Hotel, London; Until 18 January
A small art gallery in Bethnal Green is showing a short film by Duncan Campbell of Bernadette Devlin which, when it is focusing on Devlin, who in 1969 at the age of 21 became the youngest ever woman MP, is totally riveting.
Studying psychology at university in Belfast at the time, she was one of the student founders of the organisation People's Democracy and had just won the mid-Ulster parliamentary seat. There was a 98 percent turnout for the vote and she declared she had been elected by the "oppressed people of Ulster". Four months later Devlin was in the middle of the Bogside riots in Derry. They were fighting for civil rights and wanted the British army out of Ireland.
Unfazed by the microphones thrust in front of her, Devlin answers unblinkingly with a clear, economical and hugely articulate style, only sometimes seeming to smile in amazement that she has been thrust so centre stage. We see her taking the microphone and organising on the streets, on the barricades and at rent strikes. "We want justice. I will demand it and if it doesn't suit Westminster we will take it." And again, "When they say curfew, it doesn't mean we get off the streets. No, we get on them. We will have our tea and supper on the streets. The barricades can't come down."
We see her sat with others on the pavement outside 10 Downing Street demanding to speak to the prime minister after Bloody Sunday, when 13 civil rights demonstrators were shot by the British army in Derry in 1972; and again outside parliament, when, even though she was the only MP actually present in Derry on that day, she is refused a chance to speak. "We are all terrorists in their definition. We are fighting to remove repression, north and south. There is no point in begging them - we need mass movements on the streets." This is just after she has given Home Secretary Reginald Maudling a punch as she was removed from the House of Commons. Asked outside if she is going to apologise, she replies, "No, I am only sorry I didn't get him by the throat".
As an opportunity to see Bernadette Devlin as rebel and activist, this film is very watchable. As an artwork, it becomes something else. The last ten minutes of the film gives us the arty input created by its maker, Dublin-born Duncan Campbell. Devlin's face is still on screen but the picture is broken up - it fragments, dissolves and reappears. The voice off-screen is not Devlin's but that of another woman who says things like, "You before you started calling yourself I", and "I, I the whole time." After a bit we have a blank screen and the disembodied voice talks on for some ten minutes, to me, incomprehensibly.
Campbell explains in his notes on the work, "I am striving for what Samuel Beckett terms 'a form that accommodates the mess'. I want to broaden the scope of the film to include this space and tension, which is typically excluded or concealed, and that is the reason for the overlapping strands in the film."
Go for Bernadette and see what you make of the "Beckett".