And the Winner is...

Jane Hardy speaks with a few of the nominees for this year's Royal Television Society NI Student Awards on March 28

Awards matter in the arts, even though as a society we’re slightly ambivalent about winners and losers. The young nominees who will discover whether they have bagged a Royal Television Society Northern Ireland (RTSNI) Student gong on March 28 already know this. As nominee Fionnuala McCann says: 'Awards are especially important for directing as there’s no strategic way for getting in.'

When Belfast filmmaker Séan Murray (41) won the prestigious national Royal Television Society award for camerawork last year, it made a real difference. 'Yes, the award made a major difference, I started being approached by different people. One of the projects involved was a film called Guard that I have just finished directing and writing in Belfast. It was a great film and I worked on it with Jonathan Harden and Bronagh Taggart.'

Murray, who is studying for a doctorate at Queen’s entitled ‘Darkness in the Streets: the documentary image and post-conflict tension’, decided to change his career in middle age. For some years, Murray was a businessman, working in retail. 'I owned a number of shops, but went back to Queen’s because of the fact the large monopolies were eating up small businesses. So I decided to make a career in something a bit more stable.'

The short film for which Murray won the award was Fractured City, a brilliant portrait of Belfast in the 1990s and the way the Troubles affect two young men, Paul and Seamy. There is an autobiographical element here. 'I grew up in the ‘90s when dance culture was coming in. People from both sides of the community were going to raves – it was a good time to get together but if you went to them, you were vulnerable and at risk from the paramilitaries.'

Interestingly, Murray says he feels there is a gap in Irish filmmakers’ response to the Troubles and their aftermath. 'I feel there is a real void in terms of Irish social realism. In Britain, you have Ken Loach and Shane Meadows. It’s strange, even as we went into a dark period of austerity, when there should have been a bigger response, social realism was not happening.'  

In a way, Fractured City is Murray’s attempt to redress the balance. Astonishingly, given the quality of the 25-minute piece, its performances and narrative, filming took six days working with a modest budget of £2,000. Murray says the process was demanding. 'It was exhausting and with a bigger budget, we could have taken months to a year and gone further, but I was working on other things. We had Gerard McSorley who was in In the Name of the Father (playing Paul’s granddad).'

The cinematography is clever, focusing on Belfast’s walls, alleys and back streets. Sean Murray adds: 'I wanted the landscape to be an extension of the people in the film, it was both a physical and metaphorical wall. We used the Clonard peace wall.' As he points out, the film is not sentimental and even when the young men enjoy a view of a sunrise from a hill in West Belfast, the imagery is subtle as they discuss whether they need to head to England.

The cast is a mix of professional and amateur actors, with Ciaran McCourt as Paul turning in a moving characterisation. 'What I wanted to do was have the lead as non-professional, surrounded by professional actors.' The result is powerful.

The film was shown in London, in Toronto and at the Belfast film festival. Now involved with a feature documentary, titled Unquiet Graves (of the Troubles) 1972-1978, Murray feels the film community has stepped back from the most painful and important topic of the past forty years, the Troubles. He elaborates: 'There has been a major push in drama to deal with the new dispensation and looking at the past is frowned upon even though it is the path to the future. In my research for my PhD, I’ve looked at international examples like Chile and the Pinochet era. 'I found that history, the President Allende period, was disappearing totally from the past. These are major things the Chileans are dealing with now.' Murray says: 'The arts are a good place to deal with these things, they give you space.'

In the future, Sean Murrays says he would like to get younger people involved. 'Via workshops providing a kind of awareness of social realism. What’s coming through the film school now is Game of Thrones stuff and The Fall. Yet there is a film theory programme at Queen’s which looks at European film and alternative cinema. Otherwise, they want to make films about leprechauns and zombies.'

One younger filmmaker who has eschewed fantasy for a kind of psychological realism is 19-year-old Fionnuala McCann. Like Murray, she wove some autobiography into the short – The Last Keeper - that won her the nomination for the Royal TV Society NI award. 'My passion is the sea. I live by it at Shrove and my father is Harbour Master at Derry-Foyle Port.' She adds that she wanted to do something related to the water and seafarers.

The subject she has worked on with a fellow student at the North West Regional College on the Moving Image course is a story about the trials and tribulations of being a lighthouse keeper. 'Gavin McKay and I both had an idea based on this lighthouse keeper. I originally wanted to do something with the keeper telling stories to his grandchild, which I may do eventually, but this time it wasn’t feasible.'

Working on the isolation of the job, The Last Keeper is dark visually and psychologically. We see the man, played by Andrew Thomson, grappling with a sense of inadequacy as he has to force himself to turn on the light to save ships caught nearby in a storm. 'We wanted to emphasise he is just by himself and that if the light switch is off, they’re all in jeopardy.'

McKay has left college and is now a trainee on Game of Thrones. In terms of her own future plans, McCann says she wants to direct films. 'Directing interests me and I worked on a short film called Chancer for Cinemagic in November which is premiering next month. It’s about this young guy, Ryan, who has been in and out of prison but gets a chance to bond with an old lady when doing community work on her garden. Then he’s accused of stealing from her but I won’t spoil the ending. What I really want to do is work in the industry. She adds that creativity is about open-mindedness. 'I draw inspiration from everything, a place, a person, an object, or from autobiographical material.'

Another student at the North West Regional College, James Neeson (19) has been nominated for the RTS NI Student TV awards. His chosen work is a short fan film about Rorschach, the not quite superhero based on the character created by Alan Moore. He says: 'I’m a fan of Rorschach created in the comic series Watchmen. He’s more of an anti-hero than a superhero, seeing the world in black and white, so I shot it in a noir kind of style.' Neeson wrote the droll, stylised script and even does the vocals. Producing a voice for the Manichean in bandages was a challenge, as James Neeson reveals: 'It was pretty painful on the vocal cords and not easy but I took inspiration from the original Watchmen film.'

A fan of an eclectic media mix from a young age ('I liked superheroes, the occasional horror thing and Disney'), James Neeson says he is interested in doing voice-acting and production.

The new generation of talent gathering at the Black Box, Belfast at the end of the month show a desire to make it in a tough but immensely rewarding business. If they win – which James Neeson says would be 'nice' although he doesn’t automatically expect to – they are automatically entered into the Royal Television Society national awards.

The RTS NI Student Television Awards, now in their fifth year, offer the opportunity for talented media students from across broadcast and audio-visual to showcase their work to some of the creative industry’s biggest names and are sponsored by Crawford McCann, Stellify, Lark Insurance and Westway Films.

As Aidan Browne, RTS NI committee member and senior lecturer at the Belfast Metropolitan College, says: 'These awards have industrial clout. I’ve been involved from the start and have watched this fledgeling event grow into a lovely thing. What’s important is that these students are getting the same awards as people do for Downton Abbey or Gogglebox.' He adds that the media great and good, including Stephen Nolan and Colin Williams of Sixteen South, will be present at an unparalleled networking opportunity. 'You see the BBC NI Head of Production asking a young media student what they’d doing and what they’re interested in doing. And people like Stephen Farry MLA has supported the event from the beginning.'

Finally, it is about the quality of the work. Aidan Brown sums up: 'This is a melting pot evening with people from radio, film and production. What counts is that these award winners have very high production values.' Which will allow them to embark on brilliant careers.

The annual Royal Television Society (RTS) NI Student Television Awards take place at the Black Box in Belfast on Tuesday 28th March 2017. For more information visit the Royal Television Society website.