Three Irish movies at the film festival throw light on an Irish heritage. All are worth seeing.
Bernadette: keeping the faith
Whatever happened to Bernadette Devlin? In the early 1970s she was every Catholic rebel’s darling, a mini-skirted Northern Irish protest leader constantly in the news.
‘Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey’ reminds us what a firebrand she was. In 1972 she was a 25-year-old MP when Home Secretary Reginald Maudling claimed that British soldiers who killed 13 unarmed Catholics on Bloody Sunday had fired in self defence. Devlin stormed across the House of Commons and slapped him on the face. When a reporter later asked if she regretted using violence, she exploded: ‘Thirteen people are dead and you’re asking me about using violence!’ When the reporter persisted, Devlin replied that her only regret was she hadn’t grabbed Maudling by the throat.
This is a powerful documentary. The extensive footage of Northern Ireland’s Troubles in the 1970s is grim. Footage of the 1980s’ hunger strikes and internment protests is a reminder of how it became even more savage.
Forty years of relentlessly hardline politics has taken a toll on an older, wiser, still committed Devlin. In a 1981 assassination attempt, witnessed by her children, she was hit by eight bullets. Devlin seems resigned to the Peace Process and the fact that former IRA men Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness now sit alongside Ian Paisley and other Unionists. The North is still part of Britain, she says, even if the rulers now include a few republicans. She can’t bring herself to be part of it.
Today she co-ordinates STEP, the South Tyrone Empowerment Project, a cross-community grassroots organisation. Aged 65, she still proclaims herself a radical socialist.
According to the film blurb, Devlin agreed to make the documentary on condition it said nothing about her personal life – hence the film title. She does talk about her female upbringing as one of five girls raised by her mother who was widowed early, her two grannies and her aunties. Devlin only mentions in passing that she had a child while in the thick of politics in 1971. The one time her voice quavers is when she describes how her opponents have attacked her children as a way of attacking her, particularly the arrest of her eldest daughter in the 1990s for IRA activities.
But there’s something lacking. At the end you’re still not quite sure what makes her tick. Her interviews are often statements of position – there’s little personal in her politics. You won’t leave knowing that much more about Bernadette Devlin the person, but you’ll find she’s kept the faith.
Ireland through the eyes of a New Zealand painter
For a different portrayal of Ireland, see ‘Village by the Sea’. New Zealand director Michael Heath goes to the tiny coastal village of Bunmahon, Co Waterford, on the trail of Wanganui-born painter Edith Collier who lived there from 1914-15. He delves into the collective memory of villagers who remember stories about her and examines her art in light of what exists there now.
Retired Bunmahon school teacher Jim Cullinan recalls his mother talking about the Collier portrait she had sat for as a young girl. Others in the village have stories about life, family and poverty then, their memories stirred by Collier’s paintings of people and landscapes.
When asked what he thought on seeing those landscapes for the first time, Heath said:
My childhood and teens were spent in Eastern Southland in a small rural farming town, Wyndham (my father’s side of the family originally came from County Mayo in Ireland). So there was a lot of sky, and space, and fields, and softly-flowing rivers, the singing of John McCormack songs around the piano, and cemeteries and old Catholic churches, and funerals on hilltops, and winding muddy roads in the rain, and skies full of birds, and wintry trees and herds of shitty cows wandering down the road, and old timers sitting in dimly-lit rooms in front of crackling log fires… and this happened many times when we were shooting in Ireland… and it was like I had come back home full-circle to my childhood again… and we were welcomed with such hospitality and friendship. It was like meeting old friends again (Ireland is greener too, by the way).
But this film though is a lot more than Irish nostalgia with a New Zealand twist. Collier’s story is fascinating. And what paintings! The soundtrack of traditional Irish music captures the atmosphere perfectly. The film is a little gem.
Thank God they sailed away
Just when you might start thinking Ireland’s a gentle, pleasant land, along comes the thriller ‘Shadow Dancer’. Collette McVeigh is caught after leaving an unexploded bomb on the London Underground in 1993. An M15 agent gives her an option: spend the rest of her life in jail or, for the sake of her young boy, go back to her IRA family in Belfast and act as informant.
So begins an excellent film that, while a little lean on dialogue, contains several startling twists. Some critics panned the film as anti-IRA and pro-British. I didn’t see it like that. Certainly, the IRA were ruthless with informants, but for good historical reasons. The film simply captures the brutality and deceit that went with Britain’s rule in Northern Ireland, and the IRA’s campaign to get rid of them.
You come out wondering how people could live like that, and thanking God your forebears had the sense to sail away and leave that bitterness and hatred behind.