As subtle and even-tempered as a documentary about a self-starving political martyr can possibly be, Brendan J. Byrne’s Bobby Sands: 66 Days, about the jailed IRA leader and his prolonged, fatal fast in early 1981, is most commendable for what it doesn’t do.
While Byrne employs the lamentable device of re-enactments, he does so with a minimum of contrivance: just a few shots of a lone man in a bare-bones cell with some of Sands’s writings read in voiceover and flashed updates as time passes on his decreasing weight. Byrne never resorts to such cheap tricks as matching the imagery to what the interviewees are saying, and the film is no hagiography. Byrne devotes equal time to friends and foes, from Sands’s IRA companions to former cabinet members of the notoriously unsympathetic Margaret Thatcher.
This is a wise choice given that the incident — which occurred during the most violent period of Ulster loyalist and IRA relations — was so globally divisive. Sands’s intent was noble: He wanted recognition from the British and Northern Irish government that he and his comrades were political prisoners, worthy of a few meager privileges, as opposed to lowly violent criminals. Furthermore, he believed in the mantra that self-harm, rather than military force, can raise more awareness to a cause and hasten its eventual victory.
But it is not out of line to argue that his actions ultimately supported a murderous — if justifiably angry — faction. This gripping movie is essential viewing for any Irish history buffs who found In the Name of the Father a tad corny. It’s also notable for one particularly eerie time-lapse, not of the standard sunrise-over-a-vista but rather of food rotting.
Bobby Sands: 66 Days
Directed by Brendan J. Byrne
Opens November 30, Film Forum