As arguments continue over the future of the British border with Ireland, Angela Graham examines the role of poetry in Troubles: The Life After, on BBC2.
If you can bear to watch it, you will come away from this feature-length documentary astounded at the resilience displayed by the contributors, all of whom were bereaved by violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland; and, I predict, you will find you have been offered proof that life after death is possible; at least, that is, after bereavement.
And these are horrific bereavements. I won’t list the circumstances in which the contributors’ relatives had their lives taken from them. They were, sadly, typical of the times. My focus is on the most striking technical aspect of the film: its use of poetry, in two registers.
This is a film of witness, and it necessarily uses the voice. The interviews are conventionally framed and shot. The directors invested considerable time in recording them, encouraging the participants to see the encounter as a conversation rather than an interview. Any film committed to extensive sections of interview strives to avoid the monotony that is the characteristic peril of this format. Archive footage, re-enactment, landscape shots as punctuation are used here but it is poetry and its performance which achieve the greatest effect.
The tone of the contributions is repeatedly altered and lifted through the use of poetry. These interviews offer ‘material’ of the highest quality: unhurried, dignified, acute, moving, generous, shared with an inherent sense of dialogue and plot, even. There is ashift to performance with next to no advance notice. To see and hear the man or woman, who has been communicating from out of the deepest personal source, as an interviewee, speak (suddenly, it seems) from a different position almost, is to receive a metaphorical summons to greater attention, a poke in the ribs to jolt our attention again and afresh.
Having become accustomed to the individual as an authority by virtue of being a witness and an experiencer of trauma, we encounter that person on new terms, displaying a different kind of authority: still a witness but presenting their evidence from a shifted perspective; one which −because crafted, deliberate, consciously aiming for particular effects −charges these words, this poetry, with a colder, more honed energy; more uncompromising; shorn of the hesitations and provisionalities of impromptu speech; bleaker.
At the same time, the poetry throws open the windows of this tough watch to let in breath-catching images. These, because they have been refined (not to the genteel but to the essential), act as merciful means to re-present the horror. The verbal aptness (a pleasure) persuade us not to turn away but to stay with these harsh experiences.
The performative element, as much as the poetic language, contributes to the film’s impact because the position from which the individual addresses us is not only one of experience and language but of the body itself: the gaze, the breathing, the posture, all these change as the interviewee becomes the performer.
Once again this is an issue of authority: the commanding of the filmic stage and of our engagement. If ever we were in danger of seeing these people as victims limited by that fact, the moment passes because in performance their agency is incontrovertible. They fully possess their own pain. It does not, here, overwhelm them. They bend it to a purpose of their own choosing: that we hear and recognise it.
This affects us, as we watch. It puts us too in a new position. Speaking personally, I found that, as I listened to the interview material of Troubles I reacted as an empathiser; to the performances I reacted as a person being initiated into something. In the one, I was moving towards the speaker as they came towards me; in the other, the speaker held open a door and I was to make the move toward him or her, in an action that was both a privilege and a kind of undertaking on my part. This nuance of engagement is something to which no documentary-maker should fail to pay attention.
Some of the contributors have had significant experience of sharing in public fora (through Unheard Voices, for example and the book Beyond The Silence, Guildhall, 2016); others do not, but whether the individuals were natural performers or more stilted ones does not matter (directors Brian Hill and Niamh Kennedy put much effort into helping people attain their best) because the same dynamic applies to each one.
Some documentary-makers fear that admitting the performative element risks undermining the veracity and truth-to-nature which the form prizes so highly but Brian Hill is un-fazed and his confidence is justified by the results.
The film is billed as being about the experiences of women but that is more the perspective of the promoters than the film-makers and, in my view, does not do justice to the impressive men in it.
The film’s other use of poetry is as a means of narration, linking sequences and spanning time. This out-of-vision delivery (by the Derry-born actress, Bronagh Gallagher) is professional in its timbre and, in consequence, points up the gaucheries in the delivery by the protagonists. But these are defects, in fact, the difference between professional and non-professional subtly emerges as a register in itself, the latter being marked and accented by a weight and a woundedness which the professional does not, in this context, carry (whatever the actual experience of the actress herself may be). Her voice is fittingly disembodied since it is offering an overview.
The film offers no information regarding the authorship of any of the poetry. Here, I feel, is a weakness. I found myself distracted by wondering who had written what. Had the interviewees written what they themselves performed? Had there been some kind of writing group ahead of filming? Who had written the narration poetry? Had they? Whose voice was a I listening to in that overview? Was it one of theirs, or a composite?
Now and then I found the narration poetry rather flat and supposed that that was because it was by amateurs. I was then further distracted when, having lowered my expectations, I had them raised, from time to time, by a line or two of evident skill.
I learned later that Northern Irish poet, Nick Laird wrote both the narration and the performance pieces for Troubles, basing his work on the interview transcripts. Brian Hill told me that the poet aimed for a very light touch adaptation of the original contributions and I assume this accounts for the prosaic nature of some of the poetry. I find that much less of an issue than the distraction. The film uses some minimal on-screen captions for signposting and I think a tiny steer on authorship could have had big benefits.
It would be very interesting to read the poetry, especially if transcripts were available too. Brian Hill is not aware of any plans to produce any version.
Brian Hill is very experienced in the use of poetry in documentary, seeing poetry and film as “natural bed-fellows”. Both use images and their juxtaposition, both require punctuation and pacing, for instance. It was Nick Laird who, familiar with Brian Hill’s well-known films with poet, Simon Armitage, suggested a collaboration. Brian Hill believes that although the Troubles have been dealt with extensively by English film-makers in current affairs and drama, English documentary-makers have shied away, either from fear of the topic’s complexity or anxiety about criticism for tackling it as an outsider. However, he was drawn to the prospect. Rather than approaching BBC Documentaries he went to Arts Commissioner, Mark Bell and had a fairly easy path to commission. The Irish Film Board was also involved.
And here we come to one of the frustrations of documentary production – the strictures on ‘shelf life’. The Life After is available on BBC iplayer till 3rd November but after that where will this impressive film be seen? It has had some theatrical screenings (none so far in Northern Ireland though one or two are hoped for) but few others are in sight and Brian Hill thinks that tv transmission kills the appetite for more. He would very much like it to be seen at Westminster, in the spirit of those who need to see it seeing it. This must surely include the perpetrators of the violence and, for different reasons, the young, many of whom were not born when some of these events happened.
Whatever corrals the Northern Irish experience is not healthy for the UK as a whole. The film was made partly to work against the tendency to see the situation as affecting only that part of the Union. Brexit is making it abundantly clear that such an attitude is, and always has been, wrong.
The recent fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights March in Derry on October 5th1968 has been marked by the media. Notably, in Wales, this was done by a BBC Radio Cymru documentary Helyntion Y Cymry (The Welsh and the Troubles) on iplayer till 31stOctober, produced by Llyr Huws. This powerful compilation of experiences of Welsh former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland makes it very clear that violence affects all whom it touches. The Commission for Victims and Survivors, Northern Ireland is currently planning outreach to anyone in Wales wishing to contribute to the process of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, especially those affected by trauma.
Troubles: The Life After will make you question the extent to which the Troubles are over, given the long-lasting effects it makes so vividly clear but it will also astonish you in its presentation of the human capacity to rise free, or at least freer, of the most appalling burdens.
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Angela Graham is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.