In response to a number of perceived injustices perpetrated by the British Government, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) organized what was intended to be a peaceful protest march through the town of Derry. However, the word “peaceful” utterly fails to describe the events that transpired that Sunday, January 30 1972. By the time it was over, twenty-seven civilian protestors had been shot by British military gunfire, leaving thirteen dead. Bloody Sunday, as the day came to be known, has lived on in the hearts and minds of Irish nationalists as a symbol… of British brutality and oppression in Ireland. Thirty years after Bloody Sunday, director Paul Greengrass and Granada TV released the film Bloody Sunday, a documentary drama depicting one version of the events on that tragic day. The film provides the viewer with a remarkably realistic-looking portrayal of Bloody Sunday, yet it is a portrayal that differs greatly from the official history propagated by the British Government. Given those differences, the fairness of both accounts is called into question.

In Bloody Sunday, Greengrass takes full advantage of the docudrama genre to produce so much realness that it can be easy to forget that the film is not a real documentary. That effect is achieved through the use of a number of strategic choices, beginning with the equipment. The entire film is recorded using handheld digital camera’s shooting fast-paced scenes to recreate a sense of breaking television news coverage (Blaney). This look and feel is especially apparent in the chaotic riot scenes and the grainy press conferences. In addition to that, the actual, physical film was modified through a chemical process to match the muted colors and dated look of 1970s footage (Blaney). Furthermore, the lack of music throughout the movie increases the realism by making it feel even more like a newscast. Other stylistic elements, such as the complete fades to black deserve to be mentioned as well, but one of the most interesting choices of the director was the hiring of real soldiers to play the roles of the British Paras. Indeed, there were some cases “where soldiers were filmed without prior knowledge of how exactly a scene would unfold” adding to the sense of confusion and utter reality (Blaney). Through these intentional, innovative means Greengrass created an account of Bloody Sunday that more resembles original documentation of a historical event than a reproduced interpretation.

Given that realism and its power to convince an audience, it is important to note that Bloody Sunday portrays a version of events very much in opposition to the “official memory” of Bloody Sunday. That is, the British Government officially acknowledges a very different account of what took place on that January afternoon. That account is solidified in the Widgery Report, which was the result of an official inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday ordered by then Prime Minister Edward Heath. According to the report, the deaths were “an unfortunate by-product of a volatile security situation” (Blaney). It very much supported the “Army’s narrative of events—that British soldiers fired only at identifiable targets in self-defence [sic], having come under sustained attack from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was held responsible for initiating the violence” (Dawson). In Northern Ireland, the Widgery Report was highly criticized for failing to recognize the blatant misconduct by the Paras and for not admitting that those killed had not been armed with any type of weapon. Nonetheless, the report “instituted an ‘official memory’ of Bloody Sunday, substantially adopted by Northern Irish Unionists as well as majority public opinion in Britain, that served the interests of the British military and political establishment as it conducted its ‘propaganda war’ in Northern Ireland” (Dawson).

According to Harold Lasswell, author of Propaganda Techniques in the World War¸ propaganda is “the technique of influencing human action by the manipulation of representations” (Barnett and Reynolds, 65-66). While this definition is admittedly broad, it describes quite well the intentions of the British Government with regard to the Widgery Report. They could not deny that the tragic event had happened, so they needed to change the representation of the event to the general public. Indeed, the official record shows that in a meeting between Heath and Widgery at the time of Bloody Sunday, “Heath had warned Widgery to ‘never forget it is a propaganda war we are fighting’’’ (Hegarty). While it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether or not the report was the result of an accident or intentional propaganda, the evidence seems to favor the latter. For example, Widgery “refused to hear evidence from most of the civilian eye-witnesses or from all of those who had been wounded on the day” (Hegarty). In addition to that, he “allowed soldiers to give evidence anonymously and whilst disguised” (Hegarty). Furthermore, evidence surfaced years after the tribunal that the original testimonies of the soldiers had been altered with the “effect of making the actions of the soldiers concerned less likely to attract criminal charges and reduced the discrepancies between their various accounts” (Hegarty). Regardless of whether or not the investigation was intentionally skewed in one direction, the findings still resulted in an official policy of denying what really happened in Bogside despite the fact that “visual and forensic evidence and the unanimous testimony of hundreds of civilian eyewitnesses indicate that the soldiers opened fire unprovoked on unarmed civilians” (Dawson).

There is no question that Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday provides a loud opposing voice with which to challenge the “official memory” originally put forth by the British Government. However, much like it was important to ask whether or not the Widgery Report was fair, it is also important to ask whether or not Bloody Sunday is a fair representation of the real event. To answer that question, a clear definition of the word “fair” is needed. Therefore, –referencing Miriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary– to be “fair” will be defined as being impartial and “free from favor toward either or any side.” Considering that definition, it seems that trying to defend Bloody Sunday as a completely fair representation would be nearly impossible.

Indeed, the film is guilty of unfairness based on a few key elements. First, the film was created in collaboration with “members of the Derry community… who operated in a consultative capacity during the film’s pre-production stages, in addition to playing lead roles and comprising the vast majority of extras used in the film” (Blaney). Immediately, it seems that the requisite impartiality of fairness is not fulfilled given that the film’s portrayal draws heavily from the testimonies of only one party involved in the conflict. Furthermore, those testimonies are based on thirty-year-old memories which have likely been influenced and supplemented by the collective memory of the entire community. It seems likely that those memories cannot be wholly accurate. In addition to that, genuine fairness cannot be attained in Bloody Sunday because it is merely a snapshot of one event that exists within a larger context of violence and conflict between the two sides. The audience is led to identify with the nationalists as helpless and oppressed, which is not necessarily untrue, but the viewers are nonetheless placed in a “highly subjectivised [sic] and emphatic viewing position, making it more difficult… to get back to the objective distance necessary for assessment” (Blaney). Given that lack of objectivity, Bloody Sunday cannot be a truly fair portrayal.

However, Bloody Sunday’s lack of complete fairness does not mean that the film should be completely discounted or ignored. Bloody Sunday puts forth an important challenge to the officially sanctioned version of history, which is likely even more unfair in comparison. The Widgery Report failed to listen to the voices of those who witnessed the killings. Thirty years later Bloody Sunday finally gave those voices a chance to tell their story. The film cannot prove the exact sequence of the day’s events, it cannot prove who shot who, and it cannot issue a conviction. It was not made to do those things. Rather, the purpose of the film, released on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, was to keep public debate around the issue alive and to inspire more demands for an objective, official recognition of what happened. Arguably, the fairness of the movie was less important than its ability to keep the issue salient. Fair or unfair itself, Bloody Sunday took a very important step towards a “fair” resolution to this prolonged dispute.

Works Cited

Barnett, Brooke and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: an Uneasy Relationship. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 2009. Print.

Blaney, Aileen. “Remembering Historical Trauma in Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday.” History   and Memory. 19 (2007) Web. 16 Feb 2010. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/ehost/p df?vid=2&hid=13&sid=4954c312-b973-4e1f-9153-35a7ecf91c36@sessionmgr12

Dawson, Graham. “Trauma, Place and the Politics of Memory: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972-2004.” History Workshop Journal. 59 (2005) Web. 16 Feb 2010 http://ejscontent.ebsco.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/ContentServer.aspx?target=http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/re  print/59/1/151.pdf

Hegarty, Angela. “Truth, Law and Official Denial: The Case of Bloody Sunday.” Criminal Law Forum. 15 (2004) Web 17 Feb 2010 http://www.springerlink.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.educontent/kp865t3p387270j3/fulltext.pdf