Truth and daring

Account of 1972 army-IRA confrontation takes all sides

BLOODY SUNDAY written and directed by Paul Greengrass, from the book by Don Mullan, produced by Arthur Lappin and Mark Redhead, with James Nesbitt, Tim Pigott-Smith and Nicholas Farrell. 107 minutes. An Equinox release. Opens Friday (October 25). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies page 88. Rating: NNNN

Rating: NNNNN

Paul Greengrass sounds like a preacher man. On the phone from a promo stop in Los Angeles, his voice is urgent, persuasive. Words roll down the line like cascading waves. He’s on a mission.His film, Bloody Sunday, has been picking up converts ever since its first screening. It shared top prize at this year’s Berlin festival and has gone on to win praise even in England. But for Greengrass, there’s more than kudos at stake. This is about the truth.

The truth is, many English people still aren’t ready to accept what happened that January day in 1972 when their army faced down a civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland. Thirteen unarmed marchers dead. Or, to some, 13 terrorists.

“The thing about this film,” Greengrass says, “is it doesn’t seek to judge. It seeks to understand in a many-sided way the complexity of how these events happen.

“You’ve got a ringside view. You’re with those civil rights leaders as they unfurl their banners you’re with them as they marshal that huge march down the hill. You’re with those young boys on the march as they pick up their stones and get ready to start the riot. You’re with the young soldier waiting for this huge march to come down and hit them, and you’re with the generals at headquarters as they argue.”

Greengrass has a documentary background, and he’s shot Bloody Sunday using the tools of cinéma-vérité: hand-held camera, location sound, no music until the U2 song at the end.

“I wanted to remake our history of that event,” he says. “The truth about Bloody Sunday is that there’s an Irish view of it and a British view of it. And they’re incomplete and contested. (In The Name Of The Father director) Jim Sheridan said to me once, “You know, the problem about Bloody Sunday is it’s a story the Irish can’t forget and the British don’t want to remember.’ That just sums it up.”

Working from Don Mullan’s oral history of the event, Greengrass set out to pull together all the competing recollections of that winter day.

“By taking these fragments from all different sides of the conflict and building them up, you get a collage that gives you the feeling of being there.”

But is the result truth? Is he comfortable with that responsibility?

“Certainly I’m comfortable, yeah,” he insists. “Without a doubt. Because in the end I think it was something pretty much like that. You can’t recreate history. But that’s one of the majestic powers of stories on film. They can take you to a place and give you that shock of recognizing something that’s truthful.

“I agree that audiences are and must be skeptical, and must always hold filmmakers to account. But I believe audiences do that in the moment when they’re in the theatre.”

To the charge that hand-held cameras and all the tools of documentary realism might prove dangerously persuasive when dramatizing real events, Greengrass says bollocks.

“There’s an awful lot of what I would call mannered realism in the cinema,” he responds, “where you just go hand-held and think that makes it real. The shock of recognition of seeing something you feel compelled to believe is true. I don’t think that comes from being hand-held. I think it comes from the truthfulness of the performances.

“There isn’t a frame of this film that isn’t filled with Derry people reliving their story, and a large number of former British soldiers, each of whom served in Northern Ireland in the Troubles, who knew how it felt to be a soldier.

“I believe that when you see those soldiers in that churchyard, with the adrenaline pumping, waiting to go, you know that that’s truthful. You know that that’s what it was like to be a soldier in Northern Ireland at that time.

“In the end, I think audiences know the difference between something that’s truthful and something that’s a crock of shit.”

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