By Michael Washburn
When it comes to movies, Northern Ireland today is as busy and dynamic as any place in the world. Thanks to the efforts of a 28-year-old Belfast producer named Paul Largan, some Americans have now learned almost as much about the vibrant cinema in the North as they have about the real-life dramas unfolding there.
Made in Northern Ireland 2, the film festival that Largan put on in L.A. and New York in the last week of November and the first week of this month, enjoyed the backing of actors ranging from Colin Farrell, whom many see as a star-in-the-making, to Orla Brady, Ireland’s most famous actress and a star of the short film "Salvage." The event also enjoyed support from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and, thanks to the success of last year’s festival, from the Kodak Foundation.
After three days in L.A., the festival returned to New York, site of last year’s event, with showings Dec. 6-8 at Chelsea 9, the Anthology film Archives, and the Cantor Film Center.
If the war in the North fed the creative energies of many of the directors featured in last year’s event, the recent screenings of short films showed viewers how Northern Ireland cinema is branching out to take on varied issues. A star of the event was director Patrick Jolley, who had won an award at Sundance for "The Drowning Room," an eerie exercise in surrealism that shows a family’s familiar day-to-day world literally sunk in murky water. "The Drowning Room" engrossed viewers at this festival, who could think of nothing like it.
From Joe La Penna and Michael Gallaway came "Meemo," a tale told partly in flashbacks and dealing with an old couple whose dour final days jar painfully with the life they led as young lovers. Just as memorable was M’ve Murphy’s "Salvage," a gorgeously shot movie full of somber colors that tells the story of a troubled friendship between two women. "Salvage" offers a kind of foretaste of Murphy’s more political work-in-progress, "The Follower," which tells the true story of women locked up in Armagh Women’s Prison during the 1980 hunger strike. Shown to a select group of critics, rough footage from "The Follower" left them hungry for more.
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Indeed, politics were present at the festival, in a surprisingly topical form. A case in point is Brian Drysdale’s "Deadlands," a timely film about an Irish UN soldier on a peacekeeping mission somewhere in Southeastern Europe who escapes from kidnappers bent on murder only to find that the state of affairs back in his home country has changed beyond recognition.
Political drama also fired the documentaries shown on Friday night. "A Path Towards Peace," about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Belfast, is a film laced with dry humor. One viewer, writer Deborah Cavanaugh, remarked later that the Dalai Lama’s often demonstrated ability to laugh at the war in the North seemed to hit everyone in the theater with great force.
A few of the documentaries reminded viewers of the horrors of the darkest period of the Troubles. From director Sonia Gillespie came "Long Kesh: Closing the Doors," a study of the infamous Long Kesh jail that was home to many Republicans during the hunger strikes. Relayed through interviews and photos, the conditions in the jail seem impossible in a modern nation.
Clearly, it is easier now for directors in the North to make movies of any kind on any topic. Apart from the harvest of documentaries, Drysdale said that about 50 short films have been made in the North in the last five years.
Part of the reason for the subject matter of "Deadlands," Drysdale went on to say, is that people in the North are looking beyond their backyard to the rest of the world, especially regions like the Balkans, whose history has things in common with the North’s. From Drysdale’s point of view, the effort to take on universal themes will help Irish films win even more success and recognition outside of Ireland.