To Jim Sheridan, the Oscar-nominated drama “Hotel Rwanda,” directed by his friend and frequent collaborator Terry George, is essentially an Irish story. The setting is, of course, in a different continent and the skin color not quite so pasty white, but the premise and tragic events depicted are straight out of an Irish history book.
“It’s the same story: It’s a civil war which has been left behind by an oppressive colonial government,” Sheridan says. And the theme of violent, internal strife, he adds, is irresistible to Irish filmmakers, because they can intimately relate: “We are caught in that (mentality) of being part of that colonial structure and understanding how that works in the rest of the world.”
Belfast-born George, who joins Sheridan as a recipient of the U.S.-Ireland Alliance’s Oscar Wilde honor this year, understands persecution first-hand, having been imprisoned twice as a teenager living in Northern Ireland.
Sheridan says George, like most Irish directors with streetwise, working-class upbringings, is drawn to capturing political and personal struggles on film: “I just think we can’t help it. Traumatic experiences produce art.”
Trauma-themed political dramas do comprise the bulk of George’s filmography, from his early screenwriting efforts “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer” (both of which Sheridan directed) to his 1996 directorial debut “Some Mother’s Son” (which Sheridan produced), following the fictionalized mothers (played by Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan) of two 1981 IRA hunger strikers. And then there’s “Rwanda,” his chronicle of African genocide.
“Rwanda” proves George can tell important, emotional stories that aren’t set in Ireland, Sheridan says, comparing George to Van Morrison, also an Oscar Wilde Awards honoree this year: “I suppose you’d define Van Morrison as an Irish singer quintessentially, but he’s also coming out of a Ray Charles tradition, a kind of rhythm and blues. He’s more like American Irish.
“I think me and Terry are like that as well,” Sheridan says. “We both went to America and lived there for a long time before we made movies, so we kind of understood the American sensibility before making movies.”
Sheridan points out that George’s next film, “Reservation Road” — starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo and Mira Sorvino — is just as grave as his previous dramas, but with an American focus. An adaptation of John Burnham Schwartz’s harrowing bestseller, the pic follows the post-traumatic lives of two New England fathers after one kills the other’s son in a hit-and-run accident. “It’s a serious subject matter again, but it’s not Irish,” Sheridan says. “He can’t always be expected to do the Irish thing.”
Regardless of whether or not their films take place on the Emerald Isle, Sheridan admits he and his fellow Irish directors George and Neil Jordan aren’t headed down the Hollywood path of romantic comedies and lightweight blockbusters any time soon. “We don’t really have a history of being fluffy filmmakers,” he says. “It’s not in us, I suppose.”