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LYRA - a powerful film examining the life and untimely death of Lyra McKee

Investigative journalist Lyra McKee.

Alison Millar's powerful feature documentary Lyra will premiere this weekend on UK television, examining the life, times and untimely death of the investigative journalist Lyra McKee.


The documentary opens with archival video footage from 2013 of a heartfelt plea to camera by McKee for viewers to help with her work, a request for input, an appeal for cooperation with her investigative journalism from her social media followers.


"I'm working on a story that requires me to ask questions about dangerous people," she says.



"Every day I wonder if they're going to find out and do something about it."


The documentary then cuts to April 18, 2019. On that morning the world woke up to the news that a young journalist, 29-year-old Lyra McKee, had been fatally shot in the head whilst observing rioting on the Creggan estate in Derry.


Millar's documentary then skillfully hops between the years from McKee's childhood and her death while reporting on the riots. It details some of her globally recognised work, where she came from and how growing up in the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement (an agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, on how Northern Ireland should be governed so named because it was reached on Good Friday, 10 April 1998) shaped her and her work.



Lyra - promotional poster for documentary on the life of investigative journalist Lyra McKee.

It also follows and records McKee's family and her partner's quest to bring those responsible for her death to justice. The New IRA issued a statement shortly after she was shot to admit responsibility.


Millar’s documentary is a story of present day Northern Ireland from McKee’s perspective and reflects on its tormented past through the prism of the ground-breaking investigations the journalist wrote about.

The documentary's use of unique, unheard personal archive assembled from McKee’s dictaphones, her family’s home movies, personal text messages and cell phone diaries collected from family, friends, her partner Sara Canning and Millar’s own archive to tell the journalist’s story and the country she practiced her art in makes it powerful and immediate.



The often heart-rending talking head interviews with McKee's close family -- including her single mother Joan who died shortly after the documentary was finished and her loving sister Nicola -- and her many friends, admirers and advocates of her work in journalism is insightful and illuminates her humanity amid the tragedy.


As the voice of Northern Ireland’s ‘ceasefire generation’, McKee embodied hope for a future free of conflict. Her death remains another tragic milestone for a country trying to shake off the shackles of its violent past. Millar’s film examines the rise and death of an extraordinary voice in journalism in a country that continues to hurt.


Investigative journalist Lyra McKee.

IMPACT


McKee's shocking death made global headlines and tributes flooded the digital world for days.


Messages quoting lines from her work were re- tweeted by a staggering array of people from the Irish president to legendary New York musician Patti Smith and US president Bill Clinton.



US politician and speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who had been in Derry the day before McKee’s murder, held a press conference and a minute’s silence in memory of the journalist. Her funeral in Belfast was attended by British and Irish Heads of State.


McKee garnered international acclaim for her journalism and writing which included ground-breaking work detailed in Millar's documentary.


Big reads with impact included McKee's Ceasefire Babies and Suicide, an article written for the Atlantic and Mosaic in the U.S. examining the fact that more people have died in peace by suicide since the Good Friday agreement and ceasefire was struck.



“She had a reputation for giving a voice to the voiceless and in particular raised awareness about the suicide epidemic that even today haunts our land,” notes Millar.


McKee's 'Letter to my 14-year-old Self’ penned for her mother when she was 26 explaining she was gay was published as a direct response to the anti-gay movement.


For her TED X Talk in 2017 McKee rehearsed with Millar after she’d decided to deliver it about a recent trip to the U.S.A. McKee met the families and survivors of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, when 49 people had been killed in an anti-gay attack. The emergency response and support first came from a part of the Muslim community. McKee wanted her TED talk to encourage people to talk to those who oppose your view and promote tolerance and understanding.

McKee also conducted an investigation into the unsolved mystery of boys disappearing during the 1970s in Belfast. Her first book in a two book deal with Faber & Faber was entitled The Lost Boys in which McKee examines the disappearance of the boys during the conflict at that time.


Filmmaker Alison Millar pictured with Lyra McKee.
Filmmaker Alison Millar pictured with Lyra McKee.

FROM THE FILMMAKER'S HEART


Filmmaker Alison Millar first met Lyra McKee in 2008 when she was making a film about the fight to save Northern Ireland’s only Rape Crisis Centre. McKee had just won the U.K. Sky journalist of the year award. "She was 16, but looked 11," says Millar. "By then she was already running an online news blog and called herself the ‘Muckraker’."


Millar kept in contact with the ambitious and smart force of nature, constantly messaging and swapping ideas, from that day on.


“Making a feature-length documentary set in Belfast and Derry that includes emotive issues such as suicide, LGBTQ+ rights and the unsolved disappearance of children, as well as following a family and a partner’s ongoing quest for justice for the murder of their loved one, wouldn’t, by any means, be easy,” says Millar.


“But imagine if the murder victim - the person to whom these issues meant everything to, and who in turn meant the world to her family and partner - was someone you, the documentary maker, also knew and loved.”



Filmmaker Alison Millar pictured in a lit up subway leaning against a graffitied wall.
Filmmaker Alison Millar.

For almost two years Millar has listened to McKee's voice, poured over her face and absorbed her writing to enable her to reflect what was in her heart and curious mind.


“I also had to relive her death. I’ve spent most of my career working on difficult stories, but this one is personal,” the filmmaker says. “As the investigation into her death progressed I filmed her heart-broken family and partner as they tried to navigate their way through their personal loss and retaining some faith in the legal system that the killer/ killers would be brought to justice.”


"As a voice for the voiceless, the hope for so many Ceasefire Babies, McKee may have been snatched from us with that one bullet – but in the words of Father Martin Magill who gave the rousing eulogy at her funeral appealing the our politicians to get back to work: “Why in the name of God does it take the death of a 29 year old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point...?" says Millar.



FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION


For many documentary filmmakers the sheer emotional trauma of capturing the story and untimely death of Lyra McKee alone would have led them to failure.


But for Millar some of Lyra McKee’s own words drove her on and through the emotional impact. McKee would remind all comers that ’failure is not an option’.


Driven by that mantra, Millar, her editor Chloe Lambourne and Channel 4 commissioning executive Siobhan Sinnerton, made their film through tears, lockdown and determination.


McKee’s indomitable spirit has been captured through Millar's documentary, and brought together an impressive pool of local international talent such as an impeccable score from award winning composer and music producer David Holmes and incredible photographs of the community from Sean McKernan as well as the personal archives provided by her McKee’s family and partner Sara Canning.



HEAR HER VOICE


Alison Millar’s key ambition with her documentary was to commemorate the anniversary of Lyra McKee’s murder and use her friend’s voice as much as possible in telling her story.


“Who was Lyra? Where did she come from? And what was she striving to achieve through her work?" Millar asks herself in making of her documentary.


“As the voice of the ceasefire generation, Lyra’s death was to many a sharp puncture into the future of a country trying to move beyond its past,” explains Millar. “With Brexit’s uncertainties continuing to loom large over Northern Ireland’s social, political and economic stability, we find ourselves still waiting to say goodbye to the bombs and the bullets.”


Millar and McKee both agreed that the past still haunts Northern Ireland; its ripples still detectible in the unsettled waters and causing an often unspoken effect on the very generation McKee herself embodied.


“They called us, the young, the Ceasefire Babies because we were born either around or after the time of the Provisional IRA ceasefire, in the last four years of the Troubles before it ‘ended’,” McKee wrote. “We, the elders believed, would never see or know war the way they had. But we did. We just saw it through their eyes.”


Born in Belfast in a working class area dubbed the ‘murder mile’ by those who lived in it and the media that covered it because of the high incidents of violence and deaths, McKee wrote extensively about stories of those who were left behind after the Northern Ireland peace agreement.


McKee wrote: “The tragic irony of life in Northern Ireland today is that peace seems to have claimed more lives than war ever did” in her piece titled ’Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies'.


It will be included in the book Lost, Found, Remembered by Lyra McKee published posthumously by Faber and Faber.


In 2018 she signed a two book deal with Faber and Faber about the story of boys who went missing at the height of the troubles in Belfast.


She was described by her editor at Faber and Faber Laura Hassan as “the rising star of Faber’s non -fiction list" and was praised for her unique voice and ability to illuminate subjects and people normally left in the dark.


American poet and song writer Patti Smith described “a brilliant flame extinguished” on hearing of McKee's death.


COLUMN INCHES


In just 29 years, Lyra McKee rose from working-class roots in the epicentre of war-torn Belfast to become an internationally renowned investigative journalist, seeking justice for crimes that had been forgotten amid the euphoria surrounding the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement.


International recognition of her work was epitomised by her listing on Forbes Magazine's 30 under 30 'ones to watch' within global media and by her output enabling her to secure a two-book deal with publisher Faber & Faber, a rare feat for a new author.



WORKING CLASS HERO


Lyra McKee battled homophobic prejudice, took on politicians and demanded answers for those who had lost loved ones, all the while working, writing and relaying her stories through the prism of her working class background in Northern Ireland.


Brought up by single mother Joan and surrounded by her loving family, Millar's film portrays McKee's working class upbringing in the epicentre of war-torn Belfast and her rise to becoming an internationally renowned investigative journalist.


Aged just four, McKee and her family moved to Ardoyne, a working class and mainly Catholic and Irish republican district in north Belfast. Her house in Ardoyne was just round the corner from an area dubbed "murder mile" because of the large number of incidents during the Troubles.

McKee notes in the film that the issue of class and how it plays into the way the good citizens of Northern Ireland live now was always an important back story for her work. It was, after all, a big factor in achieving her ambitions through her journalism to "give voice to the voiceless."


As John Lennon sang "a working class hero is something to be".



PAST AND FUTURE WORDS


A mural on the side of a building offers a poignant and hopeful message from McKee’s keyboard:


“It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”


The award-winning emotive, intimate, feature-length documentary of Lyra McKee airs on Channel 4 tonight, Saturday 15 April, at 9:25pm.


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