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Visual vitality: a rebirth of North’s film industry

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Washburn

Northern Ireland is a backwater with not much going on culturally. That is the notion some people might have, because of the closed, militarized conditions that choked off some forms of cultural expression until recently. But thanks to "Made in Northern Ireland," the film festival Paul Largan organized, which ran from Nov. 17-19, New York moviegoers and film industry professionals got a look at the vibrant cinema that has taken off in Northern Ireland since the 1994 cease-fire.

Courtesy of BBC Northern Ireland, 22 directors from the North came to New York just in time for the festival. While some seemed in awe at being in New York for the first time, all were delighted with the opportunity Largan had arranged to show their work and to hold meetings with film industry leaders about future projects. Northern Ireland cinema’s hour has truly come, to judge from the fascinating work shown last week and the improved climate for filmmaking in the North, which the directors repeatedly mentioned.

The festival’s stated purpose was to show all that has been going on in Northern Ireland film in the last five years. "Made in Northern Ireland" ran the cinematic gamut, with movies on many political, military, social, and cultural issues.

On the first and second nights of the festival, Largan treated viewers to screenings of short films ranging from 3 to 15 minutes in length at the Tribeca Film Center. Among the highlights were Hugh McGrory’s dramas "Getting Close" and "The Rules of Golf," in which even the younger residents of Belfast can find no refuge from sectarian strife. Similar themes come across in Brian Drysdale’s "Elsewhere," which opens with a child’s voice-over and crayon drawings of his Belfast neighborhood — images that jar with late flashbacks to sectarian brutality. These films reflect the pervasive violence of the world in which the directors grew up. As McGrory said about a troubled street kid in "The Rules of Golf," "It’s me when I was 13" — although the film is pretty tame compared to what some Belfast kids go through.

A shift away from urban settings and issues came with films like "The Freesia of Eden" and "Field of Bones," which depict conflicts and problems not tied to politics. In fact, these two movies, set against a timeless rural background, attest that the wartime mentality, while still pervasive, does not preclude films about issues that appeal to viewers anywhere — aging, death, or in the case of the latter film, incest.

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Out of all the films, perhaps the most quietly moving was Sean McGuire’s drama "The Good Son," which presents a tale of a son’s estrangement from his abusive father.

A film that stood out from all the others was James Donnelly’s black comedy "Mortice," in which a young couple hunting for a place to live has a run-in with a psychotic landlord. Donnelly says that people have tried to read into the film. He has even been asked, he said, if "Mortice" is some sort of metaphor about the Shankill Butchers, the infamous band of loyalist killers — but that all he really set out to do was to make a comedy-horror spoof, with visual references and homages to "Psycho" and to splatter films like "The Evil Dead."

While the wartime mentality can be seen in some of the films, and in reactions to them, some of the directors just wanted to have a good time making their movies, and to entertain viewers. Taken together, the movies form a rich pageant reflecting all aspects of life in the North.

High production values

Despite what one might expect, the production values soar. Often working on shoestring budgets, the directors achieve all kinds of subtle effects with lighting, color, music, and other devices. The scripts are often witty and the acting impeccable. Not surprisingly, "The Good Son" was chosen for the International Critics Week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, while "Getting Close" won an award at the 1998 Foyle Film Festival.

The documentaries shown on Friday night at NYU’s Cantor Film Center were as eclectic as the short films. Mike Hewitt’s "Too Late for Names" deals with an issue of concern throughout the UK: the high rate of stillborn children. In "Splitting," we meet Peader, a young man who grew up in a household dominated by a disturbed father, an ordeal that left Peader with recurrent nightmares, vividly captured by director Paula Crickard, who has known the film’s subject since both were 14. The political situation in the North does not impinge until near the end of the film, when Peader’s father dies in a bombing attack.

But politics were never far away. The longest film shown in the festival, Frank Martin’s "A Million Bricks," delves into the experiences of the men and women of Springfield Park, the religiously mixed part of West Belfast where Martin grew up. In order to make the film, Martin tracked down his surviving former neighbors (no mean feat) and persuaded them to talk about what happened to them on the night of Aug. 9, 1971, when one of the worst gun battles in Belfast history left six residents of Springfield Park dead.

More hospital arts climate

While the directors represented in "Made in Northern Ireland" have many different approaches and concerns, they agree that the North has become a much better place to make films of any kind. Everything has improved since 1994, said Hugh McGrory, although there is still a long way to go.

James Donnelly said that in the past, when directors tried to set up a camera somewhere, the police or the army would object for security reasons, and local people would not be happy because they did not want any attention drawn to their street. Now the locals don’t have a deep distrust of cameras, and the police are actually helpful — for example, when Donnelly was filming "Mortice" in the Wellington Park section of Belfast, the police came and closed off the street to traffic for the sake of optimal filming conditions. The cease-fire has freed up police personnel for that sort of normal duty, Donnelly said.

Frank Martin didn’t have quite so easy a time. He said he contacted 50 of his former neighbors and got them to agree to be in the "A Million Bricks," but that 30 dropped out because what they had to remember was so traumatic. Still, the British army had withdrawn to barracks, nobody harassed him when he shot the film, and it has had an extremely good reception. Martin is one of many directors who have seized the chance to tell stories that could not be told — at least on film — until recently.

Flushed with the success of their short films and documentaries, many of the directors say that they would like to go on to direct feature films. Thanks to Paul Largan’s vision and organizing talents, they may soon have the chance to do just that.

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