‘The Maze wasn’t just the prisoners. It was all of Northern Ireland. It was a war’

During the years of the Troubles, a stranger travelling south along the M1 motorway out of Belfast could be forgiven for failing to spot a nondescript complex of low-rise concrete buildings a short distance across the fields. Apart from a watchtower and a circle of floodlights, which lent the place an eerie luminosity after nightfall, there was little to indicate the lurking presence of the Maze/Long Kesh, one of the most famous prisons in the world.

Its disputed name – officially called HM Prison Maze, the jail was built on the site of Long Kesh Detention Centre, the centre for internment from 1971 to 1975 – became synonymous with the Troubles, not least because of the special-category prisoners with links to paramilitary organisations who were held in its so-called H blocks. It was the place where republican prisoners carried out blanket protests and the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, which were powerfully captured in Steve McQueen’s award-winning film Hunger.

Basically, we wanted to say that violence doesn’t work. If you’ve seen a man’s brains lying on the ground, you know it doesn’t work

With the signing of the Belfast Agreement, in April 1998, the cells were gradually emptied and paramilitary prisoners released. The site was maintained for some years, in case the conflict resurfaced, but even as an empty shell its existence cast a long shadow over the early years of the peace process and the devolved, power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly.

In 2001 the photographer and visual artist Donovan Wiley, much of whose work concentrates on the “architecture of conflict”, was given free, unsupervised access to the Maze in order to document the site. He spent years photographing it in minute detail, declaring himself to have been “partly in awe of this massive human mantrap”. His stark images, published in two hardback books, entitled Maze I and Maze II, captured both the physical structure of the prison and the psychological impact of its carefully planned architecture, faceless construction and disorientating regime.

Five years later, Wylie was granted exclusive permission to photograph and film its demolition. He and the Amsterdam-based film-maker Peter Mann recorded the flattening of an internal perimeter wall, amassing some 60 hours of video in the process. That footage lay unseen for years but now forms the basis of a film, Blinded By the Very Force It Imagined It Could Handle, which examines the enduring legacy and architecture of the Troubles while commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.

Wylie describes his photographic work as rooted in “the idea of art as an antidote to the nihilism induced by conflict”. He regards this film as a reflection, profoundly influenced by his experiences of growing up in north Belfast during the Troubles.

The 12-minute film is unsettling. It focuses closely on a single continuous sequence, shot from inside the perimeter wall, and concentrates on the relentless advance and assault of a terrifying creature – in reality, a massive mechanical machine – which devours the surprisingly flimsy structure and opens up vistas into the natural world beyond. As a viewer, one feels both threatened and protected: on the one hand freedom beckons, and on the other the security of incarceration is snatched away.

It begins in an uneasy silence broken only by the sound of rustling bed sheets and a distant radio playing a familiar song from the 1970s. A bare, grey concrete wall slowly emerges into view, shimmering in a translucent violet light. A straggly weed, blowing gently in the breeze, adds a welcome touch of greenery. Then a human voice is heard. It is that of the Belfast actor and director Paula McFetridge, reading extracts from the French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil’s essay The Iliad or the Poem of Force, from which the film’s title is taken.

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Wylie explains how the deafening mechanical sounds evoke his own childhood memories:

“The underlying theme is of being a child and having your sleep broken by the sound of explosions in the city. As a society, our sleep was frequently broken. A bomb would go off somewhere and the family would gather, the community would come together. It was a shared experience. Not far away, the prisoners regularly had their sleep broken too.

“I was trying to bring back that still-remembered sense of fear. In some ways, it’s a horror film. That machine is coming to get you, but it also becomes your liberator. That was all down to Peter’s direction. We directed the demolition, working off a combination of ideas and concepts, layering them on each other, like a painting.”

“There were two phases in the making of this piece, beginning in 2007,” Mann says. “The shot which you see was one of the first things that we filmed. It was an extraordinary experience watching it happen in the moment. But we did not fully or immediately grasp its potential significance. When we came back to it, something fundamental had changed. The extra distance helped us find meaning and clarity. We instantly knew it was the right shot, and it felt right to use it in the way that we did.”

Wylie agrees, while adding his own inside-track perspective.

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“We didn’t have the balls to have shown it immediately afterwards,” he says. “I’d have been too afraid. But time passes. When we came to put the film together, there was enough distance to look back and reopen the photo box. Sometimes a moment comes when you feel safe enough, when you have travelled far enough to gain some perspective. The anniversary gave us a reason to make the film and a safe space to talk publicly about something that was so terrible.

“Going back to a place where I’d spent so much time, to a prison that had been at the epicentre of the conflict, on the 25th anniversary of the peace process was like reflecting on a life sentence. But I needed to do it, to let the past scream out a bit in order to remember how bad it was”.

“When we started in 2006, there was so much stuff floating around, so much that was unsettled – really important stuff – that it was difficult to find that clarity,” Mann says. “That image of a machine chewing up the walls of a prison was always there, but its meaning could have got lost in other things, which have since settled and gone away a bit.

“It’s been a hard thing to do,” Wylie says. “It almost became a spiritual journey, yet we knew we didn’t want to go down that route. But, basically, we wanted to say that violence doesn’t work. If you’ve seen a man’s brains lying on the ground, you know it doesn’t work”.

Mann, who comes from England, approaches the futility of violence from a different perspective.

“Both my grandfathers fought in two wars,” he says. “My father’s father was so traumatised by his experiences in the trenches that he had hardly any relationship with his son, my dad. I couldn’t be more shielded from personal experience of war and conflict, yet I feel it, through my father.”

Wylie says that the film’s themes are both deeply personal and universal.

“I had a sheltered childhood, but … I grew up in Belfast. I come from a mixed marriage, which carried its own difficulties in terms of identity and prejudice. Whatever your background, the Maze was a place that everyone was connected to. It infiltrated and penetrated every corner of society. Everyone knew someone who knew someone. The Maze was all of us. It wasn’t just the prisoners. It was all of Northern Ireland. It was a war.

“Peter and I love art. Our long friendship and collaboration has always been about art. During the conflict, art was a really great escape for many of us here. It was a refuge, it carried us through. In making this film, Peter and I trusted art enough to help us do this thing, this difficult thing.”

Blinded By the Very Force It Imagined It Could Handle, by Donovan Wylie and Peter Mann, is the opening exhibition at Belfast Exposed’s Bank Gallery. It runs until Friday, July 28th

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