In spirals of conflict, where every violent act is furthered by the next, how does one distinguish between the guilty and the innocent? The age-old conflict in Northern Ireland exemplifies a struggle in which justice has been replaced by loyalty, hatred inevitably leads to the dissolution of reason and the subsequent predominance of chaos. “Bloody Sunday,” a documentary-style film currently playing at Images, is at its best when depicting the disorder caused by sacrificing equanimity to the passion of revenge.
With its dim landscape of gray and brown, “Bloody Sunday” paints a grim portrait of urban warfare. Using hand-held camerawork for the entirety of the film generally enhances the chaotic atmosphere and draws the audience into the stark horror of urban warfare. The battle scene is filled with a sense of helplessness; once the first shot has been fired, no one has the power to stop the escalation of the combat. On the other hand, as the camera follows the ensemble of characters, some shots are unnecessarily unsteady and others spend too much time focused on backs instead of faces.
Alternating between three primary viewpoints, “Bloody Sunday” tracks Ivan Cooper’s leading role at the demonstration and his struggle to prevent the outbreak of violence, 17-year-old Gerry’s fatal taunting of the British paratroopers and the operations of the British military from an insider’s perspective. The scenes preceding the march itself, intended to set up the lives of the characters, tend to be weighed down by hackneyed plots salvaged only by the authenticity of the performances.
The film opens and closes with press conferences given by the rival factions, the Irish Catholics and the British Protestants. A peaceful march has been planned by Ivan for Jan. 30, 1972 in order to protest the British policy of internment without trial, instituted the previous August. Economic times are hard in the town of Derry, Northern Ireland, and anger has been growing steadily.
As the march convenes, British paratroopers and snipers are positioned along the route. On the way to the site of the rally, singing “We Shall Overcome,” the crowd is divided when the road forks. Ivan tries frantically to redirect the protestors away from the troops, but succeeds only in part. Facing a dead end street full of soldiers, a group of boys begins hurling rocks and insults. The initial British response consists of a water cannon and tear gas, but tensions rise quickly. By the end, 27 demonstrators have been shot and 13 have been killed.
Paradoxically, Ivan fears the madness of the mob as much as the soldiers. Nonviolent tactics require a collective, unanimous decision in favor of pacifism at all costs. As Ivan says, “we face a choice as a society, the choice. . .between violence and nonviolence.” Sadly, the peaceful intentions of the majority are easily derailed by a single night of violence, a single show of vengeance, a single act of terrorism. Faced with such deeply rooted hatred, reversing patterns of bloodshed is a Herculean undertaking.
It is surprising that the most engrossing conflicts depicted by the film are not between the opposing factions, but within them. Ivan is constantly trying to quell the furor of his demonstrators and curb the violent intentions of the Irish Republican Army. His peaceful aims of nonviolent civil disobedience are at odds with Northern Ireland’s long history of brutal combat, brother armed against brother. In the words of Bono in U2’s song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: “And the battle’s just begun/There’s many lost, but tell me who has won/The trench is dug within our hearts/And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.”
Though “Bloody Sunday” is a film of jarring realism, it also strongly sympathizes with the Irish Catholic demonstrators. Recent investigations around the 25th anniversary revealed information concealed by Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery and his tribunal immediately following the battle. Contrary to the original testimony that the troops used “restraint and professionalism,” the British were indeed the first to fire and used twenty-two rounds against the unarmed crowd of men, women and children. Not only did the soldiers escape disciplinary measures â€“ they were awarded medals of honor.
All this having been said, the film does not completely ignore the violence of the IRA; one of the last scenes shows the IRA giving young men machine guns to begin the counterattack to the day that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” However, the violence of the Irish is always represented as a reaction to the British rather than as an equivalent evil.
The film has its share of faults, suffering from several slow segments, but overall it conveys its message clearly and powerfully. The audience experiences the nightmare of Jan. 30 and cannot help being sobered by the senselessness of the bloodshed. Ultimately, “Bloody Sunday” is most successful when its chaos and dehumanization reveal the irrationality of the conflict in Northern Ireland.