Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (30 April-10 May): music, theatre, dance, talks and cultural sunshine

The sun is shining, the marquee is up, and the 16th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is ready to rock’n’roll, dance, talk, entertain and challenge in venues across the city of Belfast until the 10 May.

This year’s CQAF programme has a particularly strong list of theatrical performances.

What lengths will some people go to in order to pull themselves out of dire straits? Lanciatore – The Juggling Man is a credit crunch-hit Medieval Italy street performer trying to negotiate loan sharks, card games, priests, prostitutes and bailiffs to get his family out of the red.

Based on Paul Kennedy’s dark comic script, Rawlife Theatre Company directors Martin McSharry and Patrick J O'Reilly are joined by a fantastic local cast – Roisin Gallagher, Terrance Keely, Michael Liebmann, Julie McCann, Jo Donnelly and Claire Connor – in Belfast Circus School at 8pm between Thursday 7 May and Sunday 10 May. Tickets £12.50. Don’t miss it. PS: After CQAF finishes it's back on Friday 15, Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 May at 8pm in the same venue.

Check out the promo video for Lanciatore and get your tickets booked!
Posted by Rawlife Theatre Company on Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Dutiful Wife is a new piece of high energy immersive dance theatre looking at the role of ‘the wife’ in politics through the initial highs and later public humiliation of ‘Stepford Wives’ who often suffer the immense personal pain when a charismatic crowd-wooing male politician goes off the moral rails.

An innovative and well-scheduled piece in the run up to Thursday 7th's election, The Dutiful Wife is the brainchild of choreographer Eileen McClory (interviewed below) and performed by Off The Rails Dance company in The MAC on Friday 1 and Saturday 2 May (8.30pm) and Sunday 3 May (3pm and 6pm). Tickets £10. As an unfunded company, they're also crowdfunding support for the costs of performances.

Prepare to be individually admitted to a hospital bed and using eye masks and headphones experience being Reassembled, Slightly Askew. Novel storytelling based on writer Shannon Yee’s experience of falling critically ill with a rare brain infection and her journey through rehabilitation and living with an acquired brain injury. Running in The MAC at 11am, 2pm and 4.30pm and 7pm between 30 April and 5 May. Tickets £10. SOLD OUT.

Three Strikes sees Belfast’s “shiniest and best lubricated” theatre company Shot Glass as they bring three short comic plays out of the theatre and into the pub. The Dark Horse at 8pm on Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 May. Tickets £5.

Other highlights from this year’s bulging CQAF programme

Saturday 2 May

Dramatisation of George Orwell’s social inequality classic Down and Out in Paris and London. Join the characters as they go from “a sepia tinted view of poverty in Paris to the more black and white existence in and around London” in 101 The Redeemer (101 Donegall Street) at 8pm. Tickets £10.

Sunday 3 May

Queen of the psychological thriller Val McDermid will speak about how her crime writing means she’s Killing People for Fun and Profit in The Black Box at 2pm. Tickets £8.

Described as “whimsical and witty, weird and wacky”, The Kiss of the Chicken King is a multi-media performance monologue as Jimmy sits in his rundown 1980s bedsit and escapes from jingoism and Thatcherism into his fantasy and imagination. The Black Box Green Room at 3pm. Tickets £5.

Join New York-based post-religious Reverend Billy and & The Stop Shopping Choir in The Black Box Green Room at 7pm as the “planet criers, gospel shouters and punk disrupters” pursue “the mysterious catalyst that ignites collect knowledge and collective will”. Tickets £6.

Lucy Porter wonders “whether she’d rather be a bewhiskered Victorian explorer, a 1920s Hollywood starlet or Hatshepsut the Egyptian Pharaoh in Me Time in The Black Box at 8pm. Tickets £10.

Monday 4 May

Having moved from Australia to London, comedian Bec Hill wrote a show about how she had never won an award. But the whole premise was ruined when the show won one at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe! The comic, animator and comic creator brings her new show In…Ellipsis to McHugh’s at 8pm. Tickets £8.

Join Kitty (Áine Ryan) for a dark and devastating evening as she sits alone in her kitchen mourning the loss of her brother while her father lies dying in the room next door and she waits for her late (time challenged, not dead!) boyfriend to pick her up for an evening out. Shocking and witty. Kitty in the Lane is in The Black Box Green Room at 7.30pm. Tickets £6.

Wednesday 6 May

Martin Rowson was the first in a long list of cartoonist and caricaturists who’ve failed to be satisfied with the image they’ve captured of me! He’ll being romping through “a 32,000 year old history of visual satire … the power of giving and taking offence” in a timely lunchtime talk in The Black Box at 1pm. Tickets £6.

Expect comedy as well as social and political commentary when Andrew Maxwell takes to the stage of the Festival Marquee at 8pm. Tickets £12/£10.

Thursday 7 May

Owen McCafferty’s play Mojo Mickybo is back to tell another generation about two boys growing up in 1970s Belfast, one from ‘up the road’ and the other fro ‘over the bridge’. 101 The Redeemer (101 Donegall Street) at 8pm. Tickets £8.

Saturday 9 May

Join your host John Lindsay for a morning of 1970s and 1980s classic Saturday morning children’s TV in the Belfast Film Festival’s Bean Bag Cinema at 10am. Tickets £4.

Sunday 10 May

When your only visitors are squirrels and getting rid of them becomes an obsession then maybe it’s time to look at what’s really going on. Phoenix Nights’ Janice Connolly brings Barbara Nice and hew show Squirrel Proof to The Black Box at 2pm. Tickets £7.

The Hackney Colliery Band is east London’s unique take on the brass band and having played at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, they’re now bringing their acoustic mix of “funk, hip-hop and high-octane rock” to Aether & Echo at 8pm. Tickets £8.

This year Open Source is no longer constrained by four walls and will run its free hour-long sessions around The Big Table on Lower Garfield Street (outside PLACE and Aether & Echo) for a weekend of activity looking at “The Love Economy – Cooperative Alternatives to Free Market Economics”. Their website now lists the full programme of volunteer-led events.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Catch David Park in conversation with Bernard MacLaverty at Linen Hall Writers on Writers Festival

The Linen Hall Writers on Writers Festival is running from 13-16 May with discussions and workshops on all manner of writers and writing topics.

One highlight that jumps out from the programme is the In Conversation with Bernard MacLaverty & David Park on Wednesday 13 May at 6pm. (Tickets are free, but advance booking advised.)

I grew up with MacLaverty books on the shelves at home, and read Cal numerous times as a teenager (though there are lots more novels Lamb, Grace Notes, The Anatomy School and short stories to choose from).

David Park's novel The Truth Commissioner was the first book anyone sent me as a blogger and the plot's challenges about the cost of truth are still apt for a Northern Ireland that has failed to start any process to deal with its past. A film adaptation is currently filming in Belfast.

Check the Events section of the Linen Hall Library for other festival events.

Those Who Show Up ... Politics is far too important to be left to politicians

This month’s Presbyterian Herald magazine has an article in it written by a politically interested blogger! [If you’re not one of the 13,000 subscribers, you can download a PDF copy of the full issue for £1.]

I’ve reproduced my election-themed article below along with some extra comments that aren’t constrained by the word count that fits on a printed page.

As I see it … Politics is far too important to be left to politicians.

Walking into a polling station, collecting a ballot paper, and making a mark with the pencil tied to the desk is one way you can live out your faith and make a difference.

Christians are spread right across the political spectrum. While they may agree on creeds, their notions on what a fair economy, justice, welfare and equality look like differ wildly. There is ‘no one size fits all’ party or set of policies that all of Christendom can adopt.

Christian supporters will be on both sides of the same-sex marriage and Irish President age referendums on 22nd May, in some cases coming to very different conclusions about how to apply biblical principles and the example of Jesus.

As a cohort, politicians have lost a lot of respect through expenses scandals, cash for access, and ‘yah-boo’ politics of weekly question times that ridicule opponents rather than championing good policies. Politics can look dirty and unappealing.

But these are not reasons for people of faith to step away from politics.

Fewer and fewer people are bothering to vote across the island of Ireland. The turnout for European, Dáil, Westminster, Northern Ireland Assembly, local government elections and recent referendums is declining.

At most recent constituency elections in Ireland, more people stayed at home and didn’t vote than put a cross or a 1 in the box for the candidate who topped the poll and won the seat.

If everyone who didn’t show up to vote was assumed to have cast their vote for ‘None of the Above’ then nearly every poll on the island would be won by disinterest and disengagement.

The Bible doesn’t call us to disengage from the world. We’re to be salt and light.
“We need Elijahs shouting from the desert, as well as Obadiahs working in the palace. Both are crucial.”

This is how Portadown–born Andy Flannagan phrases it in his new book Those Who Show Up (published by Muddy Pearl). He reasons that Christians need not limit themselves to faith-based vehicles but should consider becoming directly involved in decision-making processes.

Since the book of Acts, Christians have been stepping forward in society to campaign for change: slavery, cancelling debt, standing up for those with no rights or no voice.

Long before UK Prime Minister David Cameron used the phrase ‘Big Society’, churches and Christians knew that they played an important role in wider society: volunteering in foodbanks and homework clubs, feeding the homeless, running international meeting points and helping prison visitors. Christians also choose to invest in secular organisations and initiatives that serve people.

Yet while individuals working at a grassroots level can make a huge difference to their communities, the framework of legislation and tone of government is set by a small number of people that we are invited to elect to represent us.

Not voting, leaves the decision to other people. It abdicates our responsibility to wrestle with competing policies and the difficult evaluation of personalities and parties about whom we’ll never totally agree or support.

Not voting is taking your hands off the steering wheel and hoping that someone else will navigate the bends in the road.

And who are these politicians? They’re people like us. A surprising number carry Christian faith with them onto the campaign trail and into the voting lobbies of their parliaments. Their approach to issues is infused with faith.

Andy Flannagan argues that more Christians need to follow the example of Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Mordecai who governed wisely in alien lands. Who better to stand up against oppression? Who better to speak up at difficult moments knowing that your primary allegiance is not to an earthly flag or kingdom?
“Showing up is not just about voting. It’s not just about making a mark on a ballot paper, but leaving your mark on society.” (Andy Flannagan)

Could you make a difference in the often mundane work of your local community association or residents group? Could you become involved with a political party and shape its policies and activities at a local level?

And in the meantime while you consider how to apply your faith to the decision-making processes, can you vote in May and start to leave your mark on society?

- - -

I’ve found Those Who Stand Up a very challenging when read in the context of Northern Ireland politics.

Andy Flannagan heads up Christians on the Left (a Labour-leaning group) and co-directs the cross-spectrum Christians in Politics organisation along with his Tory and Lib Dem counterparts. While he doesn’t mention UKIP or the Greens – nor Plaid Cymru or the SNP – somehow the Great Britain political scene feels much cleaner and less messy than the politics where I’m living.

I find it difficult enough to find a candidate or a party to vote for in some elections never mind select a party with which to more wholeheartedly align. [Full disclosure – I spoiled my ballot paper on one occasion and would do so again.] A party would need to line up with enough of my convictions and importantly not run contrary to other convictions that I deem more important than others.

And that’s before processing the historical and cultural baggage that comes with Northern Irish political parties: unionist, nationalist, or other.

Difficult to get my mind around …

Friday, April 24, 2015

6 Desires: DH Lawrence & Sardinia ... #bff15

I’m normally a fan of Mark Cousins’ quickly-shot flâneurial observational films that merge his own imagination, a character and a place. But 6 Desires: DH Lawrence & Sardinia fell flat.

Maybe it’s because I entered the Beanbag Cinema as a Philistine with little knowledge about DH Lawrence’s work (though I’ve more than a passing awareness of how his namesake DHL deliver parcels). Maybe because I thought I was going to see it last Saturday night and ended up at Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence instead. Maybe it was because it was a wet Friday evening at the end of a long week and my eyelids were heavy.

The first half hour is promising. The opening shots on board a ferry berthing in Sardinia paint a magical scene. Cousins’ trademark punctuated commentary is full of rhetorical questions aimed at the author he refers to as Bert (H for Herbert) with such familiarity. The potential monotony of Cousins’ narration is removed with Jarvis Cocker voicing quotes and readings from Bert. (Though I’m pretty sure the playful opening credits which introduces every character in the film – including “sheep” – reads “Jarvis Crocker”.)

Another customary hallmark is present: Cousin’s hand carrying around laminated pictures of the subjects and photos of associated artefacts. An empty frame is held up, overlaying scenery as Cousins imagines standing viewing what Lawrence and his wife Frieda might have seen back in 1921 when he made the journey that inspired Sea and Sardinia.

And then there are the links back from present day architecture and buildings to clips from cinema past … and ancient.
“Life is right here, the on-going moment”

As the camera journeys around Sardinia, six desires are examined: Bert’s desire to escape from England and his desire for sun and bodies; the filmmakers’ desires to be with Bert; a fifth desire that I missed; and Bert’s desire for form.

While a minor step up from the shirt pocket-sized Flip camera Cousins was using a few years ago, the well-framed shots are still fixed focus, with little shake and mercifully absent of zoom. But as the camera pans or captures the rush of hedges out the car window, the consumer quality becomes apparent.

Along with some choral pieces, Aaron Kelly’s discordant score adds a sustained melancholic synth vibe to the background of 6 Desires. At times the sound dips sharply to make way for the next piece of commentary, before ratcheting back up, as if mixed with a mouse rather than fingers on faders.

There’s a beautiful sequence half way through the film when flashes of footage we’ve already seen are replayed: revising and reinforcing the story like a summary at the end of a lecture. But instead of stopping, the film continues on.

Recognising the masculinity of the story so far, it shifts away from Cousins’ narration about Bert to allow sound recordist Gillian Moreton’s voice to take over the story and introduce another local subject, Sardinian writer Grazia Deledda who won a Nobel Prize for Literature. But the change of pitch isn’t accompanied by a change of pace, and the pulse of 6 Desires weakens.

As the lights came on in the Beanbag Cinema, some Belfast Film Festival goers chatted about how inspiring and good the film had been. I picked up my empty box of popcorn and desired another screening of Here Be Dragons (exploring the political, cultural and cinematic landscape of Albania), which still remains at the top of my list of favourite Mark Cousins films [You can watch it for free online.]

While I didn’t become a fan of Sardinia or DH Lawrence, 6 Desires and last night’s première of The Monday Club are both reminders that effective cinema requires strong ideas, boldness and a good script. Equipment, a huge cast, planning and time are less of a priority.

Mark Cousins makes his brand of documentary films look simple, leaving the significant craft and judgement embedded within them unacknowledged. It should give us all a nudge to go out and try to create something.

The Monday Club - a film that remembers Belfast fondly & celebrates the character of its people #bff15

An old man sits alone in the pub. Danny is comforted by his pint, and a miniature conifer plant in a pot he eccentrically brought with him in a paper bag and intermittently feeds with a few drops of whisky from a glass. But most of all he’s cheered by his yarns and reminiscences of absent friends.

Along with his colourful shipyard colleagues, Danny used to “put the world to rights in a drunken stupor” at the start of the working week in what became known as The Monday Club.

Brian Mulholland’s 70 minute film was premièred tonight as part of the Belfast Film Festival and began with a quote from CS Lewis:
Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: "What! You too?”

Danny imparts memorable incidents from his past and that of his colleagues in-between sips of the black stuff. The narrative switches between long monologues from Danny in the pub to other people telling his old drinking buddies’ stories. Gradually the audience build up a picture of the common threads that bound together this group and made the men and their families tick.

Carl Best’s camerawork and editing lets the heads do the talking with few distractions. Minimal shot changes and a tight focus on faces – sharp eyebrows and soft mouths – allow the audience to concentrate on the emotion and pathos.
A window cleaner never judges as one day the window might become a mirror.

There’s more than a drop of Belfast wit and wisdom in the contributions. The Movie House audience giggled along with some of Danny’s wisecracks and particularly enjoyed the tale of Stevie’s shovel-enhanced toilet break.

The pace varies, and at one point the dialogue felt unnecessarily rushed. With the lack of conversation, it can all get a bit flowery (eg “her feline-shaped eyes that cut right through you”).

That said, overall it’s a really well scripted film. Spoken word is interlaced with verse and Katie Richardson/Goldie Fawn’s beautiful songs light up the latter stages of film. (Earlier on, music through the medium of vinyl was said to be a reflective “black mirror”.)

The Monday Club ends with an unforeseen and moving twist that is delivered convincingly by Derek Halligan (playing Danny). The film could easily be adapted and become successful on stage.

Right from the start, there are recognisable images of Belfast. While most of the yarns reveal the pain that travels with families, through generations – hurts, secrets and sorrow – The Monday Club is a film that remembers Belfast fondly and celebrates the character of its people.

Speaking after the cheering had subsided at the end of tonight’s première, director Brian Mulholland referred to the simple “For Belfast” end credit and said:
“I love this city. It has its flaws, but don’t we all.”

The Monday Club is a triumph and belies the tiny production budget. Normally associated with the quarterly Film Devour short film screenings, director Brian Mulholland and first-time producer Corrine Heaney along with everyone who helped Stay Beautiful Films should be very proud of their long-form creation and its passionate celebration of life and community.

PS: The painted toenails that appear in a bath deserve their own entry in the end credits!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Belfast Bikes launch on Monday - what do you need to know?

It’s been 25 years or more since I last rode a bicycle when I was a teenager. Cycling proficiency is a dim memory of riding along a road painted onto the tarmac playground with an arm stuck out to indicate I was about to turn.

It doesn’t take long to walk across Belfast. Yet the ten minutes from the Waterfront Hall to the Cathedral Quarter could be halved if who wheels took the strain. And in dry weather, biking across to the Odyssey would be preferable to the windy walk over the bridges.

Yesterday at lunchtime and I trialled the new Coca Cola Zero Belfast Bikes and discovered the joy of simultaneously sticking my arm out to change lane, looking over your shoulder, steering straight ahead and keeping on this side of the grave … all at the same time.

So what 15 things do you need to know?

1. 300 bikes will be available from 6am on Monday morning (27 April) at 30 docking stations across the city centre. Later phases may widen the reach of the scheme.

2. Registration is online. Visitors to Belfast can pay £5 to access the bikes for 3 days. A yearly subscription is £20 and you’ll be sent a smart card you can swipe at one of the terminals to identify yourself.

3. On Sunday at noon, expect to see a grand peloton of Belfast Bikes streaming out of the City Hall gates and cycling around the block. Customers who’ve already paid up for the year have received invitations to participate.

4. You can hire a bike between 6am and midnight. It’s as simple as

Swipe your annual card or tap in your mobile number along with the number of the bike you want to hire at the solar-powered rental terminals beside the bike stations and it’ll be unlocked within seconds.

You can also use the nextbike app (iOS or Android) to hire a bike. It’ll show you bike stations near you along with the number of bikes available to hire. Select the bike, tap the buttons and the bike will be released. The Belfast Bikes website also allows you to rent/return a bike within the My Account pages.

If the terminal is down and you don’t have access to the smartphone app there’s a phone number on the back of the bikes 034 3357 1551 you can ring from your mobile to hire them.

5. Once you’ve registered, the first 30 minutes is free. Then it’s 50p for the next half hour and a further £1 for each hour up to 4 hours. After that it gets really expensive to have exclusive access to a specific bike. The scheme is set up to encourage you to make short journeys around the city centre: take a bike, ride somewhere, dock it, and when you’re leaving, hire another bike to make the journey back.

6. To leave a bike back, you wheel it into an empty bike rack (a disc on the left hand side of the front wheel slots into the bike rack's clip) and the light on the rack turns green and the bike is locked in place. If there isn't an empty slot, the terminal will show you the nearest bike rack with a space, or you can use the combination lock to secure the bike somewhere near to the bike rack and use the app or phone number to register it as returned.

What’s it like?

Jeff from Belfast Times and I set off from the City Hall at lunchtime on Wednesday to pay our respects to the Big Fish, navigate the Bin Lane (aka, the bike lane on Upper Arthur Street that is so often blocked by bins or delivery vehicles) and return to the bike station in front of Donegall Square North. You can watch part of our adventure in Geoff’s video.

7. The bikes are sturdy. These are not lightweight racers. They’ve got 3 gears and having pedalled furiously for a while I finally figured out how to rotate the gear selector on the right handlebar to get into 2nd gear and cycling became a lot less effort! The bike has lights that activate when you pedal and you can adjust the height of the seat saddle.

8. There’s room on the front for a small bag. You might be able to tie a bag onto the back.

9. Belfast city centre is mercifully flat so you shouldn't get wheely tyred, and lunchtime traffic is quite light

10. From walking and driving around this area of Belfast I thought I knew the streets like the back of my hand. But it was very different riding on two wheels surrounded by faster moving cars and buses, and needing to read signs and look for markings I’d never had to pay attention to before.

11. It’s very confusing where you can cycle and where you can’t. Belfast is full of bus lanes, bus-only streets, streets that have been partially pedestrianised and national bike routes. You’re not allowed to cycle on the footpath. But can you cycle down between Chichester Street between the High Court and Laganside Courts? Can you turn right off Victoria Street at the Albert Clock and take a short cut up the bus lane that runs in front of McHughs? And when you cross the road (using the Toucan crossing with its bike light) at Queens Bridge, can why are there no obvious cycle markings on the other side of the road when you reach the Beacon of Hope?

12. The Bin Lane on Upper Arthur Street was clear when we cycled through, though on the way to the City Hall it wasn't!

13. The Belfast Bikes Welcome Park has some reminders about bike safety and the cycling-related sections of the Highway Code are worth a scan. But if you’re planning to cycle certain routes frequently, it would be good to take your first ride when it’s not too busy and you’re not in a rush to get your bearings and figure out a plan.

14. With an influx of inexperienced cyclists like myself on the roads over the next weeks and months, hopefully drivers will realise that they need to treat these amateurs with care. Otherwise, increasing the number of cyclists on the streets of Belfast will increase the number of accidents.

15. My backside is sore. Maybe that’ll ease with further cycling. I’m certainly looking forward to being able to scoot across town faster than on foot and a lot cheaper than in the car. Maybe it’ll even count as exercise …

Monday, April 20, 2015

Eat Your Children: chasing the lost unicorn of Irish citizen protest #bff15

“We’re not Ireland, we will resist” (Greek austerity protest chant)
Has Ireland lost its protest mojo?

Flatmates Treasa O’Brien and Mary Jane O’Leary bailed out of Ireland to study in London and Barcelona. Partly motivated by the Greek chant and surprised by the contrast behind high profile citizen action in countries like Spain and the lack of news reaching them from Ireland, the friends came back to their homeland and toured around in a white Transit van to make a film as they searched for the lost unicorn of Irish citizen protest.

The crowdfunded film’s title – Eat Your Children – comes from Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay of 1729 [full text] in which he suggested that the solution to Ireland’s poverty would be for Irish people to rear their young to be sold off to the Aristocracy as food. With the debt repayments now extended from 20 to 40 years, today’s school children in Ireland will be paying off bond holders when they’re 50.

I spoke to the film’s co-directors after last night’s screening at the Belfast Film Festival.

An early scene sets the tone and trajectory of the documentary with journalist Vincent Browne furiously asking questions (and getting few answers) at a financial press conference. The film is designed to be “a provocation”.

Why are Irish people bailing out European banks? Why does “the good child of Europe” meekly accept its debt repayment punishment with only sporadic protests agreed in advance with the Garda rather than a culture of organised or popular resistance?

In the County Mayo village of Ballina we’re introduced to a typical Irish scene: a small crown standing around watching another small crowd protesting, this time about the building of a Shell oil pipeline. “It’s going to go ahead anyway, so what’s the point protesting” suggests one observer who reckons Shell is bigger and more powerful than the protesters.

At the Electric Picnic festival, Derry’s Eamonn McCann calls for revolution while the ever-eloquent Fintan O’Toole challenges the “lie” that only the “delinquent” countries on the edge of Europe are causing the problem and need to bear the punishment. O’Toole suggests that the Irish manner of resistance is to physically and physiologically avoid it, ignoring the problem by emigrating someplace else.

Sociologist Tom Boland reckons that “a mix of consumerism and capitalism makes people ill-inclined to protest”. The Catholic Church and Irish trade unions both get poor report cards from interviewees, with the former too embedded in the state to take a stand, and the latter defused by the Croke Park Agreement which sacrificed national strikes and industrial action for no further public sector pay cuts.

Watching Eat Your Children in the QFT last night, I became conscious of how poorly the Irish financial story has been reported in Northern Ireland. [Ed – or how poorly you’ve been listening?] The facts of negotiations and deals along with some commentary on emigration has been relayed, but there has been little discussion about the impact on communities, industry and little comparison with other European regions facing similar pressures. Instead there’s a simple and popular narrative explaining that Ireland swallowed its unpalatable medicine and made sharp cuts quickly allowing it to rapidly, if painfully, turn around and reach a better place.

A visit to Derry briefly investigates Ireland’s biggest civil rights movement. Nell McCafferty talks about “not marching for a United Ireland but for the rights of full British citizens”. Another interviewee suggests the movement was later “usurped by nationalists” and explains that today, anyone dissenting in the north west tends to be labelled as “anti-peace process” so people stay at home rather than stand up for their rights.

The quality of the filming and footage spliced together to make Eat Your Children varies greatly over the course of the 78 minute film. Interview sound quality improves as the pair zig zag across the island, although at times the film’s soundtrack threatens to overshadow faint snatches of dialogue.

Treasa and Mary Jane fall into the oft-ignored category of chalk activists, carrying sticks of coloured calcium sulphate wherever they go, allowing them to sketch out chapter names on pavements and walls to give the film its structure.

Being a road trip, there are many shots looking out the Transit van’s windscreen as Mary Jane and Treasa hurtle up rural roads towards their next destination. In one great sequence we listen to a description of resistance while watching a large black dog standing on the tarmacked road in the dead of night, holding its ground and blocking the van’s progress. Ireland’s dogs may offer more resistance than its people.

While anti-austerity protests are few and far between, the filmmakers find some signs of hope to challenge “Ireland’s dying culture of protest”: single issue protests around reproductive rights, La Senza, fracking and water charges. Finally, they uncover a weekly community march after Mass in Ballyhea (north Cork) with a group of ordinary residents believing that they can be “a small pebble in the shoe of the ECB”.

Eat Your Children will be a popular film with activists, students and wannabe protesters. It’s firmly in People Before Profit territory, though more grounded than the now-defunct-and-never-effective local Occupy movements.

While Ireland continues to make its “level of adjustment”, many citizens will continue to look the other way. Perhaps Treasa and Mary Jane needed to hook up with the Orange Order (with a history of protest sites at Garvaghy Road and Twaddell) or loyalist flag protesters who have a record of civil disobedience, dissension and resistance, and an ability to block roads! [Ed – Yet neither organisation use these tactics to highlight the effect of austerity on working class communities?]

The filmmakers themselves are not back living or working in Ireland full time, but it sounds like the themes and location will feature in future work.

There’s a free screening of Eat Your Children in Killarney Cinema at 8.45pm on Thursday 23 April. You can follow the film’s progress on Facebook and if you wish to set up a screening in your festival or community, email eatyourchildrenfilm AT gmail DOT com.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence #bff15

I’ve joked people before that you could close your eyes and flick through the Belfast Film Festival programme and tear out pages to decide which films you’re going to see, and you wouldn’t find a bad one.

Having missed I Am Belfast on Thursday evening, I headed along to the QFT tonight, confident that I’d catch Mark Cousin’s other film in the festival. Admittedly the title A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence was a little flowery even for Cousins, and the subtitles were translating Scandinavian dialogue which was unexpected, but I suspended disbelief and settled back into my seat.

Of course, the film’s the third in a trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson about “what it means to be a human being”. I’d got mixed up and bought a ticket for the wrong film! [Cousins’s 6 Desires will be screened in the Beanbag Cinema on Friday evening.]

Update - A Pigeon Sat is back in the QFT from 1-8 May

Before getting to the plot, the cinematography deserves comment.

Modern film grammar is thrown out the window. There are no establishing shots followed by close-ups. Instead the lens lingers for the entire duration of each scene from a fixed position, framed as if a classical photograph, with the lines of pavements and where a wall meets the ceiling reaching out towards the corner of the shot. Often rooms will have a door open or a window leading out to another view, with noteworthy action taking place at a distance.

While some locations are revisited throughout the 50-shot film, camera angles are varied … as if the pigeons don’t always sit on the same branch to witness homo sapiens' mad existence.

The colour palette is consistently dominated by pale greens, beiges and off-whites. Nearly every man has a dodgy haircut or combover. Nearly every character has a white powdered face, as if emphasising their closeness to death.

The background music and sound effects from a scene often leaks into the next couple of vignettes, subtly carrying the previous mood and action forward. The music is perhaps the most upbeat element of the film, even when it’s associated with death.

No scene is rushed, and amongst the unhurried and often repetitive action, there is time and space for the audience to develop their own musings about the significance of the scene and how it all fits together. I’d certainly love a second viewing to better track how the main cast are first introduced.

Beginning with three “meetings with death”, characters are introduced slowly, with some recurring as the multi-threaded – and frankly sometimes unthreaded – narrative is woven over 100 minutes.

Two salesmen, Jonathan and Sam, try to sell their three novelty joke products to businesses in Gothenburg. [If Uncle One Tooth masks had been on sale after tonight’s screening, I’d have bought one!] Jonathan is emotional and cries, while Sam is impatient and frustrated. Both live in secure accommodation and Jonathan carries the memory of an inhumane incident that troubles his soul.

A Pigeon Sat has a Pythonesque feel with the 18th century King Charles XII of Sweden riding into a modern-day bar on his way to a devastating war with the Russians. In a single long take, hundreds of soldiers on horseback and infantry carrying pikes continue to march past the window while the King dismounts his steed and sips a refreshing sparkling water.

There are a few moments of laugh out loud comedy – that pass in an instant – in what is otherwise a depressing film. Humanity’s lack of empathy is portrayed through endless phone conversations that never get beyond “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”, completely overlooking the true state of the person on the other end.
“Is it right using people only for your own pleasure?”

A couple of scenes of torture cement Andersson’s assessment of homo sapiens. Wars begat widows. Science begats animal experimentation and cruelty. Heavy industry begats slaves and death. Modern living begats poor relationships. Life begats death.

While nowhere near as dark as The Seventh Seal, Roy Andersson has definitely inherited Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish sense of the absurd and surreal narrative. Andersson’s interview with the Guardian last summer sheds some light on this film and his approach.

An audience sat on their plush QFT seats and reflected on existence … A Pigeon Sat is a film with more questions than answers more scenes that story, and yet a set of reflections that I reckon will live on and trouble me for weeks to come.

Note to self (1): read festival programme more carefully;

Note to self (2): disregard note (1) and select films at random;

Note to self (3): strike up interesting conversations with other members of the audience afterwards at the bar! Always worth it.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Lally The Scut (Tinderbox Theatre at The MAC until 2 May): tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror.

History repeats itself on a hillside outside a village. Twenty years after Lally was rescued from down a well amidst a swathe of publicity, her son is trapped down the well and is being fed iced fingers lowered down on a fishing line. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, so suspicion and reluctance delay efforts to dig down and rescue the child.

The views of family members (Carol Moore, Michael Condron, Maria Connolly), local councillors (Alan McKee, Vincent Higgins) and construction workers are voiced, along with the reflections of Owen, a world-renowned and well-travelled journalist (Frank McCusker) from the area who gets some of the best dialogue, and the external opinion of his bouncy air-head assistant Gav (Richard Clements).
[Owen] I can’t remember anywhere as insular, bovine and quite, quite joyously repressive as this.

As a play, Lally The Scut probes the dysfunctional legacy that remains in post-conflict Northern Ireland for those of us “born lookin’ round corners”. The rural community is in transition and volatile. Can the townland ever shake off its past?

Up on the hill, digging starts, but the rural community is “in transition” and “volatile” and the groups represented by the golf-playing Community Liaison Officer’s glove puppets (“Colin the Continuity IRA dissident” and “Real IRA Rory”) may not be keen on other people unearthing what they buried during previous digs.

Roisin Gallagher waddles around the stage as pregnant Lally, in a white dress that has been physically and metaphorically sullied by the hillside mud. She endures whatever pain is necessary to keep her son’s rescue on track.

Despite the cast of twelve, between Abbie Spallen’s writing and Michael Duke’s direction, each character is well drawn and interesting, and their mannerisms and traits consistently acted.

Complex characters have secrets in their past. There’s ambiguity and perhaps some have an excuse for their behaviour: did the child who stole other children’s lunches do so because he wasn’t well fed at home? The ex-combatant Fork the Cat (Miche Doherty) is all workshopped out and nearly crosses the line between performance art and torture. Engineering manager (Gerard McCabe) has to manage the risk to the child and the rescuers, with the risk to his reputation.
[Owen] Civilisation comes with a price ... You have to be aware of your global and historical positioning ... People, viewers can become tired ... Especially when there’s the perception that you’re ...

[Lally] Trash.

[Owen] Regional.

Abbie Spallen is like an angry prophetess shouting at us through the dialogue about much of what’s rotten in our society ... starting with the fact that the child at the centre of this drama is never named.
[Owen] The longer it takes the more time we have to find a story.

Revelation is gradual and an incredible number of modern tropes are woven into the story: pop songs, cyberbullying, choosing to be offended.

There are no sacred cows unwilling to be sacrificed: family, church, media and politicians all get chopped off at the knees by the playwright’s satirical pen as she amplifies the failings of society.

Can you make a fast buck out of a child’s fate? What drives media interest in a story and how they prioritise one tragedy over another? To what extend can the church be corrupt, looking for something in return for their blessing? A republican political group is rebranding its rhetoric (“a time of adjustment”) without decommissioning its ability to intimidate. There’s even discomfort in the stalls as fingers are pointed at the audience and we become the unpure throng gathered in the village square.
[Gav] It is lovely and green.

[Owen] So is conjunctivitis.

The less-than-beautiful set could only have been designed by Ciaran Bagnall with stepped grass and muddy levels that thankfully look nothing like Teletubbies. Background sound effects keep the audience connected with the out-of-sight digging, and towards the end a grainy ‘live’ video feed links up the audience and the core cast with the rescue attempt.
[Owen] The good journalist, the diligent entity will find the real story! The story of the story.

Ultimately, Lally The Scut demonstrates that history repeats itself and generation after generation bite the hand that feeds (or rescues) them. The media, church and politicians – not to mention a rogue mother-in-law – repeat past behaviours to try to get the same rewards. And Northern Ireland is perhaps doomed to find itself stuck down a dark well every 20 years.

It’s incredibly well written, and the language is extreme throughout, to the extent that you stop noticing the swearing. Fragments of phrases echo throughout the play which is full of rural vernacular and playful delivery. Well worth picking up a copy of the script for £3 at the venue.

Lally the Scut is a complex, multi-layered play that shocks, challenges and blackly entertains. Tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror. Abbie Spallen shares her dark and sinister imagination (terrorist puppets and that mincer!) and twelve capable actors drag the audience through the stinking mud of institutions and society to disturb us into addressing the rot. I can think of no good reason not to see Tinderbox NI’s production in The MAC between now and the 2 May. Tickets between £12 and £25.

Production photos by Ciaran Bagnall.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Danny Morrison’s "West Belfast": a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of a city in conflict

I grew up hearing Danny Morrison’s name on the radio at breakfast time as Sinn Féin’s Director of Publicity. More recently I’ve known him as chair of Féile an Phobail and spotted his attendance at many of the festival’s events in St Mary’s and the annual West Belfast Talks Back debate. But I’d never realised he was an author until his book (re)launch earlier this year at the end of January.

Spread over a decade, West Belfast is a coming of age story of John O’Neill growing up around the Falls against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, heightening tensions and the start of the Troubles. As well as watching John fall in love, move jobs, and explore the world, readers follow John as he deals with his inner tension, at first distancing himself from what was going on in his community before deciding to become involved.
A strange sort of a fella … I used to think he couldn’t open his mouth. Very quiet. But he’s grown up now … Good looking and kind. Maybe a bit too serious.
That’s how John’s girlfriend Angela described him early on in their relationship. It’s the age of Saturday night dances and cozying up to the sound of the Beatles.

After his first experiences of discrimination in a low wage job at an Ormeau Road engineering firm, John got work as a galley-boy on ships out of Belfast, before shifting to bigger trans-Atlantic vessels and becoming a trade union official. Returning to Belfast between crossings, John noticed the changes in his area:
They were no longer the British Army but were now called “the Brits”. Confrontations were regular and people complained that the soldiers were worse than the RUC, assaulting young people and firing tear gas into streets at any pretext.
John began smuggling weapons from Montreal back to Liverpool and onto Belfast, and quickly became more involved with the IRA.

While the story is told through a republican lens, the novel doesn’t overly glorify violence or set the IRA up as heroes. Instead the author finds humanity and dignity in unexpected places and allows for the complexity of characters’ motives adapting as the situation around them changes.

The book describes a familiar slip from innocence into activism, personal tragedy, and portrays the chaos of fast-moving events like the Divis Street riots. The chapter that relives the experience of “The Hooded Men”, tortured and thrown out of an army helicopter that the men didn’t know was hovering just above the ground, is a gruelling read.

Angela’s tale is gentler and provides a good counterbalance to John’s descent into violence. Yet her life too is affected by the changing vibe in Belfast and necessitates a rapid flit to England before eventually returning home to be reacquainted with old friends.

Early on the text is thick with landmarks and street names, nearly trying too hard to root the narrative in its real location. The storytelling adopts a mixture of styles and the plot switches between characters, even spending a chapter inside the mind of an IRA sniper at work.

It was a couple of years before Danny Morrison told anyone that he’d started to write a novel. Soon after West Belfast was published in 1989 he was arrested and imprisoned. (The conviction was overturned in 2008.) “He wasn’t around to do much publicity” novelist and playwright Ronan Bennett explained at the launch of the novel’s new 2015 edition.

Originally typed up on his 512k Amstrad computer, when Danny came back to republish his first novel it didn’t exist in digital format. So he scanned it in, fixed the spellings, and realised that back in the 1980s he had often used three words rather than one. So although this latest edition has the same story, same characters, the same beginning, middle and end, the text has been tightened up and apparently some of the more embarrassing sex scenes have been removed.

While not strictly history, Danny Morrison’s novel captures the spirit and some of the events of a time not long before I was born. At times an uncomfortable read, over two hundred pages it develops a sense of people and place that will long stick in my mind. If you’re looking for a book that clearly identifies the goodies and the baddies, move along the shelf. But if you’re keen to explore the complexity of conflict and how it shapes lives, West Belfast opens an insider’s window into Irish republicanism.

West Belfast is published by Elsinor Press, priced £10 and available from Amazon, Sinn Féin’s Falls Road bookshop or direct the author’s website.