Duncan Campbell


Bernadette, 2008, is the story of Bernadette Devlin, the Irish political activist who, in 1969, became the youngest-ever female member of Parliament at the age of twenty-one; she was to remain an outspoken leader of the impoverished Catholic working classes. Beyond mere biography, however, Duncan Campbell’s 16-mm film (transferred to video) is also a story about storytelling itself—about the gaps, the choices, the subjective rehearsing of history, and all the moments left unrecorded and forgotten. Campbell uses primarily archival footage—usually exhilarating moments of Devlin’s spectacular oratorical skills—to make an engrossing thirty-seven-minute portrait of not just one but two lives: the activist’s as well as the filmmaker’s. Campbell assumes a nonspeaking role, but he reminds the viewer throughout that he is there, the phantom behind the opera piecing together this “true story” that is, inevitably, a fiction. He adds unrelated and obviously Foleyed sounds (birdcalls, a ticking clock), or allows the sound of footsteps laid over silent footage of Devlin walking down an empty street to misalign with her movements. He includes aborted television interviews interrupted because of faulty lighting, along with embarrassing footage of a Brylcreemed American newscaster preparing for a future interview with Devlin—revealing both the newsman’s insipid questions and his act of earnest, attentive listening without Devlin actually being present. And although Devlin’s patterned minidresses and Pan Am travel bag give the work a period flavor, Bernadette never loses itself to nostalgia, moralism, or hagiography. Yet Campbell is a conventional (and smart) enough filmmaker to know that any story is only as good as the characters within it. Devlin is an inspirational choice: A fiery speaker, she once slapped the Conservative home secretary across his face. “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat,” she says unflinchingly when asked whether she regretted her action. Campbell gives us plenty of satisfying views of Devlin—organizing rent strikes, or promising the prime minister’s spokesman that she will “make as big a nuisance of myself as I can” until her people’s demands are met. Though fearless, she is no saint or superwoman, and her vulnerability is apparent right from the opening shots of her expressive face, showing joy, uncertainty, anger, and conviction with a candidness entirely unexpected on the face of a politician.

Bernadette thus scratches many contemporary itches in that it addresses the appeal, witnessed in the recent American election, of a leader who is thoughtful, eloquent, and has firsthand experience of personal hardship and acknowledges the desire to honor lesser-known but deserving heroes and heroines like those commemorated, for example, in Thomas Hirschhorn’s cardboard kiosks, monuments, and altars to Antonio Gramsci or Ingeborg Bachmann. Bernadette also offers some gender balance to Steve McQueen’s stunning but virtually all-male Hunger (2008), his film about the dramatic outcome of the Troubles about a decade after Devlin was first articulating the problems in Northern Ireland. The final ten minutes of the piece forgo Devlin’s verbal forthrightness as they spiral into soaring images of gray skies accompanied by a lyrical, ambiguous voice-over that uses language to question the baggage and distortion of language itself—not just in the film’s narration but in the very creation of identity.

Gilda Williams