Asunder – a film by Bob Stanley

I suppose if I told you I was off to watch a black & white film with a live music accompaniment you’d be thinking I’d taken an interest in old Charlie Chaplin movies with a bloke and his piano at the side of the auditorium tinkling away to give atmosphere to the silent performance….

And I suppose in a way, that’s exactly what I was watching. Except this is Asunder, a 21st century film about a much more serious subject than the antics of a silent movie clown.

Asunder is a charming collection of images and feisty stories of real people from the northeast of England caught up in the drama of the first world war, commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme by Sunderland Cultural Partnership and 14-18 NOW (amongst others). The project was spearheaded by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne with Esther Johnson as film maker and live musical score from a collaboration of Sunderland’s own Field Music and Newcastle’s Warm Digits, with the help of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters.

The intention of the film is to connect the viewer to the lives of people left behind in wartime Britain, centred around Sunderland at the mouth of the Wear. Footage from the war, both at home and on the Western Front, is partnered with an excellent score, emphasising the wartime tension courtesy of the string quartet and mournful loss, expressed perfectly with the plaintive flute.

Kate Adie narrates, taking us through the lives of soldiers, munitions workers, conscientious objectors, suffragettes and footballers, while Alun Armstrong is the voice of the Sunderland Echo, sharing headlines and snippets of news from the home front and the front line.

I understand totally the choice of Adie for this gig – her links to Sunderland and her interest in WW1, and her voice as a well-known, award-winning war journalist, makes her a no-brainer. Then why did I feel uncomfortable with her narration? Sure, she lends gravitas to the film, but there’s something about the contrast of her elocuted, clipped tones with Alun Armstrong’s cheeky northern accent. Something about the way she pronounces ‘Sunder-land’ with emphasis on the ‘-land’, with a hard ‘A’, when everyone in Sunderland pronounces it (mumbles it, even) ‘Sunderlund’. I wondered if by separating the Sunder from the land, that she was trying to emphasise the title.

Its premiere was held at the Sunderland Empire in 2016, performed on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme with the whole of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, but I watched it at Milton Court adjacent to the Barbican in central London. Instead of the full orchestra, we had a string quartet, but I don’t feel short-changed in any way. The acoustics in Milton Court are excellent and the emotion conveyed by the musicians was perfect. The Cornshed Sisters, with their lovely harmonies, sang ‘The Rigs of Sunderland Fair’, name checking many places from my early years and some which, even at the time of WW1, had already been wiped from the map.

The artist’s notes describe the juxtaposition of the world of 1916 with the world of 2016 where optimism has been eliminated by fear, nationalism and rage. It is set in Sunderland although the notes suggest it could be any town or city in the UK, with the universal call to arms, rise in the status of women, the pain and drive and humour of those caught up in a war-to-end-all-wars which was experienced throughout Britain.

But Sunderland it is, and that caused me a bit of disappointment.

Because I’m not sure if something had been missed in translation, but I saw very little of 21st century Sunderland in the film, sitting in the capital and watching it through the eyes of an adopted southerner. Poignant stills of derelict shipyards are interspersed throughout the film, along with an empty cafe looking out to the beach at Roker, quiet terraced roads and boarded up corner shops. Is this the celluloid realisation of Bob Stanley’s 2016 Sunderland? It bears little relation to the Sunderland I know… accepted, I haven’t lived there for 35 years, but I do visit regularly and last time I was in the city centre, it was a bustling place. Is this a true portrayal on film of the parallels of a town/city separated by 100 years? I’d like to think that those recent images were chosen merely as a foil for the film to convey a sense of loss, rather than as a representation of the coastal city I know and love.

It sounds like I’m complaining. Really, I loved the film! I loved the music more, but the film had some amazing images and some of them were repeated throughout the film, so I have a lovely bank of still and moving image memories of munitions girls in the overalls and makeshift masks hammering on the top of a shell, soldiers fooling around on the front line with makeshift armour, and kids in their Sunday-best following the camera to stay in shot. But most of all, I’ll remember the aerial footage of the trenches, zigzagging their way through the French and Belgian countryside – miles and miles of maze-like channels looking strangely neat and manicured from this height.

Did it connect me to the first world war – give me an understanding of how it was for the people left behind? Yes, it did. And in fact, it made me want to find out more. I’ll definitely be planning a trip to Richmond Castle to see if I can spot the graffiti left by conscientious objectors imprisoned there waiting for their death sentences to be commuted. I’ll definitely be researching a bit more in the life of trouser-wearing and tattooed female footballer, Bella Reay. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Field Music.

If you live in or near Sunderland, you can find a screening near you.