Northern exposure

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 are the Ceasefire Babies, arriving after the worst of it was over yet here they are, quietly absorbing a documentary on Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands. Like Sands needs any introduction.

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 less generous assessments and categorisation of Sands 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 a rare 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 would not have felt 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 we see them banging, nor their muffled cries of grief at funerals, nor the spoken-over 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 in an act that precipitated 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 for they are always to be found in the centre of it; feeling the impact of it more keenly than most.


Bobby Sands’s Mother & Sister at his funeral

16 thoughts on “Northern exposure

  1. I am hoping to see this documentary. I was wondering how it would portray the period and in truth am not sure if I’d have been as aware as you at lack of female input. Of course now I’ll be raging over it!
    My kids have grown up knowing nothing of this time. I’ll try to drag them to this as I think it’s something they should know but I’m not sure why? Maybe I’m anti Brit still, pretending we are friends, or maybe I’m still horrified at both sides and wondering why it all happened?

    • Let us know what you think of it, tric. It’s likely to be an important research artefact in time to come. That it is making both ‘sides’ uncomfortable is as good a sign as any that it has struck a balance. Insofar as that’s possible…

  2. A good perspective, and fitting with your current themes. It’s hard for me to make a legitimate comment without sounding trite, after all, I’m over here, albeit on the north of the border. History is like statistics – you make them say what you want them to say. It has always been manipulated – Lenin was very good at it, see if you can find anything by googling Trotsky’s elbow. Long before photo-shop, Lenin simply ordered that all group photographs which included Trotsky be cropped so that he was cut out of the photograph, and then written out of history. But if you look closely, you can often see his elbow.

  3. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the gentleman in question, and am not qualified to comment on the topic of the film, but I have been to films so I have a totally trivial comment to make about my most memorable moment as the credits began to roll and the lights came up at a movie. That was after the Sally Potter film Orlando, in about 1993: my seat broke, and as I was still sitting in it, I fell down onto the floor on my arse, still mostly in a seated position. It was somewhat embarrassing but much less so than if it had happened during the film, so there was that small comfort. And I hadn’t even eaten a choc top.

    Birdie’s comment above makes me think that Lenin photoshopping Trotsky out of photos must have been the inspiration for George Orwell when he wrote 1984, because Winston Smith’s job in that novel was manually doctoring text and photos to ensure that certain persons had never existed.

    • Good point about George Orwell – I think Animal Farm was inspired by the Russian Revolution. I seem to recall it was Lenin’s idea to doctor the photographs, but Stalin took it to a whole new level. It was something I came across more than 30 years ago in the magazine of the Saturday Independent. Somehow it has stuck with me.

      • I can understand why it would have stuck with you. It was a pretty out-there concept to first come across, given that you and I came across it before the days of photoshop and complete distrust of the media.

    • I salute you for maintaining composure through your terrible ordeal by remaining seated. And for alerting us to the possible inspiration for Orwell’s character. And not least, for igniting my curiosity about ‘choc tops’. Which to Google first? Dilemma.

      p.s. I remember Orlando, if only for introducing me to the otherworldly creature that is Tilda Swinton. Please feel free to continue with this thread of comment association. I await to hear what memory this one triggered with eager anticipation.

      • Choc tops may be another cultural abyss between us. Funnily enough they are very similar to the Eskimo Pie I mentioned in a previous comment somewhere, after Birdie mistakenly mixed up Australians and New Zealanders and said that “we” have an Eskimo lollie. Well it’s her that said it was a mistake, anyway – I’m saying that we do have an Eskimo Pie, which is really an icecream. A choc top is just an icecream in a cone, covered in a hard chocolate coating, purchased at the cinema. Yum. (If purchased anywhere else it’s branded by Nestle or Streets, and named a Drumstick or a Cornetto, and, obviously, not as yummy.)

        I was going to namedrop Tilda Swinton but decided to go for the lesser known director of the film, Sally Potter, just to show that I didn’t gain celebrity blogger status merely by name-dropping, or by any other means for that matter.

        Otherworldly is a very good descriptor for Swinton. It did always seem very strange that she and David Bowie were almost interchangeable, both so madly cheek-boned, thin and androgynous, and both so uber-cool that they seem to be not-of-this world. Were they/are they alien siblings, I wonder? Or, one alien with two bodies, or something. Anyway, I loved the film Orlando because at that time I was in my early twenties and had been eagerly devouring all of Virginia Woolf’s writing, and I thought that the film was a beautiful portrayal of the book. Sadly, after seeing the film, I lent my copy to a fellow painting student at art school and never got it back. (he was an extremely young chap of barely 18 or so, who was clearly on the verge of coming out, and also just discovering nightclubbing & ecstasy. I think he thought it was very risque to be seen reading a story about someone who changes sex, oh my! – but I doubt that he even actually read it).

        Well, you asked and I delivered. Stream-of-consciousness-by-association is my specialty after all. If only there was a demand for that, I could bring in a steady income. Notice that I have not managed to write a new post in over a week, but have chalked up about 1000 words in comments to you and your partner in crime.

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