As violence ripples through the Middle East, it creates the impression that protests rarely remain peaceful. In Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere, protests that begun peacefully have met forceful, even murderous responses. While the blame for a large deal of this violence can be assigned to authoritarian governments wishing to maintain power, questions still remain. What is it about human nature that makes government after government so likely to meet peace with force? What element of protest allows for such rapid ascension to brutality? While political and social sciences offer academic, theoretical explanations of this phenomenon, it seems as though a more mysterious, more human element plays a role. Through use of “mockumentary” filming and editing techniques, the 2002 film Bloody Sunday explores this element, demonstrating the chaos and emotion so able to transform peaceful protests into massacre within minutes.

Film captures emotion perhaps more thoroughly than any other medium, as it creates the most lifelike representation of the actual event being depicted. Andre Bazin, influential film critic, believes that filmmakers strive to approach an ideal of “total and complete representation of reality… unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time” (Shaviro 1). If filmmakers were to reach that ideal, the emotion experienced by a film’s audience would mirror the emotion felt by a real-life participant in the same event. Although filmmakers may never completely reach this ultimate goal of complete realism, Paul Greengrass comes close with Bloody Sunday, a documentary-style film about peaceful protest in Northern Ireland turning sour.

Throughout the entire film, the viewer feels as though he or she could be on site, holding the camera—or not even worrying about one. Ceaseless wobbling, jerky zooming, out of focus shooting, and often non-existent lighting do away entirely with visions of metal tripods,  towering film lights and take after take of the same scene. As multimedia journalist Brian Storm puts it, “panning and zooming is not how the eye sees.” Greengrass seems to understand this entirely. The viewer’s eyes stay glued to the screen throughout the entire film, because this is not made easy-to-understand like an average Hollywood production.

Small elements that most filmmakers would purposefully avoid show up intentionally and have a momentous emotional effect. Camera flashes that obscure the speaker at a press conference highlight the intensity with which reporters try to capture a scene. Rooms so dark one can only hear what takes place cause a certain frustration, elevating the sensation of helplessness. This technique becomes especially effective during moments of life-or-death gravity. When the car on its way to the hospital cannot make it through, the viewer cannot even peer through the window to check on things. Furthermore, just a single scene’s audio includes various pieces of sound, each seeming equally important. The viewer, unsure whether he should listen to conversation, cries from off-camera, or sirens growing louder and softer and louder again, experiences the same conflict that occurs during moments of chaos in real life. Finally, the lack of change in camera angle during intimate scenes adds the finishing emotional touch. The viewer feels almost as though he or she has intruded on something personal, watching through a hidden camera or from behind a closet door. Greengrass prevents multiple angles and regular lighting from making these private moments into a public spectacle, placing further emotional significance upon them. In her book Packaging Terrorism, Susan D. Moeller discusses this phenomenon. “It’s our access to what should have been a private moment reserved for family and friends that gave the coverage the power it had,” she writes about an attack on Jordanian hotels where wedding celebrations took place. Access to personal moments spark human curiosity, and knowledge that violence didn’t just kill people— but destroyed intimate relationships— triggers heartbreak.

In addition to reeling in human interest, these few personal angles at the beginning of the film explore the emotional element of government inflicted violence even further. Greengrass creates the impression that these scenes are not public, and then switches instantaneously to dialogue between British soldiers. By exemplifying the “women and children” mentioned at the start of the film, and then moving without transition to men so seemingly unaware of these family intricacies, Greengrass fully exploits the juxtaposition of  private tenderness and public force. These transitions, in which the screen fades quickly to black before a new, different scen opens with no explanation, increase a sensation of chaos and helplessness. “The director makes things move even faster by assembling it as a series of blackouts, and all the cuts build a charged thoughtfulness,” writes Elvis Mitchell in a New York Times movie review. Toward the end of the film, these blackouts become increasingly brief and lacking in dialogue. In a traditional film, dialogue often provides the clearest insight into exactly why and how things happen. Here, that lack of dialogue abandons logical explanations for pure emotional propulsion. But despite the lack of dialogue and clarity, that violence would occur makes perfect sense when such fast-paced action meets intensity of emotion. “For all the characters on screen, we can glimpse their hearts in their eyes,” writes Mitchell.

Bloody Sunday makes evident the ways in which emotion and chaos interact to create force. Although disgusted with the violence, the audience understands the confusion felt by soldiers who fired. An official asks, “Well, what is force in a situation like this?” He attempts to justify his actions, but at the same time verbally illustrates the room for ambiguity generated by such chaos. The leaders behind today’s protests turned bloody employ the same strategy.   “I dare you to find that peaceful protesters were killed. In America, France, and everywhere, if people attacked military stores and tried to steal weapons, they will shoot them,” announced Gaddafi in a speech about military force used in Libya. Just as the British official in Bloody Sunday does, Gaddafi attempts to obscure the unjust use of force by referencing the frenzied situation in which it occurred. In a time when peaceful protests so often meet with force, a cinematic look into the causes proves especially relevant.

Works Cited

“Libya: Gaddafi’s speech in quotes.” The Telegraph 2 March 2011. Web. 6 March 2011.

Mitchell, Elvis. “FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS; ‘Bloody Sunday’ In Londonderry.” New York Times 2 Oct. 2002. Web. 6 March 2011.

Moeller, Susan D. Packaging Terrorism. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. “Emotion Capture: Affect in Digital Film.” Projections 1.2 (2007): 63-82. Web. 6 March 2011.