DIR: Brendan J. Byrne
Amidst one of the earlier interviews about The Troubles in Bobby Sands: 66 Days, Fintan O’Toole suggests that “no one on the islands is not marked by it personally,” a claim which became more understandable during the press screening. Many began discussing their opinion and knowledge of the Northern Ireland conflict as the documentary continued, but to even ask anyone of a particular age about The Troubles inevitably results in personal stories about bombings and the IRA. The Troubles continue to be a sensitive subject to some, Bobby Sands remaining a divisive figure in Irish history, often split between being remembered as a martyr or a terrorist in previous books and documentaries since his death. As a co-production between Northern Ireland Screen, BBC, and the Irish Film Board, Bobby Sands: 66 Days differs itself from previous documentaries by looking retrospectively at the hunger strike within the larger context of Irish history while remaining as objective as possible.
Bobby Sands: 66 Days, as the title suggests, follows Bobby Sands throughout his hunger strike against the abolition of Special Category Status (essentially being acknowledged as a political prisoner) in prisons during the Northern Ireland conflict. While doing so, the documentary examines Ireland’s history of fasting and starvation as both a romantic and politically charged phenomenon, the effect starvation causes both mentally and physically, the growing violence in Northern Ireland and Sands’ growing involvement in the IRA during the 1970s, the methods used in humanising Sands and the IRA over the course of the hunger strikes, and the impression left by the hunger strikes itself in Ireland, the UK, and the United States about the conflicts. What should be obvious is that a lot of information gets presented during the documentary but it never becomes overwhelming or convoluted. Instead, Bobby Sands: 66 Days is both an engaging and fascinating overview of one of the most difficult periods in Irish history.
A lot of the documentary’s impact stems from its effective presentation. Both the music by Edith Progue and the animated sequences by Peter Strain and Ryan Kane help to keep the narrative flowing and compelling rhythmically as each piece of information and testimonial accounts from cell mates, prison officers, historians, and politicians are presented one by one. The hunger strikes of 1981 may still be contested, but they’ve also suffered redundancy over time with the barrage of cultural responses in books, films, music, and art within the past thirty years. Bobby Sands: 66 Days accomplishes making an important moment in Irish history as emotionally resonating as it was in 1981 and intellectually satisfying when examining the period in hindsight.
Of course, with as much information as it presents, Bobby Sands: 66 Days should only be considered an introductory overview and not a definitive history of the hunger strikes or The Troubles. In certain moments, a lot of events are cursorily acknowledged, such as Dublin’s relationship to Belfast (the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings of ’74 never gets mentioned) and, most suspiciously, Sands’ involvement in the IRA before the hunger strikes never extends beyond stating he joined. When information such as why Sands was arrested the second time in 1977 is omitted, the impartiality of the documentary becomes suspect. Particularly as it lists and presents the nine prisoners who died alongside Bobby Sands in the same dramatic style as the executed leaders of the Easter Rising in George Morrison’s Mise Éire. These moments serve to undermine perhaps the most interesting aspect of 66 Days, which is its examination of the national mythmaking that generated about Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes.
At one point, Bobby Sands is described as a “brand” and a lot of the documentary’s running time dedicates itself to demonstrating the methodology in creating an idea of Bobby Sands that could both generate sympathy and support from a broader community. The opening of Bobby Sands: 66 Days illustrates this brilliantly as we see Bobby’s prison cell for the dramatic recreations being constructed piece by piece during the credits, symbolically showing the construction of a myth surrounding Bobby Sands. It acknowledges Ireland’s continuous valorising and attachment to martyrdom, linking it to ideas of Jesus Christ, and, in a sense, the methods used in promoting a political ideology is the most fascinating aspect of the documentary overall. Towards its conclusion, an interviewee states that if “you win the imagination, you capture the public,” which the documentary not only exemplifies superbly throughout but is also the primary reason why anyone should seek out Bobby Sands: 66 Days if interested in a significant turning point in Irish history.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Bobby Sands: 66 Days is released 5th August 2016