War in culture is a bombastic thing: whether you’re an avid military buff or hate the stuff, we view major, world-changing conflicts through a stock set of imagery. Planes flying low over towns and cities, dropping their cargo and the destruction that follows are sights we see – and associate – with conflict.
But there’s a much more mundane side to war. The domestic, everyday lives of people on the Home Front as they try to piece together some semblance of normality among the chaos and fear of conflict is a lesser-seen, but no less important, facet of global war.
It’s in these images that the true horror of war is shown most starkly: soldiers play-fighting during their downtime; a man trying to kiss a girl under the mistletoe at Christmas time, all while war roils around them and it is those images that Esther Johnson wanted to capture in Asunder, a project instigated by Creative Director Bob Stanley, and funded by Sunderland Cultural Partnership and 14–18 NOW, a calendar of events to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. ‘A lot of my work is about uncovering hidden stories on the margins,’ explains Esther. ‘I wanted to create a film that uncovered hidden social histories of the First World War, revealing stories you might not hear about, or which aren’t given much space in history books.’
Bob agrees: ‘I wanted a film about the people left behind and how they were coping,’ he says. He approached Esther because of her skill at getting the big picture from small details and for telling grand narratives through intensely personal stories.
Esther and Bob spent six months of full-time work delving into archives to find footage that shows the First World War – and all its horrors – in a different light. Rather than picking the standard visuals of war, the pair were determined to find another, more powerful, way to portray the conflict.
‘You become inured to the standard images,’ says Bob. ‘They’ve become immersed in other bits of your life, or other bits of history or literature. I think the actual impact of what it would be like during war has been lost.’
‘It was a lot of hours and a lot of work,’ says Esther of the film. Finding video footage of domestic life at a time when cameras were in their mass-market infancy proved difficult, but rewarding. As she explains: ‘Get me in an archive and I love it; I’m at home.’
The searching and scrabbling around in archives was worth it: Asunder tells the stories of a number of residents of Sunderland, Hendon and Blyth and their war experiences.
‘It’s a story about a specific part of Britain, focused mainly on Sunderland, but it’s relatable to the rest of the country and the world,’ says Bob. ‘It could be any town.’
There is Bella Reay, a young munitions worker who also rode the crest of a wave of popularity for women’s football (most fit men were away at the front line), scoring 133 goals for Blyth Spartans Ladies’ Club in a single season. And there’s Lizzie Holmes, the first woman in her town to wear trousers. ‘Their stories are about challenging convention and what a major shift – in so many ways – the war was for women, the workforce and technology,’ says Esther. ‘I wanted to bring in those kinds of stories.’
‘You can’t even begin to think about how awful people’s stories were’, says Bob. Telling the tales of individuals who lived away from the front line proved a powerful way to delve into the First World War for audiences. ‘It made it much more real than hearing Siegfried Sassoon on Radio 4 again,’ explains Bob. ‘That’s not to diminish the value of the war poets. It’s just if it’s new, and a new story to you, it makes it much more relatable.’
The film, cut together by Esther and accompanied by a music score penned by Sunderland band Field Music and trans-Pennine group Warm Digits and performed at the premiere by the Royal Northern Sinfonia, is narrated with quiet authority by Kate Adie, while contemporary excerpts from the Sunderland Echo are voiced by Alun Armstrong.
Asunder had Living North in raptures when we visited its premiere in July, and the one-off project with a single-night premiere at the Sunderland Empire has become a more long-running one. ‘We wanted to make a film that would work for the centenary of the First World War and the Battle of the Somme, but I also wanted there to be the opportunity for a wider audience to see the film,’ says Esther.
As well as a full show with live music accompaniment at London’s Barbican Theatre on 12 February and two at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre on 10 July, Asunder will be screened locally throughout the first half of 2017. But if you can’t make it along to one of these screenings, Asunder’s tour won’t stop there. ‘We’re in discussions about having more live music events, later in 2017 and 2018,’ says Esther.
Where to see Asunder
18 January 2017
Back on the Map Community Centre, Hendon, Sunderland
15 February 2017
Pop Recs, Sunderland
17 March 2017
Whitburn Methodist Church, South Tyneside
19 April 2017
Arts Centre Washington
26 April 2017
Holmeside Coffee, Sunderland
7 May 2017
Phoenix Theatre, Blyth