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Rewind to Ireland in the early 80s: The North is at war with itself and cracking at the seams. They do not know the embodiment of peace yet. A young rock band is lying in the streets of Dublin after a gig, smoking cigarettes and staring up at the sky. The world will soon be their stage. And in a few years, a little girl will watch Taxi Driver with her mother and she’ll pick up a DV camera to start shooting her own home movies.
Today these three worlds collide as Aoife McArdle’s short film Every Breaking Wave, a visual essay of U2’s song of the same name and Northern Ireland’s tumultuous era of internal conflict, premieres on The Creators Project.
For McArdle, the opening chords of U2’s “Every Breaking Wave” were strangely nostalgic and seductive, beckoning forth the memories of her own youth in Northern Ireland and the ones of her father’s generation. “There was a real teenage energy and a kind of sexiness to that opening. And I just went with that energy,” she tells The Creators Project. The film interweaves the typical trials of any teenager—young love, friendship, and identity—with the gritty realities that Belfast promised during the early 80s.
During that time, Northern Ireland was locked in the middle of a decades-long ethno-nationalist conflict named “The Troubles,” in which the Protestant Unionists who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom faced off against the Catholic Irish nationalists who wanted to break off and form a united Ireland. “I’ve always wanted to write a story around that,” says McArdle, who grew up in its aftermath, remembering vividly what it was like to have bombs going off, helicopters flying over the garden, and armed forces everywhere. She gave the love story in Every Breaking Wave a slight Romeo and Juliet twist, making one of her characters Catholic and the other Protestant. “It’s mad enough to be a teenager, but imagine being a teenager with that kind of inescapable [violence] on your doorstep,” she adds. At the same time, she wanted to show how resilient the youth were in the face of it all.
McArdle mapped out a script with the music pouring from her speakers, noting what stanzas she could set dialogue over, what parts couldn’t have dialogue, when the music could speak for the action, and when lyrics could take over in telling the story. “It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” she explains. While listening to the soaring strains of “Every Breaking Wave” and “The Troubles” on repeat, McArdle instinctively knew that she wanted to mix omniscient and voyeuristic high angle shots captured by moving cranes with more visceral and emotional close encounters, “moving from the intimate to the epic in a moment” as she describes.
Storyboards from Every Breaking Wave
If personal stories were the foundation for the film, the structure was built brick-by-brick from an immense bank of creative resources McArdle has been collecting all her life. Her mood board for the project was full of punk rockers photographed by Derek Ridgers and Gavin Watson, cityscapes of Belfast, and war images taken during the Troubles by photographers like Gilles Peress and Peter Marlow. She drew on her reading, particularly works by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and other southern gothic American writers whose stark style she found echoed the Irish modernists. She watched and studied a range of cinema from Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini to David Lynch, Wim Wenders and Terrence Malick. She even looked to the storytelling techniques of documentary filmmakers.
For cinematography, McArdle turned to paintings for hints on how to use light and color to enhance story and character. “Weirdly, I’ve been looking at a lot of Max Ernst again. Mostly because of the way he used the color yellow,” she says. She admired how Ernst’s arresting yellows popped in his depictions of bleak environments. And Edward Hopper, she adds, who paints with an “underexposed” aesthetic, using vivid colors to depict noir. Similarly, she accentuates the effect in her own films when color grading the final piece, stating, “I like when you can’t really see people’s faces because I think it makes them more enigmatic. It gives them back the mystery afterwards.” Other painters who have significantly influenced the aesthetic of her work include Francis Bacon, George Shaw, and filmmaker Alan Clarke.
She wanted the fictional story to have an air of realism, which meant street-casting actors and filming in Northern Ireland. For the lead boy, she searched for someone who looked tough, but could also show a glimmer of vulnerability. “I was walking down the street and I spotted these two boys just hanging out, smoking cigarettes outside the town hall in Belfast. And I just thought one of them had the most arresting eyes and an interesting face,” she says. She persuaded him to audition and cast him as the lead. The rest of the characters are all played by kids who are born and raised in Belfast. As the film shooting began and progressed, McArdle notes they grew increasingly more brilliant, and could pull from their own lives and emotions from growing up in the aftermath. “One of them was like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to be a hairdresser because my mum’s got a hairdressing salon.’ And I’m like, ‘No you’re not, you’re going to be an actor,’” she says.
From growing up near Belfast, McArdle already knew the spots she wanted to shoot her story in, such as the huge, desolate dockyard area of Harland and Wolff: “It’s quite an emotive place in a lot of ways. At one point it was a thriving industry in Northern Ireland, and then fell by the wayside, one of the victims of the economic depression.” The yellow cranes and industrial machinery in the vast desert of concrete helped create a beautiful, poetic ambiance, she adds.
The most emotionally challenging scene was the ending, says McArdle, inspired by episodes like Bloody Friday, a 1972 bombing campaign by Provisional Irish Republican Army after a breakdown of talks with the British army. “You’re shooting with people who’ve lived through it as well, and it becomes this incredibly emotional thing,” she says. “There’s something quite cathartic about it.” To imbue the scene with authenticity, she honed in on her own memory of another day, August 15, 1998, four years after the temporary IRA ceasefire, when a splinter group who opposed the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and called themselves the "Real IRA," set off a car bomb killing 29 people and injuring over 200. McArdle, who was a teenager then, was in Dublin for the day when she heard the news about the Omagh bombing. Although her younger brother had narrowly escaped from the thick of it with only cuts from broken glass, she knew many friends and neighbors who were not as lucky.
Post ceasefire, the level of violence is nowhere near what it used to be, says McArdle. But because the conflict is a wound that only very recently scabbed over, the memory of it still lingers "like a hangover.” However, from her visits to Belfast, she’s observed the healing process, seeing how young people are becoming more progressive and are willing to go against the past, in spite of the pressures from parents and grandparents.
After a long stay in London, McArdle plans to move back to Belfast this year to work on her first feature film. “A lot of films in Northern Ireland don’t get shot in Northern Ireland, which is quite strange. A lot of people feel like it’s too close to the bone to go there. Or are too afraid to go there. I don’t know why.” Although Belfast may still be economically deprived, with many people leaving because they could not find work, McArdle believes it’s ripe territory for storytelling and cinema. “It’s nice to be able to bring any project back there and I feel quite passionately about making films there.”