ESTHER JOHNSON tells Neil Mudd why she’s made a film with a markedly different vision of WWI
“EACH project has to be a new challenge in some shape or form,” says film-maker Esther Johnson.
“With Asunder, I really wanted to experiment with how you mix archive with contemporary footage and new music with letters, old testimonies, diary entries and memoirs within a new narrative.”
Her award-winning film marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme has been screened in cinemas and community spaces across north east England and beyond since its release in July last year, mainly in venues that relate to the film’s storylines in some way.
With writer Bob Stanley, who also co-produced, Johnson provides an unfamiliar account of the home front in the north-east during WWI, a region that quickly became a front line thanks to its munitions factories and shipyards.
Lent gravitas by the voices of former war correspondent Kate Adie and actor Alun Armstrong, the narration eschews dry historical detail in favour of the poignant personal testimonies of ordinary men and women, plus the occasional curious detail — who knew, for example, that managing a fish and chip shop was a “reserved occupation” during wartime?
Commissioned by 14-18 Now, the cultural programme marking the WWI centenary, it gives a fresh perspective on the civilian experience of the conflict. In part, that’s down to the remarkable footage Johnson unearthed while researching.
“Get me in an archive and I’m happy. I learned so much and there was just some incredible stories — quite mind-blowing, in fact,” she says.
The footage unearthed reveals a world purporting to carry on as normal, even as the industrial-scale carnage of no man’s land means that things can never be quite the same again.
Off-duty soldiers lark about, Mack Sennett-fashion, a girl munitions-worker shuffles self-consciously in her oversized overalls and crowds dressed in their Sunday best mug enthusiastically for the camera and raise a toast to Merry Old England.
Punctuating this grainy monochrome archive stock with contemporary colour footage of the north-east, Johnson says that she “wanted to make a film that was relevant to our experience of warfare today.”
Themed mosaic segments blend residential streets, the remnants of industry and shipbuilding with relics of the conflict itself, shot with a characteristic painterly eye for detail.
“The segments offer a moment of pause and reflection, a chance to let the music sing and allow the audience to think about the stories they’ve just heard,” Johnson explains.
The film’s distinctive score comes courtesy of Field Music and Warm Digits, along with the Cornshed Sisters and Northern Sinfonia Orchestra. The process of matching the visuals to sound was a ping-pong affair with everybody concerned pitching ideas back and forth.
“We’d talk about mood and tone — the emotional temperature of the film,” Johnson says of the way image and sound converged.
Resistant to resorting to brass, the score makes a virtue of woodwind instead, much to the film-maker’s delight: “I wanted to go against the grain and play with people’s expectations.”
Johnson undoubtedly achieves that. Asunder is a powerful fusion of the historical with the contemporary, a lyrical work that lingers long in the imagination.
It does nothing to commemorate the senseless bloodshed and waste of war. Rather, lest we forget, it celebrates the humour and compassion it gave rise to.
Asunder is being screened at the Belmont Film house in Aberdeen on September 13 and at other venues nationally until December 7, details: asunder1916.uk