of this is the quality of the work and supporting the artists as well,” says Allen.

“We know that, obviously, it wasn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea and everything at the Fleadh is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s fine,” acknowledges McGrath. “But it’s a lot of people’s cup of tea, and I think that’s a good enough reason.”

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