A look at The Life After, a brave new documentary about The Troubles in Northern Ireland

Leonie Helm /
Aug 1, 2018 / Film & TV

‘If you can live in peace, live in it’.

The haunting closing words of The Life After, a documentary focusing on The Troubles in Northern Ireland.  The words are spoken by Sharon Austin, sister of Winston Cross, who was interrogated and tortured by the IRA in 1974 before being driven to the hills outside Derry and shot through the head.

Directors Brian Hill and Niamh Kennedy have made a documentary that focuses on the human loss and lingering grief of the Northern Irish Troubles, an ethno- nationalist conflict between the late 1960’s and, officially, 1998 that killed 3,532 people. Despite the Good Friday Agreement that officially ended the conflict in 1998, many people in Northern Ireland are still living with the horror of The Troubles, lost loved ones and no reparations. The startling and seldom spoken truth is that more people have died in Northern Ireland since 1998 than during The Troubles, through suicide alone.

Through archive footage, interviews and poetic monologues we are introduced to five stories from The Troubles, without being directly told the religion or politics of the people speaking. This is a brave piece of film and a difficult watch which humanises and de-politicises the conflict, using human emotion to show a country still grieving for those unjustly lost, and the futility of the conflict.

Poet Nick Laird, husband of author Zadie Smith, watched the full interviews and created each person, each victim, and each story a poem, recited by the interviewees at intervals throughout the documentary. According to Laird, ‘The point of art is to complicate the narrative’, and here it has a comparative effect on the audience. Next to the harsh reality of the interview, the poetry expresses what the people cannot, enabling them to tackle familiar and traumatic subjects in a different way, and the audience to understand the emotions involved in a deeper way.

Both directors were conscious of not working within an ‘us’ and ‘them’ paradigm, neither being from Northern Ireland. Brian Hill described the decision to have interviewees recite poetry about themselves, saying it ‘Feels more collaborative, giving the people more ownership of the project and adds more emotion.’

As well as Sharon Austin, the documentary focuses on the stories of life changing loss and trauma from Colette O’Connor, Marie Newton, Virtue Dixon, and Linda and Pat Molloy.

There is a prevailing feeling throughout the film of the futility of the violence. The murdered relatives were not engaged in conflict at the time of their deaths; one was working a shift in his pub, one was walking home, another was celebrating her 24th birthday at a disco, they were caught in the crossfire.

The families also exhibit that astonishing human ability to forgive those that have caused them so much pain and suffering. Virtue Dixon whose, daughter Ruth was killed on her 24th birthday, describes her numbness on finding out through Laird’s poetry; ‘Imagine you’ve no feelings left, like you’re on ice, like a stone, like a machine’. Each person interviewed describes the lack of aftercare of any sort after their losses. This coupled with the lack of justice, as no arrests were made in any of the cases mentioned, explains why, despite ending with The Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there was no catharsis, no closure in Northern Ireland. The Troubles still live on like an open wound.

‘The chorus of the dead is 3,000 strong’ says Virtue Dixon, but there is also a walking dead in Northern Ireland. Still suffering, still no peace, no justice. ‘We need to talk about it’, says Colette O’Connor.

Virtue Dixon

Virtue Dixon

When explaining why they interviewed all women, with the exception of Pat Molloy, Hill says they found that the men, who were traditionally more involved in the conflicts, simply couldn’t express themselves. People do not talk about The Troubles, it was something you just got on with, leaving many men unable to express themselves even now. The women, the silent voices in a patriarchal society, were left to pick up the pieces of their broken families, they had to stay strong, to keep going, and this determination is evident in these five women.

The Life After gives an original anthropological insight in to The Troubles and the current state of Northern Ireland. The lost lives and the trauma left behind, even the inherited trauma of the generations born after 1998, are at the centre of this piece of film. There is a severe lack of knowledge around the rest of the British Isles about The Troubles, and what little knowledge people have is usually political. This film gives faces and voices to the conflict, and the film ends with an uneasy incompleteness, but with glimmers of hope and a clear determination for peace.

All images are courtesy of the Bertha Doc House in Russell Square.

Words by Leonie Helm

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