On PED’s in sport.

(The following article is one I mostly completed last year but haven’t gotten around to posting until now… if there are any discrepancies in the context, that’ll be why. Still, I wanted to publish it here in case anyone finds interest in reading it. One can only hope.)

In 2016 we saw what was branded as another ‘summer of sport’, with Euro 2016 in June-July followed by the Brazil Olympics throughout August. With Russian athletes almost universally banned (at least until said ban was, to some extent, overturned on appeal) from this year’s Olympic Games due to alleged state-sponsored doping, and with numerous other instances of athletes in sports like tennis and MMA (mixed martial arts) recently caught using banned substances, the issue of performance enhancing drugs has never been more prevalent than it is now.

That’s not because more people are ‘cheating’ now than athletes of the past. On the contrary, I believe with the more stringent testing available today, the amount of athletes trying to manipulate the system has fallen. Yet at the same time competition has never been higher, with multi-million dollar sponsorship available for the best, most successful athletes, and without a doubt, as testing methods improve, so too do the range of drugs available that can slip through the system. It is a constant battle for testing methods to keep up with PED’s on the market.

I figured I would use this space to offer my thoughts on this controversial issue of performance enhancers. That’s what they are; my thoughts and nothing more. I don’t intend it to be a conclusive, in-depth article, but if what I write can help others think more critically about a certain topic, I can’t help but do it.

For me personally, the topic became prevalent again recently when one of my favourite athletes, Brock Lesnar, tested positive for a banned substance while training for, and on the night of, his UFC fight with Mark Hunt on July 9th. But this is not something I write as a ‘fan’ of someone or because I want to defend anyone who breaks the rules. Rather, it’s that I want others, people like you and I, to understand that this issue isn’t as cut and dry as most seem to think. It’s not always – if ever – a black and white divide between ‘cheating’ and being totally ‘clean’. Let’s talk about the reasons why.

Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.
Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.

As obvious as this may sound, there are many different forms and variations of performance enhancers out there. It’s not too dissimilar from the range of vitamins and supplements available; the line is drawn when the effect of a certain substance is deemed to give an unfair advantage over those who don’t take it. Whereas I think the line should instead be drawn with substances that endanger an athlete’s long-term health.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of unfair advantages; quite the opposite. In simple terms, I think athletes should be given a list of legal substances they can use by their allocated governing bodies. These substances would be tested and approved beforehand, to ensure they aren’t a danger to the health of an athlete. Said substances would be available to use as each athlete sees fit.

Granted, this isn’t too different from what happens currently: athletes are given a list of ‘banned’ substances, and things are added to or removed from this list dependent upon how much of an advantage they give in terms of performance enhancement. But the policy on this is generally zero tolerance on anything that is seen to give said advantage. I think this leaves room for abuse by athletes who have the resources to ‘slip through the gap’ as such with the latest designer drugs – who would not be motivated to take such a risk if there were allocated drugs available to use for each athlete rather than confined strictly to the banned list.

This isn’t me trying to make excuses for those who break the rules. Think of it more as an argument for those who don’t; those who end up at a natural disadvantage just for sticking to their principles, for reasons they’ve had drilled into them – that all PED’s are wrong – and a way of removing the advantage given to those who simply have greater resources at their disposal.

It’s also an argument in favour of the integrity and enjoyment level of sport itself. The larger-than-life athletes of the past and present that people know and love, who’ve inspired millions with their feats, may not have been who they became were it not for performance enhancers. Of course people may feel aghast at even the suggestion their heroes would do such a thing, but how can you be sure they didn’t, aside from wishful thinking and their carefully constructed public perception?

If rules around performance enhancers continue to become more stringent – unnecessarily in many cases – sporting heroes of the future likely won’t be seen in the same light. The general aesthetic value and marketability of sport will inevitably go down. My argument is for the integrity of sport and evenly balanced competition across the board, not against it. We need more openness, better transparency, and most importantly, more easily accessible information on the PED’s we’re talking about, for the benefit not only of the public, but also the athletes who need to be aware of what they’re taking. You may think it obvious that they would naturally know what they put in their bodies and what exactly those things do, but bear in mind most top athletes have specialists taking care of this stuff for them; specialists whose success is tied directly to the sporting success and aesthetic value of their athlete.

These drugs have many different properties. They all affect your body differently. That effect often depends not only on the drug itself but on the type of athlete taking them and the sport in which they compete. Regulating bodies are still behind the game on this, but they know enough now to be able to offer some more flexibility that would perhaps help discourage those who abuse the system as it is.

Erythropoietin (EPO) is often seen as one of the more egregious examples of a PED by those who understand what it does. Many people will have first heard of it when Lance Armstrong was finally popped (after a long and generally convincing insistence of denial) by USADA back in 2012 for his use of it following a drawn-out saga lasting almost since Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999. This was the highest profile case of our time, or at least at the time in 2012 (as there have been several other high profile doping cases since); as a result it has helped teach people some of the differences in PED’s and what they do. It also illuminated the unique position there is – and still remains – between the use of drugs in sport, and the drug tests used to catch these substances. For years people suspected Armstrong of some kind of cheating, yet he feigned innocence for as long as the authorities were unable to prove it, and those who supported him were always able to lean back on that until the curtain fell.

For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use despite accusations from those who knew what they were looking for.
For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use amidst accusations from those who knew the signs.

Now this indirectly leads us on to another brief point I want to make, and this may be the most pertinent one: PED’s are not magic pills. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s something the uninitiated seem to struggle with. Taking them does not suddenly give an athlete a free route into a final or mean they don’t need to put in hundreds of hours at the gym. Taking a few steroids doesn’t suddenly give a bodybuilder his toned physique or the ability to lift monumental weights.

The clue is in the name: they enhance what’s already there. If an athlete does not have the talent to begin with, or doesn’t want to bust their ass in training every day, then whatever PED’s they try taking, quite frankly, won’t have any more effect on their overall performance than a cheeseburger would. I’ve heard people say that athletes take performance enhancers because they’re sitting on their ass all day and can’t be bothered working out in the gym; please go and do some much-needed research if you think that way.

They don’t make you a superstar, they can’t give you talent; but they can help an athlete with talent become a superstar.

You may have a different opinion on all of this, and your opinion may be justified. As I always say, that’s fair enough. We should be having more conversations about this topic in general, whatever side of the fence you may fall on. As I’ve said, I’m not in favour of any athlete breaking the rules – if they do so without justification or reasoning, they should rightly be punished – I just think maybe those rules should be examined and questioned a little more. In most other areas that would be seen as healthy, but it seems in this area people get touchy about it.


Looking forward to Euro 2016.

Euro 2016 Norn Iron pic 1.

I remember like it was yesterday; Northern Ireland’s first away win in four years in the first game of their Euro 2016 qualifying group – an unexpected 2-1 win at Hungary. That was fourteen months ago, and even with that (seemingly) one-off result none could have written the script that would play out over the following year as the team went on a run that ultimately saw them qualify for their first major tournament in my lifetime; the last time being at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Potential banana skins were narrowly avoided along the way – ironically it was the same team we beat in that opening game that almost returned the favour in a pivotal, nervous and dramatic game back at the start of September – and in my previous comments on this qualifying campaign I refused to believe they would actually do it. But they did, even doing so in style; with a game to spare and winning their group.

This may indeed have been a ‘once in a lifetime’ occurrence in itself, but fans all around the British Isles have been spoilt with other unparalleled successes for the home nations. Wales went on a similar run, beating Belgium along the way to end an even longer wait for tournament qualification – Welsh fans haven’t enjoyed one since 1958. England won all ten games in their group (a group admittedly barren of any serious challenge) and were the first team to qualify. The Republic of Ireland qualified for their second consecutive European Championship and will be hoping for a more successful one than when they lost all three games without scoring a goal at Euro 2012.

One could say this has bred a feel-good atmosphere between fans of all these teams – it’s easier to be friends when (almost) everyone’s doing well after all – and this feeling of friendly rivalry will hopefully result in a tournament that’s memorable for all the right reasons in France next year. The draw for the groups, which will be six groups of four teams, takes place on the 12th of December and I’ll be analysing that in closer detail when the time comes.

For now, the seedings have been announced and I’d like to do the whole ‘speculation’ thing. Who would I like to see in Northern Ireland’s group? What are the best/ worse case scenarios for the home nations? Is there a potential ‘group of death’ in waiting? Let’s have a look.

Seedings are as follows:

Euro 2016 draw pots, pic 1.

Now even though Belgium are currently ranked top of the Fifa rankings, if I’m being honest they’re probably still the most attractive draw in pot 1 as it pertains to wanting to progress. Stick Northern Ireland against Belgium and I’d be reasonably confident. Belgium have excellent individual players for sure but questions remain over whether they truly ‘gel’ as a team – and I’m not convinced they had an overly challenging qualifying group so their recent results may be slightly deceiving.

Italy are the standout team in pot 2 and most teams in every other pot will be hoping to avoid them. Pot 3 arguably looks even more dangerous with Czech Republic, Sweden and Poland lurking, none of whom will be comfortable draws for anyone. Meanwhile the top seeds will perhaps be looking at Wales and the Republic of Ireland in pot 4 with trepidation, having seen them beat Belgium and world champions Germany in their respective qualifying groups.

I’ve had the feeling for a while that Northern Ireland are going to draw hosts France. There’s no real reason for thinking that aside from some vague superstition, but if we end up with France, Germany or Spain I think we’ll embrace it. The big occasion and memories are the main reasons for being there after all, and those fixtures would certainly leave lasting impressions whatever the result. England and Portugal lie somewhere between those teams and Belgium, in that you know they’re going to present something of a challenge but they’re not quite in the top tier either…

As a Northern Ireland fan, Portugal are probably my least preferred draw in that first pot. With the presence of a special player like Ronaldo you can never quite be confident that you’ll beat them, while at the same time they don’t present the desired ‘marquee’ fixture one would like if you’re not going to progress further. I’m confident we could beat England, but the sickening feeling it would leave if they were to beat us instead makes me wary of saying I’d be comfortable with that draw. Save it for the quarter-finals or something like that and we’ll take them to penalties if needs be.

I’d imagine Wales and Ireland fans would take a similar stance on that first pot. It’s worth pointing out that the ‘bigger’ teams will perhaps consider both of them more of a threat than we are though; to what extent that psychological edge might come into play remains to be seen.

Taking current rankings into account, there are a few possibilities for a ‘group of death’ at this tournament: Germany/ Spain (pot 1), Italy (pot 2), Czech Rep./ Sweden (pot 3), and Wales (pot 4) would be the most potent combination in my eyes.

From England’s point of view, they’ll no doubt be hoping for a decent start to this tournament after the disaster of the last one (having gone out of last year’s World Cup without winning a game). Top priority for them would likely be avoiding Italy – who were in their group in Brazil – as well as the other home nations, all of whom would be strongly motivated to inflict more tournament misery on their frequently overrated neighbours. Best scenario for England would probably look something like this: Austria/ Ukraine (pot 2), Slovakia/ Hungary (pot 3), Albania (pot 4).

Iceland represent something of an unknown quantity in pot 4, as one can’t yet say whether their recent qualifying form will reverberate in France, but I’d imagine they wouldn’t be a comfortable draw for the English – they’d definitely be full throttle in that match, this being their first-ever major tournament. Worst case scenario for England? Italy (2), Czech Rep./ Sweden (3), Ireland/ Wales (4). I’d say they’ll be sweating should that kind of combination come up.

When all’s said and done, the lineup of teams and possibilities for Euro 2016 actually looks quite intriguing. Whatever awaits for Northern Ireland, in the end no one’s really going to complain whoever comes out of the hat. Taking some time to speculate on these possibilities beforehand is all part of the experience; an experience that will take another step further next month. I’ll be back on the 13th of December, a day after the draw takes place, to reflect on the hands that have been dealt and offer my early predictions for the tournament.

Film reviews

Belfast Film Festival: An Overview.

BFF pic 4.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend my first full film festival, in Belfast. It was fun. Armed with my festival pass, I saw upwards of 20 films over the course of ten days, averaging out just over two per day. From a cross dressing father mourning the death of his wife, to a 26 year old schizophrenic celebrating St Patrick’s Day, to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, the 15th Belfast Film Festival, while not among the biggest names on the festival circuit, showcased some of the most unique films I’ll see all year.

The festival provided a fine balance between locally produced independent and short films, UK/ world premieres of some of the most promising national releases this year, and the best of recent world cinema. It was this wide ranging scope and variety of selection, covering more than one taboo subject area in its breadth, with which I was most impressed – especially considering Belfast (and Northern Ireland in general) is a place not exactly heralded for its open-mindedness.

Enough personal input; I’m here to give something of an overview of the films I saw during my time there. Before I begin though, I must admit that even though it may seem I got through quite a lot of films, I didn’t even manage to get through half of them. Partly this is due to other distractions (i.e. family commitments) that caused me to miss a couple of slots I was aiming for, but mostly it is because of those annoying clashes between films that you tend to get at festivals. It pained me to miss the first ever ‘Iranian vampire Western’, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, because it was in the same Monday evening time slot as the premiere of Irish film Patrick’s Day, to cite one example of many unfortunate clashes. But I shan’t complain any further; this is a chance to celebrate an excellent event, rather than regurgitate past regrets – for which there will be much opportunity in future, I’m sure.

Monday 13th April: A Second Chance, directed by Susanne Bier. A stylish, gritty and uncomfortably entertaining Danish film that wasn’t technically a part of the festival itself but deserves a mention nonetheless. Takes a story that could have fallen flat if it hit the wrong notes, and instead makes it realistic and heartbreaking – mostly thanks to Susanne Bier’s direction. A social worker and his wife lose their child in a presumed cot death. Mentally unstable wife refuses to believe her child has died and continues to nurse him as if he’s still alive. Social worker takes the obvious course of action and switches the dead baby with another belonging to a couple of drug addicts, before taking the less obvious action of coming clean to his wife about his actions straight away. Wife seems fine with it, until… the story takes further twists and turns, keeping you guessing right until the end and leaving a mark that won’t be easily forgotten.

Thursday 16th AprilI Am Belfast, Mark Cousins. This was the opening night gala; the world premiere of local film I Am Belfast, by local director Mark Cousins. I have my doubts about it getting a full theatrical run elsewhere for obvious reasons, but for locals and natives this film could be considered a bit of a cultural gem. It is a meditative, contemplative portrait of Belfast: her history and culture, told by people who lived there. All in all, an interesting and unique film, one that admittedly did not resonate fully with me, but I appreciate that it is trying something new and for that it should be praised. Gives some valuable perspective on Belfast as a city, from its early history, through the troubles and up to the modern generation, showing where we stand today.

I Am Belfast could best be described as 'experimental'; with no main story or characters, it centres around a woman claiming to be the city and taking us through her history, touching on the emotions she felt during the journey.
I Am Belfast could best be described as ‘experimental’; with no main story or characters, it centres around a woman claiming to be the city and takes us through her history, touching on the emotions she felt during the journey.

Occasionally threatens to end up on the wrong side of sentimental gushiness, but who can blame it for that? The city of its title has indeed come through some tough times after all and is transitioning to a future in which its only wish is for everyone to stop using its blighted history as their only point of reference. The film hints at this aspect throughout the ‘narrative’ (if one can call it that – it’s more a metaphorical conversation the director has with a woman who represents Belfast). You get the feeling it wants ‘the troubles’ to be seen as just another chapter in history rather than the thing that defines our culture, and it makes sure to focus on other elements before reaching it. In fact this narrative flowed through the other local films in the festival as well – it felt like something of a ‘watershed’ for Northern Irish history and culture; a feeling of having ‘dealt with that now’ and wanting to be seen by those outside in other, more positive ways.

I liked this film – at least until an unnecessary, bordering on farcical final scene that I feel didn’t fit well with what had come before it and pushed the ‘feel good’ sentiment a bit too far. But a unique, memorable experience nonetheless.

Messiah of Evil (1973), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. Vintage 1970s cult horror movie about zombies and questionable acting. Comes across very tongue-in-cheek, but is also surprisingly tense and atmospheric. An entertaining film, definitely worth watching in a ‘half asleep midnight viewing’ kind of way: the hallmark trait of any good B-movie. Also starred Michael Greer, notable for being one of the first openly gay actors to appear in major Hollywood films, and its co-directors went on to make the infamously terrible Howard the Duck (1986) with George Lucas.

Friday 17th April: Listen Up Philip, Alex Ross Perry. Self obsessed writer (Jason Schwartzman) has trouble maintaining relationships with the people closest to him. Thinks he knows better than everyone else. While he evidently has admirable talent, poor people skills and an unwillingness to take advice hurt his career prospects. Soon meets an older, similarly self obsessed but more successful writer who takes him under his wing and the two begin a self-deprecating relationship akin to a distant father reuniting with the son he always wanted; one who admires him because of the bittersweet character traits they share.

Jason Schwartzman adds some charm to another memorable - if not very likeable - role.
Jason Schwartzman adds some charm to another memorable – if not very likeable – role.

This cynical, insightful and humorous film was an early highlight of the festival for me. Admittedly that may be because I saw qualities in its main character that I could identify with, not all of them negative. Besides, positive and negative qualities are all relative anyway. What Listen Up Philip does best is portray the nature of subjectivity, from the point of view of a character turned somewhat tragic by his inevitable flaws – and deep down, he knows it.

The Canal, Ivan Kavanagh. Well made and atmospheric Irish ghost story, if at times a little formulaic. Nonetheless I found this an all-round entertaining movie with some nice moments and an ending I especially liked for its unwillingness to send the audience home comfortable (if you’ve just seen a decent horror movie, you shouldn’t be). A man, along with his wife and young child, moves into a new house that he soon discovers was the place of a murder a century earlier. This coupled with the discovery that said wife is having an illicit affair with one of her work colleagues sends him on a slow spiral to despair, which you’re never entirely sure is due to his own insanity or the ghosts that seemingly inhabit the house. For the most part The Canal lets you make your own mind up, at least until it shows its hand in a thrilling and pleasantly surprising finale.

Saturday 18th April: Carson Country, Dominic Behan. Originally a TV movie, set against the backdrop of Home Rule in 1912. Lord Edward Carson was the leader of Unionist opposition to the Home Rule bill at that time. This short film mixed fact with fiction, theatricality, social observation and a general mashup of other elements to create an experience that I found… disjointed and uninteresting, frankly. Almost sent me to sleep. Not exactly a highlight.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Roy Andersson. A comedy-drama film from Sweden, by a philosophically minded director who I feel could stand alongside Bergman as a respected auteur of Swedish and world cinema. Of all the movies I watched over these ten days, this is the one I keep namedropping to people when they ask. That’s not just because of its long-winded name; I genuinely thought it was an excellent film. Initially it presents a number of scenes that seem barely linked to each other, but later they tie together quite nicely – and at the centre of it all are two travelling salesmen selling novelty items such as face masks with a view to making people happy. They do this while appearing chronically depressed; a juxtaposition that runs through the films narrative in more ways than one as it seeks to say something important about society and, perhaps, the general state of Sweden as a monarchy. I’ll probably revisit this one at some point.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch: more than just a quirky name.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch: more than just a quirky name.

99 Homes, Ramin Bahrani. Starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in more grounded roles than the superhero movies you’ve recently seen them in, this film is an interesting if not spectacular piece. The characters played by the two leads were a little two dimensional for my liking, and there really aren’t any significant surprises to how the story develops. Garfield plays a jobless father whose young family loses their home – before going to work for the corrupt real estate broker who evicted them. Sure, the film presents the morally grey dilemma of how far you’d go to provide for your family, but ultimately I guess I expected too much in wanting an ending that wouldn’t be a sugar-coated message about the value of honesty and owning up to your mistakes. If you’d like a nice spin on that old moral lesson and little else, you’ll love this film more than I did.

Sunday 19th April: The Old Irish Washerwoman, Carleton Rodgers. Sunday 19th was very much a day for Northern Irish independents to shine, and it was a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. The Old Irish Washerwoman is built around the premise of the mythical Banshee, whose wails are said to go unheard by those who are soon to die. That is the most interesting thing about the film – in particular an impressively atmospheric sequence where one of the two leads encounters the banshee in the middle of a lake – but overall it gets muddled in a frankly boring plot about friendship between the two young men around whom the story focuses. Furthermore I had problems with its casting choices, but hey, it wasn’t bad – for an amateur independent film at least.

We Are The Gifted, Diane Jessie Miller. Originally this was a series of five minute online shorts, and it was initially aggravating to sit through the stop-start nature of watching all six in one go. But let that not detract from these little gems, each of which are smartly written and stylishly made, with clever references to other films and cultural curiosities, complete with a signature Northern Irish sense of humour. Basically, a group of teenagers from Portadown receive special abilities, becoming ‘the gifted’, and are tasked with saving the world. Not very original, but entertaining while it lasts.

Lost Claws, Michael McNulty. Former detective turned alcoholic after his partner was killed teams up with a little girl who ‘hires’ him to find her cat. Has some quirky visual effects that accompany a creative script and (for the most part) fine performances to make probably the most accomplished of the low budget indie films on show at the festival.

Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas. Kristen Stewart continues to regain some respectability to her acting career with an excellent performance as assistant to Juliette Binoche’s character. The latter plays an actress with traditional, almost snobbish views on her profession, who becomes upset by another up and coming actress playing a role she once made famous. This was probably in my top 3 films of the festival overall; it is an entertaining satire about celebrity culture and the state of modern Hollywood. While this subject has been tackled recently in similar ways – as in Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014) – I felt this film provided a different prospective; itself almost the more conservative, traditional piece to Cronenberg’s edgier, damning critique.

Could Kristen Stewart be developing into one of Hollywood's most promising actresses? This film would suggest so.
Could Kristen Stewart be developing into one of Hollywood’s most promising actresses? This film would suggest so.

Also features a couple of nice tongue-in-cheek references to Kristen Stewart’s own Hollywood-dominated career so far; particularly in one scene where she is arguing for the merits of a recently released fantasy blockbuster with Binoche’s character, who thinks such ‘nonsense’ is artistically inept and lacks any substance. Clouds of Sils Maria presents a balanced argument for both sides, but Binoche to the end shows the typical snobbish stubbornness that tends to cloud the views of the older generation – I think highlighting this was probably, at least in part, the film’s overarching point.

Monday 20th April: Patrick’s Day, Terry McMahon. Definitely one of my favourites of the festival, if not the year so far. I’ve touched on the film’s themes already; its portrayal of mental illness and those who deal with it as carers/ relatives is authentic, gritty and appropriately uncomfortable at times. 26 year old Patrick is loved and cared for by a mother who always has his best interests at heart – but this soon proves problematic when Patrick falls in love. Said mother, concerned that Patrick’s illness (schizophrenia) renders him incapable of becoming independent and forming other lasting relationships, goes to great lengths in trying to sabotage the potential romance ‘for his own good’. Is she right? Can we really hold it against her if she’s not? The film does not try to answer these questions for us, nor take sides in the carer/ cared for divide. Rather, it understands the struggles and difficulties facing both, holding nothing back in presenting a realistic and unbiased portrayal. Certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen at tackling an often misunderstood and sugar-coated issue.

Bugarach. A documentary about the tiny village of Bugarach in the south of France, which curiously became the subject of media attention in 2012 when rumours began circulating that it would be the only place spared in the impending apocalypse foretold in the infamous Mayan doomsday prophecy. The story is more interesting than the film itself, which I sat through not really knowing what was going on the entire time. Some funny moments, some weird moments, but not a satisfying whole.

Tuesday 21st April: Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s directing debut. Might soon be coming to a cinema near you, and it is certainly one worth seeing. Not just because of the reputation of its American director: Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. His debut is a compelling political drama about a journalist who is captured in his native country, Iran, while reporting on riots there. He is suspected of being an American spy while held in solitary confinement and, subjected to what his captors consider a modern form of interrogation (psychological, without the need for physical violence), he is faced with an authoritarian force that confronts and questions the value of free speech. I loved parts of it, as did the rest of the audience in the screening. Clever moments of humour are mixed in with the serious theme; all in all, an impressive, if slightly audience-pleasing debut.

A Kind of Sisterhood, Michele Devlin and Claire Hackett. Northern Irish documentary about female political prisoners during the time of the troubles between 1970s-90s. Very insightful, and if it comes across a little one-sided, that’s only because it’s trying to readdress the balance of opinion on what has been a much overlooked area. However, the film was unfinished, as its directors admitted during their speech (this was, as with most of the other locally made projects, a premiere) and therefore has some issues that made it less watchable than it could have been.

Wednesday 22nd April: Spirit of ’58, Evan Marshall. Documentary focusing on Northern Ireland’s “forgotten” 1958 football squad, which famously reached the quarter-finals of their first-ever World Cup competition in Sweden that year. A great little piece of history, but there were a few questionable absences, most notably midfielder Bertie Peacock, for which there was little explanation given aside from time and money restraints.

A story almost lost in time: Northern Ireland's 1958 World Cup quarter-finalists.
A story almost lost in time: Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup quarter-finalists.

Those limitations clearly cost the film in other areas too – they apparently still have debts to pay off and there is no general release scheduled for the documentary outside of whatever film festivals are willing to have them. That in itself is almost worth marking the film down for, because if ever there was a piece suitable for BBC television, especially considering the national team’s current performances, this would be it.

The New Girlfriend, Francois Ozon. The new film from one of my favourite French directors gave its audience much more than they would have seen coming beforehand – which of course can only be a good thing. A grieving husband deals with his wife’s death by falling back into old habits; those old habits being a tendency to dress as a woman. The film is about challenging taboos related to identity and not being ashamed of who you are; a truism that extends beyond the aforementioned husband to include his deceased wife’s best friend as well. This is a fantastic, thought-provoking movie that one certainly has to see for themselves no matter what preconceptions they may take into it.

Starry Eyes, Sergei Loznitsa. Deliriously entertaining and ultimately shocking critique of the ‘Hollywood dream’ from the perspective of a struggling young actress/ waitress yearning for her big break and willing to do anything to get it. But just how far will she go to realise her ambitions? This film starts off as one thing and ends as another, and though I would not like to spoil one bit of it, I think the best way to describe it is this: think a cross between Audition (1999) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If you’ve seen either of those, or even both, you may be able to brace yourself for what this film has in store…

Thursday 23rd AprilThe Beekeeper, Mano Kahlil. Swiss documentary about a beekeeper forced to leave Turkey and move to Switzerland due to the conflict in his native country. But in Switzerland, beekeeping is not considered a form of appropriate employment and he is required to get a ‘proper’ job – out of which emerges one of the film’s main subplots; him trying to prove he is already 65 (and therefore of retirement age) instead of the 60 years old on his birth certificate. The reason for that is; his parents wanted him to have children before he was sent to war, therefore they said he was five years younger than he actually was, which was apparently common among Turkish families at that time.

Thought you knew all about beekeeping? Think again...
Thought you knew all about beekeeping? Think again…

I had a couple of issues with the film, namely that, at times, it doesn’t really feel like a documentary at all and seems overly orchestrated in places. Some parts also seem unnecessary. Why, for example, do we need to see the man sleeping in his bedroom during the night? But this is essentially nitpicking what is actually an educational film as it pertains to its central subject: bees, and the nature of beekeeping. This, in the end, is compared to the human family unit, as the beekeeper expresses regret towards the end that he wasn’t able to organise his family as well as the bees can manage theirs. In that there is an undeniable admiration for these beautiful, yet often misrepresented and feared little creatures. A curious documentary for sure, though one that some will find invaluably interesting.

Magical Girl, Carlos Vermut. Contender for best film of the festival, Spanish neo-noir movie Magical Girl features interweaving plot strands about broken marriages, chronic illness, single fatherhood and a retired teacher turned hit-man. While the film deals with significant themes, it does so with a wicked sense of humour that pops up often and unexpectedly, never taking itself too seriously. May initially come across as some kind of Tarantino-esque wannabe, but in reality this movie has its own unmistakable identity and deserves more respect than that comparison gives.

Friday 24th April: Shooting for Socrates, James Erskine. UK premiere of film set amidst troubles-era 1986 Belfast; the backdrop of the 1986 World Cup, in which Northern Ireland went to Mexico and played a Brazil team featuring Brazilian superstar/ celebrity Socrates towards the very end of his career. Hilarious in places; feels like it’s trying too hard in others. A case of over-sentimentality (the ‘World Cup brings both sides together’ theme is referenced frequently and feels a little too ‘in-your-face’), along with over-use of caricatures and stereotyping let down what was otherwise one of the most memorable experiences of the festival.

Shooting for Socrates certainly isn't without its flaws, but was an audience-pleasing and satisfying premiere.
Shooting for Socrates certainly isn’t without its flaws, but was an audience-pleasing and satisfying premiere.

That’s it then, aside from the films I missed due to clashes or unforeseen circumstances. This included the closing night premiere of The Survivalist on Saturday 25th April, another highly rated Northern Irish production that I plan on viewing as soon as the opportunity next presents itself. I also missed a screening of Timbuktu, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards; Japanese ‘rap musical’ Tokyo Tribe; the aforementioned A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; and screenings of classic movies If… (1968) in the Great Hall of Queens University and Eraserhead (1977) accompanied by a live orchestral score. All of which I’m sure were worth viewing and I wish it had been possible to see every one of them. Alas, my experience at this film festival was positive enough to ensure it won’t be my last… Cannes, here I come (in the near future).


World Cup, phase 2.

We’ve all endured two long, hard weeks (for some) of World Cup football by now and, as promised, it’s time for me to give you my thoughts on the knockout stage of the competition.

Now, we’ve seen a few shocks so far – albeit not quite the main one I was expecting (that being Germany going out at the group stage, but Spain and England more than made up for that in their own unique ways) – and I’m speculating that will continue from here on. I think on reflection people will look back at this World Cup and wonder why they marveled at such entertainment when the only reason it has been so entertaining is because even the better teams seem to have forgotten how to defend. Spain conceding five in their opening match really set the tone, but I think the signs were there from the moment a shaky Brazil side kicked off the tournament – and then proceeded to help kick Croatia out of the tournament with help from an amateur referee.

Personal grievances aside, I too have enjoyed seeing a fair few of my opening predictions go up in smoke, and for that reason I’m not going to go into too much detail on this part of my 2014 World Cup overview. Rest assured I have put a decent amount of thought into these score predictions; I’m just not motivated enough to divulge the reasons why for all of them. Of course if I turn out to be right about everything, I’ll soon change my mind and talk about how I got my method so watertight for the next year or two. But it’s probably more likely that I’ll just give up trying to second guess this game altogether.

Round of 16

Brazil (1) v. (2) Chile

Colombia (3) v. (0) Uruguay

Netherlands (1) v. (0) Mexico

Costa Rica (1) v. (1) GreeceGreece to win on penalties

France (2) v. (0) Nigeria

Germany (0) v. (1) Algeria

Argentina (2) v. (1) Switzerland

Belgium (3) v. (1) USA

Brazil and Germany join some of the other big nations in crashing out relatively early; Brazil to (I believe) an all-round better team and the Germans to an Algeria side that will be out for the extra spice of revenge for that incident from 1982 which only the older among us will remember. I also get the feeling that Greece will sneak past Costa Rica thanks to the organisation that got them here in the first place. I did warn all of you that they were an underrated team heading into this tournament, and they’ll be buoyed by squeezing out of a group they really were given no chance of escaping from.


Chile (3) v. (2) Colombia

France (3) v. (1) Algeria

Netherlands (2) v. (0) Greece

Argentina (2) v. (1) Belgium

I’m afraid by the time we get to the quarter-finals I can see some of those smaller nations tailing off as they realize how well they have done at this World Cup. Chile and Colombia, should they both get here, could be the match of the round, while Algeria also have significant political history with France which would make their match very interesting.


Chile (1) v. (1) France – Chile to win on penalties

Netherlands (2) v. (3) Argentina

This is where we get to the real business end. As much as I’d love to see the Netherlands go all the way again – and actually complete the journey this time – their tournament trajectory looks set to take them into a clash with Argentina, for whom Messi has been showing signs of resurgence. It should be an entertaining semi-final if we see it, but with this match taking place in Brazil as well, I think Argentina will do anything they can to make it through. Chile and France meanwhile would be a typical match between two sides who probably didn’t expect to get this far and would be uncharacteristically conservative. I think that would suit Chile and help to give us a very interesting final…


Chile (1) v. (2) ArgentinaArgentina win the World Cup.

Probably no real surprise in the end, but the route I take to get to Argentina as my winners will, I expect, surprise some people. My predictions never fail to do that. Unfortunately, they frequently fail in other ways. Only time will tell if I have worked some weird voodoo on this occasion.


The 2014 Fifa World Cup.

With a little under two hours to go until Brazil kick off against Croatia in the first match of this generation’s Brazilian World Cup, I figure it’s a good time to polish off my thoughts on the upcoming tournament. Let’s briefly look at each group and I’ll name the teams I think are going through to the next round. Maybe I’ll even tell you why.

Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico.

Why? Host nation Brazil shouldn’t have any problems with their group and come through as winners; perhaps not a vintage side, but they strike me as being able to get the job done. Mexico looked a mess in qualifying and I’ve seen nothing since to convince me they’ll be anything like the Mexican sides that are usually so good at getting out of the group. That leaves Croatia and Cameroon. While the Croats have a better team, I just get this feeling with Cameroon that they’ll feed off the passion and atmosphere of being in the opening group with the hosts. They also have one or two older stars that know this is their last chance to make an impact; I fancy the Africans to qualify for the next round, and they may be the only side from that continent to do so.

Group B: Chile, Spain, Netherlands, Australia.

Why? Chile couldn’t have asked for a better opening match to get off to a positive start, against the lowest ranked side at the tournament. A win against Australia will give this Chile team confidence, and with that they can cause the European heavyweights more than a few problems. A lot could rest on the match between the Dutch and Chile when they face each other in their final group game. I’ll back Chile to claim a shock and snatch the group overall, with Spain going through in second to set up a rather mouth-watering second round meeting…

Group C: Colombia, Japan, Greece, Ivory Coast.

Why? Look out for Japan, who have been playing nice football and will take one or two by surprise. They boast an even better side than the one that qualified for the second round in 2010. Colombia shouldn’t have any real problems in the group. Once again, the Ivory Coast come overhyped and I’m personally not expecting much from them. Greece on the other hand may be underrated, but I still wouldn’t be brave enough to say they’ll get out of this one.

Group D: England, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica.

Why? Uruguay’s recent overachievements have troubled people into thinking this group is harder than it is – I’d be shocked if Suarez emulates his Premier League form here, considering it’s been a long season and we’re now in a completely different climate. Just think that England could have been drawn with Spain, Brazil or Argentina; I think they got off relatively easily. Italy and England are my favourites to go through. Believe it or not I can see England’s balance of youth and experience being (whisper it) a breath of fresh air.

Group E: France, Ecuador, Honduras, Switzerland.

Why? France are another team for whom the draw could have been much worse. I expect their pattern of success (1998 winners), failure (2002 group stage exit), success (2006 final) and failure (2010 group stage mess) to continue, with a run to the semi-finals on the cards. Second spot is very much up for grabs; Swiss are favourites but I don’t really fancy them. Ecuador could surprise everyone who has been saying they can’t play away from home. Their draw against England tells me they’ve taken that into account and will have been training appropriately. They have a real chance of getting out of this group.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Nigeria, Iran.

Why? Argentina should have little problems winning the group comfortably, but who to follow them… Cases could be made for all three; Bosnia will be up for it as it’s their first World Cup and I expect them to be as passionate as anyone, whereas Iran and Nigeria may be better suited to the climate. Ultimately however, getting Argentina out of the way in their first match may suit Bosnia and I think they will go through as runners-up to face old rivals France in the next round.

Group G: Portugal, USA, Germany, Ghana.

Why? Germany who? For certain on paper Germany should have no problems here. But I look at this group, I see a Ronaldo who looks more determined than ever, I see a former German star in charge of one of their group rivals, and I get the feeling this is not one that will be decided on paper. As a team Portugal may not look that great, but I really can see them putting in a fantastic one-off performance and shocking the Germans in their opening match. Need I mention the climate as well? Shrewd management will also benefit the United States. And as for Ghana, they may just be victims of an unfavourable draw this time around.

No really, Germany who?

Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria.

Why? All games in this group will take place in the south of Brazil, which is supposedly a colder climate and will therefore benefit Belgium and Russia most, and Algeria least. Belgium should get a good start and top the group, playing some attractive football in the process. With Fabio Capello in charge, I would also expect Russia to get past South Korea and Algeria to finish in the runners-up spot. Should they do so, they would have another southern match in the next round (the Group G winners, on the other hand, must jump from a warmer climate to a colder one, with a lot of travel thrown in to boot). This could give them a valuable advantage – and I would have Russia down as possible quarter-finalists.

So that’s that for now. What, you were expecting me to name my overall winner? Well, I agree with most people in thinking that Brazil and Argentina are the two favourites. Argentina have (arguably) the easier side of the draw, and I feel perhaps Messi has been saving some part of himself this season in preparation for the tournament. But it’s nigh on impossible to make any picks for the knockout stages quite yet. Once the groups are over, I plan to do another short post on part 2, and I’ll show my final hand then.