'a fascinating kaleidoscope.'  Chronicle ★★★★★

"Commissioned as part of 14-18 Now and a series of works connecting people with the First World War, this ambitious new work by Artist/Filmmaker Esther Johnson explores the legacy of the Somme through the prism of a single city – Sunderland. Originally premiered at the Sunderland Empire Theatre on July 10th, 2016 with a live score performed by Royal Northern Sinfonia, The Cornshed Sisters, Warm Digits and Mercury-nominated Field Music, Asunder uses archive and contemporary footage to collage the stories of people from Tyneside and Wearside to uncover just what life was like on the Western Front and Home Front – from the men who fought in the fields, to those who stayed behind to work in the region's shipyards and munitions factories.

Produced by Johnson and writer and musician Bob Stanley, the film, eloquently narrated by Kate Adie with actor Alun Armstrong as the voice of The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, offers a timely look at the barbarity of war and the real cost in human lives of conflict. One of the most remarkable images in the film is the destruction of a naval ship, an image passed by censors at the time. The speed of its destruction is chilling. All lives were lost. Equally disturbing is the treatment metered out to conscientious objectors, shot at dawn without ceremony. As a counter-balance, Johnson interweaves footage of young soldiers horsing around as they carry out their non-battle duties, illuminating the fact that joy and tragedy exist cheek by jowl, even, or especially in the most adverse situations.

Restoring a sense of civic pride to a region that has in recent years suffered terrible economic hardship, Asunder is an inherently political work that shines its light across issues of gender as well as those of class. The film teases out a number of stories of incredible relevance today, including the role of women and the discrimination they faced once the war ended. Popular during the conflict, women’s football was subsequently banned from FA affiliated grounds, in part explaining why women have struggled for so long to gain any purchase in an inherently patriarchal society. It’s one of many telling points in an intelligent, enthralling and prescient work that assiduously connects past and present." 

– Jason Wood, Artistic Director Film, HOME, Manchester


"Esther Johnson’s Asunder is a unique and very special film. Instead of concentrating on military operations, the artist has researched and selected footage from the First World War to show how the lives of ordinary people of the North East were irrevocably affected by the conflict. Among many the delightful surprises of the film is the way that women performed in traditionally male domains, even playing football to huge crowds. The footage is expertly threaded together and is complemented by Bob Stanley’s evocative and poetic words that are beautifully voiced by Kate Adie. The world of the past is brought into the present though the original score by Field Music and Warm Digits consummately performed with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and culminates with a kind of joyous pathos in a traditional folk song performed by The Cornshed Sisters. Asunder is a warm film about hard times that pays tribute to the people of Tyne and Wear who were so vital to the war effort, and also to a community spirit that overcame great adversity. It is a tribute to the human spirit."

– Helen de Witt, BFI London Film Festival


Morning Star

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Barbican Contemporary Music podcast



The Conversation February 2018

Viewfinder April 2018 No 110 · Learning on Screen


Premiere Reviews

'a fascinating kaleidoscope'
Chronicle ★★★★★

'Asunder casts its spell'
Sunderland Echo

'very special indeed'
Living North

‘Wonder Asunder ... had Living North in raptures’
Living North


Barbican Reviews

'revel[s] in alternative viewpoints'
Music OMH ★★★★⍟

'Absolutely extraordinary. Immersive, entrancing experience'
'I was very moved...still thinking about it'
'Beautiful film/live music'
'Absolutely class'