Terry George

The acclaimed director opens his new film, and finds a new city to boot. Click Play Audio to hear the post-film Q&A

The last time Terry George visited the Belfast Film Festival, he got stoned.

'We came up in a limo,' says the director, 'to Curley's cinema and the limo was pelted with stones from the kids. The driver said he'd never be back, but I'm glad I am.'  

George is opening the 8th Belfast Film Festival, and the buzz is big. A buffet serving quiche, chorizo and home-made dips looks over the city through the glass front of Storm Cinemas, on the third floor of the Odyssey Arena. Assembled guests, media-types and movie buffs mingle with the models offering pre-mixed Jamesons and lemonade. 

Belfast-born writer and director George is introducing his most recent film Reservation Road, the festival's opening premiere. The last time he attended was with In The Name of the Father, for which he won an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Between then and now he found time to direct and co-write the universally-acclaimed Hotel Rwanda.

Belfast 2008When George left Belfast for New York in 1981, the building showing tonight’s film didn’t exist. Tonight, in addition to the squad assembled for the fim festival, thousands of wrestling fans pour into the Arena next door, casting long shadows in the evening sun.

From where he stands George has one of the finest views of the city skyline, with construction cranes as common as church steeples, traffic passing beneath the protruding breast of the newly-opened Victoria Centre, and clouds obscuring the blue sky above Belfast's surrounding hills.

This year's Belfast Film Festival launched on the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but the appearance of international dignitaries hasn’t stopped reporters and cameramen from descending upon the cinema. When George appears, a Nikon chorus of flashes causes the crowd to turn to the commotion.

‘That’s the curse of digital,’ he smiles, lifting a glass of whiskey to toast the photographers. ‘If yis were shooting with film, you’d have taken two snaps and been done.’

Ten years ago, film was the dominant format, and ten years ago this was the West Belfast film festival. In the year 2000 it was decided to turn the event into something for the whole city, in line with places like Cork, which has held an annual film festival for 40 years.

Belfast is currently in a transformative phase, with people adjusting to a city that can hold a greater range of social events. The Belfast Film Festival reinvents the way people can enjoy cinema. 

The programme following tonight’s launch features drive-ins next to the iconic yellow cranes Samson and Goliath, as well as screenings on boats on the river Lagan.

‘When I was growing up here,’ says festival chairperson Brian Henry Martin, ‘the first place you learned about was the airport. Get out.

'If you’re talented, get out. We lost a whole generation of people – Terry, Liam Neeson, Kenneth Branagh – all these great film-makers weren’t here to act as role models for the next generation.

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Reservation Road'‘Now, all these people are returning. They’re playing a part and that’s going to transform this place. If you were a kid here who was interested in film they’d say “You can never do that. It’ll never happen to you. Forget about that”.

‘Young people can say, “What about Terry George? He did it, I met him and I spoke to him". That's the difference.'

A prevailing opinion is that Northern Ireland begrudges its successful people, that anyone with an interesting profession or notable achievement is ostracised or insulted for having reached beyond their lot, for daring to have chased their dreams.

Tonight though, George receives the warmest of welcomes with cheers an applause in the theatre.

'We're here to welcome Terry and say to him, "You've done amazing work. We're proud of you",' confirms Martin.

'We don't have enough cultural statues in this city. We have all this political and military history, but very little cultural history. It's all about celebrating the talent we have.'

Reservation Road is a tight and emotional story, the film tackling what George calls 'America's inability to deal with death'. As a young man George attended the wakes and funerals of friends and family, experiencing the rituals and mechanics of laying loved ones to rest.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connolly and Mira Sorvino, the characters' comfortable, middle-American lives are torn apart by the death of a child. The screenplay was adapted from the novel by John Burnham Schwartz,.

The film received critical huffs from writers and bloggers upon its release ni the States. But no US reviewer could have anticipated the unique context that tonight's screening offers, and the film closes to claps and wolf-whistles.

'When I grew up, Belfast was a great cinema town,' says George. 'As a kid I would go to the Popular at the bottom of the Newtownards Road. My mum would say that you came out more alive than when you went in.

'The Picturedrome, the Curzon, the Strand... and the Willowfield, where I actually got a seat - a whole seat, not the cushion - thrown at me one day.

'Then the Troubles came and the cinema melted, along with a lot of other things. So it's great to see not just this place, but the festival and the rebirth of the town.'

‘In the words of another cinematic great,' he adds, before the curtain goes up, 'I'll be back'.