From 2nd - 11th November, our intrepid writer Sophie Steele had the opportunity to represent rrramble at Belfast Film Festival 2023!
Since 1995, the Belfast Film Festival has been a pillar of the Irish film scene and provides an incredible platform for local and international filmmakers to showcase their works. With a diverse and wide-ranging line-up of films from all over the world, we are thrilled that Sophie was able to go along and give us a glimpse of the action.
Read on to discover the new and exciting projects she got to see and get inspired for your next cinema trip.
SPOILERS CHECKPOINT - if you read on, you may hear some spoilers about the films Sophie saw. She has kept her reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but if you are particularly keen to remain in the dark then we suggest you look away now.
Still here? That's great! Take it away, Sophie...
Two years ago I moved to Belfast to study film and I am so blessed to call this vibrant, exciting, and culturally complex city my new home. This city is currently booming in the film industry after the success of Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, so I knew the Belfast Film Festival 2023 was not to be missed. I hope you find something inspiring in the following, and if you get the chance to come to Belfast, then absolutely say yes.
How to Have Sex
My first film of the festival was filled with nothing but nostalgia for me. Going in, I knew it was going to discuss some pretty hard to swallow truths about virginity and teenage sex, set to the wild backdrop of the Malia strip, but I had no idea just how on the money this film was.
From the ripped paper wristbands and the cigarette-induced vocal fry, to the constant background bump of bass, this film did not miss a detail. The director, Molly Manning-Walker, encapsulated every moment of a 17-year-old gals trip to Malia. It’s your first real moment of freedom. You can stay up all night and go skinny dipping in the sea while the sun rises, with your best friends who you truly believe are your soulmates. From the first scene, Manning-Walker captured that unconditional, fierce love that teenage girls have for one another, a love that you feel will always last forever no matter what. It’s that beautiful naivety that all good things must last, something you almost wish we could bring with us into adulthood.
So many moments in this film mirrored almost exactly my own experience when I was 17 in Malia that it got to the point that I am actually convinced I wrote this. I’d even taken the same flight path they did! I’d heard beforehand that it was a hard watch, and that is true. It’s an incredibly hard watch, especially for those who can remember this time of our lives and can remember sweaty nights like this that left a sour taste in their mouths. All of our leading lady Tara's relationships and interactions with others are so nuanced and true to life, and Mia McKenna-Bruce’s performance is outstanding. She takes you along on Tara’s emotional journey throughout and does so in a magnificent way.
I will tell everyone to go and see this film. It brilliantly explores these pertinent issues and does so in a way that unblurs those supposed ‘blurred lines’ when it comes to consent. It’s uncomfortable, heartbreaking, hilarious, and true. It will make you want to go back to being a teenager who could take on the world, whilst simultaneously reminding you why you’re so happy those years are behind you. I could say so much more about it, but I’m going to let it speak for itself. Go and see the film, and then give yourself a hug and congratulate your teenage self on making it this far.
By contrast, I was not super impressed with Double Blind. There was a clear shared love of 80’s horror films between myself and the filmmaker, and that was amplified massively through the soundtrack. But other than that, I couldn’t get into it like I usually can with 80’s horror. Double Blind follows a group of test subjects taking part in an experimental drug trial in which they are locked away from the outside world whilst the trial takes place. The trial is then derailed when something goes horribly wrong, and, as any good horror film does, leads to mass bloodshed.
Don’t get me wrong, the camera work was great. I loved the use of classic match cuts, which seemed like an homage to infamous horror directors such as Stanley Kubrick, and the imagery itself was very pleasing to the eye. The Director of Photography did a brilliant job of making the audience feel claustrophobic and frantic at times, with the use of varying angles and movements throughout shots.
Within the first half an hour though, I knew there was something I didn’t like about it. Something felt off. I couldn’t decide if it was the writing that I felt was stiff, or the acting, but something wasn’t working for me. The dialogue felt stunted at times. There are some really tense and jumpy moments but they don’t feel scary, they just take you by surprise, and there is a lot to be said for the work the soundtrack does in creating these tense moments.
As it moved along, the performances and the storyline got better. I really liked the aspect of using the decaying of the human psyche as a horror narrative tool. There is nothing scarier to me than your brain turning against you and, especially in the third act, the filmmakers did a great job of playing on the scariest parts of the human mind. It does feel very nightmare-ish in the pace and camera movements. I think the one thing that holds it back for me is the dialogue. It’s written and acted in a way that feels unnatural and stilted, and maybe this was intentional, it just did not work for me. I’m just going to add it to the long list of horror sci-fi films I’ve seen that I’m not going to see again and probably forget it exists in a months’ time.
Communion was something different for me. Set in the backdrop of Northern Ireland, Communion is a 30 minute insight into religion in rural communities. Who knew that a story surrounding a small parish closing down in the middle of nowhere could be so devastatingly beautiful.
As someone who was not brought up religious, I didn’t think I would connect much to the story as sometimes I find myself unable to understand what religion can mean for people. Communion did a wonderful job of showcasing the sadness and melancholy the priests feel as they grieve their closing parish, contrasted with the wild and vibrant Ulster countryside. Through this I was able to tap into the empathy needed to understand how this could be a devastating loss to this community.
The film highlighted some very real reasons why people have lost faith in the Catholic church, whilst also encapsulating the importance of the comfort the parish provides to this small community and the individuals within it. I really do love it when filmmakers introduce and examine the question of morality of human choices and how that interacts with the church, and Communion does a brilliant job of exploring this. I would describe this film as a Sunday Film – one you watch on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon, snuggled up on the sofa with a fire going. Even if you’re not religious, the imagery alone is worth it and to be honest it’s just an overall nice watch.
Okay, this one was an interesting one. Did you know Presbyterian is an anagram for Britney Spears? Me neither. This was just one of the many fun little facts Heaven Scent shared with its audience. With absolutely zero funding, and that was very clear, I had very low expectations going in. And let me tell you, this was the most fun I have ever had in a cinema. Following a local private detective, Heaven Scent takes us on a journey through the back alleys of Belfast into a world of crime, mystery and paramilitaries.
As we entered the screening, audience members were handed cards with numbers in boxes on
them. Throughout the film, these numbers would flash on the screen at certain times, indicating
which box had to be scratched and then sniffed, which supposedly aligned with what our protagonist was smelling on screen. Now, using scratch and sniff in a film is a risky game, but I respect the risk. At the end of the day films are a version of storytelling, and you can always enhance that experience by introducing the use of other senses rather than just sight. The issue is that it doesn’t always work. I’d love to say it worked this time… but 8 out of the 10 smells all smelt the same and nothing like what they were supposed to smell like (though I am quite happy that the dog poo one did not smelllike dog poo). Having said that though, it did not take away from the film at all.
Heaven Scent felt homegrown and the audience felt familiar, almost like family. It was shown in the smaller screen of one of Belfast’s oldest cinemas (and that is evident in the décor) and the humour throughout was very Belfast. It was hilarious. Everything about it was so sincere; I have met all of these characters in real life, I have seen all these places in real life, my house was even in the background of one of the shots! I am blown away by how beautiful they made Belfast look while keeping its authenticity. And who doesn’t love a political commentary, especially on the failures of Green and Orange politics.
It was just fun. I left that cinema on a high (and not because of the poppers section on the scratch and sniff), the sense of community evoked by that film had me feeling elated, and I was surprised at how much I had enjoyed it. There’s only one right way to watch this film, and that’s in a room in an almost forgotten area of Belfast with a group of locals.
I loved this film. I loved it. Set in Sudan just before they voted to separate the South and North into two different states, Goodbye Julia tells the story of female friendship and empowerment in times of conflict and oppression. It’s a typical Romeo and Juliet story but with platonic feminine love, and set to the backdrop of the complex situation in Sudan and South Sudan.
It was heartbreaking from the get-go. Not in a brutal and graphic manner, but in a way that forces you to reflect on the varying devastations of war. There is some absolutely brilliant imagery that focuses on the similarities between both of our leading ladies. They’re both human, experiencing human feelings and situations regardless of which community they were born into. It really highlights how the backdrop of war is so casual. Violence is casual. Violence happens in the backdrop of our everyday lives, as we as humans try to continue with as much normalcy as possible.
Having said all that, there were still moments that warranted a chuckle. We were still able to laugh in the midst of violence. In the cinema, there was a massive presence from the Sudanese community here in Belfast that laughed way more than I did. I reckon there were plenty of culturally relevant and nuanced jokes that just flew over my head, and of course they did, but that didn’t disrupt the sense of community between the audience. It was so well shot; it really highlighted these moments of humour, as well as these genuine moments of female friendship born out of trauma but used as an escape. There is all this love and warmth, contrasted with a backdrop of conflict that culturally says our two leading ladies must hate each other.
I loved every part of it. It was a well written, nail-biting drama, with beautiful imagery and
camerawork to tell the story, as well as invoking discussions of the complexities of human
relationships and the realities of war, especially in the context of genocide and oppression. AND it did all this while subtly educating the audience on this incredibly relevant conflict. It was very well received by the Sudanese population in the cinema with me, and it translates well to a Western audience. Even if you aren’t usually one for international films, it is so worth a watch.
My closing event with the Belfast Film Festival was a ‘Work in Progress’ event for a new Irish
language horror film hoping to be debuted next year. For just over an hour, the audience
experienced a panel of the filmmaker and her leading actresses, as well as four exclusive clips from the film itself. Obviously, as the film has not been released yet, we were asked not to share details of the clips we saw, but from what I’ve seen this is going to be one to watch.
The Irish language has suffered years of attempted erasure, so to begin with it’s nice to see feature length films being made which are solely in Irish. Secondly, as we all know I’m a big old feminist, so seeing a panel full of strong women in the film industry, who each have so much they bring to the project, was refreshing and exciting. It was a candid discussion on how the process has taken shape right from the start, mixed in with screenings of the four clips, to give the audience a bit of insight into the project so far.
Personally, I feel the Irish language and culture in general lends itself perfectly to horror; as director Aislinn Clarke said “it’s hard to get away from religious influence of Catholicism and folklore” especially when doing an Irish language horror set in Ireland. She went on to discuss the “Pagan seasoning we give to Catholicism in Ireland” which is evident in the clips we were shown. You can clearly see how these aspects are interwoven in the story and imagery to add to this disorientating and nightmare-ish atmosphere. As Aislinn, and her two leading actors Clare Monnelly and Bríd Ni Neachtain, continued to discuss the process, I am amazed at all the small details and factors they employed to create an environment that adds to this sense of unease. All the while, Aislinn remains extremely humble. She really focused on the idea of film as a collaborative project, and how it evolves with each person who works on it.
It was just a really interesting insight into the creative process as a whole, as well as an interesting discussion between women about their experiences while shooting and creating this film. I am really looking forward to seeing it in all its tense and disorientating glory, whenever it graces our big screens.
As always, the festival was a wonderful showcase of both local and international filmmaking talent with a massive and varied program. Thank you so much Belfast Film Festival 2023 for the wonderful opportunity to attend and write about my brilliant time with you, I already can’t wait for next year. As I said earlier, if you have the chance to visit Belfast, then do, and if you have a chance to go to the film festival, you’d be silly to say no!