Johnny Gogan’s new documentary Hubert Butler: Witness To The Future, traces Kilkenny essayist Hubert Butler’s journey through Stalinist Russia of the early 1930s, through prewar Vienna, where he worked to smuggle Jews into Ireland, to his exposure of the hidden genocide of half a million Orthodox Serbs in World War2.
Using recently declassified documents, Gogan’s highly visual and expansive film explores why Butler “was fifty years ahead of his time” and “one of the great Irish writers”
Johnny Gogan told June Butler how the project came about.
I heard about Hubert Butler around the time he had been published in the late 1980s. I hadn’t read him. Three years ago I was in Belgrade and I attended a lecture by the poet and publisher Chris Agee. He was talking about Hubert’s writings on Archbishop Stepinac, the wartime Croatian Catholic Archbishop in Zagreb. Hubert wrote a lot about this period and about Stepinac as a central character – and he actually met Stepinac when he was subsequently imprisoned for treason and collaboration with the Ustaše regime. I was talking to Chris about this and a few lights started to go off my head.
Butler was very interested in the local world, the power of the local, and very much wary of that centralised phenomenon that you get in the western world and in big cities. I myself have been based in North Leitrim for the last 20 years, so I kind of understood that aspect of his work. I had also touched on that in my film Mapmaker back in 2001, which is about the tensions in a border community in the years after the ceasefires. That was quite influenced by what had happened in the Balkans in the ’90s.
Hubert Butler had in many ways predicted what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s and saw the roots of its violence and the intensity of the violence in what happened in Croatia in the Second World War. You can see it for example in his essay ‘The Artukovitch File’ and in an unpublished essay I found called ‘The Trial’ – he talks about seeing how the seeds of future treason lay in what had happened in the Second World War, particularly in Croatia – and how that had been, in many ways, swept under the carpet.
He wrote exhaustively and very skilfully about that period. He was in the extraordinary position where he came in for criticism from both sides. Butler was obviously really critical of the Catholic Church’s role in the genocide of half a million Orthodox Serbs in Croatia during the Second World War. But he was also critical of Tito and the way the Communists were dealing with the aftermath of that. They didn’t deal with the guilt and the responsibility, the way that Germany had been confronted with it. So he writes that in 1946 I see the seeds of future treason in the way these crimes are being tried and dealt with.
And then in Ireland he’s also being criticized. He confronts Ireland at the time with what has happened in Croatia and nobody wants to hear. The State and the Church conspired to silence him. And then you have Peadar O’Donnell, one of Ireland’s foremost radicals, telling him to go easy on the Communists. Butler was a very brave, very moral, very informed man.
What I love about Butler, and what I’ve always felt strongly about, is that Ireland should have a much wider international vision for itself beyond obviously a relationship with Britain and the way we have subsumed our international vision into the EU. We hide behind the EU a lot. Butler was saying that Ireland has a role to play as a new nation, as a postcolonial nation, able to put forward a different view of the world and that was potentially shared by many other countries that got their independence and liberation around the same time. That is still very relevant. That vision he developed in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s is still very true and the kind of provincialism that Ireland was slipping into at that time is still very true – obviously with some exceptions… but we like to think of ourselves as very cosmopolitan. But actually we are quite provincial and quite derivative in our thinking. This is why from an Irish perspective I wanted to make this film. I also found that I hadn’t read a lot or seen a lot about what he was writing about. There are sensations you have yourself but then you see someone articulate them and you just think wow.
Hubert Butler: Witness To The Future screens at the Light House Cinema on Monday, 22nd February 2016 at 8:30PM
The 2016 Audi Dublin International Film Festival takes place 18th and 28th February 2016.