x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan: Arab film makers should stop chasing Hollywood

The veteran director reflects on his past mistakes, discusses his next feature and gives advice for regional filmmakers

Jim Sheridan founded the Dublin Arabic Film Festival in 2014. Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images
Jim Sheridan founded the Dublin Arabic Film Festival in 2014. Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images

Decorated Irish film director Jim Sheridan has a pointed message for aspiring Arab film makers: stop chasing Hollywood. “Every director I’ve met in the Arab cinema world wants to go to Hollywood and make a Hollywood movie, because that’s how you pass the test apparently,” he says when I catch him on the sidelines of this year’s Dublin Arabic Film Festival, where he acts as president and curator. “It’s nonsense. Every time I go to America to make a Hollywood movie, I realise I didn’t grow up in America. I didn’t go to school there. I don’t know their system.”

He has some forthright advice for aspiring Emirati film makers too: “They should get everybody out of the UAE and send them to America to learn the trade,” he says. “In fact, no, they shouldn’t. They should send them all to England, or somewhere where it’s difficult to get a movie made. You can’t just take a load of money and make a good movie. The market will tell you how good a movie is. If you’re not in a market that tells you whether you’ve made a good movie, you’ll never make a good movie.”

The director, who was a judge at Dubai International Film Festival in 2013, speaks from a position of some experience when it comes to making films outside the Hollywood mainstream. While his European films, including the multi-Oscar-nominated, and winning, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, have gathered accolades that most directors can only dream of, his most famous Hollywood effort was the critically derided 50 Cent biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

Sheridan seems fairly relaxed about his unsuccessful flirtation with hip-hop bling. “Get Rich came out the wrong way,” he admits. “I thought ‘I can do this.’ I’m there directing 50 Cent and he’s looking blank, and I’m thinking ‘this is great. The American audience will get this.’” The Irish director admits he may have misjudged, however: “When they look at John Wayne and his face is blank, they know exactly what he’s thinking. So I’m thinking ‘this is like John Wayne.’ I was wrong.

“When you look at 50 Cent and his face is blank you go ‘what ... is he thinking?’ He’s not John Wayne. My empathy tripped me up. I got it, so I assumed the audience would. They didn’t.”

50 Cent in 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Shutterstock
50 Cent in 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Shutterstock

Sheridan may have decided that Hollywood is not for him, but Middle Eastern cinema seems to be an area he is much more comfortable with. He served on Diff’s judging panel in 2013, and the following year set up the Dublin Arabic Film Festival in the Irish capital. The festival aims to bring the best movies from the Arab world to Sheridan’s hometown.

It has already received backing from celebrities ranging from the Egyptian cinema legend Omar Sharif, who attended the festival’s opening edition, to Irish U2 rocker, The Edge, who was spotted at last year’s event. This year’s highlights included the festival’s opening film, Sophie Boutros’s politically charged comedy/drama Solitaire, and Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s provocative Beauty and the Dogs, which follows a young woman’s struggle for justice after she is assaulted and raped by police officers.

Sheridan’s own next project looks set to have a regional theme too. He is currently in the early stages of developing a film about the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, the imprisoned Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

“Megrahi’s story is so interesting. If he’d been European, or even just a bit whiter, he’d have been out a long time ago. The case against him was just laughable, but three judges found him guilty. These were the same people that were involved in convicting the Guildford Four,” the director explains. Sheridan’s seven-time Oscar nominated 1994 film, In the Name of the Father, was a biopic of the four men who were wrongly imprisoned as IRA terrorists.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, centre. AFP
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, centre. AFP

Sheridan is clearly a keen observer of the Arab world, appropriately enough for a man who curates the Dublin Arabic Film Festival. He throws out a trivia fact that was news to me:

“Did you know that Lawrence of Arabia cost more to make than any film you’d ever see made today?” I didn’t, I grudgingly admit. “David Lean spent £110,000 (Dh532,978) just doing screen tests for Albert Finney,” he continues. “That was in 1959. You could buy eight houses in central London for that price then. And that was just screen tests. It wasn’t even the movie. You couldn’t do that now. The studios had everything tied up. Even when I did In the Name of the Father in 1994, we must have cleared £200 million on DVDs. You couldn’t do that today. It’s just not possible with the internet.”

Sheridan may sound like something of a technophobe, but when he continues his thesis, it becomes clear that he’s perhaps more of a realist: “In 2007 or 2008 streaming kicked in,” he says. “There were no DVD sales and all the real drama shifted onto TV. Cinema now is just big event movies. In the past, the strength of the Hollywood model crushed the Italian, French and Swedish cinemas. Now it’s crushing its own cinema. It’s killed independent cinema.

“It’s always been a problem that no independent movie would play in the sort of places that would vote for Trump, but it’s getting worse. The only movies that can succeed in red and blue states involve some clown in a suit. Captain America or something. You have to be on TV now, it’s where all the great drama is.”

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Read more:

Dublin Arabic Film Festival opens with full house

Cinema’s fascination with telling the stories of tortured artists

Sophie Boutros talks about her new film Solitaire

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Returning to what appears to be a personal mission, Sheridan notes that the story of alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi would be prime material for a Netflix-style 10-hour investigation – Megrahi remains in prison, while even the father of one of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, Jim Swire, campaigns for his release on account of the scant evidence for his conviction; evidence which Sheridan himself swiftly dismisses in a series of self-drawn diagrams during our meeting.

The firebrand director isn’t all about politics though: “What you really need to succeed now is to be on TV. But you need to make that show with an incredibly strong female lead. That’s it. That’s the key.” He adds with some degree of dissatisfaction: “I haven’t found [the TV series] yet.”