AN Experimental feminist Northern Ireland film-opera about class and conflict, is to be premiered in Belfast this month as part of a series of events to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
History of the Present, a collaboration by writer Maria Fusco and American-British filmmaker Margaret Salmon, tells the story of ordinary lives, still dominated today by the looming presence of the Belfast peacelines. This semi-autobiographical, ground-breaking film brings working class women’s voices to the forefront, amplifying untold stories of marginalised communities and collective trauma.
The 45-minute piece is composed by the internationally respected composer Annea Lockwood, with improvised vocals provided by French opera singer, Héloïse Werner. It is the first opera of its kind to look at working class voices from Northern Ireland, with early stages of the work developed during Maria’s fellowship at the Royal Opera House in London.
Made on 35mm and SD video in the streets of Belfast, the Ulster Museum and the Royal Opera House, the work is set to be premiered at the QFT, Belfast on Wednesday, 19 April as part of a series of events organised by British Council Northern Ireland and the Belfast International Arts Festival to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Maria, who grew up in Belfast’s Ardoyne during the Troubles, first came up with the concept while working on a documentary project for BBC Radio 4. She is no stranger to large-scale projects having been commissioned by the National Theatre Wales in 2018 to write and direct ‘ECZEMA!’ a play celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS.
She said: “I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 about the peaceline I grew up beside in Ardyone, Belfast, and it involved walking along the perimeter on Alliance Avenue - it was the first time I had ever been to the other side of that peaceline. And after it was broadcast, I realised how little people know about the peacelines and thought there was more creative and critical work to be done.
“I wanted to embody the voices of working-class Northern Irish women, their role(s) in conflict zones, to ask, who has the right to speak and in what way? To me, an opera feels like an obvious choice, especially with our tendency here for a touch of the theatrical. I felt that opera needed to make more of a commitment to working-class stories and a range of accents.”
History of the Present layers sociological, cultural, and political themes from the recent history of Northern Ireland, Maria was especially interested in using different sounds from the Troubles onwards to bring the work together, including both archival and field recordings.
She said: “The opera-film features archival recordings of women’s voices from my own family recordings, made when I was a child. I’m interested in how you learn accent through tone and range, how the environment seeps into you, how you try to assimilate. We utilised other archival materials, which our singer Héloïse improvises with, so, ‘historic’ Belfast military sounds: a helicopter, a Saracen, and a riot. We made the decision in the work not to include any visual archival material, but instead to focus on the sonic. When I was growing up, you would often hide when a riot was happening not stand staring out at it, your experience of violence is largely sonic: you’re a reluctant participant.”
“We also worked with field recordings of the peaceline in Ardoyne made by composer Annea. I was deeply honoured she agreed to compose new music for the piece, her pioneering work in field-recordings has been an inspiration for a long time. The music she composed for History of the Present has evolved out of those field recordings and she has transformed the material of the place into something which has a certain beauty and depth that may not be immediately apparent.”
“It’s a very beautiful piece, sensitively and movingly shot by artist-filmmaker Margaret Salmon. The reason we decided to make this as a film rather than a live work is that I want lots of people in different countries to see it, especially women in post conflict zones. The work seeks to present an emotional state of a post conflict city and what that feels like. It does have a heightened emotional state, but there’s also moments of humour and slapstick, which is obviously so important in the Northern Ireland psyche.”
History of The Present is supported by the British Council, Creative Scotland and the Royal Opera House, and was developed with the assistance of the Abbey Theatre/ Amharclann na Mainistreach. Following its Belfast’s premiere, the work will then tour nationally and internationally, and to the Royal Opera House 2 June, Art Night Dundee on 24 June, and Edinburgh Art Festival in August 2023, with a performance premiere in Edinburgh.
Speaking about the film, was Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland, he said: “The British Council is delighted to support History of the Present as part of an international spotlight and cultural programme marking the 25th Anniversary of the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement. The week-long programme focuses on the role of arts in divided and polarised societies, and here in Northern Ireland, artists and cultural organisations have played a crucial role in our post-conflict journey over the past 25 years.
“History of the Present is a powerful, experimental piece, that helps amplify the voices of those stories that may have been left behind. As we mark 25 years since the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement, we hope audiences can take this moment to reflect and perhaps be challenged by these new and abstract stories of Northern Ireland.”
Richard Wakely, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Belfast International Arts Festival, said, “As we mark this milestone anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we have curated a special programme that invites audiences to reflect upon our shared past and consider the potential for our shared future.
“The arts play a pivotal role in promoting understanding and empathy, stimulating conversation and action, and helping shed light on the past so that we can build a brighter and more equitable future. "History of the Present” makes a unique and vital contribution to this approach by highlighting untold stories of marginalised communities and collective trauma.”
The premiere of History of The Present at the QFT will be followed by a panel discussion with Maria Fusco, Margaret Salmon and Annea Lockwood, chaired by Curator, Annie Fletcher. For more information on the production and to buy tickets visit: https://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/history-of-the-present/
History of the Present continues the British Council’s work, building connection, understanding and trust between people in the UK and overseas through arts, education and English language teaching. To find out more about their work in Northern Ireland visit nireland.britishcouncil.org or follow on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.