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Five Minutes of Heaven: Q&A with Director Oliver Hirschbiegel

Five Minutes of Heaven

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Oliver HirschbiegelInspired by a true incident that occurred in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, while placing the real-life participants in a fictitious set-up, Five Minutes of Heaven stars Liam Neeson as Alistair Little, the former leader of an Ulster Volunteer Force cell who, as a teenager, shot in the head a young Catholic man, James Griffin, in front of his 11-year-old brother, Joe Griffin (played by British Independent Film Award winner, and Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee James Nesbitt).

Written by Guy Hibbert (who wrote Omagh, winner of the Irish Film & Television Academy’s 2004 best film award) and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (above right, whose Downfall was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar), Five Minutes of Heaven explores what would happen if a televised meeting took place between Alistair Little and Joe Griffin three decades after James’ murder.

Could those two men – one still consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge; the other still living with the consequences of his deed – find some kind of common ground? Or will Griffin go through with his plan to stick a knife in his brother’s killer on live TV?

Winner of the World Cinema – Dramatic awards for best direction and best screenplay at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Five Minutes of Heaven opens today at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel has kindly answered a few questions (via e-mail) about Five Minutes of Heaven. See below.

Photos: IFC Films

Liam Neeson, Oliver Hirschbiegel: Five Minutes of Heaven
Liam Neeson, Oliver Hirschbiegel / Five Minutes of Heaven

What made you decide to become involved in Five Minutes of Heaven?

A gripping read, exploring the legacy of violence and the horrible effects it inflicts on both the relatives of the victim as well as on the perpetrator in a way that I hadn’t seen in any film before. Plus: to my own surprise, I immediately connected with both male characters.

Though set in Northern Ireland and dealing with the Catholic-Protestant rift in that region, would you say that Five Minutes of Heaven has a universal appeal? In other words, that its story could be transposed to any part of the world where there is or has been sectarian violence?

Absolutely. As a matter of fact this was the other reason for my wanting to do the film. The tale is as universal as any Greek tragedy. It examines the universal patterns that in any given conflict lead into spirals of violence: The felt need to define one’s identity in a community or tribe; young people often living in bleak and hopeless environments wanting to prove themselves by being “blooded,” and not being able to have a realistic perception of themselves because at the moment of committing an act of violence they are completely embedded in a situation in which there is no guilt or remorse.

Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven
Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven

The Five Minutes of Heaven storyline must avoid the trap of maudlin sentimentality or “easy fixes.” Did you have to work with screenwriter Guy Hibbert to bring that sort of dramatic honesty to the film? Or was it there from the start?

Even when a script is already very tight and clear, there are always many traps waiting to lure a director into using clichés – the “has been worked before” – and falling into sentimentality, which are means that I, in my regard for the audience, find unfaithful and dishonest. They often seem to me like playing games with the audience, which in a political drama must be an absolute no-go. Hence, one of my main goals was to avoid any of the above and stay straight, neutral and faithful to the material and the characters and, in doing so, leave the choices to the audience.

Five Minutes of Heaven

What was it like to work on an “Northern Irish story” with Northern Irish actors such as Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt? Did you feel like an “outsider”? If so, would you say that helped you as a director or did it make your job more of a challenge?

The Northern Irish I must say took me in like a brother. And I loved them back and have to admit, I fell in love with the place. I am very proud to be able now to say that I am the German director of a truly Northern Irish film.

James Nesbitt in Five Minutes of Heaven
James Nesbitt in Five Minutes of Heaven

Did you get to meet with Alistair Little and Joe Griffin? If so, what was your impression of them? Have you heard from them since the movie was completed?

In order to avoid getting emotionally involved with either of the two men, I did not want to meet them until having finished the shoot. Nevertheless, through using my “couriers” (Guy Hibbert and Stephen Wright of the BBC NI), I was in constant exchange with both men in regard to the dialogue and certain aspects of the scenes. We screened the film twice for both men separately and they both approved of it 100 percent, and they are, as a matter of fact, proud of the way their characters are depicted.

James Nesbitt, Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven
James Nesbitt, Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven

Five Minutes of Heaven implies that, despite intense personal suffering, reconciliation is a necessity. But many would say that to even bring up the idea of reconciliation is wishful thinking for some of the tribal conflicts that have been plaguing this planet for centuries. What would you say?

Even though in certain cases it may very well help victim and/or perpetrator in coming to terms with their past, I, in general, regard the idea of forgiveness as naive, childish, and even short-sighted. It’s aiming for easy solutions in utterly complex scenarios. Nevertheless, I do believe that it is necessary and helpful if societies plagued by sectarian violence learn to foster a “spirit” of reconciliation, which then will help people to move on.

Yet, moving on, drawing a line under the past, I think is only possible if each party thoroughly explores [itself] as well as the other party. Only if people learn to exchange, share, and understand differing mindsets, will they be able to live a life of awareness and respect.

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