Part of the ritual of a trip to the flicks is a gawk at departing viewers as the lights come up and the credits roll. It used to be an unconscious reflex, curiosity to see who else the film appealed to without processing it too finely. But this evening, the descent of young lads two by two-steps at a time is impossible to ignore. They’re of the generation that wasn’t born during The Conflict. Yet here they are, quietly absorbing a documentary on Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands. Like Sands needs any introduction….
The film’s appeal is proof positive that his place in the enduring mystique of Republicanism is safe. Where he continues to be romanticised in a way those from the armed movement’s ‘legitimate targets’ are not.
The newly released documentary 66 Days is compelling viewing chronicling the turbulent period of Sands’s physical demise and corresponding rise of his political determination. It does so while unpicking the competing perspectives of those who considered him a freedom fighter with unflinching conviction against others who categorised him and his comrades as terrorists. All the while transcending firm conclusions by illuminating the contradictions and hypocrisies of violence directed towards others alongside feats of self-sacrifice (something the IRA were not generally known for). Contractions that propel a handful of individuals into the universally recognised iconography of the oppressed. An enigmatic few with an ability to attract derision and admiration, often simultaneously.
For all its success at even-handedness, and impressive line-up of talking heads, it is a struggle to ignore the film’s lack of female voices. According to director, Brendan J Byrne, the women he ‘wanted’ (Sands’s sisters, Bernadette McAliskey) declined to participate. When pressed for a comment on Twitter, Byrne responded:
“..I know but it was mainly a war fought by men… Inserting a female voice for the sake of it felt tokenistic to me”
To this viewer, the inclusion of women wouldn’t have been any more tokenistic than having Fintan O’Toole as the main analyst could be seen as a tactical effort to give the film broader respectability. Instead there is an entire male cast of historians, commentators, former politicians, and political analysts.
More critically, Byrne appears to ignore the finer aspects of his own film. For there are women everywhere throughout it, if silenced by the sound of men talking. So we do not hear the bin-lids they bang, nor their cries of grief at funerals, nor the stomp of their feet as they march in mandatory black berets and matching shades, nor their tearing down of corrugated iron surrounding the H-Blocks that contributed significantly to the eventual end of the Hunger Strikes seven months and 10 dead men after they started. Backroom strategists remain out of view.
As Bernadette McAliskey remarked only last week during a discussion on women in history: “history is what it says it is”.
An examination of war doesn’t require the insertion of female voices into the story. They have always been in the middle of it. Feeling the impact of it more keenly than most.
Bobby Sands’s Mother & Sister at his funeral