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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

Requiem for the Victims: 'Lost Lives' (2019) Review ****1/2

Updated: May 30, 2020

Last night I went to the cinema out of necessity rather than want. A need to understand a conflict that has always been present in my life but that I had struggled to grasp. With a father who grew up during ‘The Troubles’, was present on the streets of Derry as the violence of Bloody Sunday broke out, it was very much an enormous thing in my household that I knew happened to my Irish family. But no one really talked about it. When I asked my father who the bad guys, were when he did choose to speak about his childhood, he never answered. So, taking my seat in a cinema in Brixton on a rainy Wednesday evening, I knew that I was about to witness something revealing, uncomfortable but important. And Lost Lives began.

The film opens with the very basics of information, text fading onto the screen; who opposed who and what they stood for, significant dates. The rest is unimportant as the film chooses to set politics aside in favour of the emotional burden of the conflict.

We then soar across the open countryside, rolling hills and vast woodland of Ireland. A book suspended in a shady grove, framed by lush greenery and mossy bracken, makes its first appearance. A vast volume, it is the Lost Lives that was written over seven years by five journalists (David McKittrick, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, David McVea and Seamus Kelters) and chronicling over Three-thousand, seven hundred deaths since the ‘The Troubles’ began. The filmmaker’s, Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt) choice to keep the text as a physical presence in the film (as they discussed in their BFI Panel Q&A) becomes a recurring motif and one I can’t say was executed faultlessly. A sweeping score, swelling of violins all before our first entry has been described feels heavy. However, as the film progresses this steps back and it no longer feels forced but natural as each tragedy is recounted one after the other.

"Thoroughly impressive is the emotive and raw deliveries of the actors..."

The decision to use various significant Irish actors to perform the extracts from the book was powerful. It saved us from what could be described as harrowing accounts relentlessly being fed to us. To hear these stories is hard enough but to have distinctive voices for each account makes every story count. Thoroughly impressive is the emotive and raw deliveries of the actors performing these stories. I was especially taken with Michelle Fairley. The voice of a mother whose son was shot by an IRA sniper, she reads the open letter the woman went on to pen to him with such pain that I felt it was the very woman herself. Other notable talent includes Stephen Rea, James Nesbitt, Liam Neeson, Brendon Gleeson and many, many more.

The archive was unsettling in its volume, powerful in its imagery with much of the footage unseen by the general public, especially in the UK where some of what was happening in Ireland went unreported. Bridging each moving story and older footage are beautiful shots of the Irish countryside and the newer landscapes of the cities. These are tainted with shots of dilapidated buildings, artillery damaged walls, old, bullet-ridden signs, all reminders of a war fought not so long ago. And the beauty amongst the terror.

But as mentioned before, faults I could find would be in the melodrama of the score, sometimes too much for what is already a powerful story. Furthermore, the presence of the books would have served better, for me, had it been the close ups only of the flicking pages and placing it in perhaps a weary old room. To have it suspended above water or within a field felt unnatural for the stories being told. I understand that there is a great spirituality within the context of the film, a tome holding so many victims becomes an entity of it's own. But for the stories being told, realism was a necessary weight.

"... a requiem for the lost, a reminder for the present and a warning to the future."

Overall I admired its balanced depictions, its respect for all the losses. There was no room for judgment when there is no moral high-ground left. The selections of stories, although all are significant, are chosen to reflect the escalation that occurred, a point that is effective whilst viewing (half-way through the film and the filmmakers are still recounting killings in the seventies, it becomes truly heartbreaking).

The film is a requiem for the lost, a reminder for the present and a warning to the future. ‘The Troubles’ have long been a part of Modern Irish History and many have come to believe that conflict ended in the late nineties and was just that; a conflict. So what Lost Lives has become is a reminder for all that this was a war. A war between neighbour’s, governments and religions that rages on in the hostilities and political unrest currently present in 2019. One of the grieving mothers, who lost two of her sons to abduction and murder without ever knowing why during the seventies, put it best; it is watching a‘…nation committing suicide and [there is] not anything you can do about it.’ And so this film encourages us to look to the future and for change.

(Originally Posted in 24/10/19)

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