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still reeling Kerry film director Shaun O'Connor says being on the Oscar long list is a 'dream come true'

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Kerry director Shaun O’Connor

Kerry director Shaun O’Connor

Kerry director Shaun O’Connor

A White Horse director Shaun O’Connor admitted he is still reeling after being longlisted for an Oscar. But the Kerry filmmaker explained why he isn’t making room on the mantelpiece just yet.

Oh my God, I’d have to get a mantelpiece first!” he jokes with Magazine+ about the prospect of bringing a ‘baldie’ back home to Castleisland in 2021.

“A mantelpiece is my New Year’s Resolution.” The powerful 11-minute film about a young gay woman sent to a psychiatric hospital for conversion therapy in 1970s Ireland scooped Best Irish Short at the Foyle Film Festival last November.

Now the short, starring newcomer Amber Deasy as teenager Bridget, and inspired by the real-life story of Irish writer Hanna Greally, could be in contention for one of Hollywood’s most coveted gongs at the 93rd Academy Awards next April too.

“Oh, I lost my mind when we got the award,” confesses Shaun. “It’s a dream come true for any filmmaker.

“There are a certain number of film festivals around the world that are Academy Award qualifying.

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A powerful scene from director Shaun O’Connor's A White Horse

A powerful scene from director Shaun O’Connor's A White Horse

A powerful scene from director Shaun O’Connor's A White Horse

“Basically, if you win certain awards at them, you’re put on the long list for an Oscar nomination.

“Obviously with any creative work you never know how it’s going to be received,” he continues. “But this was a film made on a shoestring and shot over the course of a week. So we were absolutely thrilled to make the long list. At the moment, we’re just trying to get it in front of as many voters as we can.”

Around 100 hopefuls from across the globe will eventually be whittled down to just five nominees for Best Live Action Short at the world-famous Dolby Theatre next spring.

But Cork-based Shaun insisted it means just as much winning the approval of audiences at home.

“When we had the physical screenings here in Ireland, we were getting an amazing reaction,” he says of the film, which is now set to be turned into a TV series.

“Myself and Paul Cahill, the writer, had people coming up to us after pretty much every screening, saying they knew people like Bridget, who had been put away for months or even years by their families.

“The message of the film is just reminding people that throughout the 20th century psychiatric hospitals were used as a catch-all for people who were considered abnormal or strange or burdensome to society.

“The fact that it has taken on a life of its own has given us a great boost in terms of developing the show into what we hope will be a four-part mini-series that explores life inside an Irish psychiatric institution in the early 1970s, and not shying away from the darkness and the reality of life in an institution like that.”

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A scene from director Shaun O’Connor's A White Horse

A scene from director Shaun O’Connor's A White Horse

A scene from director Shaun O’Connor's A White Horse

Not yet 40, Shaun revealed how he enlisted the help of his mam to nail the film’s authentic seventies’ vibe.

With a bill to prohibit conversion therapy, which bids to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, currently before Seanad Éireann however, the period drama could not be more timely, he agreed.

“I think a lot of the reason that conversion therapy is not the hot topic it used to be, thankfully, is that it has been effectively phased out,” says Shaun, “and certainly phased out the way it is conveyed in the film, which is that Bridget is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy to provoke an almost Pavlovian reaction to certain sexual thoughts.

“Yes, it’s about the oppression of LGBT rights in Ireland in the late 70s,” he adds, “but conversion therapy [groups], in terms of ‘pray the gay away’ or thought therapy, do still exist in Ireland, even if they’re small groups. So it feels like it’s the right time to talk about these things that happened in our recent history that are more pertinent than ever.”

Shaun, who’s also working on his debut feature film, welcomed news of a vaccine that could once more call ‘action’ on Ireland’s thriving film and television industry, paused after the worldwide explosion of Covid-19.

In the meantime, the writer and director joked he’d be only too happy to accept a virtual Oscar from the comfort of his couch: “There might be a tuxedo filter!”

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