Kevin Quinn, who graduated from from the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design in June, was at Pennsylvania Station in New York City on his way to visit his family for his younger sister’s graduation ceremony when he found out.
He received an email notification with the subject line: “Galway Film Fleadh Decision” while he was in a cafe line. When he opened the message, he froze.
“I looked down on my phone and saw the word, ‘delighted,’” Quinn said, describing the memorable moment. “I read through the paragraph, and when I realized it was an acceptance email from [Galway Film Fleadh], I really loudly gasped.”
Quinn described learning that his senior short film “The American Wake,” out of over 600 submissions, had been chosen as an official selection for the 2018 Galway Film Festival — an Academy Award-qualifying film festival and Ireland’s largest and most prestigious — to be a beautiful moment.
“The idea of me making the film was so ambitious, and the fact that we were accepted is such a wonderful validation of our work,” the Class of 2018 alumnus said.
“The American Wake” follows the story of Honora Parsons, an 18-year-old Irishwoman who is faced with a decision: to stay in her Aran Islands home in Galway with all that she knows socially and culturally or leave for an unknown life in America.
Quinn called the short film his own “passion project” as its premise is inspired by his grandmother’s experience immigrating from County Mayo to Queens, New York. He felt motivated to write about her after studying abroad at National University of Ireland Galway his sophomore year. During his time there, he would visit family in his grandmother’s birthplace of Tonroe, County Mayo.
“I was surrounded by cousins from different generations who were fascinated by me and the stories I told about my grandmother,” Quinn said. “But I was even more struck by the stories they were telling me about my father and grandmother.”
Quinn vividly recalls his Irish family showing him old photos of his grandmother — photos that have never made it across the ocean. It was in those moments that he felt moved and compelled to document her history.
“I really began to understand who she was, the sacrifice she made, and why she did what she did,” he said. “She really believed she was bettering herself, but she lost was some of her relationships in her family.”
Upon returning from his study abroad, Quinn started his research for “The American Wake.” He sat down with his grandmother and taped a formal interview with her. He remembers asking her pointed questions like, “do you regret leaving?”
“And she did,” he said. “She felt a loss for having left Ireland, and it completely struck me that someone who would make a decision like that could feel that way all these years later.”
Quinn spent all of the 2017 spring term conceptualizing the short film and developing a script, then the following months reaching out to casting agencies; conducting interviews for the film crew; securing insurances and permits for film locations; and scheduling shooting days down to the minute.
“Getting ready for [“The American Wake”] felt like getting ready to go to space, because you had to do all of the prep work [in Philly] and hope that everything would work out when you [were in Ireland],” he said.
The most important part for Quinn, however, was ensuring that Irish voices were represented in the film. To execute this, he used an all-Irish cast as well as an Irish crew — in addition to his small, American crew consisting of four Drexel and two Temple students.
“We needed Irish voices, we needed local people who could say something about this film and scope my vision,” he said. “I wanted to offer my own voice and unite as many Irish voices as possible behind my visual understanding of how that history would have felt.”
With a whopping $35,000 budget, Quinn completed the film.
Quinn’s grandmother has not seen the film yet, he admits. However, he plans on scheduling a private screening for her and her son — the two people who inspired the film.
Like many ambitious filmmakers, Quinn hopes to give his film the most exposure it can get — which is why he submitted it to over 50 film festivals on both national and international levels. Yet, the Galway Film Fleadh was always his target festival, according to the New York native.
“If a film gets into big festivals like Sundance, SXSW or Toronto, it’s like getting into Harvard or a prestigious school: it’s the name, the brand, it’s the networking, it’s surefire success for you, and I think that’s the wrong way to approach film festivals,” he said.
“What what you need to do is approach the film festival from the perspective of your film. What is this film saying? Who is your audience, and where can you reach that audience so that the film is best accepted and enjoyed? Knowing your film is important to knowing your festival. We knew Galway would be the perfect festival.”
The Galway Film Fleadh runs July 10-15.