Brendan J Byrne tried to ensure his documentary on Bobby Sands gave a balanced view of the IRA man who died on hunger strike, he tells Esther McCarthy
FEW people are better placed to tell the story of Bobby Sands than filmmaker Brendan J Byrne. A Belfast man through and through, he was a teenager in the summer of 1981, when word first came through that Sands had died after more than two months of hunger striking in a bid for better prison status and conditions.
Many more were to die before the strike was called off in what was a grim period in Ireland’s history. Byrne’s new documentary, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, arrives in cinemas on August 5 on the back of much praise on the film festival circuit.
It’s a comprehensive, balanced piece of work, coming at Sands’ story from every angle, often through the writings and hunger-strike diaries of Sands himself, voiced in the film by actor Martin McCann. It was a film, Byrne says, that needed to be made, even though he knew it would generate controversy.
“To me, as someone who grew up in a working-class, nationalist, Republican community, at the end of the day, Bobby Sands was a picture on a wall. I knew what he did, I knew what he stood for, but I didn’t understand anything about him,” explains the filmmaker.
“I also knew how vilified he was in different communities. I thought: Here was an important figure for what he did and the changes brought by what he did. I had made a number of politically-influenced documentaries before, primarily for TV, so it wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with the territory, but I realised that this was the biggest one, and that there were many more potholes. That there would be a lot of immediate commentary.”
To its credit, the film covers the Sands case from multiple angles in its analysis of a story that made global headlines.
“I think the film is a balanced view, perhaps a sympathetic portrait of Sands, but it’s not a sympathetic examination of the IRA. It doesn’t happen in a bubble, it’s not a flag-waver for the IRA. The Unionist context, the British context, is all in there.
“It’s totally driven as an attempt to, 30 years later, walk away from the stereotypes, take a look at it, and go: While I don’t like the organisation that he worked with, who murdered people, I can’t help but appreciate what he did.
“It’s something that I couldn’t do, or anybody I know couldn’t do. He wasn’t just a footsoldier. He was a thinker, he was a writer.
“It’s about bringing a bit more understanding to a figure who is really a picture on a gable wall.”
Using a blend of archive footage and contributions from a wide variety of historians and commentators, the film broadens out from the emotive circumstances of the strike itself to put what happened into historical and social context.
However, the practicalities of making the film presented a great many challenges, not least the fact there is no archive footage of Sands.
“The challenges were several-fold,” he agreed. “I knew I had lots of archive, because it was a 30-year war, photographed by everybody around the world. While there are no moving pictures of Bobby Sands and very little inside the prison, other than the shots of the excrement on the walls, while there’s a limited amount of very specific material, there’s a massive array of other material which is visually explanatory about the conflict.
“The challenge was to create a structure that was in that day in 1981, but also to go back in time to thread the broader context of hunger strike, to build a biography of Sands, to understand Republicanism, to look at 1916, at the medical effects of hunger strike on the body. It was the weaving in an out of the contemporary 1981 timeline, back into history. We knew it had to be that way. It took 35 weeks in the editing room to make it look seamless, but Paul Devlin, my editor, did a remarkable job.”
As a child, Byrne had to leave his home in Ardoyne, on a street that bordered a Protestant area.
“We lived on Alliance Avenue, which is the final street in Ardoyne which then backs onto a working-class Protestant community. We got a brick through the window with a note on it saying: ‘Never come back here’,” he said.
Byrne, who has made TV documentaries and also works as a producer, has already told stories of his hometown. His first film, The Kickhams, told a tale of identity through the GAA team that counted him among its players as a youngster.
“ A number of members of the team had been killed as a result of The Troubles, one or two also who had been IRA activists, so I grew up in a way, cheek by jowl, with people who I knew as a young man who were just the guy next door, though some of these turned out to be IRA people.
“While I was never going to join the IRA, I understood in some respects these people who did. Whilst I couldn’t condone what they did, part of me didn’t feel that they were pariahs either. They were people who were reacting to what was happening on the streets in front of them. There was a genuine sense of second-class citizenship if you grew up where I did.”
He remembers the “ominous” atmosphere in the city during the summer of the hunger strikes, but as a 15-year-old boy, he didn’t know enough to be frightened.
“The stomach began to tighten around 18, 19, 20 when you turned on the radio in the morning and someone had been shot dead. Later on that day, you’d be driving past the place and the police cordon would be gone, and you’re thinking: ‘This is around the corner from me, what’s happening? This place is fucked up.’ I often felt like leaving. I was lucky enough that my own family were a great unit. I had a sense that something bad was going to happen, but nothing bad was going to happen to me.”
Belfast remains his home to this day, even though he contemplated leaving at the height of the Troubles. “Couldn’t get the wife out of there, he says laughing.
“My wife’s a Protestant and a bit of a home bird. I always say that, but deep down I probably am as well. I sort of felt that I didn’t want to give up on the place.”
Bobby Sands: 66 Days opens in cinemas next Friday, August 5. It will also show at Triskel in Cork, Aug 7-10.
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