Bernadette

One of my friends returned from Brussels recently and I met her along with some other pals in town. Before I arrived though I had called into a bookstore and enquired whether they might have a biography on Bernadette Devlin. In fact I’d gauged the answer the night before when I put her name into Amazon; I discovered that yes, there was a biography, but no I couldn’t buy it on kindle or even firsthand.

The shop I called into tends to carry a sound selection of books and I figured that being Irish and in close proximity to Trinity it would likely carry works on Northern Ireland along with bios on key figures. But like Amazon, they didn’t have what I wanted and when I arrived to meet my friends (doing my round of meagre waves before sitting down), I launched into a bit of a tirade. My visiting friend is interested in women’s history but she hadn’t heard of Devlin. I wasn’t surprised – neither had I until a few weeks ago.

I live quite close to IMMA, The Museum of Modern Art, and frequently ramble around the grounds and through the gardens. I love seeing the same artworks again and again, sometimes discovering a new detail or re-experiencing a sensation through meticulously applied paint.

A cluster of new exhibitions had just launched and after taking in the permanent collection I slinked into a dark room playing black and white clips of a young woman with bushy eyebrows. I’d arrived late (the film’s around 40 minutes long and I’d walked in at the 25 minute mark) but I was so intrigued that I vowed to visit again and watch the film from start to finish. I did just that, arriving the following week three minutes before the next showing (all coincidentally, I’m not that organised on Saturdays).

The film, Bernadette, by Dublin-born artist Duncan Campbell, is an open-ended narrative about the Northern Irish dissident, Bernadette Devlin. It explores the subject matter along with the mode of communication (documentary film form) blending fact and fiction to examine Devlin’s fiery media persona versus the softly spoken, self-reflecting one. Told in three distinct phases, it begins with grainy footage and morphs into first person narrative, then third. It’s a conscious admission of the limitation of the documentary film form and instead of building up to a conclusion it consciously dissipates into something muddled, nothing.

Yesterday it was announced that Duncan Campbell had won this year’s Turner Prize for his series of films called It For Others. And as for me, well, I finally got hold of Devlin’s biography, The Price of My Soul, through the library. Now I can discover the real space and lived tension that rests between one newsreel and the next.