Art of Conflict

Vince Vaughan's unlikely documentary about the history of Belfast's political murals descends into reality TV territory

Belfast’s murals have long punctuated its urban landscape, to the point where they have become an organic part of it, almost invisible to the local eye.

It comes as something of a surprise then that someone as unconnected to this peculiarly Northern Irish phenomenon as Hollywood comedy titan, Vince Vaughn, would choose to train his gaze upon them.

Initially attracted to the topic following a visit to relatives in Belfast, Vaughn resolved to tell the story behind this hyper-political artistry. Art of Conflict, narrated and produced by the actor, was directed by his sister, Valeri Vaughn.

While the film was made and completed several years ago – going on to earn plaudits at a number of film festivals in 2012 and 2013 – it has only just become generally available as a Netflix original documentary.

In parts it is impressive. The murals – hugely accomplished in a great many cases – have always reflected the evolving nature of the political climate in Northern Ireland, and it is interesting to observe the ways in which the opposing side’s gables change over time.

The dichotomy between loyalism’s militaristic themes and the republican tendency to reflect not just paramilitarism but social justice is well explored. The murals served as a means to reflect the mood of the working class communities in which they so proudly sit. They fostered dissent, giving a voice to those outside of the established political mainstream, and Vaughn certainly gets that across on film.

Unfortunately, such insights are rare. Given the somewhat left field melding of creator and subject, it comes as something of a disappointment that much of the final product is both factually weak and surprisingly rote.

What could have been a compelling study of the motivations, methods and people behind these great displays of urban art instead descends into yet another whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland’s troubled history.

Sure, the artists themselves do feature, but they are given no opportunity to provide greater insight into their craft, beyond the apparent desire to represent their respective communities. For the most part they are present only to offer exposition to an audience clearly presumed by the filmmakers to be entirely ignorant of the complex vagaries of this place and its past.

The footage is old enough to feature the late David Ervine (whose subsequent passing is acknowledged). He and Gerry Adams appear as local politicians placing the murals in a wider context. They and the artists are provided with handy, appropriately coloured name captions.

Irritatingly, ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’ is attached to each one in order to simplify the narrative. Considering the complicated relationship between religion and politics in Northern Ireland, it is debatable as to how reflective or helpful these labels truly are.

The inaccuracies do not end there. No film holding itself out as a serious project should be using ‘Ulster’ as an official alternative to ‘Northern Ireland’. Nor should it be describing Margaret Thatcher as ‘Prime Minister of Northern Ireland’ or transposing the Drumcree march to the Shankill Road.

In fact, by the time it is claimed that Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley were happily sitting down together in the immediate wake of the Good Friday Agreement, it is clear that for all the film’s noisy, kinetic enthusiasm – Belfast punk rock, explosions, the theme from Harry’s Game – actual substance may not be its foremost concern.

The overall approach is choppy and slightly confused; library footage of interviews with former paramilitaries is slotted in as if filmed for the documentary itself and, intermittently, a black taxi tour guide appears to point to this mural or that estate. His grief at the site of the McGurk’s Bar bombing, where his brother died, is filmed and set to music with the kind of crass voyeurism usually reserved for American reality TV.

There is a certain degree of redemption by the finale, however. David Ervine’s clear, uncomplicated contributions and brutally honest assessment of his own community remind us all – certainly in the current climate – of the kind of leadership that working class unionism now sadly lacks.

Whether or not the Vaughn siblings intended such an impression is unclear, but the fact remains that Ervine’s voice, even in death, is still amongst the most sensible.

His son Mark, one of the featured loyalist mural artists, would seem to have inherited his father’s more considered view of the world. His thoughtful observations over the course of the film represent rare artistic allusions to something more profound than the usual claims of territory, terror and discord. ‘I just love painting,’ he says. ‘It’s what I love doing. It’s escapism for me. I’m in my own world whenever I’m painting.’

Art of Conflict is now available on Netflix.