Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future

Writer, humanitarian and market gardener, 'Ireland's Orwell' is given due recognition for his years-ahead endeavors in this detailed documentary

Hubert Butler, he saved Jews from Nazi Austria, investigated the involvement of the Catholic Church in the Yugoslavian genocide of the Second World War and went toe-to-toe with the Vatican.

Sounds like a fascinating character, yet to this day the man from County Kilkenny is not particularly well known - such was the response at least from TV production companies who ultimately didn’t back Johnny Gogan's latest film Hubert Butler: Witness to the Future. And so, instead of being broadcast nationwide, the picture has so far been saved for local, independent cinemas.

That is, as the director puts it after a screening at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, ‘how Butler would have done it’. The showing itself is part of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival ahead of Human Rights Day on December 10, which has also offered cinema-goers the chance to see such films as Hillsborough, Song of the Sea, and I, Daniel Blake.

A writer of numerous essays – the topics of which ranged from local history and archaeology to the political and religious affairs of eastern Europe before and during the Second World War - Butler was a humanitarian, an alleged closet communist and, above all else, an avid market gardener.

Living and working out of his family home near Bennettsbridge, Kilkenny, Butler grew apples and kept honey bees and other animals, selling the produce at local markets. Not content with the simple life, however, he frequently left the idyls of rural Ireland behind to travel war-ravaged Europe, writing extensively on the horrors exhibited before him.

Presented chronologically and narrated by American-Irish poet and publisher Chris Agee, Witness to the Future delves deep into the history of the man often described as ‘Ireland’s Orwell’. It follows the writer’s journey initially from his Anglo-Irish childhood and study at Oxford; through his time in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Austria as well as interwar Yugoslavia.

Constructed from archive footage, location shoots and interviews with family members, historians and journalists familiar with Butler’s work, what follows is a thick narrative which, while seldom edge of your seat viewing, succeeds in documenting the visceral highlights of Butler’s life and career with great aplomb.

Fascinating as it is, the traditional anecdotal format grows tired over the duration, and ultimately loosens the documentary's grip. But where the film excels are in the sequences where passages of Butler’s essays are read aloud, hauntingly illustrated by archive footage of 20th century Europe. In fact one could easily spend the 100-minute run time watching just this alone, as none of the on screen interviews, and even the omnipresent Agee, can contend with the cerebral quality of Butler’s writings.

Although highly regarded now, Butler was in fact repeatedly silenced by the state. Irish military intelligence thought him a danger to the country, accused him of being a ‘Red’ and criticised his lack of support for the Catholic Church. He responded in-kind by famously drawing attention to the involvement of Aloysius Stepinac and other Catholic clergy with the Ustaša, a Nazi-installed puppet regime that had waged a genocidal crusade against non-Catholics in parts of Yugoslavia during the Second World War.

The documentary draws particular attention to Butler’s qualities as not just an essay writer but investigative journalist of sorts. A nod of respect on Gogan’s part, perhaps, himself being of a journalistic background.

‘When you read him you can see he’s bearing witness,’ he says following the screening, ‘and not just to what is in front of him’. The very title of the film, Witness to the Future, is in direct reference to Butler’s prescience as a social commentator. One can only imagine; if he was still alive today, he might well have a lot to say regarding the subject of xenophobia and refugee crises witnessed in recent years.

If there is one striking notion to be taken away from this powerful documentary, it is that the world needs more people like Butler and more documentaries like this to celebrate their virtues in the public domain.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival continues with more events until Saturday, December 10. For more information visit www.nihrf.com/events. To see what else is showing at Queen's Film Theatre go to www.queensfilmtheatre.com.