Hear My Voice: film inspired by Colin Davidson exhibition 'offers a tribute to the human spirit'

Brendan J Byrne manages to further enrich the moving source material of Silent Testimony while extending the experience for those unable to see its portraits in person

Walter Simons, whose son Eugene disappeared in 1981, is one of 18 subjects featured in the Silent Testimony exhibition

In 2015 Northern Irish artist Colin Davidson created Silent Testimony, a series of large-scale portraits rendered in his uniquely stylized method as his own creative response to growing up in Troubles era Belfast.

Silent Testimony was also a reaction from Davidson to his high profile portrait work with well-known figures in music, film and literature. In immersing himself in such celebrity he was drawn to the shared bonds of humanity far more than to the distinction between such high achievers and the rest of us.

This interest in the human condition led Davidson to seek out 18 ‘ordinary’ people in Northern Ireland who were connected by a common thread of loss through political violence in Northern Ireland, and paint their portraits. Each portrait is accompanied by a brief explanation of the person and their loss.

Silent Testimony Opens

Silent Testimony is currently on display at the Nerve Visual Gallery in Derry~Londonderry, where it runs until September 16

Since opening in Belfast in 2015, Silent Testimony has received widespread popular and critical acclaim – with the power of the images provoking sorrow, reflection and optimism in audiences, and connecting with people across Europe.

But the very strength of Silent Testimony – the scale of the work and the deeply personal interaction that it provokes for the audience – is also its weakness. The work is of such power and such enduring currency and importance in a Northern Ireland that remains so painfully unreconciled to its past, and in which the nuanced voices and experiences of those directly affected are bluntly homogenized under the ‘victims’ label, that its power is limited by the physical need to experience it.

Hear My Voice presents us with a solution to that. In this short film, which premiered at the Belfast Film Festival in April, the lyrical beauty of the artwork and the huge weight of the experience and trauma that lies behind it is presented to the viewer in what is in itself a work of art. We may not all be able to see the exhibition but the film offers a solution that helps to unlock some of its power.

Under Brendan J Byrne’s direction and Brian Byrne’s haunting musical score we are slowly, almost hypnotically, immersed in Davidson’s art. A constantly, but gently, moving camera glides its way over the 18 portraits as piano and strings are intercut with the testimonies of the subjects of the paintings. The effect on the viewer is to simultaneously bring you closer to them, and to distance you.

The testimonies deliver you right to the heart of the traumatic events that are the source material for the work and offer context that the portraits never could, but the camera is observational, with obstructed shots and a voyeuristic sense of surveillance as it hovers on the outside. Although the stories are shared with us, they are most definitely not ours and we feel a sense of privilege that we are trusted with them.

Hear My Voice production

Anna Cachart's father Patrick was shot and killed at his home in Carrickfergus in 1975, in front of his wife while his children slept upstairs

As the testimonies are gradually layered upon each other, insights from Davidson around his process and his purpose in the work are added alongside the occasional use of archive to reinforce the personal tragedy with the wider conflict playing out across the country. It’s a format that offers a sense of the scale of human damage that was done, and still remains, in Northern Ireland but it never becomes relentless or bleak in its approach.

Byrne’s control over the film is admirable as he echoes the tone of the original work – the portraits nor the film are just about loss, but survival with that loss. It is respectful and reverential to the subjects and the stories and offers a tribute to the human spirit to keep on keeping on despite it all, rather than simply a catalogue of suffering.

Hear My Voice 3

Damien McNally, who was just four months old when his father Paul was shot in June 1976

Silent Testimony is a powerful piece of art. Dignified and devastating in its appreciation of where we are at in Northern Ireland today. Hear My Voice succeeds in enhancing and further enriching its source material for the viewer. The portraits take you up close and personal with their subjects, but the film takes you a further step closer – exploring their stories and bringing words and additional human texture to Davidson’s images.

Hear My Voice is a worthy companion piece to Silent Testimony and one will inevitably fuel a desire to see the other in audiences. Both will resonate with viewers long after they have been seen and both are ultimately rooted in a deep-seated love and connection for people and for place. Neither are to be missed.

Hear My Voice will have its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 12, followed by screenings at the Nerve Centre in Derry~Londonderry. Dates TBC. There will also be a free artist talk by Colin Davidson on September 13 (registration required – click here). Silent Testimony continues at the city's Nerve Visual Gallery until September 16.