University of Ulster Documentaries

A showcase from the next generation of Irish directors at the Foyle Film Festival impresses Michael Harrison

There’s always a feeling of apprehension when you critique work from novice film-makers. Often the product isn’t good enough, and you’re stuck hunting through the thesaurus for synonyms for ‘potential’. But that certainly isn’t the case with the award-winning shorts presented by University of Ulster MA Documentary Practice students at the Foyle Film Festival. All the pieces are thought-provoking, poignant and beautifully shot.

First up is Finding James, a heart-rending account of a mother’s search for the body of her 14-year-old son, who drowned in the River Bush last year while trying to free a trapped dog. James Elliot from Stranocum was a budding football star, playing with both Linfield and Northern Ireland youth teams.

Paddy Trolan’s interviews with James’s mother Margaret, sister Sara and best friend Stephen (who witnessed the tragedy) are sensitive and insightful. But there are also some truly gut-wrenching moments: Mrs Elliot recalls, on hearing that a body had been found, how she momentarily hoped it was someone else; and then there is her determination to see the body, which, mercifully, is completely unmarked – ‘not a single tear on his clothes’.

Trolan’s film ends on an inspiring note, following James’s mother and sister as they both begin volunteering with the Community Rescue Service, so they can help others going through the same trauma. A thoroughly professional documentary, this short demands – and will certainly get – a wider airing.

Technical difficulties mean that Teresa Godfrey’s film Staying Afloat isn’t shown – much to the disappointment of her course director, Cahal McLaughlin, who assures the audience that it is a wonderfully gentle portrait of a pensioners’ swimming club in Ballycastle. Taking questions later, Godfrey speaks with genuine affection of how, despite some initial reservations, the group agreed to allow themselves be filmed – ‘I’ll do it if the rest of them will.’ And they all did.

Cinema Buncrana, by Dean Crumlish, looks with fondness on the swansong of a local Donegal institution. The picture-house of the title has been run by the Doherty family for virtually all of its 106-year existence. But Paddy, one of two cousins who still work there as projectionists, believes its days are numbered. People nowadays, he remarks, can have gable-wall sized TVs in their own homes, with a bar in the corner.

The intricacies of how pre-digital movies must be prepared before screening are explored in depth, with Paddy and Donna expertly splicing film reels together – and winding on the credits onto the master-spool first. (In a very appropriate homage, Crumlish borrows the score from Cinema Paradiso for some of these scenes.)

There’s also a nostalgic discussion, led by the aging players, of cinema’s golden age, when queues would pack the Buncrana streets and boisterous crowds would make a mad charge for the cheap seats on the right as soon as the double doors opened. The rowdies though, recalls Donna, would eventually graduate to the dearer seats on the left – as soon as they acquired girlfriends. Funny, quirky and occasionally sad, Cinema Buncrana is a timely reminder that new technologies may grant instant gratification to the consumer, but they do little for our sense of community.

The final film of the set, Ryan Wu’s Little Straw, focuses on a little Chinese boy, who is torn between finding work and looking after his blind father. It is a unique and breathtakingly crafted study of a world we never get to see. It juxtaposes, with massive empathy, our young hero’s extreme poverty and limitless hope, as the ‘little straw who nobody knows’ heads to the big city to get himself a job on a market stall.

Ultimately, our hero returns home empty-handed and exhausted – but unbowed and ready to go again. The cinematography, which takes us from primitive rural slums to busy industrial cityscapes, is sublime. This film is a work of great art.

If you missed the showings at the Nerve Centre in Derry, don’t be alarmed. Most of these documentaries, and other select films from the MA Documentary Practice, are to be shown by local broadcasters – including the online NVTV. Be sure and check them out: they are proof that the future of the Irish documentary is in good hands.