When I first heard that Irish filmmaker, writer and producer Jim Sheridan was going to head the Jury for the Muhr Arab Feature Competition at the 10th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival, I was at a loss for words. Literally. When Festival Chairman Abdulhamid Juma disclosed the wonderful news, he looked to me for a sign of approval, recognition, even enthusiasm. But I was too blown away, and honestly, had difficulty counting in my head all of Sheridan's touching, beautiful films. In retrospect, I must have looked dumbfounded. I dare not think what else.
Usually, when people mention a filmmaker's name, his face will jump up in our minds, his various appearances on red carpets, his causes and loves. It is rare that his or her body of work can speak for itself, as much as it does for Sheridan. From My Left Foot, to In the Name of the Father, from The Boxer, to In America, from Get Rich or Die Tryin' to Brothers, Sheridan's work is at the very least momentous, at most a means to change the world. His presence in Dubai, at the helm of their prestigious Arab film competition will ensure a brand new chapter for cinema in and from that region. His admiration for Dubai and the festival could be felt throughout our phone call.
Which brings me to our interview. I seldom like to speak to distinguished personalities over the phone, because the medium lacks intimacy and the nuances of their characters can get lost within the distance. Yet separated by our mutual gadgets, Sheridan speaking from his home in Dublin, while I sat in a hotel room in Dubai, the filmmaker made me feel like we were two friends, having a leisurely cup of tea together, surrounded by familiarity and united by a common love for cinema -- although Sheridan's knowledge and culture put mine to shame. Yes, Sheridan is that cool and his interview is worth reading again and again, because hidden among his statements lie the keys to his greatness.
You are no stranger to awards yourself and now you'll be heading the Muhr Arab Award jury. What will you be looking for in the movies in Dubai?
Jim Sheridan: I think I'll be looking for humanity, emotion, content and good visual storytelling.
Have you ever been to Dubai before?
JS: I've never been but I'm dying to go and I know it's got the tallest building in the world. There's a property boom gone crazy there, I know that.
What are the kinds of films that you like to watch?
JS: I like to watch Francis Ford Coppola, I like to watch The Godfather, you know that type of a movie, or I like Marty Scorsese and I suppose the weird thing about those two is that they are Italian Catholics but I don't limit myself to that, I love Spielberg. In terms of foreign movies, and I mean non-English speaking, my interest in Arab themes goes all the way back to a movie called Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, by Fassbinder, great movie. You know In the Name of the Father was kind of styled on The Battle of Algiers, and I suppose the first movie that truly awed me was Lawrence of Arabia. I thought it was much more powerful, even though I was a kid, than Dr. NO and Strangelove and it's the kind of thing I like, kind of romantic and political and liberationist. There's actually a great movie on Libya called Lion of the Desert. And I'm very interested in the girl who was the first ever female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia...
Haifaa Al-Mansour, who made the film Wadjda.
JS: Yeah, it's a great movie. I'd love to bring that to Ireland, I'm starting an Arab festival next April.
That's such great news! So you're not only coming as a judge but as a programmer as well?
JS: To find out what we could bring. I didn't start it for political reasons as much as to give an alternative voice. I'm really disturbed when there is only one voice in the world. And I think people need to engage with the Arab culture so that we're not just getting all this streak of bad news, this one percent. It's kind of reaching out a hand.
In your films you explore the theme of 'The Other' and right now, we in the west look at the Arab world as the other, the Arab world looks at us as the other, the unknown. Do you think that cinema can help bridge the cultures?
JS: Nobody has ever said this so I have to be careful how I say it... James Joyce wrote Ulysses and when I was looking for inspiration for a good father in Irish literature I couldn't find any, until I realized Bloom in Ulysses is a good father. And I think the reason he's good is that he's Jewish and outside the system. And he's married to a woman from North Africa, Molly Bloom, that's her inheritance. So you have this story that's 150 years ahead of its time. Joyce was in exile you know, he lived in Trieste so he understood the outsider, the stranger, 'The Other' before Camus, and I like that idea of us getting to know the other.
Do you think films need to be watched on the big screen?
JS: Unfortunately I do. I think it's a communal experience and I tell you why I think that. The collective audience has an intelligence that is different, I won't say smarter but different to the individual watching. I think it's because when you are in the collective you access the "collective unconscious" that Jung talked about and the collective unconscious is very powerful and very, very difficult at the same time. It's very simplifying. I think the collective is very important to maintain a sense of continuity and not just have everybody isolated at a laptop.
So the collective is really what creates a cinema culture?
JS: Yeah, I think so. And you know empathy is a very important aspect of movies. The audience needs to get over the empathetic hurdle. It requires a suspension of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief." When people encounter strange cultures, they want to disbelieve, they want their own belief systems to stop them from accessing the other, you know. I think it's very important for a human to understand his role. We need other voices, we need to set up that sense of a marketplace, spices from here, and the gold from there and the myrrh from somewhere else.
You get a complete view of the world that way...
JS: Yes. And that's what I think needs to be done.
My wildcard question, how would you describe yourself in three words?
JS: In three words? (long pause) I suppose, 'small but strong'.
Top image courtesy of the Dubai International Film Festival, used with permission