Movie Memories: Aoife Martin on Casablanca, representation and the power of film
Writer and trans rights activist Aoife Martin is an ardent film fan. She has written about trans representation on screen for CinÉireann magazine, recorded guest spots on the 250 Podcast and now will serve on the Jury for the 2020 edition of the GAZE LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Alongside writer Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, performance artist Stephen Quinn and director Katie McNeice will be going through the selection of films on show during the festival, beginning today and running through to the 4th October, to select the GAZE Film Awards; picking out the Spirit of GAZE Award, Best International and Irish Shorts and Best Documentary to celebrate the best and brightest of Irish and international LGBTQ+ stories at GAZE 2020.
Ahead of the film festival, Film In Dublin spoke to Aoife about her Movie Memories, early favourites, the importance of telling trans stories on screen and the power of cinema to bring us closer together.
Film In Dublin: In terms of your earliest memories of going to the cinema, would you have many recollections of where that was, or even if you remember what you would have seen?
Aoife Martin: That’s a good question, so I suppose my local cinema would have been in Dundalk and I lived in a sort of a small village outside that about 10 kilometers away. So going to the cinema was a treat I suppose you know, so it wasn’t something we would have done very often as kids. I honestly can’t remember the first time I’ve ever seen; I do remember going to see Disney films, I suppose they would have been re–releases because I remember seeing Bambi in the cinema I remember seeing Snow White and things like The Strongest Man in the World and Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, I remember those being billed together.
It was always a treat, and I think you know, watching films was my sort of my first love. At that young age I would just watch anything, I’d watch Westerns and thrillers and melodramas and horror films, anything that I was allowed watch I would, so my love of cinema grew from that.
I had no critical sensibilities, just anything that was on I would watch. As a kid one of my favourites was The Valley of Gwangi, it’s sort of a Western and Dinosaur movie hybrid?
Not one you ever see on television these days, but today you know we live in this sort of society where we can go watch pretty much anything we want but I think people watch stuff now with a filter in that they decide what they want to watch , whereas stuff was just shown on television and we didn’t have a choice, we just watched whatever came up, which maybe broadened your horizons to the sort of films that were out there. Despite everything being available to us now at the touch of a button, I think things were better in that sense because it gave me a huge, broad scope of things that I just fell in love with that way.
FID: It’s mentioned in the programme for GAZE that Casablanca is very much one of your favourites, is that a film you would have seen under those circumstances where it’s just put in front of you through television?
AM: Yeah, pretty much, again it’s something I can’t remember the first time I watched it, but I do remember the first time I realized it was a funny film. I had always seen as this just sort of romantic drama and I didn’t realise it actually is also very, very funny. That was when I saw it with an audience in a cinema. I saw it in Cambridge in the UK, it was the first time ever watching it on the big screen and the first time seeing it with an audience. I started realising, yeah, Claude Rains plays a very funny character. He’s cynical and has some of the best lines in the film, and obviously that would be my umpteenth time watching it, but I saw it in a new light with other people, that’s something that film can do that few other media can.
It just made me fall in love with the film all over again. And I realised that no matter how many times I watched this from I just, I can’t not watch it if it comes up on television, I can’t turn my eyes away. I always get sucked into the drama and melodrama of it, the romance, and, you know it’s funny and it’s smart. And it’s all about fighting Nazis, which is a good thing in these days you know. So it’s always in my top 10. The thing about Casablanca is it’s not the best film out there, there are technically better films out there, but I love the way everything just sort of converged. There’s a great book about the making of the film called Round Up the Usual Suspects that talks about how that film was just pure chance and everything just gelled together.
FID: the films that become our favourites are so often the ones that when you watch them three or four or five or 100 times you find these new things in it. It’s almost like watching a whole new film again. Are there other films that you would have had that experience?
AM: I think the best films are the ones where you can get something different from them each time. I found that with Kubrick’s work quite a lot, he’s such a technical filmmaker and I know people often describe him as cold filmmaker because his work is just so technically beautiful and proficient, but I think there’s a lot more going on in his films than people give him credit for. I mean if you look at the singing scene in Paths of Glory, the girl at the end, that’s a really beautiful scene. Barry Lyndon, every scene is like looking at a portrait.
I think the more complex a film is, the more I tend to get out of sometimes. I’m kind of geeky and will go, well how did the director do that, how did they pull that off? Scorsese is the master of that as well, tracking shots, dolly zooms those sort of technical things that I can be very geeky about. When I see things like that it reignites my interest in films Absolutely, and I suppose on the other side of that, are there films that?
FID: On the other side of that, are there films that seem brilliant on first watch that on revisiting it, you see things that take away from how you first felt about it?
AM: I think Pulp Fiction is one that comes to mind. I saw that multiple times, six or seven times when it was released in the cinema. But to me, it’s hard to watch these days. Bits of it are great, but it’s too long, it’s self-indulgent, it’s beautifully put together but it shows some of Tarantino’s excesses. Like the taxi scene, that goes on far too long, or the scene with Tarantino himself, he’s using the n-word and you just go, is that really necessary? It shows the excesses that he has.
He went on to make Jackie Brown which I still think is his best film but he hasn’t made a film as good as that since, he’s been a huge disappointment, I think. Jackie Brown showed him maturing and then he just went back to making sort of fanboy stuff.
FID: Moving on to GAZE itself, it’s one of our longest running film festivals at the moment, is that a festival you would have had a long-running experience with? Or are film festivals in general something you have had much involvement with before or attended?
AM: No, to be honest, no. I mean living outside of Dublin makes it much more difficult for film fans I think. I wasn’t all that aware of the GAZE film festival until I was on a panel after a screening a couple of years ago. I think film festivals are a marvellous thing, I would have seen things at the old Jameson Film Festival a few times, but mostly it was few and far between. Living so far away I don’t have the time, but when I do I love the atmosphere and the buzz and everybody being there for the same thing. You know you’re sitting with people who are actually film fans and take it seriously. It‘s great, to sit in a cinema with people of a similar mindset cinema.
It’s a wonderful way of getting to see new films and different filmmakers, stuff that you might not otherwise see or be aware of, you know, so they do great work, you know. It’s the same with GAZE because they’re bringing in films from people that are LGBTQ, with LGBTQ subjects and we need that diversity and representation on our screens.
FID: I suppose this year with the difficult circumstances that we’re in, one of the relative and minor positives for film festivals, the fact that festivals like GAZE are making their programme available online, through platforms like IFI@Home, it’s an opportunity for people outside big areas like Dublin to experience films that get showcased at festivals, a wider and more diverse range.
With LGBTQ cinema in general, is that something that you would have been drawn to over the years?
AM: Growing up I wouldn’t have been aware of too many films like that. I think when Channel Four first started broadcasting, they were started showing a lot of a lot more films with diversity in them. Like I can remember the first gay kiss on film I would have seen was probably My Beautiful Laundrette with Daniel Day-Lewis, but films like that were pretty rare for me. I think it’s great that we’re seeing more of them, and more representation on screen. Festivals like GAZE help with that which is absolutely wonderful.
I think it’s becoming a little bit more mainstream, which is a very positive thing now and we do need to see more of that representation on screen, in terms of trans characters. There’s been a dearth there I think. Normally if there is a trans character on screen, they’re played by a cisgender actor you know, which is problematic in and of itself. It’s rare to see a film about trans people where it’s actually played by trans actors.
The one I remember is the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman (released in 2017) which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it had a trans actress playing a trans character and she was absolutely wonderful. It’s probably the first time I ever saw myself on screen and see someone I can identify with, these films are very important in that respect.
If you grow up watching films and don’t see yourself on screen, that sort of keeps you in your place and can keep you in the closet. That’s why it’s important we see these films and that they’re made available to people, so that we get to normalise this and show that’s it’s not a big deal, there are gay and lesbian people out there and why shouldn’t we see them on our screens? There are gay and lesbian and trans people out there who aren’t seeing themselves represented and think “Oh, I’m the only person like this, I’m weird and I’m just going to stay in this little closet I’ve made for myself and not tell anybody”, and film can do that, represent them and it’s important that we see them do that onscreen.
FID: Could you talk a little about how you felt in that moment, seeing yourself on screen in that way, positively and in a way that represents your experience?
AM: Growing up you know the representation of trans people on screen would have been either as serial killers or the victims of serial killers, or perverts. I mean if you look at films like say Silence of the Lambs, Dressed to Kill, various horror films, trans people are represented badly as either the villains or the victims, it’s not a very nice feeling seeing that.
When I saw A Fantastic Woman at the IFI, it was lovely. Yes it dealt with difficult issues, the microaggressions trans people face, but it dealt with them reasonably I thought. I saw this woman on screen, these are things I can identify with. She goes to the hospital and is asked to show ID to the police, and it’s obvious that her ID card says that she’s male, the microaggressions she gets from things like that are things that trans people deal with day in and day out. To see that represented on screen was wonderful, it’s not easy to watch it, but it is what’s it’s like, it’s my truth I suppose.
And it was also a film that didn’t end with a dead trans person, which a lot of these stories tend to do. Our stories don’t have to be tragic, it was a film that ended on a positive note and that’s something we need to. Let’s also show trans people can have happy lives on screen as well.
FID: Is there anything at this year’s festival that you’re particularly looking forward to?
AM: To be honest I’m not quite sure which films I’m watching yet! When I watch a film I don’t tend to look at anything about it beforehand, I don’t watch trailers or reviews until after I’ve watched it.
Obviously, I’m very excited to be sitting on the Jury though, I’ve never done that before. I’m looking for films that move me, that touch me, that show diversity and tell a good story.
FID: Going to the cinema in general, what is the draw of the place itself, is there a particular cinema that feels like home or that you’re particularly drawn to?
AM: The draw of the cinema I suppose is, it’s always been an escape. Especially for marginalised people, it’s the anonymity of it, you go into this darkened room with our strangers and have this communal experience watching whatever is unfolding in front of you on screen. It’s the atmosphere, the big screen, it’s the sound, it’s just completely different to watching on TV or DVD or Bluray.
It’s more of an emotional response because everything is bigger in the cinema. We have an Omniplex and an IMC here, I tend to go to the Omniplex because I have a monthly pass. I just go to see everything and try to get my money’s worth, even if I don’t think it’ll be my cup of tea, often I’m taking by surprise.
The Light House and the IFI in Dublin are gorgeous cinemas, I’ve been to see lots of films there that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.
Back when it was the Irish Film Centre (the IFI) I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there, which may have been one of the most uncomfortable cinema screenings in my entire life! I’d seen it on VHS but on the big screen I came close to walking out, my palms were sweating. I’m not squeamish but the atmosphere, especially on the big screen, made me so uncomfortable. It heightens the experience.
If I lived in Dublin, I’d probably be in the Light House every day. They have such wonderful programmes on. That’s where my heart would be if I lived in Dublin.
FID: Finally, the last few months have been so difficult and isolating for obvious reasons. One of the great things about film is the power it has to pull the viewer in and make them feel part of something, to lessen dark feelings or even to make sense of difficult feelings. Is there anything you’ve seen over the last few months that was helpful in that respect or served as a pleasant escape from…all this?
AM: All this shit? The first film when I went back to the reopened cinemas was Unhinged with Russell Crowe. It was the perfect film to be honest, it just did what it said on the tin, it was 90 minutes long, I went in with no expectations and had a great time.
It was wonderful to be back in the cinema again which may have tempered my reaction, but it was a B-Movie that didn’t overstay it’s welcome too. And even though there weren’t too many people, it was just nice to see people again in a cinema screen. I live on my own and work from home, most people I’ve see are at ALDI and getting the shopping. Just seeing people at the cinema was nice.
I went to see Tenet, which I wasn’t that fond of to be honest but I went to see it on the biggest loudest screen I could thinking right, let’s see if I can figure out what this is about. And no I couldn’t figure out what it was about. But it was nice to see it on the big screen again, it’s renewed my appreciation of the cinema and what it can do. Just going to the cinema for the sake of seeing something, we underestimate how important that is. Especially for people that live on their own, you still have that communal experience with people, they’re gasping where you’re gasping. I think we should be grateful for cinemas, if they were to close down for good because of Covid that would be so tragic for our society and for our culture.