The Contemporary Film Industry in Belfast

Film opportunities in Belfast

Think of filmic representations of Belfast and what comes to mind may be the fog haunted streets of 1940s Belfast, and the impossibly handsome James Mason edging through the city in Carol Reed’s superb Odd Man Out. Indeed, journalistic camera crews have never neglected Belfast, but fictional portrayals are rarer, often falling into the stereotypical straitjacket of gritty realism or cliched tales of warm-hearted, resilient communities. In recent years, more distinctive voices have begun to emerge. These films, and the industry that sustains them, have become vital in readdressing old concerns and in confronting some of the fresher problems facing Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission.

The Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission was established in 1997 and works as an agency for the development of the film industry and film culture in Northern Ireland. It provides assistance, information and funding for productions, helping to ‘accelerate the development of a dynamic and sustainable film and television industry by integrating industrial, educational and cultural policies and actions’. Since the Commission’s inception, a large number of films and shorts have been produced. It has been instrumental in setting up schemes and workshops for young and emerging filmmakers who can learn new skills and become involved in the wider film community. It produces a quarterly magazine called CINI that details all the latest developments and has a digital film archive. The archive contains nearly 60 hours of moving images about Northern Ireland created between 1897-2000, covering drama, animation, documentaries, news and newsreel and amateur footage. The archive can be accessed at both the Linen Hall Library and W5 at Belfast’s Odyssey complex. Increasing numbers of production companies are now represented under its umbrella and it has become a focus of interest for the industry.

Belfast Film Festival and Cinemagic

Since 2001, the Belfast Film Festival has been a welcome addition to the city’s cultural landscape. While a film element remains key to the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, this latest festival provided an opportunity to focus on the industry and spotlight the work of filmmakers local and international. Having attracted key sponsorship, the festival has developed a vibrant programme of European and international films, along with panel discussions and workshops. In the past it has premiered Black and White with Robert Carlyle, and Gary Mitchell’s As The Beast Sleeps, and has seen key players in the industry give lectures and hold workshops. The festival has gained a reputation for showing cutting-edge releases, helping to establish its reputation as an important date in the film industry calendar.

Belfast also hosts Cinemagic, the Film Festival for Young People. Every year it premiers the latest in film entertainment for a younger audience and sees a number of industry professionals donating their time and expertise to host a range of workshops in all aspects of film and television. Cinemagic’s programme is a diverse mixture that educates as well as entertains. Both festivals help to attract established names to Belfast and develop and maintain links to the wider film world.

Production Companies

An impressive number of film production companies exist in Belfast. Foremost among them is Fillum Ltd, which has produced a series of well-received shorts and documentaries including The Good Son and Baby Doll. They are currently preparing for their feature length debut with the forthcoming Baby Baby.

Double-Band have progressed from award-winning documentaries into drama with the acclaimed Still Life. Green Park Films are developing several film projects and will soon go into production with Middletown, along with Axis Three Ltd, Belfast Underdog Media Ltd and New Moon Pictures, who have produced a variety of short films. Established television production compainies include Waddell Media Productions, Stirling Film and TV Productions and Hot Shot Films. These various production companies help to generate a lively and creative independent sector that offers a level of expertise that can rival any other city.

Success Stories

When Belfast filmmaker Tim Loane’s Dance Lexie Dance was nominated for an Academy Best Short Film Award, it was clear that the country could not only produce brilliant drama but that the resulting work could come to the attention of a worldwide audience. Further successes include the drama documentary Bloody Sunday by director Paul Greengrass, a moving and highly charged account of the events in Derry on January 30, 1972, starring James Nesbitt. It won the Golden Bear Award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and the Hitchcock d’Or best film prize at the Dinard Film Festival. It was given a mainstream cinema release and shown on ITV. Greengrass' subsequent project was Omagh, a reconstruction of the events leading up to the bombing of the small town by the Real IRA in 1998.  A collaboration with Channel 4 and the Irish Film Board, it provides a challenging look at a crucial turning point in Northern Irish history.

The Future

In recent years, the film industry in Northern Ireland has enjoyed several successes, notably Divorcing Jack, Wild About Harry, The Most Fertile Man In Ireland, Crossmaheart, and The Everlasting Piece, featuring Billy Connolly. Other recent productions include the Great Ceili Wars featuring Andrea Corr, Blind Flight, which tells the story of the Beirut captives Brian Keenan and John McCarthy, and the film adaptation of the much celebrated play, Jonjo Mickybo, by Michael McCafferty. Directed by Terry Loane, Jonjo Mickeybo is Northern Ireland’s largest indigenous production since the inception of the NIFTC. With numerous other productions in development, it seems clear that the industry has a healthy future, and a diverse collection of stories can be told using the skills and expertise of people based in Belfast and further afield.

Further Reading
Screening Ireland (2000) by Lance Pettitt; Irish film: the emergence of a contemporary cinema (2000) by Martin McLoone; Border Crossing: Film in Ireland, Britain and Europe (1994) edited by John Hill; The Cinema and Ireland (1988) by Anthony Slide.

By Gavin Carville © 2004.