“Brick walls aren’t there to keep you out, they are there to see how badly you want it.” These words from Lyra McKee really sum up the courage and determination of the late journalist, who was shot dead during rioting in Derry, Northern Ireland on Thursday 18th April 2019 on the eve of Good Friday. Lyra helped to shine a light on many issues including intergenerational trauma, suicide and LGBTQ+ rights.
Legendary songwriter Patti Smith was so moved by Lyra’s life that she penned these words shortly after her death – “This is Lyra McKee…Beloved and trusted champion of the lost, marginalised and those, like herself, who have suffered growing up in a discriminatory environment…she will not walk the streets of Belfast on Good Friday morning. And thus do we mourn our young, a brilliant flame extinguished.”
BAFTA-winning film-maker Alison Millar, a close friend of McKee, took on the weighty task of putting together a documentary on Lyra’s life. It is simply entitled ‘LYRA’. Following its cinema and festival release late last year, the movie will make its television premiere on Channel 4 this Saturday [15th April].
Millar, originally from a small village in rural County Antrim had known Lyra for over 12 years before that horrific night in 2019 on the Creggan Housing Estate. “We had a great friendship, but we also had a great respect for each other’s work,” she recalls.
McKee was due to visit Millar and have dinner with a group of the director’s close friends on Good Friday. Then, the world came crashing down around midnight the previous day. Initially hesitant and stricken with profound grief, Millar did not want to take the project on.
“I was too broken at that stage and didn’t feel like I was good enough to make the film, even though she loved me and I loved her,” Millar says.
“Sara, Lyra’s partner and Nichola, [her sister] were really clever. They were absolutely determined to get me to make the film. I was too close to Lyra, I was missing her and I thought I was just going to fuck it up, that’s what was holding me back.”
Tragically, less than a year after Lyra’s death, her mother Joan sadly passed away. According to Millar and the family, Joan’s heart was just too shattered to continue. Only three weeks after Lyra’s passing, her mother collected an award on behalf of her daughter. Millar captured this day, which ultimately gave her the confidence to commit to the documentary.
“Lyra was incredibly inspirational. She could find stories where other people missed them and was writing about topics like intergenerational trauma before anyone else,” Millar reflects. “She had a nose for the things that were important, and she had emotional intelligence, as well as being an incredibly eloquent writer. You don’t get a two-book deal at 28 years old, but she did. The publisher [Faber & Faber] called her ‘the voice of a generation’ ”. The books were never published.
One of the most captivating pieces of the documentary is that McKee herself adopts the role of narrator. This was only made possible by painstakingly finding and splicing recordings that Lyra had made herself over the years.
“People have said to me, it’s almost like you wrote a script and she read it. Without the help of her sister and partner I would never have pulled it off. Chloe Lambourne, who was my editor, was Oscar-nominated for the movie ‘For Sama’ [Syrian film]. We found Lyra’s dictaphone tapes,” Millar recalls.
“It must have taken six weeks to go through all of them. We wanted to take the audience and introduce them to Lyra – a wee girl who grew up in Ardoyne [area of Belfast]. We wanted the audience to feel the same loss as we did. Our aim with using her voice was to bring her back to life for 60 or 70 minutes. We didn’t want her to be silenced by a bullet. We wanted her to be able to say ‘This is me, this is what I’ve done’ through her written and spoken word. She was the 160th death since the Good Friday Agreement.”
This week saw the 25th anniversary of the same agreement, and Millar believes that McKee was a “great bastion of hope” to continue its legacy.
“We need politicians and governments to build and develop from what was agreed in . There’s so many brilliant young people in the communities that I’ve met, and we need to enable them and give them hope that they also can do something,” she says. “Lyra always gave us hope. We have to find a way of having difficult conversations and changing things.”
Millar was working on a shoestring budget for the production, but had some high-profile help to get it over the line, including Bono and County Antrim native Liam Neeson. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton are Executive Producers. However, perhaps the most touching act of generosity was from DJ and composer David Holmes, who scored the music for ‘LYRA’ for no fee. This portrayal was deeply personal for Holmes with McKee’s working-class origins mirroring his own in Belfast.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m David from the Ormeau Road. This is my childhood too. This isn’t about money, I want to do this for Lyra’. He is one of the most generous and creatively supportive people I have ever met,” says Millar. “Everything is possible. He’s really like Lyra in that way. The similarities and dynamics were very striking.” Holmes is currently working on new material with Sinead O’Connor. It is their joint effort on the closing song ‘Trouble of the World’ that provides one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking sequences of the documentary.
After such a traumatic four years, Millar is completely honest about where she is going next. “I didn’t want to make another film about Northern Ireland when my friend had been shot and killed. I never imagined I would be making a movie about Lyra and what happened.” She is now working on a new documentary about rappers living in a small African American community in Virginia Beach in America – a world away from Belfast and Derry. Despite the tumultuous experience, Millar is clear about one of the film’s biggest achievements – “The family say that I’ve given them back a piece of Lyra through the movie. For a certain amount of time she is alive again.”