The Survivalist at Belfast Film Festival

Oscar-nominated writer/director Stephen Fingleton on helming the 'anti-science fiction' feature he wanted to be 'the best thing ever shot in Northern Ireland'

Of the many hopeful entries submitted to the Tribeca Film Festival for consideration in its Official Selection category, 11 make the cut. In 2015, one of those notes Northern Ireland as its country of origin. That film, Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist, a tense and primal drama set in a future beset by an unspecified global collapse, is currently competing to take home the main prize at the prestigious, undeniably cool New York showcase.

Closer to home, however, Fingleton — born in Derry and raised in Fermanagh — brings his first feature to the closing night of the Belfast Film Festival on April 25. In spite of a gritty dystopian tone, and a message that he is keen to deliver on his native soil, he eschews easy labels. The Survivalist is, Fingelton suggests, an ‘anti-science fiction film'.

Carrying positive early reviews from across the Atlantic (the world premiere was held in Manhattan last week), The Survivalist seems a weighty coda to this year’s festival. It centres on an unnamed man, played by Belfast actor Martin McCann, whose hardscrabble existence in a remote forested wilderness is upturned when a woman and her daughter (Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth, respectively) happen upon his lonely homestead.

Glimpsing an opportunity, McCann, referred to simply as the Survivalist throughout, trades his food and shelter for the physical comfort provided by the younger visitor, testing the bond between mother and child in the process.

The dark adult themes unfold against a startling ecological backdrop, inspired by the theory that a loss of natural resources at some stage in the future will undermine humanity, and its oil-fuelled omnipotence, to a devastating degree, leaving the earth’s ecosystem to recover from unchecked industrialisation and relentless population growth. ‘Our world will change drastically,' Fingleton predicts. 'It’s a terrifying prospect.’

His film, then, is intended to offer an insight on what is to come and, as he describes it, this will not make for uplifting viewing. ‘You see the shape of the world from the way in which it has deformed the characters. There’s a lot less people. They’re doing terrible things, yet nature’s getting on swimmingly.'

That said, beyond its environmental context, Fingleton also has a human story to tell, where baser mores continue in the face of mankind’s encroaching extinction. The subtleties at play are fascinating. 'It is really about our society, about the inequality between men and women, exploitation, the nature of power and resources, how relationships develop from essentially abuse into domestic environments.’ 

To illustrate this, Fingleton cites the fall of Berlin in 1945 as a relevant historical example. As the Second World War sputtered on its deathbed, mass rape became a daily occurrence in the German capital. Many of those crimes morphed into sexual favours for food before changing appearance, again, in some cases to something more palatable and civilised: marriage. 

Fingleton holds up this normalisation of previously unacceptable behaviour as a ‘fascinating progression’, and admits to an interest in stories about ‘how societies emerge, about how men and women see themselves'. Furthermore, the lengths to which we, as a species, will go to endure charges his tale with a frisson of visceral uncertainty about our place in the future of the planet. As such, Fingleton invokes a fear of famine, the precarious pursuit of relying too readily on one resource. 

‘That’s obviously quite embedded in Irish history. That taps into a paranoia people have about our society. One the one hand, we think some government scientist, somewhere, has a plan while, on the other hand, we don’t believe in government anymore, so we’re very frightened of what might come. That’s why dystopian fiction is so popular.’

He speaks of those who like to imagine themselves as survivors, perhaps due to the unwelcome feelings of inadequacy picking at civilisation’s subconscious. ‘They also, deep down, acknowledge that there is something really inauthentic about society, that it’s not representative of the human condition. 

‘They imagine themselves in environments where they can be pure, in which they can be their true selves. It’s a useful starting position as a writer and as a filmmaker. The question I’m asking in this is how do you survive, emotionally and spiritually, when you feel things are going downhill, when there isn’t a future?’

As complex as it is gloomy, The Survivalist symbolises a triumph for the director, who also penned the script — a previous fixture on Hollywood’s Black List of the finest unmade screenplays — and received support from Northern Ireland Screen and its open script call, New Talent Focus.

Afforded a relatively meagre budget of £1 million to craft his ambitious debut, Fingleton shot the movie over the course of five weeks last summer. The verdant canvas onto which he painted his vision was provided by a country estate in Ballymoney, the location, roughly, for the grim plot. It was purposely set in Northern Ireland, he says. ‘I wanted this to be the best thing ever shot here.’

Typical of the North’s modest sense of self, those ambitions were difficult to overcome initially, yet the force of Fingleton’s personality dictated the tone. ‘The challenge I had, with the crew and the cast, was getting them to see that the standards we were up against was films like Taxi DriverUnder the Skin. The main challenge for me was reaching those standards and getting people to perform to their best and beyond.’

The early buzz around the project is proof of an important development, Fingleton contends. ‘We can make films that can reach a large audience,’ he says. ‘One of the top ten festivals in the world thinks that this is good enough to compete. It’s an important bar, an important milestone.’

This progression should aid in the development of a specific identity for the film industry in Northern Ireland, an aspiration to which he expresses obvious commitment. Indeed, as Fingleton points out, one national characteristic is the quality, and flavour, of the local acting talent.

In the lead role, McCann once again underlines the edgy charisma that has defined his career so far, most recently in Yann Demange’s outstanding ’71, and Fingleton appears to have been swayed by the rawness of that approach. ‘I’d seen all these actors who were public-school educated, English, soft. There’s a different presence with someone like Martin – who grew up in Divis – a toughness. He has vulnerability and strength at the same time. That’s what a leading man is.’

In the immediate future, Fingleton hopes that his producers can secure wider distribution, a quest aided both by the quality of the instant work and by a sheen that comes with being longlisted for an Oscar along with friend and peer Michael Lennox, director of the charming Boogaloo and Graham.

Unfortunately, a narrative exploring the topic of voyeur pornography may well have proved too much for the Academy and thus his own short, SLR, failed to make the final five. Speaking honestly, Fingelton maintains that he was largely unperturbed by that outcome, his delight at Lennox’s success rather undermining any disappointment. 

For Fingleton – who is in the midst of finishing a script commissioned by famed British production house Working Title – craving awards recognition sits low on a list of professional priorities. In the present, he understands The Survivalist and recognises its merits, regardless of how others react. ‘I know exactly how good or bad my films are. And I know this one is good.’

The Survivalist will screen at the Movie House Cinema, Dublin Road, Belfast on April 25 at 7pm, the closing film of the 2015 Belfast Film Festival.