“Team sport does something to a girl. You get to think about your body in terms of what it can do, rather than how it looks. You become more engine than ornament.”
The Fear of Winning was an essay published by Cork camogie player Eimear Ryan, first published in the Winter Papers – Ireland’s annual arts anthology – and subsequently in the Irish Examiner newspaper. It explored the role of women, as players, in the GAA. It was there Iseult Howlett, an IFTA-nominated film editor of considerable repute read with interest. An idea began to form.
Frankie Fenton, by his own admission, isn’t the sporty type. Family and friends, yes but himself – not so much. On the face of it, maybe Frankie – who is one half of Kennedy Productions, the small company he helps to run with wife Kathryn – was not the man to helm a film based on the themes of that essay.
The Ardee man describes Ryan as “an incredible writer” and says once she and the energised Howlett made contact, he “hopped on board” as producer.
Ryan, Irish rugby international Elise O’Bryne-White and soccer player Rianna Jarrett, then of Wexford Youths, form the trinity of female sports stars upon which the film – smarty titled The Grass Ceiling – is based on. The short, at 16 minutes long, is Howlett’s directorial debut. Fenton himself made his directing bow in the critically acclaimed 2017 documentary It’s Not Yet Dark.
Now, having been a hit at a number of pre-pandemic film festivals The Grass Ceiling has been nominated for an IFTA Award in the ‘Best Short Film’ category, alongside the Oscar-nominated Detainment in a weighty 10 film shortlist.
“The writing was very strong and there was a perspective that was very, very relevant,” Frankie tells LouthNow.ie. “In the context of what has happened – not so much MeToo – but the universal recognition of what its like to be in a female body and society needing to explore that openly, especially when it comes to young people in sport; it’s something that seems important.”
“Iseult and Eleanor did a brilliant job. I'm very proud of everyone who worked on this film. ”
- Frankie Fenton
- The Grass Ceiling, Producer
The team of Fenton, Howlett and Director of Photography Eleanor Bowman spent approximately a year filming seven weeks worth of material with the three athletes who were the subject of the film.
“I’m not a hugely sporty person. I’d always kind of wanted to make something to do with sport but I suppose not being a sporty person, I’d always wondered why females in sport weren’t as highly regarded or given the proper attention,” he tells us. “If the support was there from an early age I think things would be very different.
“It’s not about getting a ball into the goal. It’s about so much more and I think that’s why people love sport. I think a lot of people whittle it down to these very simplistic measures. For me, I was able to read and see that from a girl’s perspective.
“We were very lucky to have them (the athletes) on board. The filming was very hard. Getting all the athletes and clubs and teams and all the crew to be in the same place at the same time was the most tricky. A short is very difficult to make especially when the crew is making a small amount of money. No one is making money out of this. We got there in the end and we were lucky to get picked up by all the festivals.”
The film debuted at the Cork Film Festival in November of last year, not long after production had been completed, and went on to feature at Belfast, Galway Film Fleadh, the Catalyst Film Festival in Limerick and the Dublin International Film Festival. At the latter two, it received a Special Mention Jury Award and a nomination for Best Short Film respectively.
Further afield, the film reached as far as the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles. “It’s good to know it can travel and you can showcase Irish sports abroad,” Frankie says. The premiere in Cork and subsequent festival screenings, the culmination of over a years work, was a rewarding experience – something Frankie describes as “magical”.
“Seeing the effect it had on young women, saying they want all their classmates to see it. That is the best result I would have hoped for.”
And what of the Irish Film and Television Award nomination, announced three weeks ago. “The IFTA nomination is the cherry on top.
“To be honoured with that, I think we’re in the same category as Oscar nominated films. When you make a film, you don’t expect anything. Any kind of honour is a plus because of the volume of content out there is just insane. To be picked amongst so many great films at the moment, is a great honour.”
Unlike feature films, wide releases for shorts are difficult to come by – so too are broadcast deals. But the team behind the The Grass Ceiling, helped to screen by Emma Scott and her team at Screen Ireland, remain keen for as many people as possible to see it.
“We’d love it to resonate with audiences abroad. We’ll do the festival run and we also want to get it out there,” he tells us. “Well be looking at how we can interact with education and sports channels. There’s limited bandwidth for shorts but when dealing with the themes of gender equality and sports, there’s quite a large audience out there. And just because the film is Irish, doesn’t mean it can’t resonate with people in other countries.
For someone who isn’t a ‘sporty type’, Frankie said he relished the opportunity to watch high class athletes like Eimear, Rianna and Elise up close. “It’s really impressive seeing real athletes do what they do best. It’s really breath-taking.”
Exploring what drives three successful female athletes to play, the film delves deeply into how being physically courageous, unapologetically competitive and deeply passionate can unlock a freedom for these women to occupy their own skin.
The idea that women can perform and be ‘unapologetically competitive’ is a nod to the prejudices of the past.
“It’s a shame it has to be talked about in that context but that’s the reality and that’s the fight they have to fight. We all have to fight it. We’ve just had a baby girl and that’s the world I hope she gets to live in.”