Why women are at the heart of BBC2's documentary Troubles: the Life After
The one-off programme uses poetry to tell the story of women bereaved during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland
"Behind each story is the story of a mother.
Behind each headline is a broken heart.
Among the atrocities in the wild, in the dark,
It was the women keeping it together."
When Northern Irish poet Nick Laird approached Brian Hill about collaborating on a documentary about the Troubles, Hill knew the focus should be on the victims of the conflict.
“We made the decision very early on,” the Bafta-winning director says. “No politicians, no experts, no academic, no paramilitaries. The only people you’re going to hear in this film are the victims — the ones who lost loved ones to violence.”
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For 30 years, from 1969, a violent conflict that was to become known as the Troubles was fought in Northern Ireland. More than 3,500 people were killed, and over 47,000 injured. The majority were civilians.
In BBC2’s Troubles: the Life After, Hill speaks to people — the majority women — who were bereaved at different points during the conflict. Colette O'Connor’s father, Sammy Devenny, was only the second fatality during the Troubles. 50 years since he was killed by the police, Colette, like all the women interviewed, has yet to see her father’s killers brought to justice. Poetry inspired by the testimonies and written by Laird is interspersed throughout the programme, read out by the contributors and by Northern Irish actress Bronagh Gallagher.
Radio Times spoke to Hill about the making of the documentary — and why the women’s stories are still relevant decades on…
Why did you decide to make Troubles: the Life After?
Poetry is woven throughout the documentary, so it seems fitting that poet Nick Laird first came to Hill with the idea.
Hill (Feltham Sings, Drinking for England) had coincidentally been thinking “for some time” about the possibility of making a documentary about the Troubles — but originally, he was anxious that the film wouldn’t get commissioned.
“I think lots of British documentary makers have shied away from it,” he says. “I think people think it’s too difficult, and it’s very difficult to understand the complexities of Northern Ireland.”
For Hill, however, the project's aim was clear. “We weren’t really making a film about the politics of Northern Ireland and about who’s done deals with who,” he says.
“It’s about the victims. It’s about the people who[se] voices we don’t hear: the ones who lost loved ones to violence.”
How did you go about putting poetry into the film?
Asides from a few statistics shown onscreen, the film is narrated entirely through original poetry by Laird. “I think it’s a really good way of telling stories,” Hill says.
Voiced by Northern Irish actress Bronagh Gallagher, the narration deals with issues ranging from INLA bombings and politics to collusion.
There’s that word the mob have.
You take it to the grave.
No one tells the truth.
Not one. They say justice
just doesn’t rhyme with peace
so no, you can’t have both."
In places, the narration lends an almost dream-like quality to what might otherwise be a harrowing watch. Verses are read over archival footage played backwards in slow motion — bombed houses are rebuilt brick by brick before our eyes.
Throughout the film, there is the sense of what could have been. As one interviewee, Sharon Austin, reflects: “I would love to come back and start all over again, as [a woman] who didn't have a brother murdered, to see what my life would be like.”
Laird also wrote poems for each of the interviewees after reading their transcripts — he didn’t meet any of the victims.
“It’s almost verbatim poetry,” Hill says, “because he hasn’t really changed much [from the transcripts]. He’s given it a rhythm, mainly.”
The victims, who each read their poems out on camera, were “significantly flattered” by the poetry, Hill says, as turning their words into verse showed them that the filmmakers “value[d] their story”.
How did you approach the victims’ families?
On approaching contributors, Hill says: “It was quite a long slog because you don’t want the same story over and over again.
“You need to have different stories, different experiences. And obviously we were quite careful to make sure Catholics and Protestants were both represented.”
In addition to Colette O’Connor’s, other stories include a woman’s death on her 24th birthday after an INLA bombing; a sectarian killing of two young men after a case of mistaken identity by the IRA; and the stabbing of a young Catholic man after the IRA declared ceasefire in 1994.
Women are at the heart of the documentary — although Hill tried to get more male contributors involved.
“Particularly in Northern Ireland, I think the men there are not able to talk… about the Troubles as easily as the women are,” he explains.
What was the interview process like?
For Hill, it was all about creating an atmosphere that made the contributors feel comfortable. He went into each interview without notes or questions, which he thinks put contributors on edge. Instead, he treated each interview as a conversation. One took all day to complete.
“The filming took a while and people get wobbles,’ he says. “You’ve got to be appreciative of the fact they’re talking about really difficult stuff."
Did any of the contributors think about dropping out?
“Timothy [Dixon, whose sister Ruth was killed in 1982], almost did… It was very, very difficult for him,” Hill says.
“And it just meant spending time with him and reassuring him and making sure that he was comfortable.”
Did the fact that you’re not Irish affect the filming?
Hill believes that some of the contributors found it easier to open up to him than they would have done if he were Irish.
“I’m very evidently not from Northern Ireland, so I don’t have an axe to grind,” he says.
“I think I have heard people say ‘Brits shouldn’t be making a film about Northern Ireland’ but I think the fact that I am British was a real help, actually.”
“If you live in Northern Ireland, you know people who have been involved in the Troubles,” Hill adds. “It’s a small place and people know each other’s business, and I wasn’t tainted by any of that. Nobody’s thinking: ‘Who are his parents? Were they involved? Wonder where he went to school’.”
What’s the reaction been so far?
Three of the female contributors — Colette; Marie Newton, whose husband was shot in 1976; and Sharon Austin, whose brother Winston was killed by the IRA — came from Derry, so the BBC held a screening there for the women and their friends and family.
“It was amazing, actually,” Hill says. “Ten minutes into the screening, I thought, ‘There must be a lot of people who have colds in this room’, because they’re all sniffing. But they’re actually all crying. So many people in tears.”
Some of the contributors’ families had never heard them speak so candidly about their experiences. Marie’s seven children had no idea that she had briefly considered killing herself after their father’s death.
“Even if they knew the bare bones of it,” Hill says, “they didn’t know the emotions.”
Why do we need to keep telling these stories?
For Hill, the female experience during the Troubles is something that’s rarely voiced publicly.
“We hear[d] a lot from people like Gerry Adams, and Iain Paisley and Martin McGuinness,” he says, “but you don’t hear from the women. You don’t hear those stories and I think they’re a lot more important.”
The director also wants the film to remind people of the “pointless” futility of the conflict.
“It’s taken a terrible toll,” he says, “But there is some redemption. The fact is that they’re really tough people, those women, and they’ve managed to not be destroyed by what happened to them.”
As speculation over the Irish and Northern Irish border continues amid Brexit talks, the message of Hill’s film is clear.
“Who cares where you live,” Sharon Austen asks at the film’s close, “in Northern Ireland, or South Ireland… If you can live in peace, live in it."
Troubles: the Life After airs on Saturday 6th October at 9.30pm