By Paddy Mulholland
“If guns are made for shooting,
Then skulls are made to crack.
You’ve never seen a better Taig
Than with a bullet in his back.”
Northern Ireland in 2020 is at a turning point, albeit a prolonged one, and quite against its will. Politics in the region, ever a fragile topic, has been defined of late by the Brexit quagmire. Seen by the rest of the UK as the thorn in its proud Brexit rose, these six counties in the northeast of the Irish island have been on edge ever since the country as a whole voted to leave the European Union in 2016. NI itself voted to remain in the EU, whose largely invisible inter-national borders have been a key part in the modern, peaceful Northern Irish landscape. Paramilitary rumblings grew somewhat more aggressive once the prospect of re-erecting border checks emerged; pre the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, securing an end to the 26-year long conflict known locally as the Troubles, border crossings were manned by security forces, vehicles were routinely stopped and searched, and British discrimination against Irish and Catholic travellers was rife.
’98 was a turning point too for Northern Ireland, as was 1972, when the Bloody Sunday massacre, in which British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians in Derry at a protest against the oppressive British rule, led to a dramatic and sustained escalation of violence, one that would further scar an already wounded corner of the world. Marcel Ophüls, one of cinema’s most important documentarians, could not have known of the significance of ’72 when he made A Sense of Loss (1972), examining the political situation in Northern Ireland and the opinions of its key figures over the end of ’71 and the start of ’72. The film is available for free as a YouTube upload – it’s rarely cited among Ophüls’ greatest works and is barely spoken of even in NI. Yet as a snapshot of a pivotal time in the region’s history, it’s fascinating.
It’s also remarkably astute, perhaps unclouded by the political complications the Troubles would bring to so many more artistic depictions of late 20th Century NI. Ophüls sees with an outsider’s insight that which the Northern Irish themselves often cannot – that it is a former colony that is somehow still a colony today, and that attempts to reckon with that colonial past are thus attempts to deal with a colonial present. It’s a rare film about Northern Irish politics that recognizes that the issue for many Irish Nationalists in the North is that the British simply never should have been there, and that any violence they exact is exacted unjustly, that any claims to legitimacy their political arguments harbour are fundamentally bogus. Their very presence continues an injustice with deep historical roots. Ophüls consistently queries the British perspective, whether local or spatially dissociated in London. His perspective is a humanitarian one, indeed a non-partisan one, but he correctly, implicitly acknowledges a purportedly “balanced” position as one that privileges a corrupt, already privileged British power.
In the spirit of the later turning point of 1998, in that near-comically optimistic decade for the West, the narrative shifted momentously and purposefully. All efforts were put toward ending the conflict – bygones had to be bygones now, forgiveness had to be no longer sought but unconditionally proffered, the buzzword became “reconciliation.” A mere four years later, Paul Greengrass – who has since displayed repeated form for grossly misreading stories of violent political episodes – put forth his take on what had developed in the 30 years since Ophüls’ clear, bold, yet mostly neglected analysis. In Bloody Sunday (2002), the victims are Irish Nationalists and the aggressors are British military, but the blame is shouldered by malign forces on both sides. The film depicts a moment of enormous import in historical context but does so with disregard for socio-political context. It’s the difficult truths of A Sense of Loss dramatized and sanitized, a pandering Neoliberal faux-pology made about the Northern Irish people but certainly not for the Northern Irish people.
Bloody Sunday is, sadly, not an isolated case. From Pat O’Connor’s Cal (1984) to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and what few other notable works have been made about the Troubles (Belfast was, after all, no dream filming location at the time, and non-Northern Irish actors have near-unanimously had a wretched time mastering the confounding accent), reduction has trumped accuracy, pithy pandering prioritized over knotty truth-telling. Jordan is a crucial, repeat offender, revisiting similar themes to his Oscar-winning The Crying Game 13 years later in Breakfast on Pluto (2005), to far less acclaim and notoriety. As Maria Pramaggiore put in in her 2011 essay on Jordan, his IRA-themed films “examine the personal and emotional devastation wrought by political violence rather than the broader social ramifications”, though I think she’s much too easy on him here. The Crying Game, for example, is riddled with ugly social messages, though one often overlooked is its crude distillation of a complex conflict – basically a decades-long extension of a civil war – into digestible personal traumas, neatly colliding and reconciling with maximum implausibility.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), while a work of supreme artistic value, is itself rather exploitative of its political themes. McQueen regards the film, bizarrely (and, alas, naïvely), as apolitical, as a meditation on the corporeal and on the pressures governments force on their citizens. Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father (1993) is truer to the ideologies it uses to propel its story, but crassly overdramatizes and condenses its real-life events, evincing an awareness of the full breadth and depth of their injustices only in fleeting, possibly even accidental moments. Only Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), the film that rescued his cinema career, emerges from the era of the Troubles themselves as an honest and incisive rumination on the horrors inflicted on Northern Ireland by centuries of cruelty and subsequent retaliation, though it too approaches its topic from a problematic position – Loach’s protagonists are a widowed American and an investigating Brit. Indeed, it’s striking how many films about Ireland or filmed in Ireland have been the works of non-Irish filmmakers, frequently with non-Irish leading characters. There’s an abstraction to their dealings with Northern Ireland’s troublesome circumstances, a distance betrayed by the simple fact that they’ve parachuted into the region and can exit it as swiftly as they like, leaving its problems to fester on. Their platitudinous equivocations show a vacuous detachment from reality, an anti-political act of fence-sitting that winningly champions the cause of peace whilst ignoring the cries for justice. Few know better than the Northern Irish that peace does not necessarily equal justice.
For a smarter analysis, one turns to an unlikely source: 1980s British television. Alan Clarke, the great and appallingly overlooked British chronicler of the stories of his nation’s working class, turned his provocative but compassionate eye to Northern Ireland in three remarkable TV features in the decade, a formative one for British independent filmmaking, albeit in response to its chilling political circumstances. Psy-Warriors (1981), Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989) each present a formalist, inherently artistically-minded approach to assessing the situation in Northern Ireland, each doing so while following ostensibly unsympathetic actors in the process: respectively, prisoners, soldiers, murderers. Nicolas Rapold described as a key concern of Clarke’s “the social forms and functions of violence”; never was this clearer nor more succinctly, superbly exhibited than in Elephant.
This stark, short feature, designed as a direct attack on the ignorance displayed by the UK’s national government at the time, and intended by Clarke to never be broadcast in Northern Ireland – he wanted it to be experienced by an indifferent British audience, not inflicted upon a bruised Northern Irish one, though it was shown nationwide in the end – is one of the most profound treatises on violence ever put to film. 18 murders, all shootings, are depicted in cold, detached scenes with almost no dialogue, frequent use of long takes, and utterly no identifying details. The depictions are all based on actual accounts, all anonymous, all unresolved in real life. The lack of context here is not numbing nor desensitizing, not irresponsible as in Bloody Sunday. Rather, it exposes these killings as the devastating physical acts they were, presents them as elemental acts, horribly significant in their own right. The absence of dialogue mirrors reality too: no-one ever told who actually committed these crimes, and no-one was prepared to talk about them anyway. The lack of connection between sequences creates a repetitive cycle of violence, and its non-partisan stance is not exactly apolitical, positing that the simple fact that these atrocities are occurring is heinous regardless of whose side you’re on. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put it better than I ever could, stating that Elephant represented “the supreme manifestation of [Clarke’s] experiments with withholding context towards the social purity of the physical event”.
Yet, in A Sense of Loss, one of the many interviewees posits an alternative, less ideologically comforting suggestion, quoting Hannah Arendt: “Violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.” By the film’s end, Ophüls may not have taken moral sides but he’s indubitably taken political ones, noting that the brutality of the British state isn’t crushing the Irish Republican threat, it’s emboldening it and radicalizing ever more citizens. Like the conflict’s very origins in British settlements in Ireland in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the problem remains an Irish problem that the Brits have the power to solve. And as physical wounds don’t disappear as soon as they’re inflicted, so too do cultural wounds fail to evaporate no matter how often the word “reconciliation” is bandied about. After all, by the time one’s mind has registered the actions one has witnessed, the words one has spoken, the thoughts one has had, they’re already, if only by a minuscule fraction of a second, in the past. For the human mind, the past literally is the present, be it a fraction of a second ago, or 1972, or 1556. And a cracked skull will never truly recover.