Documentary - Bobby Sands: 66 Days

A difficult documentary about an intense time in 20th century Irish history, Susan Omand watches Bobby Sands: 66 Days...

The Troubles. The simple name for an incredibly complex and particularly bloody piece of recent Irish history. This documentary focuses on the death of one man as a big part of that history. Dead at 27 after spending 66 days refusing food in his jail cell to call media attention to the situation of the other prisoners in Long Kesh in Ireland who were not treated as the civilised political prisoners they believed themselves to be. Instead had to live in tiny cells with blocked up windows, urine swilled floors and soaked mattresses and faeces smeared all over the walls, left naked but for a blanket. Bobby Sands. Hunger Striker. Media superstar. Martyr.

The documentary tells us that Sands was a man with nationalism in his blood. A man who, as he grew up, experienced his community split and splintered by the growing sectarianism in Ireland. An educated man with a sensitive artistic soul whose only crime was to fight for a cause he believed in and then to highlight the establishment's injustices against him and his fellow freedom fighters using the purest and most personal of weapons at his disposal – his own body. Like Ghandi did. So Sands was Ghandi. Got that? Good.

Right, let’s go back through the rest of the facts in the documentary because they are there. Hunger striking has long been recognised as a good way to get public sympathy and get under the skin of Westminster. It has been part of ancient Gaelic laws for institutionalised fasting to be used to “rectify injustices” and has been highlighted in literary works such as Yeats’ The King’s Threshold. It is seen by the Irish as an almost noble way to rebel. Sands was born in an area of Belfast that became central to the sectarianism that accompanied the nationalistic divide. His family was displaced because of it so it was only natural that, as a disaffected youth, he would look for a way to get back at the people that had done this. He joined the IRA in 1971 at what could be seen as some of the bloodiest times in its existence with 1972 alone seeing the IRA responsible for 200 deaths, many of them civilian. And it was in 1972 that Sands first saw jailtime for gun crimes. At the time the prisons in Ireland were overflowing so IRA prisoners were encamped in what was essentially a prisoner of war camp with barbed wire fences at RAF Long Kesh. However, inside, they were allowed freedom of movement and interaction, regular post and visits, access to facilities such as a vast political library. They were allowed to wear their own clothes and were called “special category” prisoners. In effect it became a vast army training camp for the IRA and they got organised. By 1976, when Sands was detained again, a law had been passed by the Labour government at the time, abolishing the use of this “special category” imprisonment so, when he was arrested again and given 14 years for gun crime after the bombing of a warehouse, the regime had changed and he was treated as what he was – a criminal.

So where does the bias in the documentary come from if it gives all these facts? Brendan J Byrne does it so cleverly that you don’t realise the message being sent until you’ve almost swallowed it. The documentary includes interviews to add anecdotal evidence to the facts. The film-makers talk to various friends of Sands, fellow IRA members, his biographer, historians, even a journalist or two, all of whom wanted to tell the story from the prisoner point of view, one even using the oft quoted cliché that his job as a journalist was to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Only one of the interviewees, a prison guard at the time, had anything negative to say about the inmates. That man feared for his life and the lives of his family but this was glossed over. The film includes the reading of letters and diary entries from Sands; poetic, melancholy and resigned to his fate, read in a lilting Irish voice and put up on the screen in handwritten text over a silhouette of a man standing at a barred prison window. Artistic images, family photographs, footage of music and dancing and highly sympathetic watercolour animations are all used to humanise and personalise the prisoner while the “evil establishment” is represented by military uniforms, politicians, including the popularly reviled Thatcher, blocky typefaces and official news reports. Historic quotes are used to highlight the plight of the prisoners from the likes of McSweeney in 1926 who said “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will win.” In addition, the film regularly showed pictures of walls smeared in human excrement and of emaciated prisoners wrapped only in blankets but only once did it mention that the prisoners did this to themselves in the dirty protests and blanket protests because they refused to wear the provided prison uniforms, given when the lax rules they had enjoyed when they were jailed previously as “special category” prisoners were no longer in force. Heck even the music used in the documentary has a menacing undertone throughout. So yes, the bias is subtle but insidious. This is propaganda at its finest.

Am I the one being biased here? It is all down to perception and experience I guess. I am of an age that I lived through this. I remember the news reports, the fact that they could not show or use the voice of any Sinn Fein representative and I remember seeing the H blocks of the Maze prison on the TV. My uncle did two tours in Northern Ireland as part of the British peacekeeping forces and we lived in fear of that phone call. But I also recognise media martyrdom when I see it. The media love a face to put to a romanticised ideal. Look back at the first two paragraphs of this review. Think Che Guevara, freedom fighter, oppressed victim, leader among men – it works doesn’t it? Now look at the third paragraph about the same person – disaffected youth in a splintered community leading to radical religious and political extremism, willing to bomb innocent civilians and kill himself for his cause. Remind you of anything current?

History is always told from only one particular point of view. It’s up to us to remember that other points of view always exist and to seek them out before we make up our own minds.

Images - Bobby Sands Trust & Frankie Quinn

66 Days is currently on limited cinema release. See the official website for more details.
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