John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence

When one thinks of a Britannia Award recipient, the image of a politically conscious Irishman isn’t usually the first to come to mind. That’s why writer-director Jim Sheridan was pleasantly surprised to discover he’d become the 2004 recipient of BAFTA/LA’s John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence.

“I was delighted,” Sheridan says. “BAFTA/LA is a really good organization. But no, I didn’t think I’d be out here in Los Angeles getting a BAFTA award.”

The award means a lot for Sheridan, who holds great respect for Schlesinger. “I’d known Schlesinger when he worked in Ireland on a few things and he was very complimentary,” Sheridan says. “He loved ‘My Left Foot’ and ‘In the Name of the Father.’ His work is amazing. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was such a brave, breakthrough film. And it was unusual for an English director to make something so quintessentially American. He’s an inspiration to me.”

The Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence was named for Schlesinger upon his death in 2003 and given first to Peter Weir at last year’s ceremony.

“Jim was just coming off a terrific film, ‘In America,’ but that same great vision can be seen in all of his past films,” says BAFTA/LA executive director Donald Haber. “They weren’t just entertaining films, they were films that took a position and handled it with great artistry. That’s the way John Schlesinger made films, and we felt that’s how Jim Sheridan also makes films.”

Sheridan, who began directing in his early 40s, has made personal films that are Irish-centric and always imbued with some sort of political or socially conscious tone. Among the six-time Oscar nominees films are “My Left Foot,” the politically charged “In the Name of the Father,” “The Boxer,” and last year’s semi-autobiographical “In America.”

Yet, Sheridan’s politics ultimately posed no problem for BAFTA/LA.

“There’s no political litmus test involved here,” Haber says. “That never came up. We focused on the excellence of his work. We’re not a political organization, and the fact that some of Jim’s films are not blindly pro-British was not an issue.”

The success of Sheridan’s work stems from his keen ability to cut through politics and give his stories a more personal perspective, which ultimately elevates the political issues to a broader level of appeal.

“I think every film is a vision and every vision partakes of politics and spirituality,” Sheridan says. “Every time you make a case verbally or artistically it’s like lancing the boil of violence, which is a mute expression of anger. To allow someone to express the anger that underlined that attitude was very important and had a big effect in Northern Ireland. It gave voice to an anger that had only been expressed with violence. And it performed the function of bringing something else into the open, some kind of sickness of the heart of society, which then became evident. I feel when people don’t attempt to express themselves they resort to violence.”

As a sign of objectivity in his work, Sheridan has managed to equally offend both sides of the political spectrum over the years.

“I got a lot of stink in Ireland for ‘The Boxer’ from the Republican movement,” Sheridan says. “They wanted the film to be more anti-British. They hated ‘The Boxer’ because it said the militant guys had to be stopped and that you had to engage in dialogue. In many ways it was more radical politically than ‘In the Name of the Father,’ which had a much easier target of political injustice.”

Politics aside, the future remains bright for Sheridan as he continues to expand artistically with a project involving American rapper 50 Cent, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” and eventually returning to his roots for a tale based on his own childhood in Ireland.

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