Butterfly Cry – the heart-warming story of an unlikely friendship

14 March 2019

A chance meeting between a Film Production student from the University of Derby and a profoundly deaf artist not only led to a lifelong friendship between the two, but has also resulted in numerous international film festival screenings and a high-profile award win. 

John McDonald, aged 57, is a Derby-based artist and graduate in Drama, also from the University of Derby. He was profoundly deaf until he had a cochlear implant operation in April 2017 and his hearing was ‘switched on’.

John met 21-year-old student Joshua Timmins, now in his third year at the University, in autumn 2016, when he was painting in the front room of his house in Derby. John said: “Josh literally just pushed open my front door, he didn’t even know I was deaf. He just said, ‘I’m a first year student, I’ve been watching you paint through the window – can I make a film with you?’”

The film Butterfly Cry was the result of this first meeting and this was followed up with Swan’s Signature, documenting how being able to hear again not only completely opened up John’s world but also heavily influenced his painting.

A third film will complete the trilogy of films based around John’s art and deafness. Swan’s Signature, filmed at Banks Mill, won a Royal Television Society Midlands Centre Student Award 2019 and was screened at six national and international film festivals, including the Melbourne Short Film Festival (31 January), the Dam Short Film Festival in Nevada (7 February) and the Documentary Filmmakers Showcase at Pinewood Studios (19 February). 

What the films don’t show is the friendship that has developed between the two of them; Josh has invited John to his graduation, and John accompanied Josh to Pinewood Studios.

John added: “When I lost my hearing, I basically lost everything, including my career. I lost all balance and went off track. I can’t talk about art without talking about deafness, because painting, at the age of 55, gave me a brand new outlook. My art lightens me up, it gives me back a balance that’s given me an introduction to conversation, friendship – I’ve made more friends through art than I have done at any other time in my life. 

“Working with Josh made me realise a lot about myself. His films helped me to see a side of myself that had been hidden, and brought out a depth and poetry that had been buried for so long. When I first met him, I’d only just started painting, and the difference between the two films – Butterfly Cry, when I couldn’t hear, and Swan’s Signature, after I’d had my implant – really brings home to me just how much my life has changed. I know wherever we both go in our careers, we will always keep in touch. I’ve come through my dark, dark, dark period and it’s my painting that’s given me light, light, light.”

Josh said: “When I met John, he was deaf and had only just started painting. It was the first day of my first year of university. I was walking down the street and just happened to look through a terraced house window and saw John painting in his front room. The whole room was filled with amazing canvasses. 

“His front door was slightly open and, being the kind of person I am, I just knocked and walked in to ask if he’d be interested in making a film about art. I didn’t know he was deaf until Kathy Jones – John's communication support worker – started signing for him.

“We talked, planning out the first film, which was about how art had given John a way of communicating with people again. For our second film, I wanted to explore how sounds opened up John’s world. Together, the two films show the journey we’ve both had over the last year.

“I’m a strong believer in fate and feel that our paths were meant to cross. Since that first meeting, John has become like a father figure to me. I’m just happy that I’m able to share his unique story through my film-making.”     

Kathy said: “Josh at work is calm, thoughtful and meticulous. Only when the shot is complete do you see his exuberance. Having known John for 10 years as a profoundly deaf person, I can't actually watch Swan’s Signature without wanting to cry. Josh's storytelling evokes empathy without pity, and I will be following the career of this young man with pride and excitement.”

John is now based at Banks Mills Studios, the University of Derby’s innovation space for the creative and digital industries. Karen Holland, Banks Mill Co-ordinator, added: “During his time at the studios, John has really grown in confidence and developed in his artwork. Banks Mill is here to support artists, designers and makers to get their businesses off the ground, and perhaps one day Josh may have his own video production business and studio here.”

Find out more about studying Film Production at the University of Derby.

Josh with John in his studio
John at work
Swan's Signature poster

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