We Were There features the unique experiences of women in the predominantly male world of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, including stories of a prison officer’s wife, prisoners’ relatives, Open University tutors, Probation Service staff and a visual artist.
Directed by Laura Aguiar and Cahal McLaughlin, the film explores how the prison impacted on women’s lives, how they coped with the absence of their loved ones, and highlights the important contribution to the peace process by educational and welfare staff.
Speaking to Film Ireland, Laura explains how the film came out of the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) material, as part of her PhD research at Queen’s University Belfast. “The PMA recorded a wide range of experiences, from prisoners to prison staff and relatives, in 2006 and 2007, inside the empty sites. Participants were filmed by a single camera operator who followed them while they walked and talked. The focus was on the participants’ engagement with the site and on their memories of it, therefore leading questions were rarely asked. In this manner, participants acted as co-authors as they had control over the content of the interviews. Co-ownership of the recordings and the right to veto or withdrawal were also given to them.”
Laura’s own collaboration with the archive and the participants began in the post-production phase, four years after the interviews were recorded and digitised, and lasted for three years, from 2011 to 2014. “I chose to work with the female recordings of the Maze and Long Kesh prison because of the nearly absence of their diverse lived experiences in cinematic depictions of the prison and of the Troubles in general. ‘Troubles Cinema’ has been pretty much a male territory and when women are placed more centrally within the plot, their roles are often limited to the sacrificial mother, fanatic femme fatale, or the girlfriend or wife. So we wanted We Were There to go beyond these limited portrayals and to offer a more multi-layered representation by highlighting women’s agencies within the prison walls – as educational and probation staff – and outside the walls – as active mothers, as political activists, and so forth.”
The importance of recording such stories, stories that are often excluded from the traditional narrative of history, provides a valuable record of otherwise hidden people and stories which can deeply enrich our understanding of the past. Laura tells me that “We all at the PMA believe that personal stories are crucial to history, especially when the human side is privileged over the political, as it can help reduce, rather than reinforce, the sense of othering, which is so common in divided societies, as Northern Ireland.
“In We Were There, we did this by intercutting the stories according to what united these women – their diverse experience of the same site – rather than what separated them – their contrasting political affiliations or religion – and we refrained from adopting a ‘reconciliatory’ tone. As one of the participants of the film rightly put it, We Were There uses personal stories to tell the history of the prison in ‘a more multi-faceted way, not one side or the other, but many sides, many truths, many journeys, many stories’. These were her own words.
“However, when one works with personal stories, special attention must be paid to individual versus collective needs and aspirations and the public/private boundaries of sensitive stories. Some experiences may be too personal to be shared and can lead to embarrassment, harassment and even life-threatening situations for participants. That’s why working closely with participants, sharing authorship and ownership of the film with them can be key in minimising these risks. Minimise, not eliminate, as we can never know how stories will be publicly received, especially in sensitive places such as Northern Ireland.
“Furthermore, as war history is highly male-centred – and that’s not just me saying it but just think about all the war movies you have seen – personal stories are a powerful way to uncover women’s plural experiences of war and to deconstruct some of the myths of femininity and masculinity that have been reinforced by institutions such as the Church or the military.”
Also through these stories the film provides both a record of and moving insight into how the suffering of prison extends beyond the prisoners to relatives, partners and friends. “It definitely goes beyond the prisoners,” Laura explains. “Estimates suggest that over 100,000 people have been directly affected by imprisonment during the Troubles. That’s a considerable number for such a small population of over 1.5 million.
“However, it is very important to acknowledge not just the women’s suffering but also their agency within the peace process and the history of the conflict. At the same time as the men were enduring the hardships of imprisonment, women on the outside were becoming not only the de facto head of the household but also more politicised and active, with many joining women and community groups and even paramilitary groups in some cases.
“The welfare and educational staff also played a key role, including in the peace process. A lot of them were responsible for planting the seeds for the talks that emerged in the prison. Their educational and welfare programme helped some of the men reflect on the armed struggle and opt to follow a more peaceful route after their release. It is very important to acknowledge their importance, as they often think that their stories matter less than the relatives’ stories. And this is not true; all stories are unique and equally important to the overall history of the prison and the conflict.”
I ask Laura to tell me about the editing process of the project. “I regularly met Cahal McLaughlin, the PMA’s director and the film’s co-director, and carried out four individual meetings with participants. In these encounters we discussed the rough cuts and made joint decisions on the inclusion and exclusion of parts of the recordings and on the addition of visuals of the prison, soundtrack, and text. Hence, consent was an on-going process of negotiation, not just a single signature at the beginning or end of a project and ensured that the participants’ earlier role as co-authors was maintained throughout the editing phase.
“We agreed to let participants narrate their own stories and to use visuals of the prison, text and soundtrack minimally to support the women’s own voices. We favoured the contemporary imagery recorded by the PMA and eschewed adding other archival material, for example BBC newsreel or newspaper photographs. Text was used only to offer basic details on events, dates and location. We also agreed that the music should not be too intrusive nor too ideological and collaborated with sound designer Liz Greene, who produced a soundtrack that enhanced the ambient sound of the recordings, without intruding upon the women’s testimonies or guiding audience’s emotions.
“Since the film has been completed, participants have been invited to attend the screenings and take part in panel discussions, which have given them the opportunity to see how their stories impacted an audience and to engage in dialogues with them.”
We Were There screens on Sunday, 19th October 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
This screening will be followed by a Q&A with directors Laura Aguiar and Cahal McLaughlin and participants.
Tickets for We Were There are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie