CARMEL Winters has had a remarkable few months. Her Cork-based feature film, Float Like A Butterfly, had its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). There it picked up a discovery award, an amazing achievement for the Ballydehob based writer-director.
But that’s not the only reason TIFF will be forever etched in her memory. It was there that Winters and her partner of 18 years, production designer Toma McCullim, married.
“It was incredible, the audience was like our congregation. They poured so much love on us. Each screening was our wedding celebration. It was fabulous. It was a spur of the moment thing, we worked on the film together so getting married tied it all together perfectly.”
The film is set in the 1970s. Frances (Hazel Doupe), a young member of the Travelling Community, dreams of becoming a boxer just like her hero Muhammad Ali. She has the skills and the punch to back it up, but her gender stops her from following her dreams.
The film has been doing the rounds on the festival circuit, wowing audiences abroad and at its Irish premiere at last year’s Cork Film Festival. It is a beautiful film, full of zest and girl power.
Winters is undeniably proud of her feature, but as she says, how could she not be?
“People are sharing such emotion with me after they see it. I’m getting hugs and people are telling me their experiences and their stories.
“I was hoping to create a film that lets the audience go on a big emotional journey together, and I wanted it to be a film that all generations and people from all backgrounds could enjoy. It’s much easier to narrow the gauge and aim it at one group, but that’s not what I wanted to do. It was tricky to focus it the way I did, but the hard work was worth it. The response has been the payoff.”
The film is shot entirely in Cork and Winters was delighted to be able to show off her home county.
“It was one of those lovely situations where I was able to show off all of my secret treasures. I put so many little gems into one film, places I just love to visit, and here I was able to put them together to share with the rest of the world. And it gave me permission to explore new areas, places I wasn’t familiar with. I wandered all sorts of nooks and crannies. It was just magical. It didn’t feel like work at all.”
For Winters, boxing was a vehicle to tell the story rather than a love of the sport.
“Boxing in film is a great way to show the strength of character and to tell a story. It’s all about the underdog and coming out on top of a difficult situation. I think it is really important to show people something uplifting and affirmative. I feel really strongly about fuelling our confidence and the possibility of being our best selves. An underdog story is a great way to do that.”
Most of the film rests on the shoulders of Frances and finding the right actor was essential to its success. Winters needed someone who could act, sing and fight and as soon as she met Doupe she knew the now 16-year-old actor was the perfect fit.
“There is a huge wealth of talent in the country at the moment, especially young talent. I met so many of them when I was casting this, but Hazel was something special. She is one of the most startling talents I have ever met in my life. I had a tingling scalp and shivers down my spine when I saw what she was capable of, I was completely in awe.”
According to Winters, the best thing for a director is to work with people who inspire.
“I was so lucky, not just with Hazel, but also Dara Devaney and Johnny Collins who make up the central trio. A good cast and crew warm your heart and keep you going.
“I was surrounded by great people in front of and behind the camera. It made my job so much easier.”
To understand and represent life in the Travelling Community, Winters did extensive research.
“1972 was such a different time for both the Travelling People and the settled community. So many great Irish photographers captured Travellers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They photographed horse fairs and country markets. It was wonderful to be able to go through those photographs, they were a brilliant resource for getting the look right.”
Music also features heavily in the film.
“We have a lot of songs in the film. Music was so important to the Travellers. It was a lovely time to focus the film on. It’s a time where all of us were so much more connected to the land and nature. People weren’t stuck with their heads in screens whereas today we spend more time staring at screens then we do looking at nature.”
The old Traveller way of life has all but come to an end and Winters believes it’s important for us to remember those old ways.
“It is a magical and creative part of our shared history. It has to be remembered. It is vital that it is.”
Muhammad Ali’s daughter Jamillah Ali recently saw the film at a festival in Chicago. “It was amazing,” says Carmel. “She was so emotional. She said her father would have loved the film. It was an incredible thing to hear.”
Float Like A Butterfly is on general release in cinemas now. It will also be screened at the Fastnet Film Festival on Sunday, May 26 at 5.15pm in The Palace in Schull and Carmel Winters will be Conversation with Paddy Breathnach on Saturday, May 25 at 6.30pm.