“Hear My Voice”: The price of peace
by Sam Allen for Shared Future News
19 April 2018
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.
‘Hear My Voice’ Premiere: Senator George Mitchell speech:
Behind the Scenes of ‘Hear My Voice’: