H3 (2001)

D: Les Blair
S: Brendan Mackey, Dean Lennox Kelly

Disturbingly apolitical drama charting one of the key moments in recent Northern Irish history; the hunger strikes of 1981. Republican prisoners refused to comply with prison regulations to the point of starving themselves in order to have their political status reinstated by the British Government. After several deaths the protest ended. Some years later their demands were met. In what one presumes must have been an earnest attempt to get quite literally inside the story of what went on in the Maze twenty years ago, writers Brian Campbell and Laurence McKeown have painted an extraordinarily insular picture of events. The film takes place almost entirely within the confines of the prison, with only snatches of reference to the outside world to contextualise the action. While on one hand we can understand that this represents a legitimate aesthetic and thematic decision, there is a nagging feeling that the subject needed more of a sense of why these people were there in the first place. Whereas In the Name of the Father began with the Guildford bombing which set the chain of events in motion, H3 jumps straight in to the middle of the 'dirty protest' (where prisoners refused to wash, shave, wear prison clothing, and smeared their excrement on the cell walls), and introduces a young Republican prisoner (Dean Lennox Kelly) who has just been admitted for acts not depicted or discussed (one throwaway reference). It is not that we need to demonise the prisoners by knowing their crimes, but if we are expected to share their perspective on events, it seems reasonable that we might understand why they should risk imprisonment and undergo such torture in the name of their cause in the first place.

Most of the action which follows charts the day to day routines of life in the prison, from passing notes underneath cell doors and tapping out coded messages on pipes to hiding radio receivers in anal passages and telling stories in Irish late at night. The film also charts the development of the relationship between young Kelly and slightly more seasoned but still young prisoner Brendan Mackey. It follows the internal assent and dissent of the group in block H3 and their relationship with the main organisers of the protest, Bobby Sands in particular. There is much that is interesting here in terms of basic information, and it runs through many of the conventions of the prison genre in a reasonably competent fashion. Yet despite the aspiration to realism, many of them are still conventions, and there is a generic familiarity which undercuts any attempt at documentary. The double bluff cannot pay off. You cannot on one hand hope to bring home the realities of confinement and voluntary death by an appeal to generic norms and on the other hand omit the background information necessary to create a sense of context for it. This is supposed to be a political drama, and it is laden with political rhetoric in the slogans and sentiments spoken by the various characters. Yet there is a sense neither of people nor society which makes the dialogue anything more than breast-beating, and the film ultimately seems an outrageously propagandistic appeal to political association via human empathy. Unfortunately from the point of view of the film, it simply is not gripping enough to elicit such an emotional response, as most of the characters remain one dimensional and the narrative never develops enough momentum to draw you in.

H3 is the kind of film which Irish cinema ought to have left well behind by now, and by and large it has. It has nothing new to say and fails to find an interesting way to say it in spite of what seems to have been a plan to do so. It is lacking in intensity in spite of the images of suffering and pain upon which it is structured, and though it begs to be called realistic it feels too removed from everyday experience. Fleeting references to Margaret Thatcher and the election of Bobby Sands to the British Parliament do not in themselves constitute a sense of the larger world with which most viewers will readily identify. It is not that it is impossible to be immersed in a filmic world which exists either outside or inside that with which we are familiar, but it is difficult to ask an audience to buy into it simply because it really happened. In a way it is morally and politically irresponsible to attempt to dismiss the broader context in which the Hunger Strikes occurred. Leapfrogging the actual conflict in Northern Ireland and the acts of violence (on both sides) which led to the situation in the first place is an unrealistic conceit which takes the audience for granted. It expects them to share its point of view without ever really articulating what it is. That is propaganda.

It is interesting how little attention the film has received though. In the Name of the Father was a far more benign film in terms of its level of political expression, yet it was vilified by the English media and controversy followed it at every turn. Even The Devil's Own and Patriot Games were hounded. H3 seems to have been largely ignored in spite of being probably the most morally bankrupt of all of them. The lack of reaction is possibly because even on its most basic level, it is just not a very good film. It lacks drama despite the high drama of the events it depicts. Its characters are one dimensional despite being based on real people. Its story fails to come to a satisfactory climax in spite of a story which even from the point of view of Republican mythology has a big finish. Though technically competent, it lacks any real cinematic interest (Owen McPolin's cinematography is disappointingly bland), and though there are earnest performances on display, nothing stands out in the memory the way you might expect it should. It would seem therefore that H3 can be ignored more easily than some of its bigger budgeted siblings, and it has been. Long may it continue so. If you want something closer to a realistic portrait of the events, check out the actual documentary I gCillín na mBháis 1980-81 (In the Cell of Death 1980-81). It is not flawless in itself, but it at least gives a sense of what was at stake here, and how the people involved felt about what they were doing and why.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.