a cinematic companion piece to Colin Davidson’s Silent Testimony
Alan Meban (Alan in Belfast)
Hear My Voice is a cinematic companion piece to Colin Davidson’s Silent Testimony, a 2015 exhibition of 18 portraits of people who suffered loss during the local conflict, developed in conjunction with the WAVE Trauma Centre. The paintings are back in the Ulster Museum until Sunday 22 April and the exhibition is well worth a visit.
Brendan Byrne’s short film slowly pans across the surface of the oil paintings which were hung in Riddel’s Warehouse, showing off the thick texture of the layers of paint and giving glimpses of the faces and features framed by beams and railings in the derelict building that is set to become home to the RUA (Royal Ulster Academy).
The original paintings and the textual descriptions are devoid of labels and community tags. Introducing the gala screening this afternoon, Senator George Mitchell spoke about visiting the paintings and said that while “the eyes are windows to the soul, [they are also] the messengers of our sorrows”.
In the spirit that “a portrait is worth an inestimable number of words”, Brendan Byrne has not overburdened his film with commentary. The portrait sitters are heard a couple of sentences at a time, giving colour about their loss but never detail. Much of what is said happens in the silence.
Twenty three minutes long, the lingering shots of the square canvases are eventually interrupted by a few scenes of archive footage in the aftermath of attacks, before returning to the faces and their piercing eyes. The audience catch glimpses of a few of the sitters at home or out for a walk, but their mouth never move. The emphasis is on being heard in the sense of being acknowledged rather than making statements.
The beauty of the brushwork contrasts with the tragedy of the stories held by the sitters.
Hear My Voice is a beautiful piece of restrained film-making. The soundtrack by Brian Byrne (no relation) adds moody piano and deep bowed strings without ever competing for attention with the imagery. Together with Richard Kendrick’s sharply focussed cinematography and the editing of Greg Darby, Hear My Voice is an artwork in itself.
Produced by Fine Point Films and funded by Northern Ireland Screen and BBC Northern Ireland, Hear My Voice will be screened during May in the Queen’s Film Theatre as well as at film festivals worldwide during the rest of 2018 before it is broadcast by the BBC in 2019.
“It gets me every time.”
That’s how local artist Colin Davidson summed up his reaction after watching the premiere of Hear My Voice at the 2018 Belfast Film Festival, in conversation with the BBC’s Mark Carruthers.
Colin is perhaps best known for his internationally acclaimed portraits of famous figures, including Angela Merkel, Brad Pitt and the Queen. To him they aren’t celebrities; they’re simply human beings.
Some people, however, don’t get the recognition or acknowledgement Colin feels they deserve, leading him to paint 18 victims and survivors of the Troubles in a poignant collection unveiled in 2015: Silent Testimony.
“The Good Friday Agreement was good news for most of us, but there was mostly nothing in it for people who had suffered loss,” Colin reflected. With the signing of the Agreement in 1998, for a lot of people justice was sacrificed in the name of the greater good.
His powerful Silent Testimony exhibition in the Ulster Museum inspired local filmmaker Brendan Byrne to display them in a new gallery: the big screen. “They stayed with me,” recalled Brendan. “I knew I was going to do something about them.”
Initially apprehensive about the idea of turning the exhibition into a film, Colin consulted with the WAVE Trauma Centre. He had initially collaborated with WAVE to find a range of people from across the community who would be willing to participate in his project. Would it be patronising, or would it be helpful? “It would be help,” was the clear verdict of Sandra Peake, CEO of the organisation – and her view applied to the film as well as the initial exhibition.
WAVE came up with a matrix to provide Colin with an inclusive group of victims and survivors: Catholic, Protestant and other; coming from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain; and those afflicted by violence in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Sandra felt that not only would it give those portrayed a voice, but that it would give a voice to all the victims and survivors who quietly go about their daily lives.
Brendan notes that no matter when life changed for the sitters, their individual stories are “in the now. If you go and meet these people, you’ll see the lines that are painted on their face, and the agony and grief that they have suffered is as relevant and alive today as it was when this happened to them.”
Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Hear My Voice is a moving masterpiece that captures the human impact of the destruction that came before, as well as the physical and emotional burdens that continue to be felt across society.
During the film you hear the voices of the subjects, but you don’t see them being interviewed. You just see the results of cameras gliding around their portraits hanging in the eerie setting of Riddels Warehouse, giving a timeless ghost-like quality to their testimonies: moments frozen in time, but yet carried into the here and now.
One of the most striking features of the film – and Colin’s original exhibition – is that the audience never finds out the community background of any of the participants. For him, it’s about stripping everything back to the universality of human loss.
After Silent Testimony went on display in 2015, Colin was struck by what people told him when they reflected on the lack of labels in the exhibition: “Not only was it striking not knowing who the Protestants and Catholics were, or who were affected by the acts of republican or loyalist or state violence, but they questioned themselves by asking, ‘Why did I even need to know that?’”
Belfast festival screening for Troubles victims film
A short film based on paintings by world-renowned artist Colin Davidson of 18 victims and survivors of the Troubles is to get a second showing on Thursday night as part of Belfast Film Festival.
Director Brendan J Byrne said: “When I first saw Colin’s Silent Testimony exhibition (in 2015) like many thousands of others, I was struck by its raw power. The experience lingered with me for another year or so before I decided to go and meet Colin to talk about the prospect of a film.
“I wanted to make his paintings centre stage. In order to do that I had to hang the paintings somewhere other than a traditional gallery where paintings are fixed to a wall and camera angles are limited.
“To do that we used Riddel’s warehouse in Belfast – a disused iron factory beside Musgrave Street police station. In some respects seeing the paintings there on their own almost evokes the memories of the dead people who the people in the paintings have been painted in memory of.”
He added: “While the events depicted in the film happened many decades ago to the film’s contributors, the legacy of those experiences remain as powerful and unforgettable today.
“I chose to do audio only interviews because I didn’t want the painting of that person to compete with the image of them on camera.
“What struck me was how the loss these people suffered may have been two, three or four decades ago, but it was still tremendously raw.
“There are the most poignant interviews I’ve done as a film maker.”
• The first screening of Hear My Voice had been introduced by US senator George Mitchell.
• The second takes place on Thursday at 6.45pm at Movie House, Dublin Road.
“Hear My Voice”: The price of peace
The Belfast Film Festival presented the short documentary Hear My Voice, which focuses on local artist Colin Davidson and his paintings of victims of the Troubles. Directed by Brendan Byrne, the film showcases Davidson’s exhibition of portraits of those who were affected by the conflict, Silent Testimony, and it features interviews of the subjects as well as the artist.
Even though this is a short film, it is incredibly poignant and captures beautifully the tragic legacy of the Troubles. The tone of the film is reflective and sombre, and once the credits roll there is no sense of closure — which is quite fitting given the message. The film doesn’t seek to provide answers or point fingers of blame at anyone. Its purpose is to highlight the pain and loss that many people in Northern Ireland have to live with, even though the political hostilities have been officially declared as over. The cinematography focuses heavily on the paintings with lingering shots and close ups of the artwork throughout. Davidson’s work is powerful in its own right (especially the humanity he captures in his subjects eyes) but the added musical score and the monologues of the participants playing over the shots makes it evermore so. In particular, the interviews by the sitters are hugely affecting despite being short, as they are brutally honest and raw. Ultimately these recollections, combined with the imagery of the oil paintings, are the driving force behind the film.
While the majority of the attention is given to the portrait subjects, Davidson also gives his thoughts on his work and those whom he painted. It should be noted though that this film isn’t about the process of how the paintings were created — it is about what the paintings represent and the stories of those featured in them. As well as hovering shots of the artwork, there is some historical footage from the Troubles and brief glances of the subjects in the present day. This gives a sense of connection with the past, but also shows the audience that the sitters are still going about their lives. Another key feature is the lack of details regarding the background of the victims. A deliberate decision by both Byrne and Davidson, there is no indication of what side of the community the participants are from, which helps keep the attention on them as a person and their grief. Removing the political baggage allows viewers to fully engage with what they are seeing and hearing on screen.
Following the screening there was a discussion with Byrne and Davidson.
Byrne discussed how initially Davidson was understandably hesitant in “entrusting the work to go onto another medium”, but after talking it over saw the potential. Byrne said, “I’ve realised that the film’s a much closer companion to the paintings than I ever thought they might be.” Davidson spoke of how building trust with the sitters was a major element whilst creating their portraits, and reassuring them that “this wasn’t yet another exploitative kind of an exercise or even worse still a political sort of exercise”. Byrne added that the film served as a platform to expand the reach of these paintings and the stories behind them; “using an art form to shine a light on another art form”.
Regarding the title of the exhibition, Silent Testimony, Davidson explained that it was inspired by an event he attended and how “the stories that people tell are called their testimonies, and I suppose that’s where it came from — these are stories that haven’t been told”. Both Davidson and Byrne spoke of the problems and frustrations people have with the current political situation at Stormont. Byrne stated that he hoped local politicians would see the film and be prompted into action as a result. Davidson said that on the question of what can be done for victims, the answer ultimately lies with them.
After Byrne and Davidson spoke, there was a question and answer session with the audience. One viewer asked if it was difficult to let the subjects give their accounts whilst keeping the background details out. Byrne responded, “I wish I could say it was really difficult but no it wasn’t really.” He also said that while there were challenges, the strong emphasis on the participants meant that being distracted by the wider context wasn’t an issue: “When you were talking to the individuals, it was more about how they felt rather than what had happened.”
Another viewer said that it was the most important film on Northern Ireland they had seen in the last 50 years. They further commented that they were concerned that Northern Ireland was moving back towards the past as young people had no direct experience of the conflict. Their question was whether the film was going to be broadcast on a wider platform so more young people could see it. Byrne answered that the film will eventually make it to television next year and will likely be sold to either Netflix or Amazon. He also was less worried than the viewer as he had the feeling that young people in Northern Ireland had moved on from the conflict.
Davidson said that the exhibition had initially been released in art shows rather than as part of a legacy or reconciliation presentation. This meant that school children saw the portraits during school trips simply as art and found it incredibly moving as they came “expecting works of art and were hit by the stories”. He explained that presenting the work in its own right was important because “if you know what you’re going to see, the power is taken away from it”. Hence he believes it is best to show the film (and the exhibition) as a standalone piece of art rather than as part of a history lesson. Davidson also described how some spectators were upset at him for, as they saw it, “dragging them into the past”. They felt that these accounts were not relevant to them and that it was unnecessary to expose them to it. Davidson stated that he had little patience for this attitude and told these detractors that the subjects of his portraits are very much part of our communities and “paying the price for your peace”. Overall though, Davidson said he was not pessimistic about the future.
Regarding the effect the exhibition and film had on the sitters Davidson said that it opened up opportunities for conversations that had not happened about the traumatic events. Byrne said the sense of acknowledgment that the subjects experienced was very uplifting. Furthermore, several had mentioned to Byrne that moments such as the premiere of the film were incredibly meaningful as “they’re in a room with people who are the only other people in the world who understand what it is to be like them”.
According to the dedicated Twitter account, Hear My Voice will be screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre on 17th May, for one week.
Denzil McDaniel: Dignified but powerful voices are reminding of us past hurts
Someone who had a close relative killed violently in our awful Troubles said this: “The loss of a loved one is devastating. I can hardly explain it in words, but it has a shuddering effect on your whole nervous system.”
Another person said this: “It’s something you have to live with. It’s a cross to bear to the day you die.”
Remarkably, these words were spoken with quiet dignity and without a trace of anger in Brendan J Byrne’s new film “Hear My Voice”. It is based on artist Colin Davidson’s 18 portraits in a collection called “Silent Testimony.”
Both are powerful and emotional; art and film are important pieces of work in reminding us of the deep human cost of the violence which blighted our society for decades.
Far too often, in my opinion, consideration of our victims enters the political bearpit of controversy, and memorialisation ends up in one side or the other using pain to make a point; often that the pain of “our victims” is more just and valid than the them ‘uns because it was inflicted by a morally-bankrupt and evil enemy. But there should be no hierarchy of victims, every family’s pain is personal and real.
I’ve had the opportunity to see Byrne’s film and one of the many interesting things about it is the absence of any reference to who or which organisation the perpetrators were from.
It focuses very firmly on the victims, whether bereaved relatives or injured, and in so doing tells the story of the burden that changed their lives.
“It’s a living hell every day, a horrible nightmare,” says another victim.
Society naturally moves on, and rightly so, but these voices should be heard as a constant reminder, and a lesson of how far in human misery we sank.
We heard quite a bit recently about the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and it was a healthy illustration that despite all the controversy today and a depressing lack of political will to progress, we have come a long way.
But we also need to be reminded that, actually, many of our people who suffered most directly are still living with the physical and mental scars.
Colin Davidson speaks in the film about his motivation for this wonderful exhibition, and referring to the Good Friday Agreement, he says it was “probably going to be great for most of us, but there was probably nothing in it for the people who suffered loss.” He says that acknowledgement of this is one of the most important aspects of dealing with the past.
His portraits vividly show their stories, 18 of them but they are representative of the suffering of 3,700 victims and numerous more who were injured or suffered loss.
Indeed, the voices we hear speak quietly but powerfully about what he described as the “graphic horror” that the conflict imposed on ordinary, loving people, including some described as “a really kind human being”…”my father, a very affectionate man”….”he would’ve helped anybody”… “one of the jolly ones who laughed all the time.”
Art, film and photography are now performing a marvellous service in highlighting the awfulness of what some people had to endure. In Dublin’s Hugh Lane gallery, Amanda Dunsmore uses video and framed portraits in her exhibition “Keeper” to document the peace process.
If you are of the view that we should just draw a line and move forward, all these works about our difficult past could, perhaps, weigh us down. I disagree profoundly. We should learn the lessons, we should listen to the voices and be inspired to make people’s lives better for future generations.
I wonder about the notion of making things better for people; aside from the legacy of our violent past, there are many sections of our own people who don’t have a great life in a country which seems to have greater division of wealth and wellbeing than ever.
Last night, thousands of people across Ireland, north and south, were homeless. Some people had to find somewhere to sleep out in the cold. There are families, even with a person in employment, who rely on food banks to feed the children, and some of our elderly face a choice of heating or eating.
In the north, the news focused on the trauma faced by people possibly misdiagnosed by a neurology consultant and the scandal of deaths through cervical cancer in the south; while in truth, many people in pain and worry are waiting for surgery every day.
A young man was physically attacked in Enniskillen a few weeks ago simply for being gay, as we continue to marginalise many people in our own communities.
And so it goes on, the lack of compassion and the lack of will for us and those in authority to do something about it.
Instead, we still focus on the wider national identity question, how we make a line on a map hard or soft, whether a leader from a different part of the island has manners or not. These are the issues on which we vote; and while I am not dismissing sincerely-held views, can we not just sort out the many day-to-day problems that our people grapple with?
One of which, surely, is the healing of the hurt of yesterday caused by our collective failure to live together and respect each other.
If present-day politicians can’t be visionary enough to take us forward, they should at least beware of the dangers of dragging us back into a horrible past and remember the words of these victims; including the one who described “incredible pain, so deep inside you that you really did think your heart was going to break.”
It is not trite to say that the best tribute to the victims is to ensure that we never return to those dark days; but to really get the message of how bad it was, let’s listen to the victims.
“Hear My Voice” is showing at the QFT in Belfast later in May.
Troubles 'horrors' of 18 victims captured in new film premiered in Belfast
'Telling these stories must continue if we are to continue to build peace' - Colin Davidson
By Shauna Corr
Senator George Mitchell delivered a heartfelt message to victims at the premiere of a new Troubles film by Brendan J Byrne.
Hear My Voice was unveiled to a private audience at Queen’s Film Theatre on Wednesday afternoon as part of Belfast’s Good Friday Agreement celebrations.
The “intense and visceral” documentary is based on artist Colin Davidson’s Silent Testimony portraits of 18 victims and survivors of the Troubles.
Senator Mitchell told a packed auditorium how his role brokering peace in Northern Ireland changed his life.
He added: “I know I can never be one of you. But I have been greatly moved to share some of your joys and some of your sorrows.
Host of arts events in Belfast to mark anniversary of Good Friday Agreement
“To those who have lost a loved one there are no words. All we can do is to let them know that we share their loss and that we understand their pain even though we cannot.
“To those brave people that are portrayed and to the many thousands of others they represent, this is a small step, but a tangible one of conveying to you how we hope very much and pray what you have gone through, few or none will ever have to again endure.”
The film, which is dedicated to all those who suffered loss throughout the Northern Ireland conflict, is centred around Davidson’s touching, yet haunting portraits.
The film’s award winning director said he was so struck by the raw power of the exhibition he had to do something. Brendan J Byrne also directed Bobby Sands: 66 Days, Maze and George Best: All By Himself.
He said: “I spoke to my colleague and said I can’t get this out of my head.
“I decided to go and meet Colin to talk about Silent Testimony and the prospect of a film.
“While the events depicted in the film happened many decades ago, the legacy of those experiences remain as powerful and unforgettable today.”
And that is something both men aimed to get across in their art forms.
“There’s this mass section of our community that was paying for everybody’s peace,” said artist Colin Davidson, who has painted royalty and famous faces.
“The 18 people who sat for my paintings have been through the most unimaginable pain and suffering and those experiences live on in them and thousands of others today.
“Telling these stories must continue if we are to continue to build peace.”
Mo Norton sat for Colin because she lost her 24-year-old brother Terence Griffin on the M62 coach bomb in 1974.
She said: “He was one of 12 that lost their lives and two of them were little children. Witnessing what it did to my mother and father was terrible.
“My father never really got over it and he died as a direct result because he wouldn’t eat after Terence was killed. It was just awful.”
Mo said being part of Silent Testimony and Hear My Voice helped her to heal in some ways.
“It’s as though it has not been forgotten,” she added.
Wave Trauma Centre’s Sandra Peake commended the work for giving a voice “to many that were rendered silent within our community”.
She provided the list of sitters for the series using a matrix to ensure the right mix.
“So many have related to people who are painted. They’ve said it could have been their brother or mother or father,” she said.
“Part of the process was about removing the labels, so it doesn’t denote what people are and who did what to whom.”
Brendan added: “It’s looking at the vulnerability of human beings.”
Hear My Voice will now be shown at film festivals across the globe, while Colin's portraits are on show at the Ulster Museum until April 22.