Tragedy of the Troubles: Documentary a timely reminder of dark days in North

Lost Lives, a documentary showing at Cork Film Festival, is a timely reminder of the bad old days in the North, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

Tragedy of the Troubles: Documentary a timely reminder of dark days in North

Lost Lives, a documentary showing at Cork Film Festival, is a timely reminder of the bad old days in the North, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

Towards the end of Lost Lives, Liam Neeson narrates the details behind the suicide of Billy Giles, 41, a UVF volunteer and negotiator for the Good Friday Agreement. Giles hung himself in September 1998, five months after the peace treaty had been signed.

In 1982, Giles abducted and shot dead Michael Fay, a married Catholic man who was on the way to visit his daughter in Ulster Hospital. Later in a TV interview, following his release from prison, Giles described the man he murdered as a friend and workmate. He had been given the target of killing a Catholic man, the same age as himself.

“To me, it didn’t matter who it was,” said Giles. “Everything went out the window. That’s the effect the environment I was living in had on me. It turned me into a killer. When it happened, it felt to me like somebody had reached down inside me and ripped my insides out…I felt empty. You hear a bang and it’s too late, then… I lost something that day I don’t think I’ll ever get back.”

Giles said in his suicide note that he, too, was a “victim” of the Troubles. He wanted the next generation to be aware of his generation’s “mistakes” and regrets, hoping that they can live normal lives.

It would be difficult to find a more important documentary film for Irish people (and cavalier Brexiteers) to watch this year than Lost Lives. It’s the kind of film that shakes you to your core, as it skillfully reminds you of the mindlessness of the Troubles and the truism that war is hell.

Narrator Brendan Gleeson
Narrator Brendan Gleeson

The documentary is based on the landmark book, Lost Lives. Published in 1999, the book catalogued the deaths that occurred during the conflict, which the filmmakers have brought up to date by including Lyra McKee, the most recent of 3,700 casualties over a 50-year period.

The production, which is produced and directed by Michael Hewitt and Diarmuid Lavery, whittled their focus down to 18 stories. The incidents unfold chronologically and are balanced between tragedies that befell both sides, “and no sides”, as Hewitt puts it, as well as the British military and security forces. The narrators include Neeson, Kenneth Branagh, Brendan Gleeson, Bríd Brennan, Roma Downey and Stephen Rea.

“We’re only providing a small snapshot of the hurt and loss that took place here,” says Hewitt. “As far as selecting the 18, Diarmuid Lavery, the co-director on the film, and I took a week away from the office to go through the book from cover to cover. We made a selection of probably 110 to 120 extracts and recorded all of those with the actors.

“What we found we were drawn to primarily was when there was a quote, usually from a family member. Their words give you some sense of the loss and the humanity and some kinds of detail about the person who was lost. It helps you understand and empathise with that loss.”

The documentary is stitched together with stunning imagery of Northern Ireland, of autumnal colours, familiar landmarks and a soaring orchestral score by the Ulster Orchestra. Archival footage and the jarring noise of blasting bombs, ambulance sirens and crying are weaved in also. It is, however, the personal detail, as alluded to by Hewitt, that stays with you.

The poor father who took almost an hour to identify his 20-year-old son underneath the lacerations to his body caused when an IRA bomb he was planting detonated prematurely. The two Protestant Orr brothers, aged 19 and 20, who were abducted and shot in the head in 1972, their bodies found on the roadside eight miles from Belfast the morning after they had left their house to visit their Catholic girlfriends.

The coffin that had to have special padding to keep the body parts together of a nine-year-old boy who was blown to bits by a landmine while playing Cowboys & Indians in his back garden in Derry. The randomness of the deaths are startling.

“I’m 59 years of age,” says Hewitt. “I was nine when the Troubles started in August 1969. My teenage years, the years when I was going out at night, going down to the youth club, or coming from school and so on, were during the years with the highest death toles, 1972 and 1976.

“What struck me personally reading through those years: sometimes [the atrocity] happened half a mile away from where I would have been cycling down to the youth club with my brother. Our lives were continuing in that kind of normal way – so close to something that was not only abnormal, but truly shocking.

“Anybody who lived in Belfast and across Northern Ireland was affected, and you can argue that many people are still affected by what happened. Thirty years of violence is a long, long time for someone to have lived through that. You can see we’re still working through it.”

Lost Lives will be screened as part of the Cork Film Festival, 6.15pm, Friday, 8 November, The Everyman Theatre, 15 MacCurtain St, Cork. See:

Other documentary highlights

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Gate Cinema, 8.30pm, Friday, 8 November (& 1.15pm, Monday, 11 November)

The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael has been hailed as most famous film critic of 20th century, a fearless woman operating in a man’s world or “that dirty old broad”, as the actor Jerry Lewis called her. Narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, the documentary includes interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader and Alec Baldwin on her influence and private life.

Citizen K, Gate Cinema, 9pm, Monday, 11 November (& 12.15pm, Tuesday, 12 November)

Alex Gibney, renowned director of No Stone Unturned and Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, tackles the life of political dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once believed to be the richest man in Russia, Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in a Siberian prison after falling foul of Vladimir Putin’s regime, but is now living in exile in London. His story casts light on the murky world of post-Soviet Russia.

Tiny Souls, Triskel Christchurch, 8.45pm, Tuesday, 12 November

Nina Naser made use of her extraordinary access and patience over four years of filming to put together the story of three Syrian children who grow up in a refugee camp in northern Jordan. Despite forbidding circumstances, their innocence and positivity shine through.

The Cave, Everyman, 6.30pm, Friday, 15 November

Directed by Feras Fayyad, a former winner at the Cork Film Festival, this is the story of a female doctor working in an underground hospital close to Damascus during the Syrian conflict. She operates under horrendous conditions, which include bombs dropping overhead and the misogyny of those who believe she shouldn’t be working there.

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