When Northern Ireland's streets ran red

British director Greengrass looks Bloody Sunday straight in the eye

Conversations

October 27, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Paul Greengrass, the British director of Bloody Sunday, has made a political movie about the slaughter of unarmed protesters during a civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972, that rouses anger and anguish without reducing the catastrophe to slogans. In the film, which opens in Baltimore Friday, he pins the killings of 13 civilians and the wounding of 14 others on panicky British soldiers. But he doesn't downplay the awful fright military men experience when rock-throwing hooligans confront them at the rear of a huge if otherwise peaceful crowd.

The man immediately at fault is the British officer (played by Tim Pigott-Smith) who pressures a brigade commander (Nicholas Farrell) to deploy the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment: these "Paras" are the toughest, most aggressive soldiers in the British Army. Implicitly, however, the film reserves its most devastating blame for British and Northern Irish politicians who refused to engage with the Derry civil rights movement. Confronted with the marchers' outrage over the jailing of Irish nationalists without trial, the British resort to military force, catalyzing the sort of jagged-edged swirl that breeds the killing of civilians.

In a recent conversation, Greengrass said he deliberately made the actions that trigger the British soldiers' fusillade "floating and volatile and ambiguous, as I'm sure they were. The truth is we will never know the totality of what happened. In a sense it doesn't matter, because things spiraled out of control and nothing justified that excess."

The movie follows four main characters: A 17-year-old Catholic and former stone-thrower with a Protestant girlfriend and the determination to stay out of trouble; the British commander wary of his superior and the plan to curtail the march or use it to crack down on hooliganism; a Para radio operator who sees that fellow troopers are killing not in self-defense but out of blown nerves and uncontrolled alarm; and Ivan Cooper, the heroic Protestant M.P. at the forefront of the rights movement.

James Nesbitt, perhaps the most popular TV actor in England and Ireland as well as a Northern Ireland Protestant, plays Cooper with elan and veracity. The character grows from a peppy politician to a towering statesman; he gives voice to the movie's underlying hope as well as its heartbreak.

Says Greengrass: "In the final scene, it means something for British audiences to see Jimmy Nesbitt as Cooper. When he tells the British journalists to report to their people that their government has destroyed the civil rights movement, empowered the IRA, and will `reap a whirlwind' - you can sense the feeling sweeping over the audience that because of what we did, or didn't do, innocent British people, too, lost their lives. For the British, the film is a way of saying we made these terrible mistakes."

Here's Greengrass on his film techniques and philosophy and his take on British-Irish history:

A basic question: Why no subtitling?

I was opposed for two reasons. First, I come from London and, in the late '60s and early '70s, my British family would have reacted to the thick, often impenetrable Derry accent as you probably did. But I didn't want to allow language to continue marginalizing that community. It tends to be the disadvantaged that have the impenetrable accents, and in a sense that dynamic is part of what led to the escalation of the Troubles. Too many British dismissed what was going on in Derry because they had the reflex of thinking, "Oh, the Irish, you can't understand them and they talk too fast." The reality was, the Irish were struggling to make themselves heard.

So I felt passionately that when it came to relating the story 30 years later, Derry men and women would tell what they know in their own language, and if the rest of us couldn't understand everything, we'd understand enough. It's an act of reconciliation.

The other point is this. Documentaries are my roots. I've made them in all parts of the world where people were being shot - not just Northern Ireland in some of its most awful days, but also Central America, South Africa, the Philippines. In the middle of those situations I've always had two contradictory sensations: utter chaos and complete clarity. On the one hand, it's confusing, noisy, you can barely hear a word being said, and you're pulled in every direction at once. On the other hand, you can summarize what is happening in one sentence: the clash between protest and political reaction or intransigence. I want viewers to have a ringside seat at that collision, with that same mixture of chaos and clarity.

And you felt subtitles would dilute the immediacy.

Yes. And, anyway, five minutes into the movie you're not in Northern Ireland, but in the world we live in - what you see on the news from these places, whether in the Middle East or Africa, is what you see in this civil rights march.

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