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Anatomy of a Massacre: ‘Sunday’ depicts Derry tragedy through eyes of the community

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Eamonn McCann

“It was done in my name. That’s what was different. That’s what gave me the right to make this film.”

Thus Jimmy McGovern, Liverpool socialist and self-professed English patriot, responding to a television interviewer who’d challenged his credentials as writer of “Sunday,” a two-hour drama about the day in Derry in 1972 when British paratroopers shot dead 14 civil rights marchers and wounded a dozen others.

“Sunday” is by some distance the best film yet made about the Northern Ireland Troubles, and to be ranked with the best political efforts of modern cinema generally. Don’t think “In the Name of the Father.” Think “Battle of Algiers.”

The movie — it will have its U.S. premier on Saturday, March 30, at New York University’s Cantor Film Center — is one of two dramas about the Derry massacre released in Britain and Ireland within days of one another in January, marking the 30th anniversary of the killings.

It tells its story through the eyes and emotions of the families of the victims and, more widely, of the Bogside community. The other production, “Bloody Sunday”, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, recounts events as they impacted on the moderate Nationalist politician Ivan Cooper.

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Both films have faced a barrage of criticism from a variety of commentators, some of whom haven’t felt it necessary actually to see the dramas before delivering their denunciations — rather in the way they initially approached Bloody Sunday itself. The films are one-sided, runs the refrain, depicting the paratroopers as heartless killers, all of the dead and wounded as innocent victims. And why, they ask, the continuing concentration on Bloody Sunday, when nobody’s made a movie about other atrocities, in some of which just as many people died at the hands of republican or loyalist paramilitaries? Good questions as far as they go, but they don’t go close.

McGovern explains that what drew him to the subject were precisely the things which made Bloody Sunday different, and which gave the day a pivotal significance in the politics of Britain and Ireland. Bloody Sunday wasn’t perpetrated by furtive guerrillas lying in wait on a lonely road in the dead of night, but by uniformed agents of the British State in a built-up area on a bright winter’s afternoon, witnessed by hundreds who had fled from the hailstorm of bullets into houses and high-rise flats all around. People in the Bogside didn’t demand a public inquiry afterward because they wanted to find out the truth but because, knowing the truth, they wanted it acknowledged.

It was because it wasn’t acknowledged, because the truth was whitewashed out of history, the victims demonized and the killers lauded, that young people in Catholic working-class communities across the North saw themselves facing a choice between giving up the fight for equal rights or finding guns and fighting back. Both films accurately depict the mushroom growth of the IRA beginning before the sweet stench of cordite had cleared from lower Rossville Street.

The strength of McGovern’s film lies in the way it shows that the killings hadn’t resulted from accident or misunderstanding or because psyched-up soldiers ran amok. The British commander of land forces in the North, Robert Ford, had laid out his intentions in a memo to the general officer commanding three weeks before the slaughter, on Jan. 7, 1972: “I am coming to the conclusion . . . that we must shoot selected ringleaders of the Bogside young hooligans.” McGovern puts Ford on screen dictating the memo, then shows him on the ground on the day urging the paras to “Go on . . . go and get them.”

He depicts Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath steering Lord Chief Justice Widgery — appointed two days after the event to conduct a public inquiry — toward the conclusion the British establishment wanted drawn.

“Remember . . . we are fighting in Northern Ireland not just a military war but a propaganda war” — again, the words taken verbatim from the official record.

Throughout “Sunday”, McGovern shows the source of the evil which burst on the Bogside located in the conscious intentions of the British political, military and legal elite. Greengrass’s film, on the other hand, suggests a general moral deficiency in the political and security apparatus, implicitly concluding that what the Bogside needed was trust in the leadership of decent men like Ivan Cooper. Contrarywise, McGovern suggests that the answer lies in the potential of the Bogside’s sense of working-class oneness and the sheer indomitability of its people to face down the power of the state.

The styles of the two films make for fascinating contrast. Greengrass’s depiction is undeniably powerful. More documentary than drama in approach, it is simply structured, taking the events of the day in sequential order, building tension through intercuts between jaunty banter on the march and the grim business of the paras making ready. The shooting is caught in jerky, hand-held, rat-a-tat sequences seemingly snatched on the run, zooming in on terror, swiveling away to project the images unmediated into the audience’s face. Scenes of Cooper distraught at Altnagelvin Hospital, pain swirling all around him from families discovering that their son or father or husband or brother is among the dead, will remain vivid in the memory long after the detail of dissection of the film has faded.

The documementary style and the tight emotional focus on one attractive individual make “Bloody Sunday” the more commercial of the two films, but at some cost. In cinema, style can too readily become substitute for truth. Greengrass’s cinema verite claim of authenticity is made on behalf of a narrative, which intersects with the truth but doesn’t follow its awkward path. Telling the story through Cooper’s eyes, Greengrass has to place the former MP at the heart of the action throughout, involved in every key decision. This belittles the role of the mass of the people. The marchers are cast as extras in the drama of the central character’s moral dilemma.

McGovern, meanwhile, based his script on a two-year trawl though thousands of eyewitness statements, published political and military documents and about 100 interviews with civil rights activists from the period and members of the victims’ families. There’s scarcely a line in his film which isn’t taken from life. He concentrates mainly on the family of John Young, 17, who’d worked in a tailor’s shop. You get to know the Youngs the way you know people you call in on without knocking the door. Brid Brennan, as John’s mother, gives a ferociously understated, shattering performance. In a key scene she’s confronted by her grief-stricken daughter, Maura: “You forgive the man who shot him.”

Mrs. Young: “Aye.”

Maura: “How can you forgive him? He hasn’t asked for it. He’s just told a pack of lies, called him a bomber and a gunman. He put our John in a coffin and now he’s spitting on the coffin and you forgive him. . . . You’ve not cried.”

Mrs. Young: “What are you saying?”

Maura: “You’ve not cried.”

Mrs. Young: “I’ve cried alright. You’ve never seen it. You never will. My sons won’t either. Beause if they saw what this is doing to me, they’d take up the gun and they’d die. I forgive that soldier, aye. But it’s not for him. It’s for the sons I have left.”

In scenes like these the script transcends personal loss and communal grief to tap into the trauma of those who are oppressed and murdered everywhere because seen as enemies of the State. The dilemma presented isn’t that of a hero emoting on behalf of the people, but of the plain people themselves torn between a thirst for justice and an instinct for revenge.

“Sunday”, accurately, depicts John’s brother Leo deciding to join the IRA, then thinking the better of it. The final scene shows him clanging the gate shut on the coal yard where he works, going home to his Bogside family. The working life goes on, the working people wait. At the end of every hard-earned day people still find reason to believe.

“Sunday” will make you think deep even as you choke back the tears. It’s a wonderful film. Don’t miss it.

(Eamonn McCann is an author, human rights activist and founder of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement. He was present at Bloody Sunday on Jan. 30, 1973.)

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