Respite at Christmas Screens in Odeon Belfast
Campbell Miller and students of South Eastern Regional College produce poignant Second World War short film
The Hürtgen Forest, northern Germany, 1944. The maze of trees bears the scars of the brutal Ardennes campaign. From the dark cold of the snowy night, a platoon of American soldiers and their German counterparts converge on a lonely farmhouse.
They are not joined in battle, however, nor do they set aside their differences to engage in some twee sporting event. Their purpose is more human, more humble. More symbolic. All they seek is shelter for their wounded. They sit down and eat dinner together. It is Christmas Eve and they are tired of war.
These scenes have been committed to film, but they won’t be found in any expensively rendered Steven Spielberg miniseries or motion picture. Instead they belong to Newcastle filmmaker Campbell Miller’s Respite at Christmas, an independent short based on true events.
The film was made possible by the efforts of Focus Productions, a company made up of the students and professionals at the Northern Ireland Film School. Based at the South Eastern Regional College’s Ballynahinch and Bangor campuses, the Film School provides students (including graduates) with a two year course focusing heavily on the practicalities of film production.
As an assistant head at the school, Miller has committed to making short films as an instructive and indispensable educational tool. Respite at Christmas is perhaps his largest directorial effort to date. Focusing on the aforementioned warriors and the young Fritz Vincken – whose mother welcomed them all into her home provided they did not carry their weapons over the threshold – Miller was inspired to tell what is a compelling tale.
‘I came across this story a few years ago when watching a documentary,’ Campbell recalls. ‘Not too many people had heard about it, though. For me, it was crying out to be told and I really love being able to tell this, to let people see it.’
The film – which stars Chris Patrick Simpson, Cathy Brennan Bradley and Oisin Crawford – is to screen in the Odeon Cinema in Victoria Square, Belfast on Saturday, December 21 at 11am. But the path from idea to cinema screen was not an easy one. There were hurdles that needed to be overcome – pyrotechnics, a shoestring budget, challenging locations – but Miller was keen to test himself and hone his skills.
‘I’m continuing to push my boundaries with this film. For me it was the only way to tell the story. I knew that there were going to be a lot of challenges to produce something like this – having to work with fake snow, armourers, pyrotechnicians and even digging trenches. The whole thing was probably my most ambitious project. It was very enjoyable.’
More generally, Campbell is keen to point to the ‘flourishing’ local short film scene, one in which he has been working for almost seven years since concluding his film studies at Ball State University in Indiana.
‘There are so many great filmmakers and directors out there producing content constantly,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of work there with input also from Northern Ireland Screen, which is able to help those going into the industry. The public maybe don’t realise it, but short films really have taken off [in Northern Ireland].’
In Miller’s view, the presence of large productions within Northern Ireland, from Dracula to Game of Thrones, is something to be positive about, in spite of their inevitable tendency to dwarf smaller indigenous output.
He feels hopeful about the subsequent openings for the very students with whom he is now working, and believes that Northern Ireland’s status as an active hub for large-scale film and television will increase the need for highly trained and experienced personnel, behind the camera, as well as in front of it.
‘It can only be a good thing. People are realising that we are a location for filmmaking. You hope that the attraction brings others to Northern Ireland to shoot features and documentaries, and that they will actually use the local talent. That’s something we’re already seeing, with the BBC’s The Fall, for example.’
Miller points to events like Film Devour, the Belfast Film Festival and the Foyle Film Festival in Derry~Londonderry as platforms through which this vibrant, though somewhat unheralded genre may be seen and enjoyed by audiences. That said, he would welcome further opportunities to exhibit such work. ‘I’d love to see more methods of being able to showcase the amount of quality content that is being created.’
The ultimate goal, Campbell says, is to expand the audience, cement credentials and establish a good quality showreel – indispensable elements when it comes to making the step up to features. ‘Short films are all about spending money. There’s no commercial gain, but in the long term you hope that you’ll be paid back.’
The collaboration on these projects with the students at the Film School is a central aim, the development of their technical expertise being crucial in filling the gap between theory and reality. ‘It gives the students the chance to learn from the good aspects of the production along with those things that didn’t go so well. It’s a learning curve for us all.'
Excitingly, playing alongside Respite at Christmas at its Odeon premiere will be another Focus Production short, Poison Tree. To underline the fact that this particular corner of the film industry is booming, Miller is already set to shoot his next short, The Family, in January. ‘Hopefully it’ll be easier than the last one,' he laughs. 'No explosions. No fake snow.'
The challenge this time around, he suggests, will be working with child actors. Also of interest is the potential for a sequel to Respite, which would likely feature the same group of American soldiers.
‘I’ve always loved those war dramas like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and The Pacific,’ says Miller of his passion for the subject. ‘When you get the opportunity to go and put together something like that, it’s going to be a lot of fun.’
Respite at Christmas will be screened in the Odeon Belfast on December 21 at 11am.