Niall McKay has a plan. He wants to do for New York what he did for San Francisco.
Eight years ago, he established the latter city’s Irish film festival; now that he’s on the East Coast, he’s again set to provide a showcase for filmmakers from his native country. The inaugural Irish Film NY will run at NYU’s Cantor Film Center from Sept. 30 through Oct. 3.
“There’s a huge market for Irish things in America, obviously,” the Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow, native said. “And in New York, there’s a phenomenal interest in film. It’s the only city I know that you can be in a pretty packed cinema on a Monday afternoon.”
McKay knows as someone who goes to the movies twice or three times a week. “I love films, and I love Irish film as an aspect of that,” he said. “I’m coming at this as an enthusiast.”
But he also has a track record as a filmmaker. He and his wife, Marissa Aroy, made “Sikhs in America” for a television station in Northern California. It won an Emmy in 2008 and is now shown on PBS stations nationwide.
McKay has also made a very personal documentary, “The Bass Player: A Song for Dad,” that garnered rave reviews after it aired on RTÉ. Its subject is Jim McKay, who developed a close friendship with a Swiss woman, Anna Muller, and then married her. After the “love of his life” died from cancer, McKay decided to leave Switzerland and relocate back to Ireland after more than a decade away. The documentary begins with his younger son making the journey from San Francisco to Zurich to help him pack up.
On the way home, via car and ferry, the pair delve into the past, including painfully the night that McKay senior decided to leave his troubled wife and raise his young sons alone. The son meanwhile recounts the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death when he was a young adult.
The title refers to the fact that professional musician Jim McKay was, in his son’s words, the go-to bass player when any American jazz star was visiting Ireland. Part of the documentary’s story is his struggle to find a regular gig in Dublin. In his interview with the Echo, his son reported that, at 81, he has done just that. Also, a woman he dated in the 1950s contacted him after the film aired. “They are now an item,” Niall McKay said.
The Irish Times’ critic said “The Bass Player” is “masterfully told,” while the Irish Independent described it as an “absorbing, charming and deeply moving documentary.” The other Dublin newspapers were equally impressed.
Documentary storytelling has emerged as a particular Irish strength over the last few years, said McKay, who graduated from Trinity College in 1989 with a degree in English and classical civilization. Of his top 10 favorite documentaries of recent times, three were made in Ireland with the support of the Irish Film Board: “His and Hers,” “Pajama Girls” and “The Pipe.”
The last was shown on TG4, the Irish-language station, which McKay said has been making and showing good work
“And RTÉ does knock it out of the park now and again,” he added.
One of his aims is to give immigrants the opportunity to see such work.
“The Craic is obviously a big festival. It’s a big music festival; it’s a big film festival,” McKay said. “The types of film that I’m hoping to show are not necessarily the types of film that the Craic shows. Films like ‘The Guard’ [starring Brendan Gleason and Don Cheadle] — they’re going to find their way in the U.S. anyway,” he said. “They’ll get distribution.” But for a small movie like “Parked,” even though it stars Colm Meaney, it’s much less easy.
“We showed ‘One Hundred Mornings’ in San Francisco last year. That’s exactly the sort of film we want to help,” McKay said about the Conor Horgan-directed project that has since won positive reviews in New York.
When a work couldn’t be shown at the San Francisco Irish Film Festival, which he founded with Dublin writer Emer Martin, because it had been selected for the city’s main festival, McKay was never overly disappointed. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said.
McKay’s initial career as a journalist specializing in science and technology, which began in London, brought him into contact with the West Coast. He also had college friends who’d settled there.
“I woke up one morning on a friend’s couch in the Haight-Ashbury section after a conference,” he recalled. “I looked out at the Golden Gate Bridge and I thought: ‘I’m moving here.'”
Four months later, he did. That was in 1997.
Some years later, at an editing class at the local community college, he met Aroy, who’d grown up in a Filipino-American family. She became an adjunct professor at the college and they recruited key members for the production company they formed together, Media Factory, from among its graduates.
They’ve just completed their move to New York, an acceptable location for family reasons, being halfway between his father’s home across the Atlantic and her mother’s in Bakersfield. And both are happy, McKay said, to be in a “city where people want to make things happen.”
The price for now is giving up a house with view of San Francisco Bay for a “pokey flat” in Brooklyn that looks onto a brick wall. But the filmmaker has no regrets.
“I’m excited to move on,” McKay said.
For more information about Niall McKay go to mediafactory.tv and for more on the Irish Film NY and screenings of Irish films generally in New York go to irishfilmnyc.com.