Being scheduled at the latter end of the Irish festival season is proving to be the silver lining for the Foyle Film Festival’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
Cementing its status with a Milestone theme in 2012, the Derry-based event is conveniently situated far enough away from the slew of summer festivals to showcase its own identity, and just close enough to the Corona Cork Film Festival to feed off its positive energy.
When founded in 1987, the Foyle Film Festival had the rare opportunity to be the voice of a generation; Derry youths were in need of a new hobby, and no other outlet was offering.
Film professors at the University of Ulster, Martin McLoon and John Hill, encouraged members of the Derry Film and Video Workshop to set up a festival in the area with the aim to promote local film as well as introduce international films to the Derry community.
Derry-based film enthusiasts Margo Harkin and Jim Curran were key figures in the establishment of the first Foyle Film Festival, and later became filmmakers in their own rights.
“The initial idea was just to have a yearly film festival, I don’t think there was a plan that it could sustain itself. There was a need for a platform for independent film and documentaries and videos to have some sort of outlet,” says Jim Curran, now a successful producer and professor of film studies himself at the University of Ulster.
Festival founder Margo Harkin has her own film at the event
Margo Harkin, a successful director, recalls the reasons for setting up the first festival: “We couldn’t really get films, we weren’t seeing these amazing films that were available in other places that had art house cinemas and metropolitan centres. It was to connect us to the big world of film, and to bring interesting film and filmmakers, and basically up the profile of film culture in Derry.”
The screenings at the first festival were “very political” according to Harkin, with many films containing archive footage of real events happening in Northern Ireland.
“We showed a lot of archive films about the Troubles. I think our big argument was that other people were coming in here making films about us, we felt we should make an indigenous contribution to how we were being represented,” says Harkin.
After the festival had ran successfully for three years, the Nerve Centre in Derry took over the annual event. It was then that the festival moved on from politically-driven screenings to cater more for the cinema-going public.
Curran recalls an early festival memory of when Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald brought a then little known film called ‘Trainspotting’ to Derry for the Foyle Festival organisers to watch.
“They brought it over and told us the only people who had previously seen it was the London media. We didn’t know what a big deal it was at the time because it wasn’t actually out there. I remember just being blown away when we saw it, there was no publicity ahead of that or anything, we just sat down for this new film and were told ‘we’d like your views on it’,” says Curran.
It was around the same time that Harkin remembers her fondest memory of the festival; meeting her idol Julie Christie: “I remember watching ‘Hamlet’ in the cinema, and coming out and there was Julie at the bar. You just don’t have amazing experiences like that.”
Other famous faces which have graced the Nerve Centre’s Foyle Film Festival stage over the years include Stephen Frears, Ken Loach and Brendan Gleeson.
Like previous years, 2012 hasn’t skimped on the filmmaking talent, with Ray Winstone and Mat Whitecross confirmed to attend the opening night of their new feature ‘Ashes’, as well as Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold (Wasp) and ‘Jump’ actor Martin McCann.
2012 festival director Bernie McLaughlin was keen to ensure the Milestone event was just that: “There’s a wide spectrum of films in the programme this year; we open with the Irish premiere of ‘Ashes’ and we are closing with a foreign language film called ‘The Hunt’.
“That’s very much what the festival is about – showcasing films that are a bit more challenging, and we’re also screening ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Jump’ and a number of others.”
Harkin and Curran, who are no longer involved in the running of the festival, are making a welcome return this year with their own projects. Harkin will attend the screening of her latest documentary ‘The Far Side of Revenge’, a series of interviews with women from different backgrounds in Northern Ireland who overcame their differences, with some even working together on a stage productions. Harkin and the cast will give a live Q&A after the screening on Thursday.
Curran will present the latest projects from his MA in Film students, who have produced a number of short films with the helping hands of established filmmakers. These shorts will screen on Friday as part of the festival’s education programme.
McLaughlin says: “I think this year we’ve put together a really strong programme. Every year I’m quite proud that we put it together against all the odds, because the festival doesn’t have a commercial sponsor. It is quite time consuming and it’s a lot of hard work but every year we seem to pull it off. We have a strong programme that appeals to a wide audience.”
The festival has been without a commercial sponsor since 2006, and relies on the help of many volunteers to ensure the event goes off without a hitch.
Jim Curran helped establish the festival back in 1987
Curran says: “I would say there’s fewer people that work at the Foyle Film Festival that work on other film festivals. I do think it deserves better funding.”
Despite the festival’s financial woes, it does receive much welcome support from Northern Ireland Screen and Derry City Council.
“We try year on year to get other avenues of funding and commercial sponsorship, it has become increasingly difficult to do so. But it hasn’t stopped us putting together and delivering a really strong festival.
“That’s one of the proudest things, in terms of myself working on the festival, is that because we no longer have the commercial sponsorship it would have been easy to say we’ll either not do another festival or we’ll do a really scaled down mini festival. But we haven’t done that and we’ve worked really hard to ensure that the quality of the festival remains the same,” said McLaughlin.
Harkin says she is “very proud” to have been involved in its establishment 25 years ago. “I think you have to know when to let something go and to let better people get on with it,” she adds.
Looking to the future she says she hopes the festival will continue to link Northern Ireland to global cultures through the medium of film: “I think it has to a balance of both and it does achieve that very well. Right from the start we wanted to connect to the bigger world and connect with people who had similar experiences and learn from people. To be able to celebrate the craft of filmmaking and have people tell stories of their lives through that medium is very important.”
With Curran and McLaughlin looking ahead to the 50th anniversary, – “I’ve no doubt that it will go on for another 25 years,” says Curran – the Foyle Film Festival is now going for gold.
The Foyle Film Festival kicks off today (November 21) and runs until Sunday November 25. The festival will screen a number of Irish and international films as well as hold its Light in Motion Awards on Sunday night. The festival is Oscar-affiliated, meaning the winner of the short film award is automatically considered for Oscar nomination.