Hamid Moslehi

If it hadn’t been for Geraldine Gilliland, owner of Finn McCool’s and Lula Cocina on Main Street, I might never have heard of Cinemagic. Which is strange because Cinemagic has been around for nearly three decades, has served half a million young people since its inception and is now a worldwide force.

A Gala for the Belfast, Ireland-based charity has taken place annually at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and this one was a biggie: what started as a lunch with 15 people seven years ago, this year turned into a record 750 RSVPs seeking to attend the event held on Feb. 16.

So, what is Cinemagic? During a Feb. 11 fundraiser for Cinemagic at Rancho Chiquita (Gilliland’s spectacular home, beagle rescue sanctuary and event space high in the hills above Malibu), peacemaker and memoirist Tony Macaulay read from one of his books, “Paper Boy,” about life as a paper delivery boy in Ireland during “The Troubles.”

This quaint, understated phrase was used to describe the decades-long, devastating, violent, political and religious divisions between Protestants and Catholics, England and Ireland, especially as manifested in Belfast. Here was Macaulay, raised in the city as a Protestant, doing a reading at the home of Gilliland, a Catholic educated by nuns in the same city where they never would have encountered one another, connecting in ways they could never have imagined as young people.

While those divisions now appear to be mostly in the past, Executive Director Joan Burney-Keatings told me that Cinemagic was founded in the midst of “The Troubles” 27 years ago to do just what Gilliland and Macauley were doing: “The objective was to bring youth together from Protestant and Catholic communities, through the medium of film and TV, to learn from each other and break down barriers.” The organization believes that film provides inclusive and accessible ways to promote learning, motivation, skills development and cross community engagement especially among those from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds.

Locally, nationally and internationally, Cinemagic creates youth film festivals and productions, master classes and workshops, educational and outreach efforts, in Ireland, Los Angeles, London, New York, Boston and France, giving participants the chance to discover the many creative and employment opportunities available in the entertainment industry while engaging in hands-on learning.

Cinemagic produced the first-ever family Christmas film made in Ireland, “A Christmas Star” for its 25th anniversary in 2015, and more than 5,000 young people auditioned to be in it alongside stars Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan. Forty young crew members working on the film received training and mentorship from industry professionals. The movie premiered in Belfast, Los Angeles, London and New York in late 2015 and has been picked up for worldwide distribution.

So what were these Cinemagic beneficiaries doing in Los Angeles? They received insider access that anyone desiring entrée into the entertainment industry would give their eye-teeth for.

Three local high schools — Hamilton in mid-city, Jordan in Watts and New Roads here in Santa Monica — participated alongside the Irish youth and they made a music video together. Along with students from 14 Irish schools, they toured the Mattel Design Center and Aero Films, met with the makers of “The Simpsons” at Fox and “Game of Thrones” at HBO, they visited Warner Brother studios and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, were treated to an exclusive screening of “Hidden Figures,” spent an hour-long question-and-answer session with actor Edward James Olmos, engaged in theatre arts, producing, acting and musical workshops and performed on stage at the Gala.

Some had never stood on a stage or even sung before; now the song they recorded and performed will be part of a new Cinemagic film, “Goliath and Grace” starting production in Ireland this June — the participants will even receive screen credits.

I spoke with Camille Sosa, who teaches Physical Education and Leadership at Jordan High School; she said some of her students had never been outside of Watts and several were seeing Santa Monica for the first time. Jordan is part of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which “provides connections to outside resources and opportunities not available through LAUSD,” Ms. Sosa told me.

About a year or so ago Cinemagic reached out to the Partnership to investigate building a performing arts program here; when they came to preview “A Christmas Star” for LA schools including Jordan, Ms. Sosa says, “The students really loved it, so I asked Joan (Burney-Keatings) how we could start building a partnership with Cinemagic.” Now her students were enjoying the perks and work involved with this year’s Cinemagic’s LA tour.

Speaking from the stage at the Gala, Ms. Sosa said, “It’s important for young people to step outside their comfort zone, especially during their formative years.” She hopes to continue the connection with Cinemagic to produce a music video or short film at Jordan High School following the model used in Ireland.

Cinemagic’s goals are ambitious; they have already served 40,000 youth and they want to double that number. Ms. Burney-Keatings says that they hope the students participating in this year’s events will “form friendships and create projects of their own making to take what they’ve learned to the next level.”

It’s definitely possible: Michael Lennox, a Cinemagic participant, created a live action short film “Boogaloo and Graham,” about two young Irish boys and the two chickens they raise in Belfast during “The Troubles.” Two years ago, it was nominated for two Oscars and won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award.

More information about Cinemagic can be found at http://www.cinemagic.org.uk .


Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at culturewatch@www.smdp.com.



GALA: The CInemagic Gala at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel

PHOTO CREDIT: Hamid Moslehi