Voices Fron The Front Lines

Michalczyk, Fr. Helmick team on documentary of the
Irish peace process

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

For two weeks last May, Prof. John Michalczyk (Fine Arts) and part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology), traveled through Northern Ireland, listening to a cross-section of voices offer stories about conflict, tragedy, hope and redemption.

Those voices, and the people to whom they belong, are the centerpiece of a new film produced and directed by Michalczyk, "Out of the Ashes: Northern Ireland's Fragile Peace," for which Fr. Helmick served as executive producer along with Boston Theological Institute Executive Director Rodney Petersen. The 56-minute film chronicles the nearly three decades of unrest in Ulster through interviews - done on location mainly in Belfast, Derry and Dublin - with political and religious leaders, former paramilitaries, ex-prisoners, and Catholic and Protestant children, among others.

Prof. John Michalczyk (Fine Arts) and part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology). Michalczyk said most of the film's subjects have seldom been heard before: "As the peace process goes on, these are the people who are truly fostering a long-term change."
"Out of the Ashes" will have its premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts' Remis Auditorium on Friday, March 27, at 5:30 p.m. A program of Irish music hosted by WGBH-FM announcer Brian O'Donovan will precede the screening at 5 p.m., and a panel discussion featuring some of the documentary participants will conclude the event.

The film is the first in a proposed series by Michalczyk examining conflicts and their impact on the people caught up in them. This May, he plans to travel with Fr. Helmick to Bosnia as part of a BTI contingent to study the struggle taking place there, and plans future works on Rwanda and Jerusalem.

"Out of the Ashes" reflects the integrated experience and interests of Michalczyk and Fr. Helmick. Michalczyk's films often deal with the perceptions people in conflict form of one another, the consequences that result, and the prospects for reconciliation. Fr. Helmick is an expert in conflict resolution and has worked with many principal figures in Northern Ireland. But they and Petersen sought to have the participants, not scholars and authority figures, be the primary narrators.

According to Michalczyk, "The primary focus is on newer voices, ones seldom heard before: the women who are forced to take up so much of the day-to-day work in family and community life; and the former prisoners, who have undergone a radical change from using violence to pursuing social action.

"As the peace process goes on," he continued, "these are the people who are truly fostering a long-term change."

"The stories have become pretty familiar to me," said Fr. Helmick, who interviewed some of the subjects for the film, "but those who aren't as close to the situation will be astonished by what they hear, I think. The people represent an important part of Northern Irish thinking that is seriously underreported."

While some prominent personalities such as Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams appear, Michalczyk and Fr. Helmick note, people like prison chaplain Fr. John Freyal and ex-paramilitaries Alex Calderwood and Gusty Spence make a significant impression. Fr. Freyal - who has studied at Boston College - works at Belfast's notorious Maze prison, and speaks poignantly of encountering many boyhood friends imprisoned for paramilitary or other violent activities.

"He's very soft-spoken, but has a very perceptive mind," Michalczyk said. "He quotes from Robert Frost about 'the road not taken,' and says, 'If I hadn't gone to the seminary, I'd probably have been in there with them.'"

But as the film indicates, prisoners do not necessarily become hardened criminals and terrorists behind bars; in many cases they become committed to working for peace and social reform. The "tough-looking" Calderwood, Michalczyk points out, now works with juvenile delinquents, while Spence - who appeared at BC in 1994 with a group of Loyalists to discuss the peace process - has become active in reconciling the two sides.

"When he was imprisoned in the Maze for the killing of a Catholic, it was Gusty who came to the wire [separating the Protestant and Catholic prisoners], and asked to be taught Irish," Fr. Helmick said. "In one segment of the film, I asked him what he was after - did he just want to learn Irish, or was it a way to better understand the other prisoners? The answer becomes very clear."

The project had its tense moments: Michalczyk recalls the film crew interviewing a British soldier at a checkpoint "with automatic weapons trained on us" by the other soldiers (the British commander refused to allow them to use the footage).

"Above all, we wanted to show the importance of each person's story," Michalczyk said. "We do not come out for one side or the other. It's particularly important for Americans to see this balance, because we have been exposed to only a small part of the conversation."

Among the contributors to the film were Irish Studies Music Programs Director Seamus Connolly and part-time faculty member Laurel Martin, who recorded a fiddle duet for the soundtrack. Renowned Irish composer Phil Coulter, a visiting Irish Studies faculty member, also wrote and performed two piano pieces especially for the film.

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