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“It’s unquestionably the most difficult, the most contentious, the most controversial single day of the whole Troubles,” says Bloody Sunday writer-director Paul Greengrass of January 30, 1972. “In a sense, it’s the day that propelled Northern Ireland into 30 years of conflict.” On that brisk winter’s afternoon in Derry, what began as a civil rights march plummeted into rioting and then lethal chaos when British paratroopers shot 27 unarmed Catholics, killing 14. Based on Don Mullan’s oral history, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, Greengrass’s harrowing panorama of the massacre (screening at the New York Film Festival on October 2 and 3 before opening in theaters October 4) serves as a vital corrective to decades of blame-the-victim obfuscation by the British government.
“I think people in Britain always wanted them to be terrorists,” says Greengrass, himself an Englishman, of Derry’s fallen. “Their families went through so much hardship—not only did they lose their sons and fathers, but then their reputations were smeared with the tar of terrorism. But I also wanted to convey that Bloody Sunday was never meant to happen. The British thought they were going to go in there and get tough with hooligans, and that desire shaded into excessive force and beyond that into, essentially, murder.”
Bloody Sunday achieves a chilling verisimilitude further enhanced by the participation of actual witnesses. On the initial day of re-creating the march, Greengrass recalls, “a lot of former British soldiers were on one end of the street and all these citizens of Derry were at the other. These are people who were sworn enemies for decades. I remember thinking, Oh my god, I’ve made the worst mistake of my life; this is all about to go horribly wrong. And then—I’ll never forget it—Don Mullan, who had been there on that day as a young boy, walked through the crowd to the soldiers and shook hands with them. That broke the ice.”
It comes as no surprise that Greengrass cut his teeth on docs, as a producer for Granada’s World in Action series. (He made his first theatrical feature, the Kenneth Branagh-Helena Bonham Carter weepie The Theory of Flight, in 1998.) Greengrass first visited Derry in 1980 while researching a piece on Irish Republican Army soldier and hometown boy Raymond McCartney, then serving two life sentences for murder and at the bitter end of a 53-day hunger strike that he barely survived. “His cousin, Jim Wray, was killed on Bloody Sunday—shot twice in the back,” says Greengrass. (Gilles Peress’s extraordinary photograph captures 22-year-old Wray sitting in calm protest minutes before his death, as demonstrators rampage behind him.) “Ray was about the same age as me, ostensibly living in the same country, listening to the same pop music, watching the same football, and it seemed unimaginable that this is the same bloke who decides, ‘All right, let’s shoot people in the head from three foot’ and then decides to starve himself to death. And I guess I wanted to know why.” To that end, Greengrass began a secret correspondence with McCartney. “The first sentence of his first letter is, ‘It all began for me on Bloody Sunday.’ ”
So much came to an end on Bloody Sunday—the lives of 14 men and the very possibility that Northern Ireland’s course of rebellion could be steered not by the resurgent, vengeance-fueled IRA but a nonviolent, integrated civil rights movement, as espoused by Derry’s then-MP, Ivan Cooper. A founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party—mainstay of the Catholic middle class—Cooper, a Protestant, helped conceive the day’s march as a peaceful demonstration against the ongoing internment of suspected IRA militants, often on the flimsiest of pretenses.
“When I saw Paul’s film for the first time, I was right back on the streets where I’d been that day—I felt that horror and that fear,” says Cooper, now 58 and a small-business consultant. “For us in Derry, we have the feeling that we’ve been vindicated. For people in the wider world, you have the feeling of an injustice that was covered up by the highest law officer in the land and by the entire government machine.” Tony Blair’s Labour leadership has also done its part to amend for past wrongs—including, perhaps, the awarding of an OBE to the British paramilitaries’ commanding officer for his services during Bloody Sunday—by opening an unprecedented second inquiry into the event. (The tribunal is expected to report its findings in about two years’ time; the first former IRA member to testify, on September 5, was Raymond McCartney.)
Cooper did harbor some skepticism when Greengrass approached him about the project (“You must remember he is English,” Cooper points out), but he was won over in part by the casting of James Nesbitt, star of the hugely popular TV comedy Cold Feet—”the Friends of the U.K.,” as Greengrass puts it. “Jimmy too is from a middle-class Protestant background and grew up not far from Derry,” Cooper says. “I thought he could bring some of the feeling of isolation which I have felt on occasion—though I don’t feel it any longer.”
Indeed, both Greengrass and Cooper believe that stubborn sectarian prejudices in Northern Ireland are beginning to dissipate, though Bloody Sunday arrives on these shores following a summer of ceaseless—and occasionally fatal—violence in areas of Belfast. “It’s horrendous and depressing, but the situation is immeasurably better than it was five years ago,” Greengrass says. “We’re not at war—it’s not like it was 15 or 30 years ago—and it’s not peace. It’s this indeterminate area where progress is being made all the time, but there is a continual two steps forward, one step back.”
Greengrass’s film aired on Irish and British TV to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, but its first-ever screening took place in Derry, for an audience that included Cooper as well as many relatives of the victims. “I was afraid to face them,” Cooper says. “I feel that I share a large degree of culpability for what happened—I didn’t fire a bullet, but I was responsible for leading people on a march through the streets where they died.” One of them was Barney McGuigan, shot in the head when he went to the aid of a mortally wounded neighbor. “I had been a shirt-manufacturing executive and Barney worked in our factory, so I knew him very well,” Cooper continues. “I have never been able to face his widow, even to this very day. I’ve never had the guts. But I met his daughters—they look so very much like him, and I didn’t see them for 30 years. Here were these kiddies, and now they were young women, and I talked to them about their dad and mum. It was very uplifting for me.”
“When we showed the film in Derry, the reaction at the end was not what you’d expect—it wasn’t vengeful,” Greengrass adds. “There was instead a sense of serenity, a feeling that at last a necessary story has been told. You feel anger and contempt for the people who did such dreadful things and lied about it afterward, but your dominant feeling is a sort of letting go. You come up to date and say, That was then; we mustn’t go back.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Bloody Sunday