We all have that friend who you share good news with first. Her reaction is jubilant, hissing, maybe even a little OTT. They’re happier for you than you are for yourself. That was Lyra McKee for director Alison Millar.
McKee, an investigative journalist from Belfast, was just 29 years old when she was shot in the head by a stray bullet and killed during New IRA riots in the Northern Irish city of Derry. She had reported on the violence that had broken out at the Creggan estate and posted updates on her Twitter account. She was expected for dinner the next day at Millar’s, where the BAFTA-winning documentary filmmaker agreed to prepare her favorite dish: lasagna. McKee never made it.
“We wanted to have dinner at my place on Good Friday. It would be Anna Burns, who had won the Booker Prize [for the novel ‘Milkman’]Lyra, Darragh McIntyre, an investigative journalist, and I was very close,” explains Millar.
“The last message I have on my phone [from Lyra] was ‘You are the best!’ because I agreed to make lasagna. Then at midnight [McKee’s partner] Sara called me and said, ‘I’m in the hospital, the police are here, Lyra was shot. She’s dead. Could I give the media your cell phone number, will you manage it?’”
Millar was approached by the family about making a documentary which they feel could be useful in their campaign work. It took time to convince the director — “I didn’t know if I could do it well enough because I loved her and I didn’t want to let her down,” Millar says — eventually she agreed.
The resulting film, Lyra, is a 90-minute portrait of the exuberant young reporter who had a crush on journalism from an early age and never stopped asking “why?” The film conveys the heartbreaking irony that McKee would eventually become one of the victims of the post-conflict violence she often wrote about, dying on the eve of Good Friday – 21 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the devastating troubles in Northern Ireland since the 1960s years.
“The whole of Ireland came to a standstill when she was killed,” says Millar. “There was a great wave of mourning here; North and South Dublin were full; and there was a parade through the streets of people carrying candles.”
Promoted and commissioned by Channel 4 and supported by Northern Ireland Screen, Irish language broadcaster TG4 and private sponsors, Lyra was directed by Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton’s HiddenLight Productions earlier this year. It was appropriate cooperation, given former US President Bill Clinton’s role in finalizing the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
Lyra, edited by Chloe Lambourne, editor of Oscar-nominated For Sama, won the Tim Hetherington Award at the Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this year. The film is sold internationally by Cinephil and was recently picked up by Wildcard Distribution for the UK and Ireland.
Speak with diversityMillar detailed her initial hesitance to take on the project, the challenges of creating an archival-heavy film with sparse footage of McKee on camera, and why the reporter’s story – which garnered international attention after her death – is so universal.
Kudos for the film. I was torn to pieces as I think most people probably are after seeing it.
I’ve made a lot of films about different things. Years ago I made a film about the “disappeared,” people who were murdered and disappeared secretly, buried in the swamp. I’ve done a lot of films. But you know, it’s different whenever you’re connected to it, because it’s someone you’re going to have dinner with at your house the next day; it’s someone who texted you that afternoon: “See you tomorrow, I love you very much!” because I’m making their favorite meal. And then at midnight you get a call that she was shot. I thought she was just calling to say they’d be a little late tomorrow. It was kind of fuzzy at first, but then I started thinking, ‘Well, she was so inspiring.’ I think we all wanted to tell the world who she really was and why she was about to be [something huge]. Patti Smith tweeted after her death that that beautiful flame had gone out. People had started picking up their jobs and reading their books and articles and then it was like this, one night, four shots, one bullet and that was it. Everything is over.
How long have you known Lyra?
About 12 years or so. I was filming a documentary about a rape crisis center in Belfast that was threatened with closure and there was this young woman rattling around the office. I remember stopping her and saying, ‘Excuse me, are you doing an internship?’ Because she never looked her age, ever. And she said, “No! I’m Lyra McKee. I just won Sky Journalist of the Year.” She kinda said, ‘Excuse me? I’m 16.’ I talked to her like she was 12. It was my fault. I was bossy and she put me in my place and after that we literally became best friends. I have so many drafts of the different stories she wrote on my computer and we exchanged contacts. When I was doing a film and it was a difficult story, I always sent Lyra because I knew she was going to be great. We had this dropbox on our desk where we exchanged ideas and the last idea she submitted was the day before [she died] – a lead she got on a story and she wanted to talk to me about it. I just lost this incredible inspiration. I was determined that other people would know how magical and inspirational she was. That’s what drove me to make the film, as well as her work about Northern Ireland and the North of Ireland. It’s accessible and since the truce it’s getting a new generation of people to examine it and see what she’s seen and what she says is really going on beneath the surface.
How did you prepare for this? I can imagine that it must have been very traumatic. How soon after her death were you approached about the film?
About three weeks passed and her sister said to me, “I’m going to London to pick up this award for Lyra with Mom. Do you want to come?’ And I said ‘yes’. And she’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you film it? Because maybe we could use it for our campaign.” So I filmed that. And then all these other TV stations and people from America started emailing. And at the time I didn’t know if I could do it well enough because I loved her and didn’t want to let her down. It was her sister and partner who said Lyra wouldn’t want anyone else to tell her story. So we all got involved together and that was when Channel 4 and [former C4 commissioner] Siobhan Sinnerton said, “Let’s start making this film.” Oddly enough, we started editing at one point [Lyra’s] voice and we found her voice, it was really comforting because we spent every day with Lyra. When we decided to use her voice to tell her own story and try to bring the audience closer as well, we really enjoyed it. go through the old [tape recorder] Tapes was hysterical because she hadn’t labeled them very well. Some of it was hilarious and some was marked with code numbers because they were obviously dangerous. [Editor Chloe Lambourne] and I went through the tapes and tried to figure out who they were, and then I went and got their permission and went and watched them. There was quite a bit of investigative work to be done with what she had left behind.
It must be difficult for you as a filmmaker because you are trying to convey a regional, local message with the film while at the same time keeping the story compelling and universal for an international audience. How did you find this balance?
I thought, well, there are so many universal themes in what Lyra wrote, like persecution and hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. We chose these stories so that we don’t just pin down the problems down here, but really open up a world where people say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know what it’s like here.’ We also went into this thinking that outside of the north of Ireland not that many people know that much about it [the Troubles and post-conflict issues]. This sounds ridiculous because it’s really overwritten and over-documented in some ways, but in other ways, [it’s still obscure].
What would Lyra think of the Clintons co-producing the documentary?
I think with anyone who came on board she would have been blown away. She is such a humble, beautiful person. She would say, ‘You wouldn’t believe that! Oh so Bono helped you, that’s amazing!’ But it was easy for me because Siobhan, my commissioner at Channel 4, left to join HiddenLight and she was my advocate and would go ahead with this film. She is a girl from Belfast. She moved there and showed it to Hillary and Chelsea and Bill.
How did you manage to put the archive together? Because journalists are rarely in front of the camera, and having Lyra commentate on the film feels really unique.
That was really hard work. But when we discovered that she could tell her story, it was a great moment for all of us. Because we started it and we were like, ‘Oh my God, can we go on like this?’ Actually we were so lucky to find more [of Lyra’s tape recorders]. And then a guy who had done a podcast with her contacted us and said, “Hey, is that any use to you?” So we were fed up with her talking about her childhood and everything that was her. [Editor Chloe Lambourne] had done ‘For Sama’ and was already on a trip with [that film’s protagonist and narrator] Waad Al-Kateab. She had really been working on that first-person narrative, so when we started Lyra, Chloe had a great experience editing and working that way. I will always be grateful to her for the patience and artistry she put into it.
There is one scene that is particularly striking, at Lyra’s funeral, when politicians awkwardly stand up and clap after the priest calls attention to their presence despite the dissolution of Parliament. Troubles remain in Northern Ireland as it awaits the new year’s general election to flesh out elements of the Brexit deal that prompted the Democratic Union Party’s boycott of Stormont (Northern Ireland’s parliament).
I think that’s the thing. We’re in a political vacuum over here again. Where are they? Someone said to me, ‘How do you feel when you look at the funeral photographs?’ and I think I’m angry – angry that they came and clapped and stood there awkwardly and they’re still not together. What lessons were learned from that one death? There are so many deaths in this country, but the fact is that one of the deaths was a young woman who still had her life ahead of her, so why don’t they get back to work? They’re still fighting, they’re still not in there. It’s incredibly frustrating for so many people who just want a better life.
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