This August Bank Holiday weekend the Light House Cinema will be descended upon by filmmakers and enthusiasts for Dublin’s annual celebration of LGBT cinema. GAZE (previously known as the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) has been bringing the best of gay cinema to our city for 23 years, and this year the programme is as vibrant and exciting as ever. One of the highlight’s of this year’s programme is sure to be the world premiere of The Participants, the new dramatic feature from Still Films. Still Films are responsible for the some of the most interesting documentaries to have come out of Ireland in the last decade, such as Pyjama Girls (2010) and Seaview (2008). We met Still Film’s Paul Rowley (direction), Nicky Gogan (production) and Dennis McNulty (sound) to talk about the festival and their new film.
Paul worked as Programme Director for GAZE in 2011, and left the position partly to make this film. “I had intended to stay on longer because it was kind of a dream job, but things started to get really busy for us at Still Films and so I had to step down. It’s come full circle now that the film is coming to the festival. It feels like the perfect place to premiere it as it’ll very much have a family feeling. It’s sort of like a homecoming”.
Set in an abandoned world populated by children who play games to win social status, The Participants is a film about bullying and exclusion. “The initial idea for the film was abstract – we started with the idea of making a film about crowds and mobs, and seeing how this applied in a 21st century context. We drew up a sketch for a film that involved several different social spaces: a courtroom, a prison, a sanctuary. Tim Blue wrote a short story which became the central text on which we based the screenplay. From there the film developed in many directions – the main big change was the idea to cast the film only with children”, explains Paul.
The children attended a host of workshops in the Still Films studios in Block T before the shoot began, learning martial arts and doing psychological exercises to increase their understanding of the mind-set of bullies and their victims. Nicky good-humouredly describes the shoot as “being like a day-care service”, with kids getting dropped off in the morning along with their siblings, cousins and whoever else they could find. As well as being a hectic experience, working with the children was informative and they had a lot of input into the creative process. Nicky says that although the children’s experience of the prevalence of bullying roughly aligned with the crew’s, there were aspects of playground reality that the children introduced them to, such as cyber bullying. “There are nods to that reality in the language used in the film”, she said, although the film was made in such a way as to keep references to particular time-periods minimal. Paul elaborated on the experience: “The funny thing was that I didn’t have a huge amount of experience directing actors at all myself, although I kept that fairly quiet. My background was more in video installation and documentary. This was really the first film I directed with actors, so I learned a lot from the cast. Once we’d found our main actors the first thing we did was go over the story together. We went around the room after reading it and already the story started to change. Similarly when we started to workshop the script in rehearsals, the cast came up with lots of great ideas about different games the participants would play. Lots of these ended up in the film.”
Outreach is often an important element of work from Still Films. Seaview, Nicky and Paul’s documentary about the lives of asylum seekers at the direct provision centre in Mosney (formerly a Butlin’s holiday camp) ended up being shown in various locations such as schools and refugee centres, and they hope The Participants could play a similar role in encouraging conversations around bullying among young people. Although the film explores universal themes, the issues have a particular relevance to LGBT audiences, and the central event that acts as a catalyst for the film’s action is one child’s transformation from girl to boy. “LGBT kids statistically suffer from bullying in really disproportionate numbers. It’s a film about kinds of experiences that LGBT kids tend to have a lot more than other kids” Paul says, citing the scarily high suicide rate among young LGBT people.
The film was shot at Lough Boora Parklands, an unusual landscape of cutaway bog land in County Offaly, owned by Bord na Móna. Paul mentions that he and Nicky had initially talked about shooting the film in Estonia, “even to the point of considering learning one of Europe’s hardest languages!”. When casting director Alison Crosbie suggested Lough Boora, they knew they had found a special location for the shoot. A lot of things changed when they explored the unique landscape. “We initially wanted quite a sparse aesthetic, but when we saw the location we had to change things around a bit. The bog sucks all the light in. When you film something brightly coloured against it, it ends up looking kind of like a cartoon. There was this big stone pyramid in the park, and we thought, we have to use that, so that became a location that was a centre of power in the film”, mentions Paul. “The bog is the Irish desert! It’s so empty. I wanted to capture that in the sound.” said Dennis, who often records sounds on-site and then re-records them in studio to incorporate into the music. “But you couldn’t get much sound from the bog. There’s nothing for the sound to reflect off. If someone turns their head while they’re speaking to you, suddenly you can’t hear them anymore. We initially wanted the sound to be really dry but that just didn’t work, so we gave ourselves more freedom to play around”.
Still Films tends to produce films with a loose creative process and a focus on collaboration. Dennis, who is a visual artist and composer, says “I do some of the sound design and make some of the music, but our roles aren’t that fixed”. Though their website gives director/writer/producer credits, in conversation they seem hesitant to label each other. This attitude to filmmaking results in a very reactive process that allows for significant changes as projects progress. The Participants was initially going to follow quite a conventional narrative arc, and that was reflected in the first edit. The team weren’t happy with it and got another edit done, resulting in a more experimental film which is less straightforward in its approach to storytelling, and has more of a sci-fi edge. “There’s a lot flashbacks, or flash forwards. We wanted to get inside the characters heads more. We felt that might be more reflective of what these kids who had suffered trauma would experience”, Nicky says. She tells me that their next film, also a drama, will have to stick to its brief more because it involves international collaboration. Inspired by a trip to Morocco, it will incorporate the strong sense of place present in previous work.
There is a consensus that festivals such as GAZE provide a positive outlet for young filmmakers to get their voices heard. Nicky describes these festivals as a “safe space”, where young filmmakers might find it easier to get their work seen and accepted. “Things can be seen at special interest festivals and then gain momentum from there”, she explains, citing Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) as a recent LGBT film that broke into the mainstream from the festival circuit. Paul adds that as a gay person, an LGBT film festival is somewhere where you don’t have to “start by coming out” – “when talking to an audience, there’s a whole load of assumptions that everyone in the room shares”. They are also important community spaces. “I think with so many of us now watching films online, the space of the festival has become more important”, Paul says. “The dialogue that comes from the group screening is often so interesting and valuable and can lead to all kinds of unexpected discussions, events and collaborations.”
When asked about what they are looking forward to at GAZE this year, everyone agrees that it’s the surprises at festivals that make them so enjoyable. Nicky describes them as a “filmmakers’ holiday”, and Paul mentions that before he knew of Haneke, he saw Funny Games at an 8.30am screening, an unusually intense introduction to the great director! Fingers crossed that this year’s GAZE festival will hold some equally exciting surprises.
The GAZE film festival runs from the Thursday 30th July to Monday 3rd August at the Light House Cinema, Smithfield. The Participants premiere takes place on Friday 31 July at 6.30pm. To buy tickets for festival screenings and events visit www.lighthousecinema.ie or call (01) 8728006.
Words: Rachel Graham