Researcher Blog by Professor Esther Johnson: Asunder – The Story of an English Town in the First World War
About the author
Esther Johnson is Professor of Film and Media Arts in the Art and Design Research Centre (ADRC) in C3RI at Sheffield Hallam University. Esther’s work is at the intersection of artist moving image and documentary. Her poetic portraits focus on marginal worlds, revealing resonant stories that may otherwise remain hidden or ignored. Esther’s work has been exhibited internationally in 40 countries, and has also featured on television and radio. In 2012 Johnson won the Philip Leverhulme Research Prize in Performing and Visual Arts for young scholars.
Esther Johnson was commissioned to make a documentary film by 14-18 Now as part of a five-year long cultural commemoration of World War I. The film Asunder: The Story of an English Town in the First World War is the moving and poetic outcome of this commission. As we approach Remembrance Day 2017, Esther sheds light on the lives of some of the people she discovered during her research for the film.
“And then…all the world began to roar.”
– Private William Finlay, Durham Light Infantry Regiment and Lincolnshire Regiment
Bella Reay, a young munitions worker, was a whizz footballer scoring 133 goals for Blyth Spartans in one season; and Robert Hope (Hepple), a 19-year old soldier and former shipyard worker, was shot at dawn for desertion. These are just some of the stories highlighted in my feature documentary, Asunder. Commissioned as part of 14–18 NOW’s First World War centenary arts programme, the film tells the story of Sunderland and the North East, a vulnerable area during WW1 due to its shipyards and munitions factories. Asunder uses archive film with contemporary footage, alongside a specially commissioned score by Sunderland’s Mercury-nominated Field Music and Newcastle’s Warm Digits, with narration by Kate Adie and Alun Armstrong written by Bob Stanley and incorporating oral histories, diaries and 1914–18 newspaper stories. The premiere took place in July 2016, marking the centenary of the horrific battle of the Somme. This was the largest battle of the War, commencing 1 July 1916, with the largest recorded losses by Britain in a single day, a staggering 57,470 casualties.
I was keen to create a work that would present a new way of understanding the War, and so set out to uncover hidden social histories of both the home and western fronts. I aimed to use stories and period footage a viewer might not expect, such as moments of magic during the horror, and attempts at finding normality in abnormal circumstances. I wanted to go beyond the footage of the frontline included in many accounts of WW1. Distinctive archive film includes young soldiers play-fighting and tending farm animals during their ‘down-time’; a soldier attempting to kiss a girl under the mistletoe; and animations of zeppelins, and a ‘Man in the Moon’. WW1 was the first major conflict with the large use of aircraft and tanks, so I wanted to include footage shot from a different point of view – from the air and from the turret of a tank. This remarkable archive is collaged alongside contemporary footage I shot in North East locations that where once home to the film characters.
After researching in 12 local and national archives, and 5 film archives I choose the stories of 9 individuals who experienced the War first hand. These extraordinary stories include the immense changes for women during the period; from the new possibilities in jobs, seen in the life of Margaret Holmes, a young tram conductress who survived a zeppelin raid on Sunderland; to stories of working women’s suffrage activism highlighted in the account of Lisbeth Simm, a miner’s daughter who wrote a column about the social conditions in the NE for the Northern Democrat.
In contrast to the narratives of women on the home front, there is the story of Norman Gaudie, a devout Quaker, and Sunderland AFC centre forward. As a conscientious objector, Gaudie was interned in Richmond Castle and sentenced to death, a sentence later repealed. The walls of Richmond Castle are home to a gallery of delicate pencil drawings by successive prisoners in the cells, one a faithful depiction of Norman Gaudie’s mother.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the research has been to uncover details about individuals that living family members didn’t know existed. I’ve managed to track down several living relatives connected to stories in the film, and hand my research over to these families. I have since been contacted by additional living relatives who on hearing about the project have got in touch and shared further details about their family history. Public screening Q&As has enabled an extension to the research with audience members sharing their own family experiences of the War. I have also received letters and short stories written in response to the film, and was invited to speak at a centenary remembrance service for Robert Hope in Ypres during July of this year.
The premiere performance took place in the fitting Music Hall surroundings of the Sunderland Empire with a live score performed by Field Music, Warm Digits, The Cornshed Sisters, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Asunder has since been performed with live music at the Barbican London, and is currently touring to cinemas, community, schools and educational venues across the UK. Asunder won the 2017 Journal Culture Best Event Sunderland Award, and was finalist for the Best Use of Footage in a Factual Production Award by Focal International, the Federation of Commercial and Audio Visual Libraries.
There will be a screening plus Q&A at Curzon, Sheffield on 29 November 2017.
* Asunder archive film stills courtesy of British Film Institute, Imperial War Museum and North East Film Archive.
Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SHU, C3RI or the C3RI Impact Blog.