The 25th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement was featured across all news and social media outlets in the week past and wider international coverage this week with the upcoming visit of US, President Joe Biden. During the 1970s my dad worked for a company that serviced the entire island. As a teenager during my summer holidays I sometimes travelled with him to Belfast, Derry and the Glens of Antrim. I witnessed quite a different pre-Good Friday Northern Ireland.
As an island renowned for storytelling ‘The Troubles’ have provided a wealth of material that writers and directors could draw on. Ask any experienced script writer for tips for developing your craft, and one of the top tips will be to start by writing about what you know. So, it is no surprise that Irish filmmakers found several ways of telling our dark past to a wider audience. As I researched this article, I found a link to an Ulster University page with a list of over 40 films with ‘The Troubles’ as the theme.
Telling such a complex topic in 2 hours is a challenge. Still, it makes it far more accessible to the average person than reading an academic study or a series of newspaper articles. By leveraging the power of visual storytelling, filmmakers can shape perspectives, challenge beliefs, expose hypocrisy and bring about better understanding and positive change on a wider scale even ‘The Troubles’.
You may have a list that connects you with that time, my short list would include in no particular order. The Crying Game – Cal – Hunger – 71 – In The Name of the Father – Bloody Sunday and Good Vibrations. Along with three productions I worked on connected to ‘The Troubles’.
Bog Woman (1997) tells a story of a woman who moves from rural Donegal to Derry City leading up to the outbreak of ‘The Troubles’ in 1969. A dark gritty story by Tom Collins.
Omagh (2004) recounts the horrific moments leading up to The Real IRA car-bombing of Omagh in August 1998 killing 31 people on a busy Saturday afternoon and was the biggest single atrocity of ‘The Troubles’. Paul Greengrass and his team spent more than two years consulting victims’ families before piecing together a painful but realistic portrayal of their grief. Along with the usual script breakdown, the crew were provided with accounts from the victim’s families and news footage of the time. Michael Gallagher was the spokesperson for the families of the victims his son died in the blast. Michael came down to speak to the crew on the production in Navan Co Meath. I am extremely proud to have worked on Omagh, particularly how the victims’ families received the film.
Everlasting Piece (2000) Is probably one of the best scripts I have ever read the gags were jumping off the page unfortunately as we know sometimes magic does not come across on the screen. This was after The Good Friday Agreement, directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam) he wanted to shoot the movie in Belfast, but mostly crewed from Dublin. A comedy about selling wigs (piece) in Belfast in the 1980s two barbers one Catholic and one Protestant go door to door what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, our time in Belfast was short-lived filming close to a peace line and staying true to the script. After 4 weeks a decision was taken to move the production to Dublin in the interest of cast and crew safety. We did create a little magic in Donegall Square before we left for Dublin.
Northern Ireland Screen was set up in 1998, and later the old Paint Hall in the Titanic Quarter would be transformed into a film studio. City of Ember (2007) starring Tom Hanks was in my view the production that established Northern Ireland as an international film destination. This was followed shortly afterwards by Game of Thrones and success has grown from there. Critical to its success has been Northern Ireland Screen’s focus on the development of local crew and training.
In Belfast (2022) Keith Branagh provides some joyous moments from his childhood memories wrapped up in a very turbulent time in pre-Good Friday Belfast, eventually leading to his family leaving the city. It feels like this was a bookend to a city and his story that he could finally put on screen.
We are fortunate to live in a small but beautiful corner of the world. The success of the Good Friday Agreement may still be too early to be fully measured. However, it has created an environment for filmmakers to move freely and work in a shared island context. At the 95th Oscars, there were an incredible 14 Irish nominations on the red carpet, thankfully our filmmakers have new stories to tell in a different setting.
Twenty-five years ago, 3 Governments went on a limb to bring parties together who were poles apart intending to bring about a lasting peace. There are many untold stories from that period that the world is waiting to see.