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Alfonso Films is the all-female production company that’s smashing the glass ceiling

Irish women are making waves in the domestic and international film industry, and the success of women on both sides of the camera is no small feat. Liam Daly talks to Alfonso films about the growing numbers of Irish female filmmakers
Alfonso Films – Jo Halpin (left), Claire Byrne (centre) and Emma Wall (right) make up the tenacious multi-talented team.

Until recently, it was commonplace to see women exclusively in acting roles, with very few able to break the glass ceiling into the male-dominated roles of writing, directing, and producing.

Thankfully, the representation of women in these roles is growing, and Alfonso Films is a prime example. 

Alfonso films is run by three women: producer Jo Halpin, director Claire Byrne and writer Emma Wall. They have been working together since 2017 on a variety of short films and are now in the development stage of their debut feature.

Rather than a conscious decision to form the group, Jo Halpin gives me the impression that it fell together through happy circumstances.

“We went to this mixer I think it was in maybe 2016 or 2017, it was to give you funding to make your idea, your short idea or whatever, and what they did was everyone had to hold up a sign and say what you were, a writer, a director producer or whatever. They wanted people to team up,” Halpin tells me.

Byrne and Wall had already been familiar, and Halpin and Wall knew each other from university, so the three got chatting.

“Emma had an idea that she was going to write, Claire’s prerogative was to direct, and so I kind of landed in the role of producer,” Halpin says.

While they were unsuccessful in acquiring funding for their idea at the mixer, the team knew they were onto a good thing.

Over the next few months, they went on to hold fundraising campaigns, events, pub quizzes and online crowdfunding.

“It was brilliant because [hosting the events] got the three of us working together for months, by the time we went to make the film we were already so close,” Byrne tells me. 

Eventually getting their film over the line, the team now had a hunger to keep the group going.

“It just snowballed into ‘we’re addicted now, let’s make another one’, we made a couple of short films, music videos and then we started submitting applications to bigger stuff, and then stuff started going to festivals,” says Halpin.

Their debut short Spent, screened at over 20 festivals worldwide and was winner of Women In TV & Film Ireland’s short of the year.

It wasn’t until the inception of their latest short film PAT when the team transitioned into a limited company. 

Incredibly, this transition was made possible due to an initiative set up by the dating app Bumble.

In 2018, Bumble announced they would be moving into the world of film by introducing their own funding scheme aimed toward UK and Irish based female filmmakers: Bumble Presents… The Female Film Force.

The initiative intended to give five female filmmakers across the UK and Ireland £20,000 (€22,500) to help finance their projects.

This is when Emma Wall wrote the script for PAT and the team submitted it to Bumble.

PAT, the story of an elderly Dingle woman and her relationship with her New York based son, connected from 3000 miles away by the village’s only telephone, is said to have blown the judges away, securing the grant. 

To accept the funding however it was not enough to be an ambitious team of budding filmmakers, they needed to be a limited trading company – and so, Alfonso Films was born.

“When you’re a limited company, you feel like you can’t give up now”

Jo Halpin

PAT went on to win Best Short at the Chicago Irish Film Festival 2020, as well as being nominated for Best Short at the Irish Film Festival London 2019.

Wall (left), Halpin (centre) photographed on set with actor Roseleen Lenehan playing the titular PAT. Image courtesy of Alfonso Films

“Especially in the last year we’ve really gone and grown in our own practices,” Byrne explains, telling me that the three women have spent 2020 focussing on their individual careers due to both the pandemic and new opportunities presenting themselves.

While directing other projects outside of Alfonso, Byrne also does work on the post-production side of the industry as an editor.

While Wall is holding down a day-job for casting company Spotlight.

Halpin has worked as an assistant director on big-budget productions like Ridley Scott’s latest project and upcoming Apple TV sci-fi series – all while completing the advanced producing postgraduate course at TU Dublin.

“I think at the moment we’re gearing up to kind of move forward together and we’re writing our first feature,” Wall tells me, explaining that individual success has not quelled their desires to push Alfonso films to the next level. 

“It feels like the next natural step for us, it doesn’t feel massively daunting. I think we know we can do it and do it well,” she continues.

“When you’re a limited company, you feel like you can’t give up now,” says Halpin.

The process for acquiring the funding for a feature film is an arduous task: the team will have to submit proposed budgets, look books, treatments, a synopsis, and a vision for sales.

Even after this, it is difficult to stand out from the crowd, even with high quality material – but being an all-female company could give them an edge.

While historically the percentages of people in roles like producer, writer and director have been overwhelmingly male, now more women than ever before are securing and excelling in these positions.

Organizations like Screen Ireland are now consciously striving toward a 50/50 gender balance.

“It definitely helps when you put an application in and it says this is from a female, it feels exciting, it feels like loads more female stories are being told,” Halpin says.

While it is still a male dominated industry and there is still massive room for change, the struggles of women in the industry over the past few decades has helped pave the way for a young batch of highly skilled, highly trained and educated female filmmakers.

Byrne operates the camera on set in picturesque Kerry coast. Image courtesy of Alfonso Films

“I think I’ve benefited from being a woman,” Byrne says. “It’s the time that I’m coming up at the moment. It does help get your name out there when there’s all these incentives.”

“Irish women in the industry have built a great community who are supportive but also shining a light on women coming though,” Wall tells me. “There’s a sense of community and a sense that women are now having the same opportunities, but that’s only because of incredible work women have done before us in this industry.”

At home and across the world, female filmmakers are beginning to break through within the industry and gain recognition not just as great female filmmakers, but as great filmmakers in their own right.

And at Alfonso Films, there’s the feeling that things are only getting started.

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