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Digging up truth, not anger

To re-create Bloody Sunday, even as reconciliation continues, filmmaker Paul Greengrass brought together British and Irish, Protestants and Catholics.

October 18, 2002|Bill Desowitz | Special to The Times

Irish director and producer Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father") refers to Bloody Sunday as an event the Irish can never forget and the British don't want to remember. Thanks in large part to Don Mullan's influential 1997 book, "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday: The Truth" the British government launched a new inquiry a few years back and publicly exonerated the participants in the 1972 march. And thanks to U2's blistering song "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the violent day has become known throughout the world.

Now comes "Bloody Sunday," a film inspired by Mullan's book. The movie, written and directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, viscerally dramatizes the horrific 24 hours in gritty documentary fashion. Greengrass, a former journalist who covered the IRA hunger strikes in the early '80s and previously made another fact-based drama about political injustice, "The Murder of Stephen Lawrence," sought from the outset to be as inclusive as possible through a British-Irish co-production.

The director joined forces with British-owned Granada and Sheridan's Hell's Kitchen production company, among others. He then invited Mullan to collaborate as co-producer. In addition to writing his book, Mullan was a young eyewitness to one of the murders.

"Our movie became a metaphor for unity and bringing an extraordinary diverse group of people together on the set," Mullan says. "People from Northern Ireland who are Catholic and Protestant; people who had lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday; eyewitnesses to the event; lots of volunteers who had known about the event; and our soldiers, former British soldiers who were in Northern Ireland at the time.

"We created a chemistry that really works in the film, but it could've been a Molotov cocktail that blew up in our faces. Everyone had a shared vision in trying to find the truth so that we could consign it to the past."

They filmed in Derry, where the march took place, wherever possible. But restaging the arrival of hundreds of troops and the firing of dozens of rounds of ammunition during the sensitive peace process was out of the question because the site of the shootings had long since been demolished, so they settled on a housing development in north Dublin.

"The hardest part was not to make a film that just stirs up anger and resentment," Greengrass says. "We're building a peace in Northern Ireland. The idea was to make a film that kept a clear sight of that injustice but yet became an experience of reconciliation. In a way, the film, stripped of its [historical and political] context, becomes a macabre dance between protest and intransigence and how it erupts and leads to violence."

The model for Greengrass' film was "The Battle of Algiers" (1965), director Gillo Pontecorvo's landmark re-creation of the anti-French terrorist revolt, which was shot on location and relied on actual participants.

"What struck me in thinking about 'Algiers' was that its idealistic message wasn't applicable here," the director explains. "My whole life has been framed by the 'Troubles.' We live in a time of post-colonial conflict.

"It seems to me that the legacy of Bloody Sunday -- the meaning of it -- is about the primacy of the civil rights movement. The fact that most of the civil rights movement was destroyed that day, a message that has lived on and has come to fruition today, is a message applicable to many parts of the world. Which is why the film feels so contemporary. The ideas in it are urgently relevant."

The film's central character is march leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a civil rights activist and Protestant member of Parliament who was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but who left the peace movement after Bloody Sunday. For the real Cooper, who visited the set one day, watching "Bloody Sunday" last January was a daunting experience.

"I watched it in the course of a special showing for the relatives of those who died on Bloody Sunday," he said in a recent interview. "Some of these I had not met since that fateful day. Once the film started to run, with the brutally realistic soundtrack, I was right back in the Bogside on that day. I was back amongst the terror, the terrible fear and the terrible tragedy of it all. I was most apprehensive about watching the film. The relatives, however, were a great source of support to me. It is so very starkly realistic."

The screening deeply affected Greengrass as well.

"I saw the families of those innocent people watch this film and react not with anger and bitterness, but with great generosity and with a yearning for peace," he recalled. "And I thought of the core of the civil rights message, that we all of us inhabit these beautiful islands scattered on the northwestern edge of Europe and that we hold so much more in common than that which divides us."

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