The award-winning Belfast-based Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People will return to New York this week to deliver another action packed program of film screenings, workshops and special events. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Joan Burney Keatings, the woman behind the growing Irish invasion, who tells us what to expect.

Are you ready to hear one of the best arts stories out of Ireland (north and south) in years? Well, look no further than Cinemagic, the award-winning Belfast based international film festival and charity for young people, which returns to New York this February 10-12.

The powerhouse behind the organization is Cinemagic chief executive Joan Burney Keatings. She has helmed the ever-expanding Irish film festival for the last 10 years and helped it grow from a Belfast concern to an international event.

Through her commitment to the young Irish people the festival was first created for, Burney Keatings has now managed to lasso the support of major international film stars like Liam Neeson and young participants from around the world.

Cinemagic itself started right in the middle of The Troubles in the North 20 years ago when a group of Belfast-based journalists got together and decided a new film festival would be an amazing platform to bring young people together, cross community, to watch and review films.

That was how it originally started in 1991. But when Burney Keatings came on board in 2001 she focused on giving the festival a much broader international dimension to the already successful Belfast Film Festival.

“What attracted me to the Cinemagic was that that it had strong aims and values that would educate young people here,” Burney Keatings tells the Irish Voice.

“So I got involved 10 years ago and I introduced a big international element to the festival. In my second year I was fortunate to secure Jim Henson’s Sesame Street organization to come over to Belfast from New York. They sent 17 Muppets from New York to Belfast. Can you imagine? It was huge for us. It was great to get that international recognition early on.”

That early exposure opened other doors which help the Irish festival flourish. This year Cinemagic USA will take place from February 10-26, touring New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It will be presented in association with Titanic Belfast, the new $150 million visitor attraction opening in April 2012 on the site where the Titanic was built in Belfast.

On this side of the pond Cinemagic (and its young participants flying over from Ireland) will be working in partnership with a number of top notch film and television organizations in New York, including the producers behind Sesame Street, the Tribeca Film Institute, the Ghetto Film School and Sony, to offer them the opportunity to attend educational screenings, master classes and workshops with seasoned industry professionals.

Think about it. If you’ve just come off a housing estate in north Dublin or north Belfast, just the opportunity to rub shoulders with Hollywood elite is a bit of a miracle. But it’s not like Cinemagic doesn’t have banner name supporters.

“After the Sesame Street company came on board we started getting the support of fantastic industry professionals like the X-Factor’s Dermot O’Leary (a presenter on the Simon Cowell-produced U.K. show, coming to the U.S. this fall) who has enthusiastically supported the organization for the past 10 years,” Burney Keatings adds.

All the growing attention and success just made her bolder. “Three years ago I decided to open Cinemagic in Dublin too because I noticed we were getting so many young people from southern Ireland coming to Belfast and there seemed to be a huge gap for it,” says Burney Keatings.

“It has grown and grown ever since. After that we also expanded into the U.K. via Manchester, Glasgow and Nottingham.”

For the 20th anniversary of the organization Burney Keatings decided the time was ripe to do something really special. “Last year I headed off to the U.S. to see if there were organizations here we could partner with. Was this a crazy idea, I wondered, or was it something we could do?”

It’s her spirited can-do attitude that wins people over. The difference between Cinemagic and any other children’s film festival, she says, is that her organization offers so many high level professional workshops. “We have a jury and international film programs that show there is a gap between us and our competitors,” she offers.

Last year Cinemagic helmed events in New York and Los Angeles that surpassed their own expectations. In the process they developed close links with film schools for young people in New York, and within months they flew those students to Belfast to make a short film that will be screened this week in New York.

“It’s all about breaking down barriers,” says Burney Keatings. “To get someone like Liam Neeson to greet the young people and say, ‘I’m from Ballymena, this is my story,’ is just so empowering to the kids. Or to get someone like screen writing Oscar winner Julian Fellows to come here helps to educate, motivate and inspire young people is the reason why we do this.”

Not every child who attends the film festival or the classes is going to leave wanting to write, direct or act, she says. But they will leave with more confidence, or with interpersonal and team building skills.
“And if nothing else a bit of cultural awareness of the people who live on the other side of the street,” Burney Keating adds.

Highlights of the Cinemagic New York Festival will include “Changing the World Through Sesame Street,” a chance for young people to meet the producers of the show, enjoy clips and find out what it takes to create it. The festival will also host an industry master class for aspiring filmmakers in partnership with Ghetto Film School, and a screening of the Northern Ireland-made, award-winning film Mickybo & Me, directed by Terry Loane.

Other New York highlights will include a film jury session where young people will critically review short films from Ireland, and a chance for young people to make their own animations, create flip books and record their voices over dialogue from a famous film, at the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as an opportunity for young people to participate in a musical-based drama workshop. It’s fun stuff.

In New York the distinguished Irish screenwriter and director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) has also agreed to do meet with some of Cinemagic’s students in Times Square. It’s the best possible introduction to the Irish working in film on both sides of the Atlantic.

“All the films we’re screening this week have been shot in Ireland,” explains Burney Keatings. “We didn’t think there was any point in going to America and showing American kids American movies. We’ll show them films that were shot in Belfast like Mickybo & Me and shows like Sesame Tree, which is Northern Ireland’s version of Sesame Street -- all the familiar puppets have Northern Ireland accents – imagine that!

“We want young people to come and get involved and give Cinemagic their support. It’s cross community and cross continent and its mission is to give young people opportunities. That’s why we want backers to get behind it here in the U.S. too. The more young people get involved is how I measure its success.”

Visit for more information on the Cinemagic New York events.


Niall Wright and John Joe McNeill star in the Irish film Mickybo & Me, which will screen at the Cinemagic festival in New York this week.