‘Films are a really important part of education and life’- former lawyer

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A n Ulster woman who swapped a career as a barrister to become Editor-at-Large for the world’s biggest movie magazine has described how she turned her hobby into her dream job.

Film fan Helen O’Hara, from Portstewart, explained to enthusiastic students recently at an Into Film educational event how she switched from law to journalism.

After years on staff at Empire Magazine, she went freelance, but remains Editor- at-Large for Empire, reviewing all the latest movies and visiting film festivals - and sometimes even movie sets.

Speaking at the Into Film educational event in Londonderry, Helen told the students how she’d studied hard at school and went on to Oxford to study Law, qualifying as a barrister but giving it up because she didn’t enjoy it.

“I quit but didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she related. “I always loved writing and watching movies but wasn’t a journalist.

“I thought I might be able to make a move sideways into legal reporting, and gradually, somehow, work my way over to film writing, but that wouldn’t have worked, I think. Changing careers takes skill, planning and a lot of luck. I got lucky then as a job came up for an internship at exactly the right time with Empire.”

Helen’s good fortune continued when she was granted an interview for a place as an intern on the Empire website.

The interviewers had misplaced her CV so they weren’t aware that she had no journalistic training or experience.

“It wasn’t all luck though,” she continued.

“I knew the magazine and the website inside out. I’d read it for years and loved movies.

“When I started I happily accepted all the intern jobs like making a good cup of tea.

“I worked really hard and had a good attitude.

“When you are the intern you don’t get sent to the best movies – so I happily went to whatever films they wanted me to review.”

Helen told the students that if they are considering a career in journalism they should read everything they can, and practise writing to deadline and to a word count.

“For example, try writing a great review in 100 words,” she advised.

“You need to be able to condense your thoughts to the required length set by a publication so practise writing at different lengths so you can do this quickly.”

Into Film is a UK-wide organisation with a regional hub in Northern Ireland, which aims to put film at the heart of children and young people’s education, helping to support their academic, cultural, and social development.

The organisation works with the support of Northern Ireland Screen and in partnership with Nerve Centre and Cinemagic.

It runs an annual children’s film festival in November and also supports filmmaking projects through industry events as well as through film clubs in local schools.

Helen added: “Films are really important part of education and life.

“The great movie critic Roger Ebert said that films are empathy machines. They are great at helping viewers see the world from another perspective.

“They are enormously powerful and a great tool, not just for the classroom but for life.”

Sean Kelly from Into Film’s Northern Ireland team explained that the upcoming Into Film Festival, which offers over 20,000 free places to school children, will include talks by industry experts as well as using film to discuss topical issues such as mental health.

“Film is a great way to help explain the world to children and to foster debate,” he said.

“One of our themes this year is mental health and we will be screening Wonder, with a panel discussion afterwards about bullying and mental health.

“There are 98 free events at 34 locations across Northern Ireland so we hope schools, colleges, youth leaders and home educators will join us.”

To find out more about the Into Film Festival, which runs at various venues from November 7-23 and is aimed at young people aged 5-19, visit the website at www.intofilm.org/festival