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With filmmaking funding on the line, two of Northern Ireland's most promising directors vie for Oscar glory
Of the 140 short films from around the world eligible for recognition at the 2015 Academy Awards, ten have now emerged. Two of these, remarkably, hail from Northern Ireland.
In an era when the region’s film industry is on a sharp upward curve, Boogaloo and Graham, a childhood fable set in Troubles-era Belfast, and SLR, a darkly disturbing study of human behaviour, find themselves competing for the most prestigious of cinema prizes.
Fittingly, the filmmakers of both follow in the footsteps of Terry George, a venerable Northern filmmaker whose short, The Shore, picked up the award for Best Live Action Short Film at the 2012 Oscars.
How ironic then, with this level of accomplishment to celebrate, that NI Screen is reporting an expected cut of almost £1million in next year’s budget from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The ripple effect of an almost 50% reduction will be felt across a sector that is regularly heralded, in official circles, as a major economic success story.
Amongst the organisations likely to suffer in the wake of any reductions are the Belfast Film Festival, the Foyle Film Festival, three Creative Learning Centres in Northern Ireland and Queen’s Film Theatre. Cinemagic will also feel the squeeze. You can register your opposition to those cuts via the #SaveNIFilm app now.
Nerve Centre, responsible for running the Foyle Film Festival, is also in line to suffer massive cutbacks. Its Creative Learning Centres serves as superb resources for youngsters seeking training and knowledge around a host of digital mediums.
Today’s children represent tomorrow’s workers, of course, and in an interview on Radio Foyle, John Peto, Nerve Centre’s director of education, suggested that shrinking budgets in the present will only have a corrosive effect on an essential 21st-century labour base.
‘I think we have to take a longer-term view. If we’re worried about our economy now, I think we’ll be more worried in the future if we don’t have the skilled, trained workforce which is agile and fit for a digital economy in the future, which is exactly what the Nerve Centre and the other creative learning centres have been delivering into Northern Ireland.
'You can see the legacy of what we’ve done over the last 25 years through the growth of the film industry here. That film industry,’ says Peto, ‘is built on a skilled workforce that is here and is being developed through interventions exactly like this. So, if you try and save money today, you’re actually setting yourself up for a bigger fall tomorrow.'
Cinemagic's CEO, Joan Burney Keatings, contends that funding cuts would strike at the heart of an otherwise thriving talent pool.
’Cinemagic would have to dramatically reduce the scope and scale of its work including its exhibition activity, education, outreach and community programmes,' Burney Keatings explains, 'which target social need, events for young filmmakers, masterclasses and workshops, all of which are an invaluable resource to young people and educators [in Northern Ireland].’
Indeed, one such name fostered by Cinemagic’s commitment to outreach is Boogaloo and Graham director, Michael Lennox. Between night shoots on his debut feature, A Patch of Fog – a project that will be filmed entirely in Northern Ireland – Lennox, a native of north Belfast, appears keen to emphasise his excitement at breathing in that rarefied Oscar air.
‘It feels amazing,’ he says. ‘You set out to make a film and you hope beyond hope that it’s going to reach an audience and they’re going to enjoy it because you get massively close to your own material. To have people, not just in Northern Ireland, but across the water, enjoy it shows that a local story here travels and people get it. I think that’s the most rewarding thing. It’s a bigger story than just local to Northern Ireland.’
His is a family-oriented tale depicting the experiences of two young boys who come to learn about the facts of life from their pet chickens. The director speaks of setting as important as the film's universality. ‘This could have taken place in multiple locations but the fact it’s set in Belfast is personal to me,' Lennox comments.
'I grew up here. I know the type of people, the story, the humour and those things just resonate with me. I understand it and get it. I think the personal connection makes it relevant.’ Belfast, he adds, aids the short in establishing its voice, and in completing his picture Lennox also successfully subverted the longstanding practice of never engaging children or animals: ‘It was part of the magic,' he recalls.
‘I wanted to take a slightly different slant on it,’ Lennox says when asked about the significance of the Troubles as a backdrop. ‘In a very turbulent time, some of the small moments of life still go on, the madness of family life still goes on. You have to cherish those small moments in any conflict. Sometimes in these films we just see the heartbreak. Life goes on in a kid’s world.’
Lennox is not alone, of course, in carving out a niche as one of Northern Ireland’s bright young filmmaking creatives at a time when arts funding is in very real danger of being cut. For his friend and peer, Stephen Fingleton, the present spotlight endorses the persistence required to realise his Oscar-longlisted short film, SLR.
Starring Liam Cunningham (The Guard, War Horse) as a man obsessed with voyeur pornography, the vision of SLR was somewhat bleak. Fingleton recalls that putting his work together, and then showcasing it, proved especially arduous.
‘I’m extremely satisfied because SLR was a film that found it very difficult to get into festivals and none of the major international European festivals accepted it. It was never screened in England. The fact that the Academy has thought it one of the ten best short films made in that year is very validating for my cast and crew, and the work they did.'
Five years in the making and eventually funded by the British Film Institute – and filmed in Belfast and London, though the location remains indeterminate throughout – SLR was screened at the Foyle Film Festival in 2013, where it triumphed in the Best Irish Short Film category, qualifying for Academy Award consideration in the process.
The judging panel was clearly impressed by the edgy, topical themes that Fingleton explores in the film. By ‘interrogating male attitudes to pornography', Fingleton has hit a nerve. ‘An increasing number of people are aware of how private and intimate photographs can be easily shared online, without our consent,’ he observes.
‘It’s a subject I was very interested in several years ago when I came across the phenomena. It was about the difference between how we behave as a user of the internet versus how we behave in real life.’ He believes that technology has ‘changed people’s behaviour so much… It changes us as human beings.’
Fingleton recently wrapped The Survivalist, a dystopian full-length drama starring Belfast’s own Martin McCann. As he works on its colouring and sound design in New York, this Derry-born director argues that the Northern short-film sector is a breeding ground for creativity.
‘It has come on tremendously as a result of all the skills that Northern Ireland Screen has brought in, like with Game of Thrones.’ He refers to the ‘rejuvenation’ sweeping the country, and how a ‘generation of fiction storytellers’ continues to emerge.
As he waits for January and the final shortlist of five, Lennox’s competitive streak grows. ‘It’s quite funny,’ he reveals. ‘You make it to the last ten, that’s an amazing achievement but you want to find out very quickly what happens next.’ He is ecstatic at getting to this stage. ‘It’s a massive boost at the beginning of my career.’
That said, he does not mind admitting to a desire surely felt by everyone on the longlist, and with a love of Northern Irish cinema secretly or otherwise: ‘You want to win,' Lennox declares. 'You want to get to the next round and see where you’re going after that.’
Whatever the future holds, however, it may well exist in the shadow of yet more cuts to the arts. For all the positivity attaching to the progress of Lennox and Fingleton, the fate of those wishing to hit similar heights – to emulate their talent – remains in the balance.
Help protect Northern Ireland's main film organisations from devastating budget cuts by registering your opposition direct to the NI Executive now via the #SaveNIFilm app.
For those interested in supporting the campaign to save funding for the wider Northern Ireland arts sector, visit the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website for full campaign information, infographics, links and more.