BALTIC presents a six week screening of Duncan Campbell's powerful film Bernadette, composed of archival material, new footage, animation and scripted voiceover. The film tells the story of Bernadette Devlin, a Northern Irish Republican who became the youngest woman to be elected to the House of Commons.
Campbell has a deep interest in the seductive power of stories; his work juxtaposes the inherent promise of storytelling with the breakdown of narrative and the inevitable disintegration of meaning. His preoccupation with human truth and his refusal to adhere to formal or narrative conventions resonate in this, his latest project, a documentary film about Northern Irish Republican Bernadette Devlin.
Devlin became a street activist in the late 1960s and was heavily involved in the Battle of the Bogside in 1969. She represented the local residents at a moment in history which is widely acknowledged as the beginning of Northern Ireland's 30 year ‘troubles’. She subsequently, at the age of only 21, became the youngest women ever to be elected to the House of Commons, Westminster; with her campaign slogan "I will take my seat and fight for your rights" Devlin signalled her rejection of the traditional Irish Republican tactic of abstentionism.
Bernadette is composed entirley of found footage which is presented without commentary or context. It links the state of being lost among representations of the past to one of obsessive, even sexual, enthrallment. The film opens with black and white footage of Bernadette's bare skin: her toes, her feet, her arms, her eyes. This extolling of the parts of the body is a cinematic version of the blason, an adoration of 'the beloved' which has migrated from its origins in French poetry to film (Jean Luc Godard's Le Mépris also opens with a scene of this sort, dedicated to Brigitte Bardot). This portrayal of the beloved is subsequently overturned and then almost forgotten in the rest of the film, which shows a firebrand of a woman, one who, after being prohibited from speaking in Parliament after Bloody Sunday, punched the Home Secretary (and later said her only regret was that she "didn't get him by the throat").
As the footage progresses it becomes clear that these excerpts are not given to the viewer so that a story might be learnt in the manner of a historical documentary. Rather, the viewer is confronted with simply more and more representations of Devlin, as an object of irrational attention; these images no longer appear to be under Campbell’s control, but rule over him illustrating the limitations of historical memory. Campbell adds: 'I wanted to faithfully represent Devlin, to do justice to her legacy. Yet I worked with mediated images of her and writings about her. What I produced can only ever be a selection of these representations, via my own obsessions and my desire to make winning art of her.'
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