Feverish Ambitions: Northern Ireland's First Independent Film Festival

Kung fu zombies are rarely catalysts for film festivals. Rather, they’re the stuff of cult canons and film student fever dreams. Rarely seen together, the two B-movie genre standards are a mother lode of midnight movie possibility and it’s amazing more filmmakers haven’t mined it.

Northern Ireland filmmaker George Clarke is one of the few who has tackled flesh-eating martial artists. And by doing so, he was put on the path of creating the first independent film festival in Northern Ireland.

Clarke’s 2008 film Battle of the Bone was shot on a £10,000 budget and produced by his Yellow Fever Productions. It was inspired by the Troubles period in Northern Ireland, an era of ethnic and political conflict that began in the 1960s, and set during the annual Protestant celebration the Twelfth of July. Like a good independent horror director, Clarke conveyed a George Romero-esque critique of his country’s turbulent past in the film. He melded his love of marital arts and zombies with social commentary, which allows the havoc and carnage wreaked by mindless high-kicking zombies to stand in for the destruction wrought by mindless bomb-throwing ideologues.

Unsurprisingly, the film became an underground hit in Belfast. Positive reaction also came from America, Asia, and other parts of Europe.

Three months after he opened his film, Clarke and his project manager, Graeme Livingstone, took Battle of the Bone to the 2008 Freak Show Horror Film Festival in Orlando, an independent showcase for up-and-coming horror directors. Clarke took home the Audience Choice Award for the film, but the festival also gave him the inspiration to realize one of his goals as a filmmaker and producer.

“When I thought about how hard it was for me as an uneducated, inexperienced filmmaker to do what I really wanted to as a career, I made a promise with Yellow Fever Productions that we would make a point of helping to develop new and undiscovered talent that are in the position I was once in,” Clarke says.

The form this aide took was the Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival, the first independent film festival in Northern Ireland. The festival will be held August 22-23 at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast and is accepting submissions through June 30.

The plan is to screen between 12-15 films during the two-day festival. As it showcases promising independent filmmakers, the festival will also highlight Northern Ireland’s arts scene, generally. Five tattoo artists will be set-up, as will a stall featuring 20 artists exhibiting their work to festival-goers.

YFIFF was announced in March 2009, and Clarke, Livingstone, and five other Yellow Fever staffers went to work crafting the festival. The first step was getting films to screen.

Easier said than done.

Clarke took to Google and MySpace Film to locate directors who might be interested in submitting their work to his festival. Logic would dictate that hungry filmmakers would jump at the chance to be a part of a festival that has reached out to them. But Clarke discovered that isn’t the case.

“In just one day, I emailed over 1,700 filmmakers from all around the world,” Clarke says. “And at the end of that grueling task received just three emails expressing some interest in submitting their work.”

He estimates he has sent over 3,000 queries to filmmakers, from Northern Ireland and elsewhere. So far he has received 20 submissions from around the world.

Originally, Clarke wanted most of the films screened at YFIFF to come from Northern Ireland to promote the country’s filmmaking talent. But here he ran into another problem: apathy. So far, only one film has come from Northern Ireland, which is a far cry from a representative sample of the nation’s independent cinematic voices.

Clarke attributes this lack of interest from local talent, in part, to the entry of Hollywood into Northern Ireland. Big-budget productions have increasingly set up shop in the country because new tax breaks have made it more economical. The local arts council has accepted Hollywood with open arms because they think it will put the nation on the filmmaking map. Meanwhile, Clarke says, they are ignoring homegrown talent that he thinks should be cultivated.

“What we really need to do is help them see that this festival is about getting over the ignorance of the suits and difficulties of the red tape so that, with the local talent and films, we can prove that there is no need to look abroad for something that can help get Northern Ireland some recognition in the film world,” Clark says.

The big-budget attitude currently in Belfast is forcing the local independent filmmaking community to choose between creative independence and money in the bank. Caught in the middle are people like Clarke who envision a different future for their country’s filmmakers, one in which Northern Ireland is a supportive and nurturing place for independent filmmakers.

Right now, though, Clarke is up against disinterest, which is reflected in the biggest problems confronting his festival: fewer submissions than anticipated and muted reaction from local filmmakers. These issues could cripple any film festival, especially one as nascent as YFIFF.

But Clarke is undeterred. He knows that there’s nothing like the Yellow Fever Film Festival in Northern Ireland. He understands that his nation’s independent filmmakers are still finding their way in the fog of Hollywood promises. And he’s confident that once his festival comes together, it will be the roundhouse kick Northern Ireland needs to shake it out of its zombie-like malaise.

“By making the YFIFF successful, we want to show the people of Northern Ireland that independence can work and how easy it can be to achieve what you really want in life,” Clark says.

For more information on the Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival and how to submit to it, visit the official festival page at http:// www.theyfiff.ning.com.

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