Bloody Sunday (2002)

D: Paul Greengrass
S: James Nesbitt, Kathy Kiera Clarke

It has taken more than thirty years for Irish cinema to follow the lead of Gillo Pontecorvo in depicting the political conflict on the island in terms more of documentary than melodrama, thirty years during which its subject matter has remained as live as the history depicted only shortly after it happened in The Battle of Algiers. Bloody Sunday is not a documentary (nor was The Battle of Algiers), nor is it the first or the last treatment of its subject, but that moment in time is still an open wound in Irish history and the film is as timely now as Pontecorvo's was then.

On 30 January 1972 thirteen people participating in a civil rights demonstration in Derry city, Northern Ireland were killed amid a blaze of gunfire from British Army troops who claimed to be under attack by Republican paramilitaries. Many more people were injured, one further person died some time later, but more importantly the experiment in nonviolent protest and peaceful people power was essentially at an end. Thirty years later the facts of what happened are still in dispute, with investigations, tribunals, testimonial biographies, television documentaries and even poetry ensuring that questions are still being asked about what happened that day and what it means for those whose answers remain in contestation.

Bloody Sunday was one of two television dramas produced to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the events, but the only one released theatrically in the US and Europe. It is still a television film, favouring a less expansive visual canvas and emulating the style of observational camerawork currently in favour on so much of what is sometimes termed 'video verite'. What might seem a restriction turns out to be an asset. It becomes, in fact, the defining feature of the film. Its visual style works on two levels. Firstly, employing the signifiers of documentary makes the events seem more immediate and more shocking, giving greater force to the action once the violence begins. Secondly, on a deeper level, the sense of spontaneity and confusion upon which the climactic scenes rely for both authenticity and a polemical position provide a certain ambiguity which the suggestion of on-the-spot filming allows. The fact that the film has used a consistent style throughout prevents the use of this kind of filming seem less like an affectation. The climax is stylistically consistent with the body of the film, and the cumulative effect is of a powerful sense of realism.

Reality is a tricky thing though, realism even trickier. The facts of the case are still in dispute, with each side hotly maintaining that the experience of the other is based upon a prejudicial point of view. There are defectors on both sides who argue contrary positions, and the evidence continues to mount. The film attempts to steer a relatively neutral course through what is known and what is presumed, and though it has a definite leaning towards the distrust of institutional and colonial power that one would expect, it is not nearly as hard on the British authorities as it could have been under the circumstances.

Part of the reason for its relatively moderate position is the refusal of conventional identification. The film primarily follows the events from the perspective of real-life Northern Ireland MP Ivan Cooper, a civil rights campaigner. Cooper is followed through the entire process from planning to aftermath more in the manner of a documentary about his day-to-day activities than a more conventional character-based historical drama. Scenes of him organising the demonstration and trying to ensure that the presence of paramilitaries will not interfere with the peaceful intentions of the Civil Rights Movement are intercut with the preparations of British forces to contain and control the march should it become a riot. Though portrayed as insensitive to the cultural and political subtleties of the situation, by and large the military characters behave as any soldiers would, responding to a tactical scenario with the expectation of threat. Larger questions as to whether or not the Army should have been involved at all are left to the audience to ask, and the debate will of course continue. At any rate, the sense of matter-of-fact planning is stronger than any suggestion or presumption of conspiracy, though the film is not above pointing out failures of foresight on both sides.

The film proceeds with this cutaway and cutback structure throughout, also taking in the stories of various youths who become involved with the more militant end of things, and following a number of subsidiary threads of narrative and characterisation as they are needed. The overriding style remains observational though, building to a powerful climax with the rioting and killings and ending with a devastating press conference where a shaken and shattered Cooper addresses the media and the world with the warning that everything has changed forever.

Bloody Sunday is a powerful piece of work, though it is not without its slow patches, points of contention, and challenges for casual viewers without a vested interest in the story. Greengrass has delivered an undoubted stylistic tour-de-force, and has managed elements such as sound and cinematography with skill. The seemingly effortless style has obviously been achieved only as a result of a great deal of co-ordination, and kudos to him for pulling it off. He is not breaking any cinematic boundaries with this, mind you. It has been a long time since The Battle of Algiers, not to mention Z, Medium Cool, or even Salvador. This does not take away from what he has accomplished in context, but it is necessary to be aware of the heritage of the style before we can understand the value of its use in this circumstance. What larger place the film will now take in the annals of representational and actual history remains to be seen, but it at least has the benefit of being interesting on more than just the obvious level.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.