Capital Irish Film Festival
Andrea Riseborough in Stacey Gregg’s Here Before; Courtesy of CIFF

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From March 3 to 6, AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center will transport attendees to the various cities and countrysides of Ireland by way of the big screen. The Capital Irish Film Festival returns for four days offering an in-depth and comprehensive examination of Irish filmmaking and cultural identity. 

Co-presented by AFI Silver and Solas Nua, the local arts organization dedicated to showcasing the array of contemporary Irish arts, this year’s festival screens 15 feature films, two shorts programs, and hosts a special showing of An Irish Goodbye, winner of the inaugural Norman Houston Short Film Award. The 2022 showcase of modern Irish cinema spans the gamut of genres, including drama, horror, romance, documentaries, and more. Other notable screenings include the black comedy Redemption of a Rogue, which won Best Feature and Best Debut Irish Feature at 2020’s Galway Film Fleadh; the Irish-language film Foscadh (see our review of Foscadh)—the country’s 2021 submission to the Academy Awards—and Death of a Ladies Man, starring Irish actor Gabriel Byrne and inspired by the music of Leonard Cohen

“Storytelling is an ancient Irish tradition that has found a beautiful and robust voice in film, which has spawned a thriving industry,” Pat Reilly, the festival’s director for the past seven years, tells City Paper. “Like filmmakers everywhere, Ireland-based artists reflect their society, which is diverse, rapidly changing, and open to the world.” 

But adrenaline junkies and scary movie fans, take note: The country may not be known for pumping out horror film after horror film, but Ireland’s history and folklore is rife with inspiration for unsettling tales. This year, CIFF screens two chilling features by women filmmakers that draw from Irish history, lore, and trauma to strike fear into the hearts of viewers. 

Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother and Stacey Gregg’s Here Before premiered last year at Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival, respectively. Both have received critical acclaim and both grapple with mother-daughter relationships. Likewise, both find space within the genre of elevated horror—much like 2014’s The Babadook (also written and directed by a woman)—to explore greater issues. As of late February, Dolan’s feature debut has received nominations for Best Director, Best Film, and Best Screenwriter by the Irish Film & Television Academy. Its teen star, Hazel Doupe, has been nominated for Best Lead Actress.

Not for the faint of heart, You Are Not My Mother opens with an aggressive scene suggesting infanticide, but slips into a slow burn as teenager Char (Doupe) struggles to understand her mother’s implied depression, disappearance, and her altered state upon her return home. 

Set in north Dublin, in what is clearly one of the city’s less wealthy neighborhoods, the film lives in a color palette of Irish winter: greens, grays, touches of yellows and brown. By contrast, nightmares are portrayed in vivid red, reminiscent of blood or fire. And fire, for its part, plays no small role in Dolan’s film, which she also wrote. While wielded as a weapon, fire is described as an agent of cleansing.

You Are Not My Mother interjects hair-raising jumps throughout its 90-plus minutes, but it does not move at a typical horror movie’s clip. Indeed, even the jumps feel psychological when paired with grotesque body horror: hair falling out in clumps, an arm being inserted into one’s mouth, limbs bending at unnatural angles. Though the story employs the darker folklore of fairies, it also offers a narrative on being a teenage outsider, the importance of friendship, and family complexity. As one character states near the movie’s climax, “Family is the scariest fuckin’ thing in the planet.” 

Hazel Doupe in Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother; Courtesy of Capital Irish Film Festival

Family is also a central theme in Gregg’s Here Before, which follows Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a grieving mother still dealing with the death of her young daughter when a family with a girl about her daughter’s age moves in next door. Laura’s son and husband are supportive and, at times, they seem a happy unit. But the more the neighbor girl comes around, the more haunted Laura becomes. 

Written and directed by Gregg, Here Before is the Northern Irish filmmaker’s debut and was filmed in and around Belfast. Like You Are Not My Mother, there are doubtless moments when viewers can’t help but question the character’s sanity. Told mostly through Laura’s point of view, Here Before offers a glimpse at mental illness and questions the line separating it from grief. It’s a lot to ask of a single actor to carry a film, but Riseborough does so effortlessly—drawing the audience into her pain, confusion, and, ultimately, her wanting. 

Gregg’s story puts a creative twist on the classic ghost story. Also a slow burn, Here Before embraces the plot-twisting thriller genre by keeping viewers constantly guessing, always on edge, and trying to decipher what’s real and what’s not.  

The Capital Irish Film Festival runs March 3–6 at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.$120, individual tickets also available. You Are Not My Mother screens March 3 at 9:45 p.m. and March 6 at 9:30 p.m. Here Before shows March 4 at 6:45 p.m.