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Silent witness

Writer/ director Colm Bairéad told David Hennessy about The Quiet Girl breaking new ground for an Irish language film, a new resurgence for the language and why he wanted to give a child a voice in a time when they were to be ‘seen and not heard’.

After proving a sensational success by winning big at the recent IFTA awards, the Irish language film The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) is set for UK and Irish cinemas.

Written and directed by Colm Bairéad, the Quiet Girl tells the story of Cáit.

Cáit is a silent, neglected girl.

Ignored at home, it seems she is unloved as her ever-expanding family is poor.

Pregnant yet again and preoccupied, Cáit’s mother could use a break while her father is a womaniser, drinker and gambler.

Cáit’s mother’s distant relatives offer to take the child in for the summer and not knowing where she is going,  Cáit is put in the car to Eibhlin and Sean Kinsella (Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett).

Away from her overcrowded, dysfunctional family, Cáit  blossoms in their care as she is cared for for the first time in her life.

The Quiet Girl is enjoying the kind of hype and mainstream release that no Irish language film has enjoyed before.

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Colm told The Irish World: “It’s a total honour.

“When you set out to make a film, you have those sort of grand ambitions that it will travel and it will connect with audiences beyond your own shores.

“We’re really excited about the fact that UK audiences are going to have a chance to see our little Irish language film.”

SO much of the film’s success comes from the performance of its star.

Told through a child’s eyes, the camera rarely leaves Catherine Clinch and with the film resting on her slight shoulders, she conveys a lot even though she may say little.

The film’s young star went on to take Best Actress at this year’s IFTA awards beating seasoned pros like Niamh Algar, Angeline Ball, Gemma- Leah Devereux and Hazel Doupe.

How did they unearth such a gem? Colm explains it was a long process that saw them auditioning young girls from all over Ireland.

“We started the casting process in autumn of 2019 and originally it was a lot of open auditions around Ireland.

“All these young people would come in and we saw hundreds of young people.

“But then when COVID hit in March 2020, that put an end to all the physical auditions so we put out a call out to all the Irish language schools in Ireland looking for girls of that age to send in tapes.

“We got a self-tape from Catherine Clinch and it was the producer Cleona Ní Chrualaoí, who is also my wife, who rang me just going, ‘You need to check out this tape. This girl’s incredible’.

“As soon as I saw it, I was of exactly the same opinion.

“You could see that she just possessed that innate quality and that very contained sort of performance and a sort of real dignity to her.

“It was that thing where you were leaning into the screen to look at her more closely.

“Her performance was so beautifully interior, that great thing that you look for in screen acting anyway, the performance is directed more inwards and the audience has to try and read the character.

“That’s the kind of essence of so many great naturalistic performances and Catherine just possessed that ability to allow the camera just to witness her and never to over emote or to hit any false notes in terms of portraying the character in a realistic way.”

While it is called The Quiet Girl, the film sought to give a child a voice and, set in 1981, it is also conscious of being set in a time in Ireland when children were not always taken in and loved as Cáit is in the film- Something that has become more and more painfully clear with each revelation about mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries.

“That was part of the impulse to make the film, that notion of taking this child from our past and giving her pride of place within the story and just listening carefully to that character and allowing that character to have a voice.

“Because even though it’s not a film that’s directly addressing those very specific instances of abuse that would have occurred in the industrial school system or Magdalene Laundries or anything like that, it’s certainly a film that’s very aware that that was happening in the society that it’s portraying.

“It was kind of the tail end of that whole system but it was still a part of our society and a part of the Irish psyche: Just the notion that a child should be seen and not heard. Children literally didn’t have the same rights. They didn’t have the constitutional protection that they now enjoy.

“It’s certainly a film that’s aware of how, as a society, Ireland failed its children at times, that we didn’t cherish all of the children of the nation equally as was promised in the proclamation.”

When Cáit first comes to the Kinsellas, Eibhlin tells her there is no secrets in the house but it is a nosy neighbour that reveals that the Kinsellas have not told her that they have lost a child.

“To me, the film is about love.

“It’s about familial love, it’s about the love that parents have for their children and that children have for their parents or should have.

“But I suppose in the Kinsellas’ instance, it’s sort of an illustration of, in a weird way, the risks that come with loving. That love has the capacity to inflict pain unlike anything else.

“If you lose a loved one, in particular to lose a child, there’s no greater pain that can be inflicted on anyone.

“I’ve always been interested in how grief can shape people and the two things are intrinsically linked. You can’t have grief without love, grief is a sort of response to love.

“Certainly they’ve been themes that I’ve explored in my short drama work previously, and it’s certainly been a concern for me thematically in this film.”

The film builds to a heartbreaking climax where has to return to her own family having experienced care and love like never before.

“A lot of people are kind of in tears at the end.

“It is quite heartbreaking but to me it’s a sad ending but there’s also notes of optimism and you feel like each of those three characters, even though they’re now separating, the Kinsellas and Cáit have actually enriched each other’s lives and they’ve grown in the sense that the Kinsellas have healed some of the wounds that they’ve suffered and Cáit ’s learned a new way of living that you hope that she carries forward with her even though she’s returned to an unfortunate reality and she has to go back to where she came from.

“You do still hold out hope that that they’re moving on as slightly more hopeful people, that certainly in Cáit ’s case that she has seen something now that she can carry with her, and that will always live within her.”

The Quiet Girl made history by becoming the first Irish language film to screen at The Berlin Festival when it would be honoured with an award. It would then open the Dublin Film Festival before taking three IFTA awards including Best Film, Best Director as well as Best Actress.

Of the success Colm says: “Yeah, we’ve been pinching ourselves in the last few months.

“Obviously Berlin was the first step. We had our world premiere there.

“Even to be selected for the Berlin Film Festival is a real honour, and then we managed to win the Best Feature Film Award in our particular category so we were over the moon.

“And since then, it seems like it’s been like a snowball effect.

“We opened the Dublin Film Festival, and we won the Audience Award there, and the Dublin Film Critics Circle Best Irish Film Award.

“And then obviously the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards was really just completely mind blowing because we were up against some serious competition with Belfast and Swan Song and other great films.

“So we were really just over the moon, really overwhelmed by the whole thing to be honest.”

Following the success of films such as Arracht, The Quiet Girl also seems to be part of a resurgence of the Irish language that also includes the recent emergence and success of Kneecap, an Irish language rap group from Belfast.

Does it feel like something exciting is happening with the language? “Yeah, it does feel a bit like that.

“There’s definitely something happening in Ireland at the moment.

“I don’t know whether there’s a greater acceptance of the language or just a sort of cultural sensitivity that’s there.

“And maybe it’s also like you’re seeing generations coming through the Irish language education system, the Gaelscoil, who just have a different outlook on the language and are more open to engaging with it.

“And then you’re seeing that being backed up by the funding bodies in Ireland, in our instance through a particular feature films scheme called Cine4 which is dedicated to producing Irish language cinema.

“So you’re now seeing all these Irish language films being released in the cinema in Ireland which is kind of unprecedented.

“If you look back at the history of Irish film in general, there’s only a handful of Irish language films all throughout the years since filmmaking began in Ireland and now in the last three, four years, you’ve got maybe two films a year or something like that coming out, even more sometimes.

“It’s remarkable and it’s really exciting to see where it goes from here.”

Has platforms like Netlflix played their part in letting people engage with Nordic dramas or shows like Narcos that are almost completely subtitle and no less popular for it? “Yeah, that’s definitely part of it.

“I think that people understand that they can be entertained or they can be moved by something that’s in a different language to what they speak in their day to day lives.

“That’s not an alien concept anymore.

“It used to be. It used to be the preserve of cinephiles who just enjoyed foreign language films.

“Whereas now that’s all been kind of democratized to a much greater degree.

“But I certainly think when you see Irish language cultural expression taking place on a more sustained basis, that must be telling you something about the audience that’s receiving it, that there is a greater acceptance there.

“And that there is a greater willingness on the part of funders and stakeholders to invest in it, that there’s a belief that this is something worthwhile, and that Irish people and people beyond that demographic that, that this is something that they can connect with.”

The Irish Culturally Centre in Hammersmith held an Irish language film season recently that featured The Quiet Girl and Arracht as well as Kings and Poitin.

Speaking ahead of the event Colm said: “I’m really excited to connect with the London Irish community, and to gauge their reaction to our film, but also to what’s been happening in terms of film in Ireland and Irish language films that have been coming over here.

“It’s just interesting to see what their take on it is, and also what their feelings are on the language, because it’s kind of a funny one.

“Irish people at home have a sort of a mixed history in a way in terms of their engagement with the language, maybe because of the way it was taught in school or for a multitude of different reasons.

“But that’s sort of shifting now and I’m certainly interested to see what that community over here in London, how they feel about the language and what kind of relationship they have with it.”

The Quiet Girl is adapted from Claire Keegan’s short story Foster, published in 2010.

“I read it and my gut reaction to it was just so strong that I just felt like I had to try and get this made.

“I just had an extraordinarily profound experience with the story and with the character when I first read it.

“Your gut is always your best counsel.

“If you really feel something that strongly, that’s the best indicator you can have that this is something that you should invest your time and energy into and that was certainly the case when I read Foster.

“I still think it was a minor miracle that the rights were still available to actually adapt it because the short story was released in 2010.

“I read it in 2018 so it was like eight years where this work was sitting around.

“I was amazed that the rights were available and eternally grateful to Claire Keegan, that she actually took a chance on a first time filmmaker to adapt her work.

“But she was so gracious.

She never inserted herself into the process, she was very respectful of the fact that we had acquired the rights and we were in a different medium now, and it was our job to take the material and to make it work for the medium that is film.

“She wasn’t precious, she wasn’t looking to sort of see drafts of the script.

“In a strange way, I think she just had faith in us, that we would do the right thing.”

Was she one of the first to see it? “Yeah, she was one of the early people to see it.

“She was delighted with it.

“It must be a really a strange experience for an author to see their work brought to life in that way.

“But she was delighted and I think really happy with everything but I think in particular the casting, I think Catherine Clinch as Cait I think she really connected with, just very happy I think overall with how the film turned out.”

The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) is in Curzon Cinemas now.

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