Putting Northern Ireland cinema on the movie map

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Hamish Calvert celebrates the films that are continuing to raise the profile of Northern Ireland cinema.

Not everyone traditionally associates Northern Ireland with big screen ventures, but in recent years the local film and TV industry has become widely associated with a worldwide phenomenon: Game Of Thrones. You can barely go on a night out in Belfast without someone chirping up that they’ve been an extra in it, and if you pause a certain episode at a certain time, you can just about see the back of their head for a couple of seconds. It’s everyone’s claim to fame and that’s great; it’s brought Northern Ireland jobs, tourism and put us on the map.

If you’re not into Game Of Thrones, though, you can’t help feeling a little left out. Yet there are lots of other recent big-screen exports to celebrate…

Bad Day For The Cut (2017)

Director: Chris Baugh
Writers: Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullin

Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, Bad Day For The Cut is a brutal revenge thriller that spans numerous locations across the country, both rural and urban. The story follows middle-aged farmer Donal, (Nigel O’Neill) who is drawn into the criminal underworld of Belfast in a desperate search for answers and vengeance. It’s one of Northern Ireland’s most popular exports to date, enjoying packed screenings across Belfast upon its release. Whilst writers Baugh and Mullin brilliantly highlight the hyper violent context of the story, helping to make it the taut thriller that it is, they also make room for moments of dark humour, ensuring the production isn’t just doom and gloom.

The Lost City Of Z (2017)

Director: James Gray
Writer: James Gray

All those amazing scenes of explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) charting the Amazonian rainforest? Surely can’t have been shot in Northern Ireland? Well, yes, you’d be right; these scenes were shot in Colombia. However, the parts of The Lost City Of Z set in Ireland and England actually used a wide range of locations across Northern Ireland. If you’ve yet to discover this biographical drama of the famous explorer, you’re in for a serious treat. Portraying Fawcett’s passion for exploration, this film is a delight to watch, and with a superb supporting cast (Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland) conveying all the drama with such finesse, The Lost City Of Z feels as if it’s from the golden age of Hollywood.

Good Vibrations (2013)

Directors: Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn
Writers: Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson

Good Vibrations tells the story of Belfast music legend Terri Hooley, the man responsible for The Undertones and their hit single, ‘Teenage Kicks’. The title refers to the record shop and eventual label that Hooley established in the 70s amidst the height of the Troubles. What directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn do so well is highlight the best of culture Northern Ireland had to offer, showcasing it as beacon of hope during a largely bleak time for the country. Local viewers are treated to countless references and can spot many music venues which are still running today in this home-bred collaboration between the Irish Film Board and Northern Ireland Screen.

The Dig (2019)

Directors: Andy Tohill and Ryan Tohill
Writer: Stuart Drennan

The Dig features for what a lot of Northern Ireland’s population will be the most familiar scenery of all: the vast countryside generations have farmed on over the years. Opening the Belfast Film Festival in 2018, The Dig has enjoyed a positive run on the festival and screening circuit before its general release earlier in April this year. The film is a mystery drama, which sees a farmer, Ronan (Moe Dunford), return to his land after serving 15 years in prison. Upon his arrival, he finds a man trespassing on his land searching for answers regarding the crime that put Ronan behind bars. What follows is a tight-knit, personal drama of family, guilt and loss. Expertly captured by cinematographer Angus Mitchell, The Dig is a thrilling tale filmed along the backdrop of rural Northern Ireland.

Zoo (2018)

Director: Colin McIvor
Writer: Colin McIvor

Belfast Zoo is a cornerstone of Northern Irish culture that many residents have countless fond memories of, and Zoo tells one of the most unique and unbelievable stories about this much cherished attraction. It’s not quite the escaped polar bear you may have heard about from Lisa McGee’s hysterical Derry Girls, but it’s not far off. The film follows local lad Tom (Art Parkinson) who breaks out Buster the elephant when his life becomes endangered during the German air raids of Belfast in 1941. It’s a story of mammoth proportions considering it comes from such a little corner of the world. It combines the best of wartime spirit with a charming family adventure, and like an elephant, once you’ve seen it you’ll never forget it!

The Bookshop (2018)

Director: Isabel Coixet
Writer: Isabel Coixet

In the opening scenes of The Bookshop the narrator states how unpredictable the weather of coastal town Hardborough is and how all four seasons can be seen in one morning. This isn’t just true for the setting of this story, but the location of the filming, too. Shot in Portaferry and Strangford, any local residents will testify to weather like this. Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize nominated novel of the same name is a slow-paced and gentle piece of filmmaking. It captures the spirit of a dreamer as war widow Florence (Emily Mortimer) embarks on the challenging task of opening her own bookshop. Without over dramatising the production, Coixet seamlessly showcases the unpleasant side of small town politics alongside this inspirational narrative.

This is just a flavour of the films that have been shooting in and around Northern Ireland over the past few years. And there are lots more to come…

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