A Mockumentary, Bloody Sunday

The movie Bloody Sunday was written and produced well after the actual events took place in 2002.  Unlike most films that approach the subject, either dramas or documentaries; Bloody Sunday is a mockumentary.  In a mockumentary parts of the event covered is restructured by the artistic direction of the director and thereby often reveals the biases thereof.  The bias was significant part of the movie, for nearly all the players in the actual event have conflicting stories.  Some reported the truth, some were lies, and others were the result of faulty memory.  Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology of Stanford University describes the way fault memories work:

we might hear garbled words like “next,” “transfer,” and “train.” Building on our assumptions    and knowledge, we may put together the actual statement… we may even remember having           heard the full statement.

As a result, the director making a movie of a controversial event has a colossal degree of leeway since no eyewitness account will be perfect.

The bias of the movie was well apparent to the reviewers such as Roger Ebert who noticed that “His film is clear, however, in its belief that the British fired first and in cold blood.”  There is clear apparent bias against most British and a largely innocent picture of the Irish protestors on that day 30 January, 1972.  The degree to which the move could be considered biased is largely based on the observer so a better way to look at the movie is to explain how the movie creates this bias.

One of the least noticeable biases occurred in the clothing that was shown.  For example, the forecast for Derry on February 17, 2010 was a high of six degrees Celsius (42.8 Fahrenheit).  Unfortunately, weather archives are not available, but interpolating, Derry should have been a little colder than that on 20 January 1972.  In such weather, the average hooligan should have been wearing long pants, long shirt, heavy coat, scarf, and gloves to prepare for such cold weather – especially if out for hours in a peace march.

Generally, such garments were shown on the Irish marchers, protestors, and hooligans but considerably more ragged than their British opposition in uniform.  This creates the impression of the Irish as considerably less wealthy and prepared than the British.  Often times this was the case in Northern Ireland, but that does not necessarily indicate ragged clothing.  This was a decision of the director and the costume director to show the Irish as not being prepared for the cold.

Interestingly, generally those shown without proper clothing for the cold were main characters.  Ivan Cooper manages to be out there in a suit, no gloves, no scarf, no earmuffs, in temperatures close to freezing for hours – not really possible.  Similarly, one of the “hooligans” from the movie is wearing an open leather jacket and shirt, no scarf, no gloves, and certainly no protection from the cold.

In this way, those with heavy clothing have the movie effect of blending into the background with the uncovered faces and bodies the director’s use of focus.  The effect is of narrowing the viewpoint to what the director specifically want us to see over the background “noise” of crowds.  The vast majority of viewers never notice this in the film, and it is a major break in the perception of the mockumentary as a portrayal of utter reality.

Additionally, the use of color in film has a long history of contributing to bias.  A simple, good example of color to induce bias is Star Wars, an observant viewer would notice the Empire portrayed in black and white and the heroes in a wide spectrum.  Viewers associate a wide variety of colors with life and happiness, whereas evil appears as mono and/or dichromatic.  This dichotomy is especially apparent in the beginning of the movie as the director jumps back and forth between the Irish apartments and the British force on the barricades. One should have noticed that the apartments are emblems of life in the movie Bloody Sunday.

The wide variety of colors green, beige, red, blue, black, are representative of the positive influences that take place there; the barricades and vehicles are dark blue, oftentimes black, dichromatic and oppressive in perception.  However, the British soldiers are given a hint of life with alternating red and green uniforms, but the uniforms are faded to black later on in the movie while the violence is taking place – the symbolism is quite clear – the military are human only when not committing violence.  It is quite clear that the director is in favor of the Irish side from the colors used and how.  The Irish people and apartment are multicolored and lively compared to the monochromatic British.

To be clear though, the director, Paul Greengrass, was not interested in a pure portrayal of Irish innocence and British malfeasance.  One should notice that the appearance of the IRA was spread out throughout the move, providing an omnipresent menace from the Irish.  Whereas certain members of the British military and police were portrayed as hesitant or wiser than their colleagues, especially Bragadier MacIellan; who’s advice is portrayed as capable of preventing the unfolding violence.

The Brigadier is portrayed as advising to keep the men at the barricades, avoid public sight to prevent overreaction, and to not use live rounds.  Director Greengrass also attributes the atrocities to police incompetence as the orders at headquarters by Major General Ford are misinterpreted and ignored.  For instance, the director shows the order for the scoop up to not go beyond the barricade and to avoid a running battle; which is deliberately ignored by Colonel Tugwell as his men go barreling down the street.

Coverage of Bloody Sunday as an primary event in the Northern Ireland conflict is a much more recent phenomenon than one would ordinarily expect.  A search through LexisNexis finds that the term Bloody Sunday does not occur until about a year after the original events.  The first appearance of the term is on January 8, 1973, an article a mere 26 words long and no title or author listed – and the term is in quotes.  The first major article using the term was not until 1975 when a branch of the IRA was asking for donations in the United States to produce a “documentary” of what occurred.  Indeed, Aileen Blaney noted that “since the IRA…ceasefire in 1994, there has been an upsurge in…support of memorial and historical schemes.”  If Bloody Sunday was such a primary event in Northern Ireland the question becomes why did it take so long before commemoration of the violence begin?  The movement from breaking news to old news to viable documentary subject is not simply a process of time, but a shift in perspective.

Aileen Blaney, as mentioned early  ceases upon the 1994 IRA ceasefire as the spark for making commemoration of the various massacres and killings acceptable.  Previously before this, commemoration and memorial would bring possible retribution from one or more factions.  It could also setup a series of killings or street battles as each faction attempts to usurp the headlines that would dominate such a commemoration.  Indeed, Blaney points out that the marches commemorating the anniversary of Bloody Sunday did not reach significant scale till at least the 20th anniversary at approximately 40,000 marchers.

Of course, to put that in perspective, the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister drew several hundred thousand and marches commemorating Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination regularly drew tens of thousands since the first year. However, the marches have dropped in size during the first decade of the 21st century as the perceived end of violence proved to be an illusion as predicted that commemoration begins only after perceived violence has ended.

Both populations of the aforementioned places are fairly close in scale to Northern Ireland, yet the commemoration process only began to accelerate twenty years later.   The very movie Bloody Sunday is a part of this trend of being safe to commemorate the Northern Ireland conflict – the release date is 2002 -the 30th anniversary!

One possible solution to unravel the riddle of this delay in the commemoration of Bloody Sunday could simply be the amount of violence that was taking place at the time.  This has occurred repeatedly in the reporting of terrorist activities in TV News and Newspapers across the globe.  There are numerous cases where the New York Times merged casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan in a single article because they felt more important coverage lay elsewhere.  As the violence and death decreases the perceived importance of the tactic becomes less newsworthy, terrorist groups have to remain creative to stay in the media spotlight.  Aogan Mulcahy of Arizona State University states that terrorist organizations “depend for their survival on the “oxygen of publicity” provided by media coverage.”

Many years of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel usually reduced the coverage to minor blurbs without author attributions.  The headlines became “Six American Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan” and the overall impact of the individual incidents and deaths are minimized.

Similarly, in Northern Ireland the pace of the deaths became sustained for over a decade. The estimated number of dead as a result of the troubles is estimated to be around 3500, without even mentioning the wounded, started in the late 1960s  and slowed down in the mid 1980s.  Individual killings and retaliation were reduced to blurbs reminding the TV News viewer and newspaper reader of the continuing conflict.  Assuming a twenty year range for the troubles, on average a person was killed every other day and the wounded several times that.  Due to the sheer amount of violence the priority of political scientists was how could the violence be stopped; not what events were important milestones.  By all means, I do not suggest that these event were ignored, but that their commemoration and remembrance addresses is only a result of many years of reflection.

The fundamental change in perspective that occurred is, as Blaney mentioned, the decrease in violence.  One does not see the same type of documentaries on Northern Ireland as we do in current hotspots in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Regarding Israel, Munich is not a good example as most believe the history of the PLO as a terror group has ended – a decrease in violence consistent with the above argument.  Modern Israeli and Iraqi docudramas that follow a single person’s viewpoint like Bloody Sunday are often ambiguous in their portrayal of morality rather than biased – partisans excluded of course.

Similar movies include “Tora! Tora! Tora!” reveals the director’s view whether or not the United States might have actually known about the Pearl Harbor attack and simply bungled the intelligence.  Another good example of a movie in the same vain as “Bloody Sunday” is Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” which even came with the disclaimer that the truth portrayed may not be as complete as what is shown on film.

Further evidence of the shift in historical perspective comes from the coverage of the murder of six Catholics in an Irisih pub in 1994.  In contrast to the blurbs, except for more explosive catastrophes, this outbreak of violence made front page news all of Ireland and Britain such as The Daily Mail, Irish News, and News Letter.  This type of killing, was hardly new, mass killings in Irish pubs go all the way back to the beginnings of the violence in the 1920s.

A simple explanation of why these killings captured the media’s attention was that they were no longer expected.  The same has occurred in coverage of Iraq in 2008-2009; as some political compromise took hold the violence in Iraq decreased such that car bombings and suicide bombings, once common, were now perceived as unusual, making old news new again and warranting heavy coverage with impressive photographs.

Mockumentaries, commemorations, and individual interpretation of violent events by artists only occurs after the crisis, such as the troubles, are perceived to have become the past.  In this interpretation of Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass has decided to show believe mostly the Irish eyewitness testimony.  Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable no matter what one believes though.  Therefore, the portrayal of what to believe is at the mercy of the artistic director.  No matter what eyewitness testimony one believes, Bloody Sunday was a tragedy that should never have happened.  It is only after the perceived end of violence that brings commemoration and moral judgment.

Sources

Blaney, Aileen. “Remembering Historical Trauma in Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday.”

Ebert, Roger. “Bloody Sunday.” Chicago-Sun Times. October 25, 2002. February 16, 2010.

Deming, Angus, Lesher, Stephan, and Manning, Richard. “The American Connection.” The New York Times. December 1, 1975. February 17. 2010.

Edge, Sara. “Why did they kill Barney?: Media, Northern Ireland and the Riddle of Loyalist Terror.” European Journal of Communication. 1999. 14.91. February 17. 2010.

Mulcahy, Aogan. “Claims-Making and the Construction of Legitimacy: Press Coverage of the 1981 Northern Irish Hunger Strike.”  Social Problems Vol 42.4 November 1995. February 17. 2010.

New York Times. January 8 1973. February 17. 2010.

Tversky, Barbara and Fisher, George. “The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony.” Stanford Journal of Legal Studies. Vol 1.1. Febraury 16. 2010.