From his love of multicultural cinema to his interest in Arab culture, the Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan tells Kelly Ann Crane why he signed up to head the Muhr Awards Arab jury at DIFF.
The acclaimed director Jim Sheridan can’t wait to serve on DIFF jury
Great movies come from the heart, something that few people know better than the critically acclaimed Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan.
“You can’t be successful in anything when you’re not being who you really are,” the writer and director says. “The stories you tell about yourself, or the things you know, say the most. They are the most powerful. It’s even more true when you’re making movies.”
The head of the Muhr Awards Arab jury at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival, Sheridan, 64, is industry-renowned for his personal approach to filmmaking.
“The more open you are to expressing your own culture through image, the more likely you’ll get it right,” he says. “A story you understand personally will always carry more emotion on screen.”
It’s a theory that Sheridan believes has legs to create many great Arab filmmakers. It’s also his reason to sign up for the jury at DIFF this year.
“My Left Foot was just luck,” he says of his 1989 movie, the story of the Irish artist Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy but learnt to paint and write with his only controllable limb – his left foot. “But filmmakers here have so much to be inspired by – such a rich history and so many amazing stories to be told.”
Best known for his collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis – The Boxer, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot, Sheridan says that growing up with tales from the Arab world inspired him as child.
“I remember my father reading Sinbad the Sailor and scary stories about the djinn. There is such huge potential for great storytelling in the Arab world,” he says. “It’s all very magical. A mythical culture. That’s what young filmmakers should be channelling.”
Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical immigrant drama In America (2002) showcases his personal and emotional touch, a quality that he says that he’ll be looking for during the judging process.
Co-written with his two daughters, Kirsten and Naomi, Sheridan used his own raw story of moving his family from Ireland to the US.
“The emotion is what allows an audience to connect with the story and the characters,” he says. “That’s what usually works.”
However, perhaps less expected given the genre that he’s used to working with, Sheridan says a laugh can go a long way.
“In a world of serious movies – maybe because of the many struggles faced by the Arab region in general – a good laugh, or even just a line which raises a smile, is worth its weight in gold,” he says.
Sheridan first came to prominence in the late 1980s with My Left Foot, his first film, which was nominated for five Oscars and won two (Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Brenda Fricker).
“I went from having about US$200 [Dh735] each week to being offered millions in an afternoon,” he recalls. “It was a surreal time.”
Born in Dublin in 1949, Sheridan moved to the US in 1982, where he was invited to run the Irish Arts Centre.
After My Left Foot’s surprise success, and at 40, living in Hell’s Kitchen with little money, Sheridan found himself a place in the film industry.
He turned back to Ireland for inspiration with In the Name of the Father (1993), starring Day-Lewis as a teenager accused of an IRA bombing. The film was successful critically and commercially, and gleaned seven Oscar nominations.
Sheridan then wrote Some Mother’s Son (1996), in which IRA prisoners go on a hunger strike. Next up was the gritty film The Boxer (1997), his third collaboration with Day-Lewis, about a former IRA associate released from prison after 14 years.
After In America, Sheridan’s next film came as a surprise: the 2005 rap drama Get Rich or Die Tryin’, starring 50 Cent.
In 2009, Jake Gyllenhaal described Sheridan’s directing style as a “beautiful mess” after filming Brothers, a film that premiered at DIFF and co-starred Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman. Gyllenhaal recalled how Sheridan once asked the coffee girl her opinion on the scene before changing it as she had suggested.
“I believe in a collective mind,” explains Sheridan. “I also like the idea of multicultural cinema, which is why I’m here in Dubai. There is not one home of movies. The important thing is to not have a fear of telling stories, which cross borders. One can only imagine fully when you allow yourself to truly express.”