DIR: Lelia Doolan • PRO: Lelia Doolan • ED: Gordon Bruic
Made over a period of nine years Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey is Lelia Doolan’s excellent documentary on Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of the most significant figures of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. Her slogan in 1969 when she fought for election was ‘I will take my seat and fight for your rights’. The documentary, which won Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, includes John Bowman’s introduction of her on RTE’s Questions & Answers: ‘She was not prepared to grow old in an unjust system. At 21, she was a veteran of the Battle of Bogside. Described as an Irish Joan of Arc and a mini-skirted Castro, she won the mid-Ulster by-election in 1969, the youngest woman ever elected at Westminster. She survived an assassination attempt in 1981 and remains a radical socialist republican.’
The film is constructed around fascinating archive footage, which is interlaced with a series of interviews Doolan conducted with McAliskey over the last nine years. An articulate and engaging subject, McAliskey reflects on her life fighting as a feminist, republican and socialist for civil rights for the people of Northern Ireland.
She served as an MP at Westminster from 1969 to 1974 for the Mid Ulster constituency. The documentary includes the incident in 1972 when in the House of Commons she punched Reginald Maudling, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department in the Conservative government, after he had stated that the British Army had shot at Bloody Sunday protestors in self-defence.
Her passionate actions to defend what she believes in are backed up by her articulate, engaging manner, sharp mind and humour that come across in the interviews. Speaking of the British Army using tear gas to disperse protestors, she says, ‘I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day at the time, so tear gas meant nothing to me’.
These days McAliskey is engaged in community politics with the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme and works with migrant workers in an effort to improve how they are treated.
This film is clearly McAliskey’s story and rather than being about her it is her – so there’s no critical engagement with the subject, more so that Doolan gives her a space to construct her story. In doing so it stands as a valuable document of an iconic Irish figure. McAliskey’s uncompromising sense of justice and her commitment and passion for what she believes in, coupled with an array of archive footage, make for a riveting 90-minute portrait of a woman of admirable courage, determination, and principles.
According to Doolan, she made the film because she believed McAliskey’s role as a human-rights campaigner and as a radical feminist was being wiped from history. With this documentary Doolan has added a gem of a film to history.
Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey is released on 18th November