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Friday 15 February 2019

You must have courage to see truth - adopted Irishman Viko Nikci is ab out to make his feature film debut

...with a little help from a famous friend

Viko Nikci Director of 'Cellar Door' with director and producer Jim Sheridan
Viko Nikci Director of 'Cellar Door' with director and producer Jim Sheridan

Hilary A White

Two film buffs hunch beside one another on a sofa in the Westbury Hotel. A gentle but pronounced debate is taking place about whether Christian Bale can step up to the acting throne inhabited by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Both men understand actors, seeing as they spend chunks of time bossing them about movie sets. Only one, however, understands Anamoe's recently-retired Oscar magnet.

"He'd be so perfect for a drama I want to make about Lockerbie," squints Jim Sheridan when asked about coaxing Day-Lewis out of hiatus.

"But it wasn't so much a decision as a statement. You can get someone to reverse a decision but to reverse a statement is hard. I wouldn't put pressure on him if he didn't want to do it. He'd come and tell me again if he ever wanted to do something."

Viko Nikci smiles at the thought, and, you suspect, the general situation he finds himself in this January evening. His feature debut Cellar Door, a slippery psychological thriller, is garnering positive feedback ahead of release. What's more, it's being championed by one of the most prominent filmmakers in his adopted homeland. The pair have known each other for a long time. Not only is Nikci married to Sheridan's niece Doireann (daughter of playwright Peter Sheridan), but he was involved in the Factory, the film hub established by Kirsten Sheridan (Jim's daughter), Lance Daly and John Carney.

Sheridan looks at Nikci as he recalls the formation of a lasting friendship, bonding over a shared love of the cinematic medium before Sheridan saw something in Nikci as a filmmaking talent following his debut 2004 short Take It Back. Eager to help his young friend get a foothold in the film industry, Sheridan got the film to the likes of Bono and Samson films producer David Collins, the latter eventually taking on production duties on Cellar Door.

"It was a brilliant short," says Sheridan, a man not known for gushing hyperbole. "I finally saw Cellar Door and thought it was really good - visionary, revelatory, unusual, but you can't really discuss it because you give the plot away."

What we can say is it tells of a young woman (played by Belfast actress Karen Hassan) caught between realities as she tries to find her son following incarceration in a mother and baby home. Depicting the horrors of church persecution without sermonising is tricky, both agree, but there are ways to strike a balance between entertaining and respecting the history, Nikci explains.

"When the story broke from Tuam, I wanted to do something about it. But it's hard to take a direct approach and find a unique perspective. I am an outsider, here. I'm originally from Kosovo and grew up in New York, but I have been here for 20 years so I've seen the country change and grapple with these heartbreaking stories. I had the character formed already but when I placed her in that backdrop, I got a new perspective on the issue."

Sheridan's illustrious back catalogue also includes films that have had a core injustice as their narrative motor, most famously 1993's In The Name of the Father. Despite forays into the US (In America, Get Rich or Die Tryin'), the 69-year-old is ever fascinated by tales on his doorstep.

He tells a story from his childhood growing up in Sheriff Street, where his mother Anna ran a lodgings that found itself putting up young men who had been abused by church institutions. When one, Michael Clemenger, went on to write a 2009 memoir about what he endured and witnessed (Holy Terrors sold modestly in Ireland but, interestingly, was a bestseller in the UK where it was published under the title Everybody Knew), it revealed that Anna had put him through third level education out of her own pocket, something Sheridan had never known.

"Reading that was maybe the only time I've cried in the last 10 years," he says, his eyes visibly moistening. "You see your parents being like that and somewhere deep down it affects you. Michael wanted me to make a movie of it but I didn't really know how you'd do it. It's so heavy, no one would go see it, so you have to find some other way like Viko has. We saw the abuse as kids. I don't know if I'd have even told my parents. And I was probably in a privileged position in that my parents had standing in the community with the church."

He hopes to begin work this year on a long-standing screenplay entitled Sheriff Street based on his childhood which he says various actors have shown interest in over the years, including the late Heath Ledger. Work also continues with Ian Bailey on a project about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. "That's going to get very rough, very soon. He's going to be tried in May, and if he's found guilty then it's going to be very interesting as to whether Irish law or European law prevails."

The landscape has changed, though, and established filmmakers can now struggle to get anything made for more than a couple of million dollars, especially drama which is being consigned more and more to the small screen. "I was once offered $12m (€10.5m) to make Sheriff Street and I didn't take it," Sheridan admits. "Now, I doubt if I could get five."

For Sheridan's young protege, writing has commenced on a project that will span the region of his origin and that of his new home, telling the remarkable true story of how one man walked out of the siege of Sarajevo determined to get to the final of the 1993 Eurovision in Millstreet, Cork, while supporters back home scrambled to establish a signal through the bombing to cast an official vote for Bosnia and Herzegovina. "When that war ended in Bosnia, it came to my city, Kosovo. It was a really bitter war, they hated each other. But this is a feelgood story, it's music more than war."

"Bono got them a lot of equipment," Sheridan comes in, "satellite equipment, hardware, which enabled Sarajevo to meet the technical requirements to enter Eurovision."

The conversation returns to this theme of entertaining stories about serious matters. Sheridan concludes that the main trait of any artist is to have the courage to see the truth.

"Movies are surreal things, they're hard to explain," he winces. "It's like the Magdalene laundries - everybody knew something was wrong but nobody could quite put their finger on it or quite remember having seen it. It's there in front of you, but unless you have courage you won't see it."

'Cellar Door' is in selected cinemas from Friday.

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