Classic films with the Troubles in mind

Films about atrocities in Northern Ireland are out on DVD. Geoffrey Macnab assesses their impact and legacy

Feature films set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland constitute a mini-genre in their own right. Over the last three decades, there have been docudramas, thrillers, gangster movies and even love stories made against the backcloth of the conflict. They have been made from many different perspectives and with many different intentions. Some extraordinarily distinguished work has been done – work that helped to bring events in Northern Ireland into far sharper focus for British and international audiences while also bearing testimony to what the people of Northern Ireland were suffering.

"The predominant feeling you had if you were my age was that you [as a Brit] knew about the conflict – it was a dark shadow, but it didn't really impact you," the 52-year-old British film-maker Paul Greengrass (director of Bloody Sunday and screenwriter of Omagh) recalls of the indifference that many of his generation in the UK felt toward events across the water.

"It only impacted when there was a bomb in London and Birmingham. I remember as a 22-year-old World In Action guy going to Northern Ireland and being stunned by it – the reality of it, the intensity of it, the volatility of it, the sense of vibrancy. It captured my imagination... in feature films, it has fuelled a lot of wonderful work. They have all been what I would call torches shone into a dark room. It was very, very hard to bring meaningful images of that conflict to people."

What is striking, too, is the range of that work. In the 1980s, film-makers like Neil Jordan with Angel (1982) and Pat O'Connor with Cal (1984) responded to the conflict by making lyrical, introspective pieces about characters caught up unwittingly in the violence.

Contrast the soulful melancholy of Cal or Angel with the outspoken polemics of Ken Loach's thriller Hidden Agenda (1990), made to draw attention to the iniquity of the British "shoot-to-kill" policy in Northern Ireland. Alan Clarke made two extraordinary films set during the conflict. Contact (1985) was about a British platoon in "bandit country" in South Armagh. Much of the film consisted of imagery of the British soldiers crawling through fields and undergrowth in fear of their lives. Even more pared-down and startling was Clarke's later film Elephant (1989), in which we see a series of murders committed on the streets of Belfast. No contextualisation or characterisation was provided. "Alan Clarke, out of all those directors [who have made films set in the Troubles], I revere and admire. Contact was stunning. Elephant was even bolder," says Greengrass.

Watch the trailer for 'Omagh'







Just occasionally, films set during the Troubles have been as conventional as any other genre movies. Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal (1995) was made with real intensity and edge but still seems like just another gangster movie. Jim Sheridan's The Boxer (1997) combined analysis of the tensions within the IRA in the mid-1990s with a story about an ageing fighter (Daniel Day-Lewis) with more than a passing resemblance to marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront. Roger Michell's Titanic Town (1999), about a Belfast housewife (Julie Walters) trying to cluck and scold the warring parties into a ceasefire, lapsed into sitcom-like caricature. It certainly lacked the emotional depth of Terry George's Some Mother's Son (1996), which featured Helen Mirren as a middle-aged teacher and pacifist astounded to discover that her son is on hunger strike in the Maze Prison.

The films sometimes serve a secondary function: they can give voice to the victims. This was the case with Pete Travis's Omagh (2004),the docudrama exploring the events and aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the small market town.

Cast and crew were determined to make the film as authentic as possible. Travis tells a poignant story about a relative of one of the victims visiting the set on the day when the bombing was being recreated. He saw some photographs and asked how the film-makers had got hold of documentary photographs of Omagh. Travis had to explain that these were photos of the set. For him, and his cast and crew, it was a matter of honour to make the film as authentic as possible.

"Even now, justice seems to be eluding these families," Travis says of the relatives of the innocent people killed that day by the Real IRA. As yet, no one has been successfully convicted for the bombing. "The catalogue of errors by the police service is quite extraordinary," Travis says. "A lot of people responsible have still managed to elude justice. At the moment, it's like the families of Omagh are having to pay the price for peace. They are still basically being told to shut up and go away."

As Greengrass acknowledges, his film of Bloody Sunday (2002) was made in a different context from most of the earlier films. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed four years before. "I was very lucky. I made that film in the height of optimism. That definitely put wind in the sails [of the project]."

Bloody Sunday has the look of a 1970s World in Action documentary combined with the cinematic intensity of a thriller. The Belfast of the period is meticulously recreated, complete with grey skies, dingy interiors and graffiti strewn streets. Ask Greengrass why he decide to make the film and he says: "Here is this place, Northern Ireland, that I know very well. When you get into a conflict, the first thing that goes is shared narrative. Nobody agrees about anything, least of all history. Here we were at the high noon of the Good Friday negotiations. The mood was intensely optimistic. [We thought] let's take the one event – Bloody Sunday – for which there is definitely no shared narrative. Let's try to persuade a large number of people from Derry who were either on that march or whose family members were on that march, and a large group of soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland, and see if we can take the known facts and together shape a shared narrative cinematically. Then, when it is all done, we can all as a group say it must have been a bit like that."

Greengrass's film, like many of the other films set during the Troubles, has turned out to have far more universality of interest than their film-makers had originally envisaged. Many of these movies were made specifically for British and Irish audiences – and as a contribution to an ongoing political debate. Nonetheless, filmgoers from far further afield have warmed to the work, which often has a surprising resonance for them too. "Although it was about a small city in a conflict, an event that took place many years ago, if you watched in France or Germany or Italy or America, it spoke to the September-11 world. It was about what can go wrong when you're faced with these conflicts and how easy it is to overreact."

Travis talks about showing Omagh at a film festival in Santander, in the Basque country in Spain on the anniversary of the Madrid bombing. The audience responded as if it was their own story that was being told on screen.

'Bloody Sunday' and 'Omagh' are out now on DVD on Optimum

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