Emma Keyes was at the Cork Film Festival to see Lost Lives, Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt’s film adapted from the book that aims to document the stories of the men, women and children who have died as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
William Kinney. Stephen Keating. Malcolm and Peter Orr. Philip Rafferty. William Gordon Gallagher. Danielle Carter. John, Anna, Jacqueline, and Anne Marie O’Brien. Julie Statham. James Joseph Connolly. Julie Livingstone. James Kennedy.
These are just some of the civilians, soldiers, and paramilitary fighters who died as a direct result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and that the film Lost Lives, co-directed by Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt, attempts to illustrate. The film adapts the book of the same name that chronicles every one of the more than 3700 people who lost their lives during the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Each of the nearly twenty stories is narrated by a different actor from the island of Ireland (Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Rea, Roma Downey, and Kenneth Branagh, to name just a few). Every story helps to illustrate the way in which, as stated by the mother of the murdered Orr brothers, “It’s like sitting back and watching a nation commit suicide…and there’s nothing you can do about it.” No one story rises above any other as more powerful, rather each story builds upon the ones that came before it, rising to a crescendo that cannot be looked away from.
This film does not interest itself in the political, social, religious, or economic realities and machinations of the Troubles. Other books and documentaries have done thorough jobs pinning down just how the Troubles came to be, so for a viewer who knows nothing about the twentieth century history of Northern Ireland, Lost Lives is not the best starting point for learning that context. Hewitt and Lavery focus on showcasing a cross-section of stories of people who died by gunfire, bombings, and suicide during the Troubles and after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This approach emphasizes the human element of the conflict which makes for hard but necessary viewing.
While every story the film highlights devastates, the film’s aesthetics undercut the power of its narrative. In various moments throughout the film, the score overpowers the narration and visuals, telling us how to feel instead of letting the stories stand for themselves. The visuals also often left something to be desired. Visually, the strongest moments of the film occurred when the filmmakers showed archival footage from the time period: bombings, funerals, and daily life. Had the whole film consisted of archival footage with voiceover narration on top, the film would have been visually tight and arresting. Instead, Lavery and Hewitt intercut random footage of various scenes of landscapes, animals, and decaying buildings.
In the Q&A after the screening, Hewitt, with regards to the footage, said, “We didn’t want to go and film somewhere that directly related to what we were reading in the book,” and, “It was about creating space for the words.” That justification is understandable, but nonetheless, the random footage creates a distance between the narrative and the audience when the film would have been better served by trying to create an immediacy between the two. The natural aesthetics imbue the film with a sense of the mystical and epic and unknowable when really the tragedy of the situation in Northern Ireland is in how utterly mundanely human it all is. The natural world has little to do with humans killing one another.
Although the aesthetics undermine the power of Lost Lives, the film still stands as an important testament to a traumatic time period whose repercussions resonate in Northern Ireland today. The film bears witness to the more than 3700 people dead in this conflict and so must we.