Paul Greengrass’s dramatic documentary, Bloody Sunday, depicts the savage attacks of the British military against unarmed Irish citizens, which resulted in the immediate deaths of thirteen innocent protesters and the wounding of fourteen more. January 30, 1972 will forever represent the atrocities committed by a few armed soldiers unfettered by the restraints of rational action. Although the “mockumentary” mainly focuses on Ivan Cooper, Northern Ireland’s former Member of Parliament and founder of the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labor Party), the filmmakers attempted to illustrate the intense religious, political, and social turmoil prevalent amongst a multitude of social groups in Northern Ireland. Filmmakers used a wide variety of techniques to promote historical accuracy, eliminate bias, and achieve an overall feeling of realistic intimacy. The path and actions of the protesters were historically accurate. Marchers were supposed to end their route at Derry’s Guildhall, a site of multiple terrorist attacks and a culturally significant landmark for the town of Derry. However, Loyalist supporters were holding a protest in opposition of the march (McClean, 151). Thus, Ivan Cooper’s event was redirected and ended at Free Derry corner, which is where British forces gunned down innocent civilians. In addition to the film’s historical accuracy, the filmmakers attempted to eliminate bias and give the documentary an overall feeling of authenticity. This was achieved in large part through the storyline’s progression and the deliberate emphasis on individual relationships, such as the relationship between Ivan Cooper and Bernadette Devlin. Filming techniques, such as fading the camera to black and the lack of soundtrack also gave the documentary a realistic quality. Although the film accurately portrayed the atrocities committed against unarmed civilians, the director’s decision to not include important background information surrounding the religio-political disputes did not provide the necessary context needed in order to explain British aggression. Modern sociological theory pertaining to the topic of religious conflict will help explain some of these contentious issues. Additionally, analyzing the medium through which the film is presented and the different techniques used, will help illustrate the overall realistic quality of the documentary and the events that occurred during Bloody Sunday.
Accompanying the tragic events that transpired during Bloody Sunday, there exist certain truths, which must remain uncontested. These are: the deaths of thirteen innocent civilians, seven of which were teenagers, the wounding of fourteen additional citizens, and finally the truth that these deaths were the result of a deliberate attack executed by British paramilitary forces. These specific aspects of Bloody Sunday were accurately portrayed in Paul Greengrass’s 2002 dramatic documentary. However, there still remain certain elements of the Northern Ireland conflict that the filmmakers failed to present, which would have made the documentary more objective in its methodology. First, the film failed to broach the issue of religion using a well-rounded approach. The film portrays Catholics to be the sole victims in the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists. James Nesbitt’s character, Ivan Cooper, states, “All civil rights people are Catholics” (Bloody Sunday). On the converse side of things, the political agendas and wishes of Unionist Protestants are given no mention throughout the course of the film. In his response to Bloody Sunday, Ian Paisley (leader of the Democratic Unionist Party) stated, “The march is further proof that there is a conspiracy against Northern Ireland behind which the Roman Catholic Church was taking the stand it had always taken: favoring an all Ireland Republic” (Cash, 166).  Necessary background information concerning religious affiliations and motivations would have assisted Bloody Sunday in its search for objectivity. While on the one hand, the film did not represent the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in a positive light, no context was given illustrating the ideology behind Protestant paramilitaries or Unionist supporters. Additionally, Ivan Cooper’s religious affiliation to the Protestant Religion hardly surfaced throughout the film. This would have been of great benefit to the audience in understanding the interconnectedness between religion and politics. During a 2002 interview, Greengrass asks the question, “How many films have we seen about Northern Ireland where the Protestants are portrayed as stereotypical bigots? I wanted this movie to escape all stereotypes” (Curiel, 1).  On the one hand, Bloody Sunday concisely depicted the unjust violence inflicted against innocent civilians, however necessary background information concerning the religio-political parties would have provided a more objective approach to understanding the violent motivations behind Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups.
Contemporary Sociological theory has been of paramount importance in understanding the motivations that religious groups have in conducting violence. Dr. Ronald L. Johnstone, professor of Sociology and author, has written a great deal about the functions of religious violence within society. In his analysis of the Protestant-Catholic conflict of Northern Ireland, Johnstone states:
The conflict is not a wholly religious conflict concerned with discovering divine truth and worshipping the true god in a correct manner. It involves religious and political groups that transcend the purely theological character and content of those religions (Johnstone, 143).
According to Johnstone, the motivations behind Unionists, Nationalists, Protestants, and Catholics cannot be solely attributed to either religious or political affiliation. Instead, what Northern Ireland has seen is an extremely convoluted conflict carried out by small factions of actors claiming religious and political ideologies. Claire Mitchell, a leading sociologist at Queen’s University, expounds upon this idea further when she states:
Whilst the churches have often spoken out against violence, their main interest through the conflict was to locate themselves in the political mainstream of their communities, provide comfort, support and sometimes political empathy for their members (Mitchell, 239).
The underlying argument here is that it is impossible to attribute acts of violence as solely religious or solely political. There exists, a deep connectedness between violence carried out on behalf of religion and politics. Bloody Sunday, at the very least, made this very clear in its depiction of that horrific day.
In order to create an accurate depiction of events and promote a feeling of authenticity, the filmmakers had to engage a multitude of techniques. Intermittently, the camera would fade to black. This filming technique disrupted the linear progression of the plot in order to signify lapses in time. This helped establish the apparent reality of the documentary. If the film were to simply progress without the disruption in filming sequence, the movie would feel more like a dramatic interpretation of Bloody Sunday as opposed to a documentary. The emphasis placed on the relationship between Ivan Cooper and Bernadette Devlin also contributed to the film’s realistic feel. Privileging the individual as opposed to the collective event helped the viewer identify on an intimate level, the thoughts and actions of key players. Additionally, the film did not contain a musical score. The lack of a soundtrack gave the documentary an even greater feeling of authenticity by specifically focusing on the events of Bloody Sunday, as opposed to manipulating certain feelings through music. In addition to these other filming techniques, Greengrass used handheld cameras, hired actors who were former British paratroopers to portray the British forces, and used actual citizens from Londonderry to portray the demonstrators (Curiel, 1). The feelings that Greengrass evokes through the staging of military violence are also noteworthy. The individual is transported directly into the scene and forced to endure the gut-wrenching torture that Britain’s military forces unleashed amongst unarmed civilians. Barnett and Reynolds state, “Negative images, such as pain and human suffering associated with crisis, have been shown to be more memorable than other images” (Barnett and Reynolds, 80).  Under this interpretation, Greengrass achieved his goal. Bloody Sunday realistically portrayed the abhorrent and senseless violence Northern Ireland’s citizens were forced to unwillingly endure.
A critical reflection of Paul Greengrass’s dramatic documentary, Bloody Sunday, reveals that the director’s vision of creating a film that “wasn’t afraid to explain the complexities and subtleties of what was going on that day” (Curiel, 1) was absolutely achieved. The film’s approach is fair in the sense that its aim was not to justify any specific religious or social group, but rather focus on the atrocities committed that day. More background information concerning the other religious and political parties involved would have provided the necessary context for understanding specific actor motivations and British aggression. However, the film did not attempt to draw delineation along political or religious lines. This can, in large part, be explained through Sociological theory. Dr. Ronald L. Johnstone posits that there exists an intimate connection between religious and political parties and an attempt to separate the two is impossible. Thus, Northern Ireland has seen an extremely messy and convoluted religio-political battle that will exist for quite some time. In the interim, the realistic depiction presented in Greengrass’s film helps provide an educational starting point through which religious and political violence can be examined more closely.

Works Cited

Barnett, Brooke, and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. Vol. 1. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2009. Pg 80. Print.
Bloody Sunday. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Bórd Scannán na hÉireann, 2002.
Cash, John. Ideology and Conflict: The Structuration of Politics in Northern Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pg 166. Print.
Curiel, Jonathan. “‘Bloody Sunday’ from all sides / Director aimed for balanced look at massacre of Irish protesters.” San Francisco Chronicle Online 11 10 2002: n. pag. Web. 16 Feb 2010.
Johnstone, Ronald. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion. 8th. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 143. Print.
McClean, Raymond. The Road to Bloody Sunday. 2nd. Londonderry, Ireland: Guildhall Press, 1977. 151. Print.
Mitchell, Claire. “Is Northern Ireland Abnormal? An Extension of the Sociological Debate on Religion in Modern Britain .” Sociology. 38.2 (2004): 239. Print.