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Why this Halifax filmmaker wants to make a feature film entirely in Gaelic

Iain MacLeod is writing a crime thriller based on a 2,000-year-old Irish epic. The twist is that it will be set in modern-day Cape Breton.

Iain MacLeod moves from short film to ambitious project set in Cape Breton

Iain MacLeod is writing a feature film in Gaelic, but says finding funding for the project is a challenge. (Heather Young)

A Halifax filmmaker who's learning the language his ancestors spoke is using his films to show that Gaelic isn't a thing of the past. 

Iain MacLeod's short film, An t-Inneal Espresso, or the Espresso Machine in English, was one of three Gaelic shorts that premiered at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival this fall. It's a comedy about a woman desperately trying to get her expensive espresso machine back from a friend's ex-girlfriend.

Now, he has his sights set on a more ambitious project — his first feature length film entirely in Gaelic.

"The reality is that for minority languages, any kind of media representation is very valuable," MacLeod told CBC's Mainstreet. "If you can make a film in Gaelic, and start to make even a few people start to think about it in a different way, I think that's a huge thing."

But actually getting a Gaelic language film from script to screen is proving difficult. 

Beth Anne MacEachen and Ed MacDonell star in MacLeod's short film about a woman who's desperately trying to get her expensive espresso machine back from a friend's ex. (Paul McCurdy)

That's partly because one of the major funders of Canadian film — Telefilm Canada — focuses on productions in English, French and Indigenous languages.

"There are millions of Canadians who don't speak English and French and that doesn't make them any less Canadian," MacLeod said. "I think if they want to tell those stories in their own languages, they should absolutely have the right to do that. Those stories are no less Canadian."

A spokesperson for Telefilm Canada said in an email that due to the number of applications the organization receives, it focuses on Canada's official languages, although projects that feature one of the official languages, plus any other language, can be submitted for consideration.

The spokesperson said there are no plans to open funding up to other languages, "though exceptions could possibly be made on a case-by-case basis if there was demonstrable audience demand."

An t-Inneal Espresso is a Gaelic short film about a woman's desperate attempts to have her expensive espresso machine returned to her. Video provided by Iain MacLeod 1:52

MacLeod is still in the process of writing his feature-length film, which is based on a 2,000-year-old Irish epic about a stolen bull called the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The twist is that it will be set in modern-day Glace Bay, N.S. 

MacLeod purposefully writes his Gaelic films in the present day to show that the language is still very much alive. 

When Canada became a country in 1867, Gaelic was the third most spoken language. These days, there are between 1,000 and 2,000 Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia of varying levels of fluency, MacLeod said.

While there are still few opportunities to use the language day-to-day, MacLeod believes that's changing. 

He hopes his short film, which has English subtitles, can be used as a resource for Nova Scotians interested in learning the language. 

An t-Inneal Espresso is Colleen Lynk's first film. (Ed MacDonell )

"I think it's honouring the past but it's also acknowledging that we can't get stuck there," he said. 

MacLeod met the three people he cast in An t-Inneal Espresso at Gaelic language classes, including first-time actor Colleen Lynk.

She started learning Gaelic about three years ago, and this spring spent a month living at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's on Cape Breton Island for an immersive course.

Her grandmother spoke Gaelic, but she said by the time her father was growing up, speaking the language was actively discouraged. 

The crew of An t-Inneal Espresso films a scene. (Iain MacLeod)

"There was a lot of shame from the way that they were brought up where they weren't allowed to use it in schools," she said. "So to be able to see it on the screen in such a modern context, showing that you know people can and they do use Gaelic in their everyday life today, I think that it was very impactful and I was really proud watching it."

MacLeod is still looking for funding for his feature film, and is even casting his net as far as Scotland.

In the meantime, he's travelling around the Maritimes showing audiences that it's possible to create a film that celebrates the tradition of Gaelic without keeping it stuck in the past.

An t-Inneal Espresso is playing at the Charlottetown Film Festival this weekend.

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With files from CBC's Mainstreet