Erik Jaccard returns to 10YA to think about The Troubles, mediation, and cinematic lenses through Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday.
Dir. Paul Greengrass
I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the conflict in Northern Ireland as a child growing up in the U.S. In the 1980s you would hear things on the news about tensions and flare-ups, mobs and arrests, Catholics and Protestants. The word ‘Belfast’ took on an insidious and bellicose connotation I would associate for years with explosions and assassinations. From watching movies I knew there were mass arrests and detentions without trials. My knowledge of the conflict and its fundamental origins was unfortunately colored by its occasionally sensationalized representation in Hollywood films such as Patriot Games and Blown Away. Here rogue IRA extremists run piously rampant on U.S. soil and a centuries old colonial feud—one which seemed so out of place in the blissfully ignorant and ‘peaceful’ post-1989 era of American politics—plays out its anachronistic drama in the form of a rude intrusion into the artificial order and stability of quotidian American life. Mass culture—any culture, really—tends to stand in between oneself and the world in this way, creating frameworks which mediate and distort our experience of other people, places, and times. Thus, despite having seen more than a few nominally ‘Northern Irish’ films by my eighteenth birthday, despite having seemingly purchased temporary proximity to that world for the price of a video rental, it remained extremely distant to me.
Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass’s direct cinema recreation of the infamous 1972 ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in Derry, Ireland is perhaps all the more amazing, then, for the skillful, honest, and visceral manner with which it manages to bridge that distance. Tellingly inspired by Don Mullan’s influential book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (1997), the film deftly manipulates what is by now a fairly tired cinematic conceit—the embedded camera—to staggering effect, placing the viewer at a vantage point which manages to place the viewer both uncomfortably within the action, yet also critically outside of it. The first aspect derives unavoidably from the way the film is shot, in a dizzying handheld style, just over the shoulder or behind the person witnessing events. It’s kind of like being invited over to a friend’s house when the family is having a fight: you find yourself inextricably involved merely by being there but nevertheless also feel like an extra, only superficially attached to an actually existing participant. You are both inside and outside, forced to confront the messiness of someone else’s house by participating in it and understanding it on its own terms, while simultaneously maintaining the critical perspective of the outsider for whom the immediate reality will never hit quite as hard.
No matter what anyone says, forms of filmmaking which attempt to disguise or transform the function or role of the camera in the storytelling process are still inherently stylistic. It’s just that their style is a perceived absence of style, or what you might more accurately call a natural, organic style, wherein the camera follows a narrative trajectory dictated by the flow of events themselves. The aesthetic conundrum hanging over a project like this seems to be how to take a naturally dramatic situation, point a camera at it, and let it develop on its own. On the one hand, this encourages a style of filmmaking so formless as to be anarchic. After all, where does a camera naturally point at a moment so saturated with human drama? Are certain types of drama more dramatic than others? The standard trick for getting around this problem is, of course, to fix the larger moment by examining it through the prism of a single human relationship, or else through a cluster of them. However, to conjoin a complex of ideas so large—colonialism, oppression, state brutality—and with such far-ranging, systemic implications to a single relationship or plot line seems to do an equally as pernicious injustice to the broader context.
To its credit, Bloody Sunday manages to perch itself at this tense median between narrative cohesion and veracity, shifting quickly but never confusingly from individual stories to the larger, inevitable movement towards the tragic end we all know is coming. Following Mullan’s book, Greengrass generates this balance by producing a perspective that is both ‘eyewitness’ and ‘eye in the sky,’ both man on the street and omniscient narrator. The film in many ways treats the entire Bogside neighborhood as one very complex character, tinged with conflicting hopes and fears and ringed by a simmering frustration with the British military presence and the loyalist oppression it is seen to safeguard. There is latent danger in this, as the broader perspective mirrors that of the story’s colonial intruders, for whom the Catholic neighborhood is a material and psychological space that must be mapped and cordoned in the process of containing and controlling it. The film is extremely adept at producing visual representations of this production of power. Throughout the film we see city officials and British military personnel hunched over maps or aerial diagrams, mapping and controlling space as a means of producing and enforcing the natural lawlessness of the dissident Irish marchers.
However, what saves the film from devolving into a purely Manichean struggle between oppressor and oppressed is the focus on the figure of Ivan Cooper, an Irish MP whose path we follow from the morning of the fated Civil Rights March he helped organize through the eventual confrontation with British army and paramilitary forces that would leave 13 people (mostly men and teenage boys) dead. In doing so, the film manages to tether its subject to a key player in the unfolding drama without necessarily making it a story about Cooper himself. Perhaps the finest example of this balance occurs just after the massacre, where we see Cooper striding dazed but purposeful through the rooms and hallways of a hospital filled with grieving, confused locals and tense, watchful soldiers. The scene is so chaotic and full of grief that the camera—designed to follow the natural flow of events—has a difficult time clinging to Cooper as he proceeds to inform and comfort the families of the dead. The camera pans in, then out, then in again, losing focus , then regaining it, shifting left, then right, then back, as though trying to both individualize the trauma of the moment while also aggregating it. It seeks and finds humanity without needing to contrive it, emphasizing at one and the same time both the universal element of suffering and struggle, and also the exceptional difference of this suffering and this struggle.
For me, this strategy was absolutely integral to my second viewing of the film. What makes watching it as an American potentially so difficult, I think, is that the story told is presented in the form of sub-cultural faultiness and visual and audial markers that are extremely familiar. Because of this it can be easy to read the conflict as merely another iteration of a larger pattern. In a way, this is absolutely true. I, for one, had never considered the ways that the discourse of the American civil rights movement was able to move beyond its own native confines in the process of working within and informing the development of other decolonization struggles. While this is an idea I’ve become more accustomed to in the last few years as my academic training has proceeded, I found it nonetheless jarring to watch scenes of peaceful Irish protestors marching and singing ‘We Shall Overcome.” I was equally alarmed to see angry youth armed mostly with stones being blasted with water cannons by agents of state authority who consider them nothing more than savage, barbaric ‘yobbos’. Upon witnessing these things it was difficult not to think to myself that I’d seen this before. And, of course, I had, in film footage from Little Rock, Selma, and Montgomery. The intertextual drama I was watching unfold was no less authentic for being ‘borrowed ’and reworked in an Irish context, because even that ‘reworking’ was entirely unique, both in terms of the film and the event it portrayed. I suppose that the point of all this is to argue that in bringing me closer to this event while maintaining a certain degree of distance, the film has helped me recognize how this process works in my own life, and in the greater cultural processes within which I, too, am embedded.