Northern Lights: Foyle Film Festival

Garbhan Downey on Derry's celebration of cinema. Click Play Audio for two podcasts from this year's festival, with director Margo Harkin and actor Gerard McSorley

Back when I was a rookie journalist there was a tradition among my colleagues to take a ‘winter week’ off work, to pursue some ridiculous hobby (usually horses) or maybe visit a putative girlfriend in some far-flung place.

My passion was a lot more wholesome and a lot less costly, however. It had to be; I was wasting every cent I had, patching up crocked cars. No, what I did was this: the second the Foyle Film Festival schedule was announced, I would march into the editor’s office and beg, borrow or steal a week’s leave to pig out on cool flicks and warm popcorn.

And unlike my pals, who would invariably return home with broken hearts and pockets full of shattered dreams, I was never disappointed, let down or thrown out on my ear. Not once, not ever.

Instead, I got to see the best films first, interview my heroes and heroines, attend workshops where I could learn from movie giants – and do it all within a ten-minute walk of my own front door. I didn’t even have to crank-start the crappy Maestro.

Most of all, however, there was a sense of imminence about the film festival – a sense that pervades to this day. Great things emanate from there.

In the late 1990s, I was one of those privileged enough to attend the premiere of Dave Duggan’s short, Dance Lexie Dance, which, within months, went on to make the Oscar short-list. The fact that the film had been shot in my own city, and produced by Pearse Moore of the Nerve Centre, made the experience all the sweeter.

Two years ago, the FFF buzz centred on another of the Nerve Centre’s favourite sons, John McCloskey, and his animated short, Crumblegiant. McCloskey had already won two Celtic Film Festival awards for The King’s Wake and Midnight Dance, but this time Crumblegiant made it all the way to the BAFTA’s.

And there’s no stopping him, either. His latest animated film, Guns, Bees and Tadpoles, which received its debut in this year’s festival, is stunning. And, while I’m not a betting man (as we’ve already established), I’d give you very short odds on McCloskey being the first person from Derry ever to land an Academy Award. If it’s not this film, it’ll be his next.

Of course, it’s not just my fellow citizens who have used the festival as a springboard to great things. Other Irish luminaries to have graced its forums in recent years include: Kenneth Branagh, the only Northerner (or indeed non-American) to receive Oscar nominations for writing, acting and directing; screenwriters Roddy Doyle, Ronan Bennett and Colin Bateman; and the actor Adrian Dunbar, who incited a packed house to near-hysteria with a shaggy dog story about getting a tooth pulled in rural Fermanagh.

And that’s before you start on the international names whose regular attendance points up Foyle’s growing influence on the international circuit. Stars of the calibre of Julie Christie, Wim Wenders, Irvine Welsh, Jimmy McGovern and Neil Jordan.

True story; in 1996, I was coming out of a quite empty preview of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Strand Cinema, when a woman with an English accent asked me what I’d thought of the film.

'Not great,' I said. 'And you?'

'Oh, I thought it was very good indeed. Very well made. I loved it.'

Yeah, yeah, I thought to myself, and what do you know?

As I was leaving the cinema, one of the organising committee approached me and quietly inquired, 'What were you and Brenda Blethyn talking about?'

'Who?' I replied.

Four months later, Blethyn was in a 40-foot limousine on her way to the Oscars, where she’d been shortlisted for best actress for Secrets and Lies. And I was still driving the fecking Maestro to Limavady Council meetings.

Foyle, though, is so much more than big names and big screenings. The festival has a strong educational remit, running outreach programmes for schools and rural communities. And by extension, it has also contributed greatly to the fledgling film industry in the North.

The Nerve Centre, which oversees the festival, has developed partnerships to introduce film (Moving Image Art) as a subject in the secondary school curriculum. And it has also established Creative Learning Centres, for young arts enthusiasts, in Belfast and Derry.

My own children now regularly attend FFF events under the schools programme. And my eldest son is now at the age (11) where I can take him to some of the festival’s evening events. He loves it – almost as much as me. And he gets to meet some really interesting people.

Last month, we were sitting waiting for a screening to start, when he suddenly realised that he hadn’t had any sweets for a whole hour, so he began putting the bite on me for a pound. Loudly. I resisted gamely, fibbing that I’d no money. The guy beside me couldn’t take it, however, and eventually reached into his pocket for a quid for the 'poor child'.

I looked round at my neighbour to chastise him, only to realise that he was the IFTA-winning actor Gerard McSorley – and that my son had just realised a lifelong dream of meeting a real-live character from Father Ted. He was so happy he nearly forgot about his chocolate.

Much has changed in Derry in the 22 years since the festival was established. Not least the physical infrastructure for arts events. Two decades ago, the festival was being run from a condemned, heater-less, rented building. Today its base is the purpose-built Nerve Centre, perhaps the finest multi-media complex on this island; equipped with a concert hall, production studios, an animation suite, lecture theatres, rehearsal rooms, a restaurant and a bar.

When it first started, the FFF screened all but its showcase films on small TVs in Derry libraries or community centres. Today, the Nerve Centre has its own cinema, and the festival has the pick of the city’s many other big screens for hosting its multitudinous events.

This sea-change didn’t happen by accident. It was down to the visionaries of the Nerve Centre and FFF who planned it this way – and then worked hard to deliver their dream. 25 years ago, there was nothing but shells of buildings; today there are Oscar-nominees and hopes of greater things to come.

Remember - McCloskey for Los Angeles 2011. You read it here first.