Sunday was transmitted by Channel 4 on 28th January 2002: Bloody Sunday was transmitted by ITV on 20th January 2002 but it was also given a limited cinema release: both films deal with events in Derry on January 30th 1972. ITV gave Bloody Sunday a fresh transmission recently which enabled me to revisit the film. It dealt with the massacre by British Paratroopers of civilians in Derry on that infamous date just over 40 years ago. There are, though, numerous ‘Bloody Sundays’ in modern world history: nearly always the attempted suppression of resistance to autocratic governments, frequently by colonial and neo-colonial administrations. An earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the Irish Freedom Struggle was on November 21st 1920 when the Royal Irish Constabulary with the British military massacred civilians in Croke Park, Dublin. This was at the height of the War of Independence waged against the British occupation. An earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’ was on the 13th November 1887 in London; Irish nationalists, supported by the Social Democratic Federation, staged a protest which was violently suppressed by the British Police and British Army. There were subsequent demonstrations and there were numerous injuries to the marchers and later one death.
It says a lot for the political line of the Social Democratic Federation that they offered a clear support for the Irish Liberation Struggle: an example that has been followed only intermittently on the British Left. When we move to the C20th Labour Governments have been just as repressive as their Conservative counterparts. And this was true in the 1970s with the policy of interment, the main focus of protest for the March in Free Derry dramatised in the film. The events of that day have continued to be a long-running contest for truth and justice. Even now, following the recent Saville Inquiry, the whole truth of what occurred is not accepted and there has still been no serious action against the British Army for what was clearly a war crime.
The film was written and directed by Paul Greengrass, though it relied heavily on Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (1997). Greengrass started out in Television working on Granada’s World in Action. Before Bloody Sunday he had already made one notable Television documentary, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999). Both films are dramatizations, though they rely heavily on the records of the events. Bloody Sunday is the type of docu-drama that had become common on British television in the 1990s. Another example of the treatment of the occupation of the six counties in the north of Eire is Shoot to Kill (1990, directed by Peter Kosminsky).
However Greengrass brings particular set of techniques to his film that give it a visceral feel stronger than most other examples. The film tends to the use of close-ups rather than long shots, and the editing is extremely rapid. This is an ‘in-your-face’ style that is reminiscent at times of the television fly-on-the -wall genre. It uses a professional cast with non-professional extras: filmed for the most part in Dublin.
This film is shot mainly from the point-of-view of the leaders of the March in Derry, especially the then local Member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper. The primary focus is on Cooper and his organising colleagues, who do not all necessarily share the same analysis of the struggle. This is counterpointed through parallel editing with the leaders of the military units deployed into Derry for the March. Between these two groups we see the mass of ordinary people participating in the March and the rank and file British soldiers. Especially at the opening and closing of the film there are also insets on two marchers who were among those shot on the day. So the film offers a tapestry of the event, dominated by certain leading characters.
The film opens at the start of the Sunday. And gradually we meet the central characters as the preparations on both sides get under way. The film follows the chronology of the day with fades or cuts to black to mark the frequent ellipses. As well as the predominance of mid-shots and close-ups the film uses a ‘direct sound’ approach so that dialogue and noise are not always clearly heard or [importantly] placed in the scene. As with such dramatisations the film uses music to heighten the dramas. So as the film opens we hear the voice of BBC radio with a tympani added in the background.
The style of the film aims to involve the viewer in the action rather than to offer a distance from which to observe. This increases the drama and emotion. However it also [deliberately it seems] places the viewer in a situation of confusion at times, which is parallel to the confusion among the onscreen characters. An important moment is the commencement of firing. Shots are heard on the soundtrack, but by whom is unclear; as appears to be the case with the paratroopers at that point. There is equal confusion for both characters and viewers when the marchers become aware of the shooting.
The issue of ‘confusion’ is important as the film deliberately shows that the army were pursuing methods of warfare rather than of control of civilians. However, the confusion amongst the military leaves open the question of why the violence was so disproportionate, seemingly more than intended by the military. The film emphasises the wait for the Paratroopers as the March gets under way and there is then a confrontation at a check point blocking the original route. The drama suggests that the wait and accompanying tension affect the attitude of the soldiers. At one point the paratroopers have to change their planned response because military intelligence is at fault. The film does suggest that individual soldiers went ‘over the top’. So one soldier, when questioned later, concedes that the number of shots that he fired exceed the amount of issued ammunition.
The post-mortem amongst the military demonstrates the start of officers passing the blame on: notably by Major-General Robert Ford (Tim Piggot-Smith]. But we also see the ordinary rank and file paratroopers construct statements that evade an honest record. And later they are seen attempting to justify the action by planting an incriminating bomb on a corpse.
There is equal confusion amongst the marchers and their leaders; but the confusion becomes one of trying to comprehend the massacre that has occurred. The scenes of carnage and of attempts to save the wounded or rescue the dead are highly charged.
This is also true of the scenes at a local hospital as the scale of the massacre emerges. It is right at the end of the day [and the film] that we see and hear the first articulated response to the massacre by the movement. The focus is once again given to Ivan Cooper, who represents a Civil Rights standpoint. In his address to the media he does point up the colonial parallels:
‘our Sharpeville, our Ameristar massacre’
but he then goes on to argue that the actions that day by the British Government have
‘destroyed the Civil Rights movement and given the IRA the biggest victory that it has ever had.’
This is an important statement that refers back to earlier scenes where we are allowed brief glimpses of exchanges between Cooper and an local IRA [to be exact the Provisional Irish Republican Army] leader. Cooper stresses the promise he had been given that the IRA would keep a low profile and
‘keeping guns away’.
The response of the IRA leader is
‘marching is not going to solve this thing’.
Here we have a basic contradiction, one view regards the struggle in the six counties as a Civil Rights question, drawing parallels with then ongoing struggle by Afro-Americans in the USA. The other sees the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle, along the lines represented by Sharpeville and the African struggle against the Settler Apartheid regime. It seems to me that the film comes down firmly on the side of Cooper in this debate. This is partly due to the representation of the IRA. I think this is probably not deliberate, but the scenes in which we see them do parallel the stereotypes of British Television and Film representation. Furtive men in the background, seen on shadowy corridors and stairwells, and lacking the sympathetic demeanour given to Cooper.
What the film does not sufficiently address is the responsibility of the British State. The dramatic scenes show us the reaction of the soldiers, the hesitancy among military staff and then attempts at deliberate cover-up. Particularly in terms of the rank-and-file soldiers this may have some justification. But not in terms of the politicians. We get only one reference to the Government when Major-General Ford refers to a meeting at Downing Street. It was clearly a political decision to use the paratroopers to ‘police’ the march: and one fuelled by the inability to close down Free Derry. Using paratroopers, and the accompanying policy of internment, were the standard methods of control and repression in colonial conflicts. Internment had its roots in the policies adopted during the Boer War. And specialist troops like paratroopers have been used by the British, French, US and other states to suppress resistance in colonial and neo-colonial situations. Clearly, despite their refusal to admit this, the British political class saw the war over the six counties as a colonial conflict.
A rather different perspective on the same event is to be found in Sunday, which I also revisited. This film was written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Charles McDougal. McGovern is an experienced television writer with a large and successful output. His most relevant work in terms of the Derry events is the earlier Hillsborough (1996), which deals with another large-scale tragedy involving a ‘cover-up’ by the forces of the British state.
Sunday is also a docu-drama using reconstruction and a partly professional cast. However, its form and style are closer to the documentary mode: alongside the reconstruction it includes professional and amateur film footage of the actual events, both in black and white and colour. This is combined through the use of cross-cutting, at times almost at the same pace as in Bloody Sunday. However the reconstruction sequences tend to run longer than those in the Greengrass film: and whilst they use frequent close-ups there is a greater use of long shots and of the moving camera, especially tracking shots. Sunday also uses accompanying music, but again fairly different from Bloody Sunday. One extended sequence shows the aftermath of the massacre: we do not hear actual dialogue or noise but a sombre, orchestral piece presenting the sequence full of pathos.
The events and characters presenting in the film’s plot also differ. Sunday offers a sort of prologue commencing in 1968. We see a series of scenes with a voice-over by a young man later to suffer in the events of the 30th. He works at a labouring job for a cola firm owned by a ‘Protestant’. Briefly this opening references the Civil Rights movement, the British Army, the renewal of the IRA, Internment and Free Derry: the last a people’s zone in Derry where the British Security forces writ no longer runs.
The majority of the film deals with the ordinary civilians of Derry and the ordinary rank and file soldiers of the British army. It is worth noting that much of the film was shot in Derry, with participation by its citizens. The extras in the large-scale scenes are mainly people of Derry.
One of the few individual characters from the army hierarchy is Major-General Ford who appears on a number of occasions. His first appearance precedes the actual Sunday as he is seen recording a briefing in preparation for the response to the proposed March. In this film is clear that the army plans including the shooting of ‘young hooligans’ and a confrontation with the Provisional IRA. The temper of his brief is for a planned military operation including the use of the Paratroopers. Ford appears again later at several key moments during the day. The other military commander we see is an unidentified local commander mystified as to the use of Paratroopers in Derry: the response being that the orders ‘come from the top’. So whilst Sunday is explicit about the role of the Army leadership, early on, like Bloody Sunday, the role of politicans is suggested rather than stated.
There is no clear representation of the leadership of the Civil Rights March. The closest we come to them is a man with a loud-hailer marshalling the crowd at the start: notably he orders the removal of Republican [i.e. IRA] placards. Neither do we get to see the Provisional IRA. There is a brief scene later where two men fire a defensive shot and then hide their rifle: and a lone man shooting at the Paras with a revolver.
Much of the March and the subsequent violence details characters and actions very similar to those in Bloody Sunday. However, the film constantly cuts to actual film footage [either professional or amateur]. And the personal dramas interweaved with the public events are more frequent and involve longer sequences. Important extra scenes are visits to the mortuary, a tangle of blood and corpses: and the Paratroopers relaxing after the event, with racist comments about the Irish / Fenians. There is another major difference. Like Bloody Sunday the film fades or cuts to black to signal ellipses. But as the Paratroopers commence their fusillade against the civilians we are presented with a black screen over which runs the sounds of the shots, the screams and the accompanying noise. This is a powerful sequence which is then followed by the sequence of image and music already mentioned.
Just as with the opening the film goes beyond Bloody Sunday to the Widgery Tribunal. Now we do see the British Prime Minister carefully setting up the investigation. In a revealing sequence witnesses from Derry attending the Inquiry are allowed to be harassed by a Unionist demonstration. We see the low expectations among the people in Derry. Another revealing sequence has the Paratroopers flying in by helicopter and preparing their testimonies. One ordinary soldiers exclaims that they [the authorities]
are shitting on us. We did our duty. .. [we] lie.
Which is what we hear when they appear. However, one soldier has a different approach. A worried lawyer reads his deposition and then advises
your evidence will not be presented.
In the most radical sequence in the film we now see a flashback by the soldier. Essentially we see the events that were only heard above the black screen earlier. We see the shootings of civilian youths, of a man who tries to help the wounded, of a man shot whilst waving a white handkerchief. We also hear the lines shouted by the soldiers including ‘Fenian bastards’ This is violent and powerfully moving; and radically different from Bloody Sunday. It is also analytical. McGovern [presumably] is following one of the maxims of Berthold Brecht, re-arranging the order of the narrative in order to confront the viewer.
This is followed by a fine piece of crosscutting – between Major General Ford attending an investiture with the Queen and young Derry males waiting to take the oath of allegiance to the IRA. In a metaphor about the lack of change a survivor now works in the dead-end job with the [presumably] same coal firm. The film ends by listing the dead and wounded from that day. So Sunday is a more sophisticated and politically conscious film than Bloody Sunday. It is explicit in pointing out the crimanal acts by the British Army at the behest of the British State. It is, though, less clear on the question of the colonial nature of the war in the north of Eire. Its protest is on behalf of the Civil Rights of the people of Derry and of the six counties rather than against the occupation. Whilst it avoids the negative representation of the IRA it also fails to provide space for their position.
This lack of clarity over the nature of the war in the north of Eire spreads right across the media: notably in the use of terms like ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ or Nationalists and Unionists. the latter pair denoting sectarian conflict. Ken Loach’s two films on the struggle in Eire – The Wind that Broke the Barley (2006) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014) – have a clear exposition of the colonial nature of the war. However, his earlier film Hidden Agenda (1990) has a Civil Rights focus similar to Bloody Sunday; and I felt that the representations of the IRA in that film were similarly problematic. An aspect of this is the tendency of British television to become more radical the farther it moves from the present. This was not true of Loach’s earliest television work, but by the 1980s he was unable to work in British television. It is true of the general run, so that a fine series like Our Friends in the North felt quite radical in the early episodes butt rather supine by the end. So Sunday is definitely preferable to Bloody Sunday, but it was only thirty years after the events that either film was produced and aired.
Note details of the production and cast can be found on IMDB for both films.