Friday, August 26, 2016

Julieta - a sumptuous story of separation (QFT until 8 September)

I’m generally suspicious about the use of narration or an enormous flashback after a quick introduction in a film or play. While it’s forgivable in a movie as good as The Princess Bride, it often seems to cover up weaknesses in the plot. (And don’t get me started on wordy captions – the Star Wars opening crawler – that provide the context the screenwriter and director couldn’t fit into the action.)

Yet the extended flashback device works well for Pedro Almodóvar’s new film Julieta. The titular author (played by Emma Suárez) bumps into a younger acquaintance on a street in Madrid and discovers that her estranged daughter Antía is alive and has a family. This revelation leads Julieta to pull the eject handle on plans to relocate to Portugal with her partner and instead she moves back to her old apartment block and starts writing up her side of the story in a long letter to her daughter.

And so we go back to key moments and meet key people in her life. There’s death and life as the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets two men on an overnight train journey. A menacing housekeeper (played brilliantly by Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) interferes with the truth while Julieta’s beau Xoan (Daniel Grao) is less than candid about his relationship with sculptor Ava. Though Julieta too knows about unconventional couplings when she makes a rare visit to see her parents from whom she’s practically estranged.

Ava’s bronze and terracotta statues are designed to be heavy, resilient against the wind. Julieta needs the same inner strength to stand up to the gales of life, absence and death that blow against her as her daughter grows up and finds her way in the world.

The film’s poster refers to the moment in the film when the ‘young’ Julieta morphs into the ‘old’ one and the actors swap. With the change in actor and timeframe, the opening scenes feel a little disconnected from the flashback, almost fictional rather than autobiographical. At times, the rich colour and backdrops distract from the plot and the subtitles. Watch out for how the quality of bookcases vary across Julieta’s life.

The placement of the cast against walls and furniture is exquisite and the framing of shots is beautiful throughout the film. [And the Oscar for best flocked wallpaper goes to …. Julieta.]

Late in the film, one line of the script jumps out:
“We all get what we deserve.”

Laying aside whether this is ever true, the statement signposted a completely different conclusion to the profoundly disappointing one that was projected onto the screen at the end of the 100 minute film. [My version would add 10 seconds with a tractor coming round the corner, an airbag inflating and a black screen.]

You can catch the sumptuous and stylish story of separation in the Queen’s Film Theatre where Julieta is being screened until 8 September.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bubbacue expands its menu and opening hours

Do you like your BBQ meat slow smoked?

A few months back when Bubbacue closed their Callender Street doors, gutted their unit and then reopened, some of the original raw charm of the meatery seemed to have slipped out into the builders skip. It was quite a culture shock for regular customers.

While the taste was kept, the brick walls are no longer exposed, the rather necessary rolls of kitchen roll were absent from the tables and - at the start - the four (shades) of (brown) sauce in bottles waiting to be squirted over the fries were no longer to hand.

The queue no longer stranded hungry souls out on the street and takeaway customers didn’t have to loiter over the shoulders of those sitting in.

But the new shinier Bubbacue has bedded in and, to the credit of those running it, they have tweaked and adapted to meet customer demand and showed off their new offering to a gaggle of folk on Tuesday evening.

The bottles of sauce were back on the tables in nicely carved holders and there were even options for any vegetarians who can be dragged into the meaty environment.

While your meat can still come in a bap, you can now choose to ditch the bready carbohydrate and have it in a bowl or on top of salad. The pulled pork, brisket beef, BBQ chicken and spicy sausage have been joined by Halloumi cheese (coated in panko breadcrumbs and fried).

Mashed potato and Cajun rice have been added to the selection of hot sides, along with my new favourite macaroni and cheese. And there are now options for beans, potato salad, couscous and rocket on the side.

The Bubbacue ‘ethos’ statements around the restaurant and on their website may be a little cheesy, but they do sum up well the philosophy:
  • Made by hands, eaten with fingers.
  • From scratch everyday
  • Freshly smoked overnight
  • No half measures

Bubbacue is licensed and selling their Bubbabrew alongside their own brew Iced Tea and a range of soft drinks. Opening hours have extended too. The shutters are no longer down on Monday lunchtimes. Instead, the slow smoked meat (and fried cheese) is available from 11.30am until 8pm Monday-Saturday and 1-6pm on Sunday.

And while the menu and the opening hours have expanded, and outside catering is an option, there are no plans to expand the business and open a second restaurant. Callender Street is home of the slow smoked BBQ meat for now.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Thinking About Thoughts - listen in to three tormented souls on a silent retreat

Three people have booked into a ten day silent retreat. Into this sparse and isolated environment, each brings their own insecurities and baggage. As an audience we listen into the clamour of inner thoughts as they unpack and process their lives.

Dressed appropriately for the sessions of yoga and contemplation, the three actors in Thinking About Thoughts take their places on the stage. A spotlight falls on one and the theatre goers hear their thoughts through wireless headphones. The spotlight moves and the inner conversation shifts. Introductions over, all three characters are illuminated and each listener can flick between the three channels to eavesdrop on the conversation inside the single head of their choice. (Small green/blue/red lights on the headphones indicate to other people around you which voice you’re listening to.)
“I hate my body yet I still put it out there for other people to judge.”

Green (played by Anna Leckey) is suffering a bad bout of smart phone separation anxiety and gradually unpacks her craving for the validation of others as she practices her sculptural yoga positions. For a while Red (Mathieu Lovelace) psychopathically imagines harming the other participants on the retreat before panicking over how he is being perceived by others. Blue (Edward Richards) is the least relational of the three but is burnt up by a sense of haste and his addiction to being busy.

The most inane moment takes on a magnified significance in the cerebral silent retreat! At one point Green obsesses about how to eat an apple in a sexy way while Red tries to hold in a fart while crawling on the floor under Green to retrieve his fallen apple. Glances and movements spark your curiosity and lead your finger up to the right earpiece to quickly switch channel and catch what’s going on.

It’s like watching three soap operas simultaneously, with your finger riding the remote control to jockey between channels and knit together your personalised version of events. The word-heavy script delivered wirelessly sketches out a depth to the characters that draws you in. For a while I felt anxiety about missing plot lines and guilt for not paying attention to a character, particularly when hearing a snatch of other audience members chuckling without having heard something funny.

The three noiseless actors stretch, lie, sit, walk, and fiddle with their invisible phones over the hour long performance. The audio delivered to the headphones is very crisp and there’s a beautiful stereo effect as a bee buzzes past at one point.

By the end of the ten days of solitude, the three are driven to very different conclusions as they battle to address their inner demons. Social media, body image, productivity, relationships, avocados and the wisdom of using an alarm clock on a silent retreat are all explored in this inventive and gentle piece of theatre. Very real and modern issues examined in a way that doesn’t provide all the answers, but certainly resonate with the audience’s own experiences and hangups. Appropriately, the performance in the darkened theatre space finished with a mindfulness exercise narrated by Bridgeen Rea.

Thinking About Thoughts is a well written and well performed piece of modern theatre. For the majority of the audience, the technology enhances rather than distracts. Anna Leckey is the founder of Threes Theatre Company. A recent graduate of London South Bank University, she’s now back living in Drumbeg, and it’s good to see that Lisburn & Castlereagh Council were supporting the production which premièred last night in the Island Arts Centre.

Well worth catching one of the upcoming performances of Thinking About Thoughts in The Black Box on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 August at 8pm.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Childhood of a Leader - raising a monster (QFT 19-25 August)

The Childhood of a Leader depicts a series of episodes in the childhood of a young boy who is growing up in a big house in a French village towards the end of the First World War. Collectively the ‘tantrums’ demonstrate the rising manipulative nature of the child.

Tom Sweet plays the long-locked boy (only once named as Prescott) who is repeatedly mistaken for a girl. Mumbling his lines for a Christmas performance, the audience are thrown the clue that he may have a Messiah complex.
“Why would you want to hurt anyone?”

The child gets a kick out of throwing stones at people leaving the nearby church. At first he seems to be a vulnerable soul, but soon you’ll wonder whether his bed wetting is more about attention seeking than fear. Over nearly two hours, you’ll watch his stubborn personality develop along with his grasp of the inappropriate and a brutal ability to calculate how to dispense with those who get in his way.

His German mother (played by Bérénice Bejo) speaks four languages but still employs a local woman Ada (Stacy Martin) to school him in French. Bejo portrays an anaemic wife who is ill at ease with her husband and a mother more comfortable running a house and hiring and firing, than bringing up a child.

While the residence’s cook is firmly wound round his little finger, Ada proves to have stricter boundaries to her friendship with the little tyrant. Yet both characters suffer the same fate. 

His father is Irish-American, a US diplomat who spends a lot of time away in Paris working on the Treaty of Versailles. Liam Cunningham plays an at first clean cut character whose sinister side is later revealed when we discover he can follow up his threats with violence.

While the two parents – one absent geographically, the other mentally – together weave the beginnings of a pattern of dysfunctionality, their less wholesome traits don’t feel sufficiently weighty to create the monster who occupies the child’s bedroom upstairs.

Writer/director Brady Corbet serves up a number of plot points that feel under-cooked, either red herrings or very broad hints at inappropriate behaviour or relationships (eg, the father caught talking to Ada) in the house. The version of this film running in the QFT subtitles the conversations in French, though at times the English is indistinct.

There’s a consistently dark mood across the film. The musical score is heavy and somewhat reliant on ominous-sounding low tonal strings. Every scene is darkly lit. The war together with the related power struggles in the father’s work overshadow talk at the dinner table. And on top of that, at times Liam Cunningham’s dialogue sounds like it has been dubbed over by Liam Neeson and may break out into “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you” at any moment.

Spiralling camerawork near the end suggests that world affairs and the family are spinning out of control. But the very final shots are much more disorientating and hard to read. Also perplexing is the issue of which – if any – historical fascist leader the boy is supposed to grow up to become?

The Childhood of a Leader is not a feel good film. But it is a curious, slow-moving inspection of a disturbing family life that isn’t so far removed from ordinary households to be unfamiliar. The film is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between 19 and 25 August.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

CLOSER - an elaborately planned formal theatrical garden (Crescent Arts Centre until 13 August)

Dan is an obituary writer (“it’s a living”) who chivalrously accompanies Alice to hospital after a road accident and flirts with her as she awaits medical attention. Dr Larry passes by and quickly dismisses her injuries as unremarkable. A year later Dan has written a book about Alice’s past life, and Anna is shooting publicity portraits. Dan flirts with her too. Later he unwittingly introduces Anna to Larry and they hit if off.

And that’s only the start of Closer, a twelve scene play full of twists and turns, driven by elaborate coincidences, character flaws, mistaken notions of love, lust, jealously, belonging and truth, and a generous seasoning of playwright licence.

The internet chatroom scene provides much comedy – through its staging and facial expressions as much as the dialogue – and the cast’s delivery of Patrick Marber’s well written verbal retorts generate chuckles throughout. However, the tragedy of the perpetually breaking down relationships rob the play of any sense of farce.

Jonathan Blakeley plays Dan who is a cad and a bounder: by the end of the play it is hard to fathom how at least three women could ever have fallen for the failed novelist’s absent charms. Lee Thomas (who also directed the play) combines smugness with sleaze to bring revengeful Larry to life.

Alice is the most vulnerable character and Katriona Perrett successfully combines being bubbly, brave, brazen and needy in her warm portrayal of the young woman who tries to keep control by suppressing her truth. Gemma Leader inflates Anna with a flattering air of confidence and assurance before gently puncturing this image when she allows herself to be messed around by Dan and Larry.

The staging is minimalist and the scene changes rapid yet elegantly choreographed. Strobe lighting is effectively though somewhat inconsistently used to signify the boundary between some early scenes before being dropped later in the play.

Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer is like an elaborately planned formal theatrical garden, with the many delicately sized scenes bursting with symmetry. Facts and context are withheld until you need to know. Along with the sparse scenery this leaves the audience’s imaginations straining to figure out what’s going on until the missing nugget of information is dropped into the conversation. Guess correctly, and it’s terribly satisfying.

Marber’s exploration of libido and questioning of whether the truth really can set any of this hurting quartet free is beginning to date in this age of Tinder. Yet it’s worth swiping right to see this confident production. With explicit and naturalistic language throughout, yet set in a fabricated and totally unnatural series of circumstances, Closer is raw and incredibly well executed.

Closer is the inaugural show by new theatre group London Irish Productions and you can catch this polished production is being performed in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast until 13 August.

The Idol (QFT 12-18 August)

The Idol opens with a sequence that’s right out of an episode of Homeland or a Bourne movie: a chase in and out of buildings, across rooftops and through crowded markets … except it’s a gang of four kids. They’re already entrepreneurs, learning that everything has a price in the squeezed economy of Gaza.

This is a film of two halves. Mohammed Assaf (played by Qais Atallah) dreams of being in a band with his older sister Nour (Hiba Atallah, who is the star of this section of the movie) and his two school friends. Sweet feel-good music accompanies the foursome as they ride through the dirt streets on their bicycles until they reach the razorwire fence.

Despite being warned that “you’re aiming too high, you’ll be disappointed”, they listen to Nour and are spurred on by her mantra that “we’ll be big and change the world”. Skilled negotiators, enthusiastic, able to generate cash and driven to improve, all they need is practice! Like all bands, there are romantic and creative differences that challenge the status quo. But it’s a renal medical side plot that provides the emotional crisis that brings the curtain down on the ‘early years’.

Jumping forward in time, we’re now in a busier, much more populated Gaza, with bombed buildings lying in ruins and power cuts interfering with life. This time with his mother’s sage words – “To succeed you have to be open to failure” – Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) dips his toe back into musical waters, entering local and regional TV talent shows. Figures from the first half are neatly reconnected with as the plot heads towards its well-documented finale.

Real life footage of Mohammed Assaf’s actual success in Arab Idol is blended in with foreign news footage commenting on the Gaza singing phenomenon and a small number of close up shots of the actor playing Mohammed. The continual swapping between real and reconstructed footage distracts and it’s a pity the director wasn’t able to completely switch to using the real Mohammed Assaf for the final fifteen minutes of the film (or alternatively kept the actuality for during the credits).

While some scenes feel contrived, all too conveniently bringing characters from the first half back into the later action, the script incorporates many of the unlikely happenstances that propelled Mohammed across the Gaza/Egypt border and onto the hit TV programme where he gains the tongue-in-cheek nickname of “The Rocket”.

What the film does well is gently highlight the difficult conditions in Gaza, the disparate political factions, the relatively impervious border as well as the cultural norms that made it difficult for young Nour to perform in public. 

Even discounting the absence of Bollywood, The Idol is less slick and glamorous than Slumdog Millionaire. But there’s still something very sweet about this tale.

In this part of the world we like stories about wee lads battling against the odds and making a splash. Mohammed Assaf was certainly “big” and may well “change the world” in his UN ambassador role and diplomatic passport (that gets him into most countries, but not Gaza without permission).

The Idol is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 18 August.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Born to be Blue - a second jazz biopic (QFT until Thursday 11 August)

Barely three months after the last semi-fictional jazz trumpeter biopic was projected onto the Queen’s Film Theatre screen, along comes another. Back in April, my review of Miles Ahead finished saying:

It’s a portrait of a talented musician who lived life with a wild abandon and who tried to control everybody around him while exhibiting a complete lack of self control. The virtuoso quality of his playing doesn’t redeem his violence, philandering, wife beating and drug taking. And none of those add to the enjoyment of the film …

The music really is very good though. But not enough to redeem the movie.

There are certainly similarities with Born to be Blue, which examines a period in Chet Baker’s life around 1966 as he recovered from being beaten up, losing his front teeth and having to learn to play the trumpet again while wearing dentures or else face life without jazz.

But Born to be Blue is a better film.

At the beginning of the movie, smooth talking yet insecure Baker (played brilliant by Ethan Hawke) is starring in an autobiographical film, recreating destructive scenes from his past. While claiming to be clean, his addiction to drugs is never far away.

Baker leads a much less glamorous lifestyle than fellow jazzman Miles Davis who describes him as “a great white hope”, introducing an aspect of racial stereotyping to the film that suggests Baker shouldn’t be a great jazz player. Heaped on top of that prejudice is his tendency to sing as well as play that makes him stand out from his contemporaries.

The philandering and wife beating of Davis’ story is absent; however the destructive personality is present right until the end of the film. Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, an actor from the failed biopic who becomes his counsellor, nurse and lover. She’s a synthetic character that merges together several women in his life. Her character swings from dispensing tough love to putting her life on hold and being taken in by Baker. The scenes back at his family home fill in some much-needed depth to the trumpeter’s backstory.

Like Miles Ahead, the music in Born to be Blue eclipses the talents of the cast. While the omnipresent soundtrack has the mild warm crackle of a record player, none of Baker’s original recordings seem to be included.

The film projected onto the big screens in cinemas contrasts with the performance of athletes in the Rio Olympics that are flickering on the small screens in living rooms. We know that taking drugs negates the celebration of sporting prowess, yet there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s apparently okay that Baker made his best music while injecting himself with heroin.

All in all, Born to be Blue is a better film than Miles Ahead. Certainly easier to watch I enjoyed it much more than expected. Yet it wouldn’t have been nearly so good if I hadn’t sat through the story of Miles Davis and been introduced to the US jazz scene in the 1960s.

For 97 minutes of great jazz woven around writer and director Robert Budreau’s fabricated tale of a very real and failed man, head along to the Queen’s Film Theatre and catch Born to be Blue before Thursday 11 August.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bobby Sands: 66 Days (review)

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is a 105 minute documentary film that weaves together the story of 1970s and 1980s republicanism with day by day updates on Sands’ condition and diary entries throughout his hunger strike.

The documentary film is bookended by quotes from Fintan O’Toole. In one he describes the 1981 hunger strike as “drama at the absolute rawest edge it could possibly be”. In the other, the author and commentator says that, like 1916, 1981 was also “undoubtedly a turning point” in Irish history.

It’s a peculiar melange of styles and devices. Far too much explanatory text appears on screen. We see a replica cell being built out of wood which is used to stage images from the cell to illustrate changes in Sands’ environment. Some animation is employed. And with very little footage of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers, his presence is mostly conveyed through his poetry and other writings alongside rich imagery, photographs and archive news footage of events outside prison.

Amidst this hotchpotch of storytelling, the director Brendan J Byrne and editor Paul Devlin create some interesting cinematography – running footage of car bombs and shootings in reverse, and slow motion republicans bands drumming – creating space for audiences to pause and think about events.

The international dimension and reporting of the story is highlighted with an ABC News ‘Special Report’ announcing Sands’ death. A sense of morality is (not so subtly) introduced through a reading from the Bible.
“He stopped being a soldier and he became an artist – his body taking so much punishment.” (Finton O’Toole)
There’s a lot of hyperbole in the statements made by the (predominantly male) experts interviewed for the film. It’s clear that the republican family was happy to cooperate with its making, with contributions from Danny Morrison and Séanna Walsh. Gerry Adams is interviewed wearing a Féile an Phobail t-shirt.

Thomas Hennessey adds a welcome academic and historical perspective to the political and cultural commentary: he’s one of the few talking heads that brings any energy to his observations in this overly long film.

At one point the voice of Ian Paisley booms out of the screen. While the general lack of overtly unionist voices – Norman Tebbit is an exception – doesn’t lead to any overt romanticisation of Bobby Sands, it does make the narrative a bit boring (if ‘boring’ is ever an apt word to describe a film about people starving themselves to death).

It’s difficult not to compare and contrast 66 Days with Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger which achieved a much better balance with its examination of the work and lives of prison officers alongside the central narrative of the republican inmates and the conditions they lived in.

Where 66 Days does a better job than Hunger is in conveying – though perhaps, overplaying? – the untypical background of Sands: the boy from Rathcoole who played in a cross-community football team.

At times 66 Days seems contradictory. Early on one voice tells the audience that there’s a long history of hunger strikes; later we hear that “hunger strikes are peculiarly modern”.

The film doesn’t make Sands out to be a hero; but it is clear that many of the contributors do view him in that light. The pain in the voices of Sands’ election agent and fellow prisoners who survived is still evident as they recall saying goodbye.

Much is made of an old quote from 1920 hunger striker Terence MacSwiney that “it is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will [win],” suffering publicly and over a long time.

Fintan O’Toole concludes with a central lesson from the film:
“Ultimately Bobby Sands effectively marks the end of the tradition of armed struggle in Ireland. Because what he said is there is really no justification or need to kill people. What you really need to do is dramatise your own suffering.”
One challenge of the film is for mainstream republicans to preach this message to their dissident peers. “You win when you capture the public imagination” and endure rather than inflict suffering.

The film finishes with the jump from Bobby Sands’ death to the emergence of the peace process (and significant US involvement). Just before the closing credits, a caption appears marking Bobby Sands’ birth and death and noting that in total 3532 lives were lost in the conflict between July 1969 and December 2001.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is neither an apologetic nor a rose-tinted documentary. The film sets events firmly in context but the critique of the hunger strike, the decisions of the UK government and the protest’s long term effect is fairly lenient.

Polling day for this year’s NI Assembly election coincided with the 35th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death. If anything, Sinn Féin played down references to the hunger striker during the election campaign and didn’t seek to make too much obvious political capital from the anniversary.

If the ambition was to commission a documentary to examine the legend of this republican hero, the dissatisfactory result is a well crafted but very curious blend of comment, re-enactment and voicing of Sands’ words that bounces between facts, analysis and the deteriorating health of the prisoner.

Unionist politicians complaining about the film should save their breath until they’ve seen the completed work and then decide whether they even want to draw attention to the work.

The film is a co-commission for BBC Four Storyville and BBC Northern Ireland made by Fine Point Films and Cyprus Avenue Films (in association with Northern Ireland Screen, Sveriges Television and the Danish Broadcast Corporation with the participation of The Irish Film Board).

Bobby Sands: 66 Days will be screened in the Kennedy Centre Omniplex on Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4 August (tickets £8) as part of Féile an Phobail and will go on general release from 5 August.

Update - Denzil McDaniel reviewed the film for the Impartial Reporter.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

John Hewitt International Summer School (25-30 July) #JHISS

The annual John Hewitt International Summer School runs next week in Armagh. While it’s possible to book a place and take in the full programme, individual events are also ticketed.

Everything takes place in The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Market Street, Armagh, BT61 7BW.

Monday 25 July at 11:15am - Diplomat in Moscow, Belfast, New York, Finland and Estonia, ambassador to London and the UN, Dáithí O’Ceallaigh will deliver the summer school’s opening address. Retiring from the Foreign Service in 2009, he is currently director general of the Institute of International & European Affairs in Dublin.

Monday 25 July at 4.30pm - Creativity in the Digital Revolution is the title of poet Dr Leontia Flynn’s Heaney O’Driscoll Memorial Lecture.

Tuesday 26 July at 9.45am - In her talk 1916 & Women: Unfinished Business Dr Linda Connolly will argue that women’s roles and rights in Irish society deserve much fuller attention, both in relation to the history of the 1916 Rising and its historical legacy.

Tuesday 26 July at 1.30pm - Author, broadcaster and screenwriter Glenn Patterson will read from his latest published novel Gull.

Tuesday 26 July at 4.30pm - A panel discussion ‘Reflections on Remembrance’ will be chaired by CRC’s Peter Osborne who will be joined by
  • Jeffrey Donaldson MP (also chair of the Northern Ireland WWI Centenary Committee);
  • John Concannon (director Ireland 2016 and formerly Failte Ireland);
  • Tom Hartley (historian, former Sinn Féin councillor and former general secretary and national chairperson of the party);
  • Ruth Dudley Edwards (biographer of James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, commentator on Irish affairs).
Tuesday 26 July at 8.30pm - An evening of music with Duke Special.

Wednesday 27 July at 9.45am - Catriona Crowe asks How Have We Remembered 1916? She’s head of special projects at the National Archive of Ireland and manager of the Irish Census Online Project.

Wednesday 27 July at 4.30pm - Malachi O’Doherty will be in conversation with author Eimear O’Callaghan sharing his thoughts on Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. Malachi’s biography of the politician will be published by Faber.

Thursday 28 July at 4.30pm - A panel will discuss Where were the women when history was made? Chaired by Ruth Taillon (director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and author of When History Was Made: the Women of 1916, which identified 200 women who took part in the Easter Rising), the panel will include:
  • Catriona Crowe (head of special projects at the National Archive of Ireland and manager of the Irish Census Online Project);
  • Susan McKay (journalist and author).
Friday 29 July at 4.30pm - Poet Chris Agee is editor of Irish Pages and will deliver the publication’s 7th annual lecture. In Troubled Belfast Chris will distil 37 years as an immigrant in Belfast, focussing on the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement and drawing on pan-European parallels. He’ll reflect on the dynamics that continue to “trouble” Belfast and speculate that becoming multicultural may be the most momentous of all the changes in Belfast following the Troubles.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chevalier - an object lesson in how to be “The Best in General” (QFT until 28 July)

Six men gather on a doctor’s large luxury motor boat. For some it seems to be a regular getaway; for others it’s the first time they’ve come along to the macho retreat.

It’s quickly apparent – if anything in the ponderous 105 minute film Chevalier is truly ‘quick’ – that there’s a competitive streak running through the boat. And the competition escalates whenever they decide to formalise their rivalry into a “The Best in General” contest. The winner is supposed to wear a Chevalier signet ring until they get back together to play again.

Soon every gesture, posture and activity is being judged and scored. It’s like a very mundane version of Jackass. Less physically painful to watch, but even more emotionally gut-wrenching as the performance anxiety, sibling rivalry, bullying, opportunities for humiliation and fatuous testosterone-driven tournament progresses. Fans of Swedish homebuilt furniture will be particularly impressed with one round: the only challenge I’d have won!

Frankly it’s baffling that these six guys would ever want to share time away together. Of the six, Dimitris (played by Makis Papadimitriou) is vulnerable and naïve and the object of pity; he has tagged along with his brother. He’s the most honest of the game players, yet he’s still not likeable.

The opening shots set the dark tone, bringing out the black of the rocky coastline. The first few minutes with its tight foreground focus on the men and very blurry distance made by eyes hurt, but the visual effect was soon dropped. Music is used so infrequently that the three or four times it is dropped into the soundtrack of waves and wind it’s like a fresh character walking onto the screen.

The on-screen angst transfers into the chests of the audience who are bound up in this dreadful derby. The air of judgement also transfers to the yacht’s crew. Playing Top Trumps with blood test results deservedly elicits a giggle or two. There are laughs at irregular intervals, but the film stops well short of being any kind of comedy, never mind a black comedy.

The all-male movie keeps women behind the camera. Is the director Athina Rachel Tsangari perhaps judging even more harshly than the men, with a similar notebook full of scribbles and marks? And do men really play these games? Really? Surely it’s a phallic fallacy? There have got to be better ways to live and rest and enjoy company than this.

The insecurities and poor judgement feels universal rather than Greek, and the film could have been set in any shoreline around Europe (or further afield) as easily as around the coast from Athens.

The end is apt and some came out of the screening I attended raving about the film. Others – like me – found it to be a pointless object lesson on how to be a complete idiot, with five or six prime examples to work from. Either way Chevalier is a painful, yet effective, character study.

Chevalier is in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 22 to Thursday 28 July.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

"We're here because we're here" #Somme100 #wearehere

Yesterday morning in Belfast a group of men dressed in WW1 uniforms quietly marched down the Stranmillis Road and stopped outside Queen’s University, leaning against bollards, lying back on the wrought iron gate. After a while one soldier struck up the song “We’re here because we’re here” – sung in the trenches – and the other voices joined in.

When approached by a member of the public, rather than speaking they simply reached into a pocket and handed over a white card bearing the name of a local soldier who died at the Somme on 1 July 1916.

The squad moved throughout the city, appearing in Great Victoria Street bus station, outside the Europa, in Victoria Square, the MAC, the Big Fish and even caught the train to Ballymena. Another group were based in Derry. And across the UK, similar uniformed soldiers – ghosts of the war – appeared in railway stations and public places in a moving tribute to the losses at the Somme.

The juxtaposition of khaki onto the modern colour palette was striking. The sound of boots marching in formation down the footpath.

Last night, after the ghosts had disappeared from the street, the back story to the event was explained. The local volunteers, organised by Lyric Theatre and The Playhouse were part of a UK-wide collaboration that saw 1400 men appear dressed in replica uniforms. The modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and the work was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller working with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre.

“The project breaks new ground in terms of its scale, breadth, reach and the number of partners and participants involved. This is the first time three national theatres have worked together on a joint project, and the first time so many theatres have worked together on a UK-wide participation project.

“The participants who walked the streets today were a reminder of the 19,240 men who were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Each participant represented an individual soldier who was killed that day. The work is partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.

“The participants wore historically accurate uniforms, representing 15 of the regiments that suffered losses in the first day of the Battle. The soldiers did not speak, but at points throughout the day would sing the song ‘we’re here because we’re here’, which was sung in the trenches during the First World War. They handed out cards to members of the public with the name and regiment of the soldier they represented, and, where known, the age of the soldier when he died on 1 July 1916.

“The day long work ran from 7am to 7pm and covered the width and breadth of the UK, from Shetland to Penzance. Sites they visited included shopping centres, train stations, car parks and high streets – taking the memorial to contemporary Britain and bringing an intervention into people’s daily lives where it was least expected.”

For further events commemorating the battles of the Somme, check out History Hub Ulster’s Belfast Somme 100 programme, supported by Belfast City Council.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Notes on Blindness - John Hull's new view on life (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thu 7 July)

“Every time I wake up, I lose my sight.”

It’s a sobering explanation from John Hull who had sight problems throughout his childhood and finally totally lost his vision as an adult in his 40s.

A writer and university lecturer, he at first distracted himself finding ways to compensate for his failing sight and learning how to function as a blind academic by building up coping strategies and enlisting an army of readers to record text books onto tape cassettes. However, over time he realised that he had to chose whether to live in nostalgia to whether to fully embrace blindness.

We see the real couple just once during the film. But throughout we hear their voices, with the soundtrack of Notes on Blindness piecing together John’s audio diaries made during the 1980s as he began to study his condition, and later conversations with his wife Marilyn recollecting on their experience of living with his blindness. Filmmakers Pete Middleton and James Spinney are imaginative in how they craft clips together, matching contemporaneous recordings of events with reflections years later.

The sound track leads the visuals, with many of the shots are partially obscured, with the cast acting in shadows, seeing only part of their faces. Actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby are seen lip syncing to some the recorded dialogue. While the technique is used sparingly, the audience sometimes experience blindness not only with darkness but also with bright whiteouts – eg, snow blizzards – that make it impossible to determine form or location.

The film proceeds at a gentle pace, feeling its way through John’s evolving exploration of his new vision. Fond family memories are blighted by depression at not being able to see his children unwrap their Christmas presents. A dream of being able one of his daughters for the first time turns out to be more of a nightmare. We hear how John hesitated at the opportunity to visit his parents back in Australia, a place which no longer has any remaining visual memory and familiarity for him.

There are some very tender, vulnerable moments. [It may be some sort of QFT record that tears didn’t come to my eyes until the 64th minute.] Yet we learn little about John’s views on any subject other than blindness. Even hearing him lecture, it’s not obvious that he’s a theologian. The one spiritual experience towards the close of the film puts his “gift” into a new perspective.
“Question is not why have I got it, but what am I going to do with it?”

Notes on Blindness is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 7 July.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Belfast Somme 100

As a non-historian, I come to understand the past fairly late in any cycle of commemoration. My school English teacher wrote a well-regarded book about the Somme and we had a signed copy at home, but I've never read it. Philip Orr is a member of the History Hub Ulster's advisory panel.

Belfast Somme 100 is their programme of events and projects - funded by Belfast City Council - marking the centenary of the battles of the Somme, exploring the place of the Somme campaign within the First World War and its place within the social and political history of Northern Ireland and pre-partition Ireland.

The Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall will be the venue for the annual wreath laying ceremony at 11am on Friday 1 July, remembering the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division who lost their lives.

Already there have been concerts, walks and talks. And between now and November, there will be exhibitions, lectures, conferences and films across north, south, east and west Belfast. Keep an eye on the website for details of the kids programme planned for Saturdays in July and August.

Saturday 2 July / HMS Caroline have a family open day with Creative Centenaries and their green screen allowing you to go back in time on board the ship / Normal admission fee applies

Monday 4 July at 6.30pm / Training Kitchener’s New Army in Ireland – What Can Archaeology Reveal? is a lecture by Heather Montgomery in Belfast Central Library / Free to register

Tuesday 5 July at 12.30pm / 1916 Walking Tour of Belfast Merchant Companies led by Nigel Henderson, starting at the front gates of Belfast City Hall and focussing on the Somme stories of the sons and daughters of some of Belfast’s most famous merchant families. / Free to register

Wednesday 6 July at 3pm / 1916 Sources Tour - join Catherine Morrow as she opens the archives of the Newspaper Library in Belfast Central Library / Free to register

Lots of partners are running events too ...

Until 18 September five zones in the Ulster Museum will feature extensive photographic and video archive material from leading heritage organisations including the Imperial War Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, National Library of Ireland, and Public Records Office NI. Creative Centenaries - led by the Nerve Centre - have brought together diaries, graphic novels and even a drone war rug. / Free admission

Between Tuesday 5 to Saturday 16 / Frank McGuinness' play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme will be performed in the Lyric Theatre.

Between 3 and 14 August, Féile an Phobail will host a series of talks around the Battle of the Somme anniversary.

Until 19 December, an exhibition highlighting the contribution of Orangemen at the Battle of the Somme - The Lily and the Poppy - is running in the Museum of Orange Heritage in Schomberg House.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sixteen South open new studio - exporting kids TV from a building that once sold fancy hankies round the world

This morning, Sixteen South officially opened their new offices in One Clarence Street, the company’s third premises. Chief Executive Colin Williams explained to visitors and press that back in 1884 the building was home to the Clarence Finishing Company, a linen manufacturer.
“They sold – all over the world – fancy handkerchiefs … and I think it’s a little bit fitting that 130 years later it’s now home to us, part of the new creative industries of Belfast, and we’re trying to do exactly the same thing as the Clarence Finishing Company and selling stuff all over the world.”
Sixteen South are celebrating being in production of season two of Lily’s Driftwood Bay – a show “proudly born and bred in Belfast”. The new series takes it up to 100 episodes of the show that has been sold to over 100 countries across Europe, Africa, Middle East and America. Another show Claude is also in production for Disney and will be dubbed into 21 languages. And there’s a new pilot for PBS in the works too.

The company’s first foray into children’s television came with two series of Sesame Tree [which led to my favourite ever interview] followed up with Big City Park, Pajanimals, and Big and Small.

Over the years, the First and deputy First Ministers have attended many launches at Sixteen South. Despite acceding to being photographed with Muppets in the past, the joint leaders of Northern Ireland have always seemed relaxed at these events. The gathered press were keen to capture political views on Brexit this morning before the opening began.

The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union does create uncertainty for the film and animation sector in Northern Ireland. In a few years time they will fall outside quotas for broadcasting EU shows and their product may be a lot less attractive to television channels across Europe.

The First Minister Arlene Foster reminded those gathered that she’d “been a huge supporter of the creative industries right throughout my time as Enterprise Minister”.
“It’s wonderful to see the ambition, the drive, the innovation, the imagination that you have here in everything that you do. Of course, entertaining young people is no mean feat. I had the privilege of visiting many primary schools and many pre-schools during the election time, and they have absolutely no filter! … They certainly are a tough audience and you seem to have succeeded with young people.”
Highlighting the £329 million contribution to the local economy, the First Minister added:
“Animation and everything surrounding the creative industries is so exciting … It’s grown quite quickly but it’s [an industry] that the deputy First Minister and I are committed to continue to support and promote globally for you and your colleagues.”
She finished by admitting that “we’re delighted to be here this morning – it’s a little bit of light relief whilst everything else is going on!”

Thanking Colin for the invitation to attend, the deputy First Minister quipped that “some of those hankies would have come in useful last Friday”.

Martin McGuinness remembered being at the original launch of Lily’s Driftwood Bay and said the international success was a “tremendous accolade to yourselves and a testimony to the quality of the work”.
“Arlene and I are committed to working together even though we were on different sides of the [EU referendum] discussion and the debate. It’s still our duty and our responsibility to take our society forward and we’re absolutely determined to do that.”
NI Screen’s Richard Williams reminded those gathered that the Opening Doors Strategy target is to have a screen industry here in NI that within ten years is second only to London in the UK and Ireland.
“Sixteen South and the broader animation and children’s sector are illustrating exactly how to do that. Totally internationally focussed, connected to every centre of finance and creativity that’s relevant in their sector, and showing the entrepreneurship, the leadership, the innovation, the energy and belief required to ensure that we all deliver on behalf of Northern Ireland our ambition.”

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.