An intimate portrait of the life and death of the young journalist killed in 2019 allows her to tell her own story writes Suzanne Breen
For 90 minutes, Lyra McKee is alive again. We meet the girl with the huge heart, winning smile and endless talent, and follow her remarkable journey.
There she is at four, playing in the front garden of her Ardoyne home, the youngest child in a single-parent family. She struggles at school, but then we meet her as a teenager – earnest, idealistic, and pledging to be an investigative journalist.
Fast forward and she’s on a Derry street, filming a riot on her phone. You want to reach in and lift her out before it’s too late. Four shots follow, agonising screams, and someone shouts, “There’s a f***ing kid shot in the head.”
It’s Lyra who was 29 but looked 12. “I saw the face of a child. A beautiful, beautiful child dead – and why?” says Fr Joe Gormley who administered the last rites.
‘Lyra,’ a documentary by BAFTA award-winning director Alison Millar, screens at the Belfast Film Festival in the Odeon Cinema in Victoria Square tomorrow night. Millar was a close friend, and it shows. It’s a beautiful and intimate piece of work lovingly crafted.
This is Lyra telling her own story. Recordings from her mobile, laptop and dictaphone are used powerfully. The words from her notebooks and published stories flash across the screen. She wrote like an angel. Every sentence a combination of innocence and wisdom.
“Hello, hello, testing, testing!” laughs Lyra in the opening words of the film. It brings me back to May 2014 when a quirky, nervous young woman was introduced to me in a Belfast cafe.
I half-resented the intrusion but within minutes I was won over. Lyra’s curiosity, compassion and authenticity were impossible to resist. We became the best of friends.
The film conveys how far removed from privilege her life was. I doubt any journalist here has ever worked from the back bedroom of their disabled mother’s home. Lyra was Joan’s main carer.
Their bond was unbreakable. Less than a year after her daughter’s murder, Joan died of a broken heart. In one of the most moving images, we see Lyra’s sisters opening a box as they sort their mother’s possessions after her death.
It holds Lyra’s glasses – the first ones she had as a child and those she was wearing on the night she was killed.
Such heart-breaking moments are followed by hilarious ones too. Joan had kept her youngest daughter’s First Communion dress. “She hated that dress!” says her sister Nichola on finding it.
A family video takes us back to May 1997 when a bespectacled, brown-haired girl begs to take off the elaborate dress that has cost her mother a fortune. Even at that early age, Lyra’s set on charting her own course.
We see her at 18 in Botanic Gardens passionately pledging to change the world through journalism. She’s not interested in Madonna or celebrity news.
She wants to expose the wealthy businessmen “screwing the working-classes”, and to tell the stories of those lost to suicide. Lyra never lost that fire and crusading zeal.
The film brings us into St Anne’s Cathedral with the great and good gathered to pay tribute to Lyra at her funeral. In her own life, she couldn’t have cared less about them.
Lyra wasn’t interested in what lay in the middle-of-the-road. Like any journalist worth their salt, she knew the real story is to be found along the edges.
The documentary shows her commitment to highlighting Troubles’ victims continuing campaign for justice. Janet Donnelly, whose father Joseph Murphy was shot dead by paratroopers in the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre, speaks movingly of her relationship with Lyra.
There are powerful contributions in the film from Lyra’s partner Sara reflecting on the night of her shooting. Nichola describes her sister “lying sleeping” in the hospital.
“If I could have got up on the bed with her and died I would have done it just so I could cuddle her,” she says.
The film takes us to outside the Derry courthouse where one of those accused of involvement in Lyra’s murder is appearing. Millar questions two women there to support him who claim he’s innocent.
Had the New IRA not snuffed out Lyra’s life on April 18, 2019, she’d have been writing about them after the riot.
She’d want to know why a handgun was taken out that night and fired from long-range at an armoured police Land Rover surrounded by civilians.
She’d want to interview those disaffected young men in the Creggan and to ask why a generation of ceasefire babies remain intent on violence. She’d seek to understand and explain.
Maybe those who killed her will watch her on screen and realise just what they’ve done, and stop using meaningless cliches to try to explain away her slaughter.
I thought this film would make me cry, It didn’t – it made me angry that Lyra’s precious life was lost for nothing. It reminded me how privileged I was to know her.
"I’m just a kid from north Belfast, I’m nothing special,” she says. Nonsense, Lyra. You were the most extraordinary person I knew. There’s not a day that I don’t miss you.