She Sings Within Walls: An Interview with Bernie Masterson



Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I am a visual artist living and working in Dublin, Ireland, with a background in prison education. I come originally from a painting practice, but within the last five or six years my practice has developed to include short experimental film works, some as part of art installations and some as stand-alone works. Painting and filmmaking are quite similar. You employ the same principles, the same elements, so it felt like a natural progression.


Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?

She Sings Within Walls is a collaboration with the Irish writer and poet Máighréad Medbh, from her book Parvit of Agelast, published by Arlen House, Dublin (2016). It is a verse allegory of control and liberation with real life contexts, featuring ecological collapse and survival of the outsiders. Parvit, the female protagonist, is an accidental catalyst for change, who creates colour for herself by singing within bleak slate walls. Having a vision for a work and making that happen is always a challenge. Remaining faithful to the original vision without compromise can be an intense experience, but in the end it’s about the integrity of the work. Working challenges differ for each project. For this project it was getting Josephine, the little girl, to keep a serious look throughout the shoot . . .


What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?

As the American installation artist Robert Irwin says, ‘to be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perceptions.’

Adding another layer of methodology to my practice, such as video and film, has provided a new set of tools to further explore and investigate issues that concern me—like the human condition, global modernity and climate change. Through highlighting these issues, we generate a space to raise questions and promote critical dialogue. Film festivals and exhibitions then play an important role in bringing the work to a wider audience.


Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?

I like poetry and I have enjoyed my collaborative work with poet Máighréad Medbh. When approaching a new work, I imagine it in my head first, scene after scene in conjunction with the text. Sometimes I like to take reference points from paintings. As a filmmaker I think it’s important to develop your own sense of composition, colour and sound to make a unique experience for the viewer that only exists in film.


Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?

I love Derek Jarman’s film works, especially the one of Caravaggio, the baroque painter. His treatment of that work is so visceral and beautiful. He incorporates the painter’s precise aesthetic into the movie’s own visual environment and uses the style and mood of his paintings to represent his life, while reflecting on art, sexuality and identity. Blue (1993) is also a testament to his uniqueness. Other influences have been David Lynch’s work, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson, and many more too numerous to mention.


How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?

Filmmaking has become much more accessible with the introduction of digital cameras and the Internet. With social media, websites and online streaming, everyone has the potential to be a filmmaker, so it is no longer a specialised occupation. Covid severely affected the film industry with devastating consequences for many. But for a few like me it offered an opportunity to make a statement on its effect, i.e. global anxiety and the uncertainty of the future. Flight was my personal response and went on to win the inaugural ‘Janet Mullarney Prize’ (2020), sponsored by Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, and the Irish Arts Council. The Longest Night, also a response to Covid, won a prize at the Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition in 2021.

So not all bad for this filmmaker at least . . .



What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?

Follow your vision and make a start. Learn by doing, try to perform most of the technical tasks yourself, don’t wait about for financial support and trust your own instincts. Develop a good working relationship with the people you collaborate with. Remember with film you are constantly learning. Be patient, be adventurous, and most of all look to your own vision.


Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?

As an artist I feel that responsibility. Film can be a potent advocator for social justice and critical dialogue in order to affect positive change. It is another way to investigate our role as individuals, communities and universally with regard to how we live in this world and what we want for the future. It is another way of holding a mirror up to society to encourage what John Dewey, the American educationist and philosopher, called ‘reflective thinking’.

What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?

Definitely the pandemic has changed how we experience film. The industry has been catapulted into the future. TV screens have increased in size, the at-home movie experience has become the norm, and streaming work is so instant now, revolutionising the industry. The narrative has shifted because of Covid, which has exposed and revealed so many issues already in our society. Themes of isolation and connection have come to the fore and seem to matter more in these times. There is a more intense focus on human responsibilities—socially, politically, economically and environmentally. Personally, the films I am drawn to at the moment are nature documentaries. I take great comfort from them. In my painting work, landscape and nature are usually the starting point.


Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

How to Make A Magic Carpet, is my latest work, another collaboration with Irish writer and poet Máighréad Medbh, made with the support of the Irish Arts Council. This time, because of a small amount of funding, I was in a position to bring on board some other creatives, like performers and a second camera person to explore more possibilities and further develop my practice. The process was such a learning curve. Keep an eye out, it may be coming to you soon!

Thank you for asking me to take part in this interview and for the Honorable Mention for ‘She Sings Within Wall’, in the festival.


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Flight

Behind Prison Walls