Film review – Bobby Sands: 66 Days

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is a 105 minute documentary film that weaves together the story of 1970s and 1980s republicanism with day by day updates on Sands’ condition and diary entries throughout his hunger strike.

The documentary film is bookended by quotes from Fintan O’Toole. In one he describes the 1981 hunger strike as “drama at the absolute rawest edge it could possibly be”. In the other, the author and commentator says that, like 1916, 1981 was also “undoubtedly a turning point” in Irish history.

66 Days uses a peculiar melange of styles and devices. Far too much explanatory text appears on screen. We see a replica cell being built out of wood which is used to stage images from the cell to illustrate changes in Sands’ environment. Some animation is employed. And with very little footage of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers, his presence is mostly conveyed through his poetry and other writings alongside rich imagery, photographs and archive news footage of events outside prison.

Amidst this hotchpotch of storytelling, the director Brendan J Byrne and editor Paul Devlin create some interesting cinematography – running footage of car bombs and shootings in reverse, and slow motion republicans bands drumming – creating space for audiences to pause and think about events.

The international dimension and reporting of the story is highlighted with an ABC News ‘Special Report’ announcing Sands’ death. A sense of morality is (not so subtly) introduced through a reading from the Bible.

“He stopped being a soldier and he became an artist – his body taking so much punishment.” (Finton O’Toole)

There’s a lot of hyperbole in the statements made by the (predominantly male) experts interviewed for the film. It’s clear that the republican family was happy to cooperate with its making, with contributions from Danny Morrison and Séanna Walsh. Gerry Adams is interviewed wearing a Féile an Phobail t-shirt.

Thomas Hennessey adds a welcome academic and historical perspective to the political and cultural commentary: he’s one of the few talking heads that brings any energy to his observations in this overly long film.

At one point the voice of Ian Paisley booms out of the screen. While the general lack of overtly unionist voices – Norman Tebbit is an exception – doesn’t lead to any overt romanticisation of Bobby Sands, it does make the narrative a bit boring (if ‘boring’ is ever an apt word to describe a film about people starving themselves to death).

Bobby Sands 66 Days posterIt’s difficult not to compare and contrast 66 Days with Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger which achieved a much better balance with its examination of the work and lives of prison officers alongside the central narrative of the republican inmates and the conditions they lived in.

Where 66 Days does a better job than Hunger is in conveying – though perhaps, overplaying? – the untypical background of Sands: the boy from Rathcoole who played in a cross-community football team.

At times 66 Days seems contradictory. Early on one voice tells the audience that there’s a long history of hunger strikes; later we hear that “hunger strikes are peculiarly modern”.

The film doesn’t make Sands out to be a hero; but it is clear that many of the contributors do view him in that light. The pain in the voices of Sands’ election agent and fellow prisoners who survived is still evident as they recall saying goodbye.

Much is made of an old quote from 1920 hunger striker Terence MacSwiney that “it is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will [win],” suffering publicly and over a long time. While the contributors outline the reasons behind the prisioners’ decision to go on hunger strike, the alternatives – or the reason why this drastic and (in many people’s opinion) wrong course of action was taken – is left unexplained.

Fintan O’Toole concludes with a central message from the film:

“Ultimately Bobby Sands effectively marks the end of the tradition of armed struggle in Ireland. Because what he said is there is really no justification or need to kill people. What you really need to do is dramatise your own suffering.”

One challenge of the film is for mainstream republicans to preach this message to their dissident peers. “You win when you capture the public imagination” and endure rather than inflict suffering.

The film finishes with the jump from Bobby Sands’ death to the emergence of the peace process (and significant US involvement). Just before the closing credits, a caption appears marking Bobby Sands’ birth and death and noting that in total 3532 lives were lost in the conflict between July 1969 and December 2001.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is neither an apologetic nor a rose-tinted documentary. The film sets events firmly in context but the critique of the hunger strike, the decisions of the UK government and the protest’s long term effect is fairly lenient.

Polling day for this year’s NI Assembly election coincided with the 35th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death. If anything, Sinn Féin played down references to the hunger striker during the election campaign and didn’t seek to make too much obvious political capital from the anniversary.

If the ambition was to commission a documentary to examine the legend of this republican hero, the dissatisfactory result is a well crafted but very curious blend of comment, re-enactment and voicing of Sands’ words that bounces between facts, analysis and the deteriorating health of the prisoner.

Unionist politicians complaining about the film should save their breath until they’ve seen the completed work and then decide whether they even want to draw attention to the work.

The film is a co-commission for BBC Four Storyville and BBC Northern Ireland made by Fine Point Films and Cyprus Avenue Films (in association with Northern Ireland Screen, Sveriges Television and the Danish Broadcast Corporation with the participation of The Irish Film Board).

Bobby Sands: 66 Days will be screened in the Kennedy Centre Omniplex on Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4 August (tickets £8) as part of Féile an Phobail and will go on general release from 5 August.

UpdateDenzil McDaniel reviewed the film for the Impartial Reporter.

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  • Declan Doyle

    Cannot wait to see it !! Sands is one of the great heroes of modern Irish History, a shining example of courage bravery and dedication.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Isn’t it ironic that the only photo of Bobby Sands shows him alongside Dennis Donaldson who was murdered by Republicans for being an informer?
    Maybe they made the movie about the wrong martyr.

  • Jollyraj

    “He stopped being a soldier and he became an artist – his body taking so much punishment.” (Finton O’Toole)

    One wonders of Mr O’Toole’s appreciation of such extends to suicide bombers in, and from, the Middle East.

    I find this review in rather poor taste, given the recent events in Nice.

  • hgreen

    No one forced you to read it.

  • Gopher

    Just another nail in the coffin of the license fee.

  • Granni Trixie

    Tell that to young people thinking about suicide?

  • Granni Trixie

    So because of events in Nice you think a well informed and fair review is inappropriate? Doesn’t make sense.

    I suspect however that you are conflating the reviewers analysis of the film with the views of those who support suicude as a political weapon.

  • Dan

    Is there a British and Irish version of the Razzies?

  • Croiteir

    You mean their right to die?

  • Dan

    …..with tears in the eyes before the opening credits finish.

  • Granni Trixie

    i would like to think that any adult would try to dissuade a young person from taking their life for whilst it may be PC to say it is their ‘right’ to do so surely we know enough about YP to say that they can get events out of perspectives or be unduly influenced by other nihilistic YP?

  • Brian O’Neill

    I liked the film. It was very well made and kept the pace going. I thought it was as neutral as it could be, they did interview the prison officers for example.
    As Alan mentioned the lack of female interview subjects was an bad omission. Bernadette McAliskey was very involved at the time, she would be an obvious candidate to talk too.
    On a broader note we really are in a golden age of documentaries from NI. This film, 14 Days, Road etc – all world class.
    As for the other comments. Slamming something you have not seen is just pure ignorance. It will be on BBC at some stage, watch it and make your own minds up.

  • On the fence!

    “Slamming something you have not seen is just pure ignorance.”

    Ditto yourself on “Brexit”!

    Gurning and wailing about it endlessly without even waiting to see how it turns out is just the same thing.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Unlike brexit we know how this story ends…

  • Séamus

    It’s clear that the republican family was happy to cooperate with its
    making

    But what Sands’ actualy family, did they have any involvement?

    And when you refer to the ‘republican family’ does that include any dissenting republicans? Even people like Bernadette McAliskey and Tommy McKearney would have had interesting contributions to make.

    Polling day for this year’s NI Assembly election coincided with the 35th
    anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death. If anything, Sinn Féin played down
    references to the hunger striker during the election campaign and didn’t
    seek to make too much obvious political capital from the anniversary.

    Maybe not in the leafy suburbs but they certainly weren’t shy about it in West Belfast.

  • AntrimGael

    Bobby only got involved with the IRA due to his family experience at the hands of Unionism and Loyalism; they were burnt out of Rathcoole in the late 60’s. His uncle I believe was in the Navy in WWII and his family did not have any prior Republican connections. Like many he was a product and result of the times and events. David Ervine had similar experiences. 20/20 vision is great in 2016 especially if you didn’t live during that awful period.

  • the keep

    A great Hero well thats one way to put it, no better than any common terrorist.

  • Thomas Barber

    I suppose that depends on your nationality and religion Keep obviously hypocrisy and double standards is the norm with British people.

  • Granni Trixie

    Don’t agree ..surely what differentiates people’s opinion is morality?

  • Granni Trixie

    Please don’t overlook those who did live during those times and who thought terrorism was wrong at the time – as in 2016.

  • Mike Mcdonald

    How do you work that out?

  • grumpy oul man

    I don’t think we should overlook anybody, and we owe a great deal to those who kept there heads when everybody else give into the times we lived in.

    But to ignore the powerful effect that environment had on people would be a error.

  • Mike Mcdonald

    Is there a French and spanish version of the razzies?

  • Thomas Girvan

    I thought it was self evident.
    Bobby Sands was an unrepentant terrorist.
    Denis Donaldson was an informer who risked his life and, one must assume, saved lives by informing on the terrorists he was associated with.
    Sands died at his own hand whilst Donaldson paid the ultimate price for his actions, by being murdered.
    So who is worthy of exaltation?

  • Enda

    Well I guess Bobby Sands felt he had a moral obligation to stand up against an illegal state that had nothing but utter contempt for almost half of the citizens living within its borders.

  • Thomas Barber

    Yes Grannie that would be the Joe Bloggs individual personal opinion but when it comes to people like Threasa May and the British government the righteousness of a cause is not measured by the fatalities the actions of those who pursue it cause on the local population but rather what financial benefits or losses those actions cause on them and the City of London.

  • Granni Trixie

    Not in my name.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Apologies for the late reply, I’ve been out of the country.

    When you speak of morality you do accept that it isn’t something that is set in stone and isn’t necessarily the same thing to everyone don’t you?

    Morality differs with individual perspective and personal experience.

    For instance take two examples.;

    British squady , no qualifications, little prospects, not particularly well educated ( almost 40% of British Army recruits have a reading age of 11, https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwj-8arelIjOAhUjDsAKHXZoDZ0QFgglMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Feducation-23346693&usg=AFQjCNFdm8lvuOZK9nOqSCx-ToaUBqdkdQ )

    He joins the Army, is posted to NI, is fully prepared to shoot to kill in order to maintain the authority of his country in another land of which he knows little.

    He has absolutely no knowledge of the history or background to the grievances that have brought about the circumstances in which he finds himself, but is still fully prepared to use violence as a means to an end.

    PIRA volunteer, born and raised in the environment in which he operates, is fully aware of the history of the place. He has lived through and experienced the treatment of his community. The gerrymandering, the sectarian discrimination, the initial UVF violence aimed at discrediting the Civil Rights campaign and any attempt at equality that it may have brought.

    They are both armed and prepared to kill, one because he has joined an organization that he believes fights for his country’s interests, but without any actual knowledge of what the hell is going on, and the other with actual knowledge of the background and being fully aware that he is taking on a well trained and equipped force that outnumbers and out resources his side and that the best that can be hoped for is to fight them to a standstill and gain some measure of equality for his people.

    So Granni Trixie, which one has morality on his side?

  • Granni Trixie

    Yes, I am quite aware that ‘morality’ is socially constructed. I also take on board the vulnerabilities of those who tend to be cannon fodder in the paramilitaries or the armies of the state.

    I and many of my peer group still swop stories about experiences of Blatant discrimination but never in terms of it warranted terrorism or caused us to identify with the IRA infact we put much energy into trying to show that change can come about peacefully.

    Through interest I have read a lot of analysis about political unionism to try to help me grasp why they Were so resistant to Catholics in government and didn’t even want them in their own party. Still working on that but already can see that such distrust fed into loyalist hatred of Catholics and sectarian murders.

    I feel v sad for you that you seem to thnk two wrongs make a right, buying into the line that the violence was justified. O and bear in mind that sometimes the IRA justifies its activities in terms of they wanted a Ui.

  • Anglo-Irish

    No need to feel sorry for me Granni I don’t believe that ‘two wrongs make a right’.

    In fact I believe that the person or community showing the most magnanimity and being prepared to ‘ turn the other cheek ‘ is in fact the stronger and more admirable one.

    However there are limits, I’m not a pacifist and whilst I believe violence is a last resort there are only so many times you can try the peaceful approach, especially when your opponent doesn’t take it as a sign of friendship merely a sign of weakness.

    As someone with an English Protestant father and an Irish Catholic mother who adored each other I’ll leave you to imagine my feelings towards those who discriminate on religious grounds.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Use of language like “soldier” is just flattering those losers.

  • monkeybone

    Neither and both now keep quiet. goodman

  • monkeybone

    Like Tony Blair? George Bush? Maggie Thatcher?

  • monkeybone

    OK then stop posting

  • Granni Trixie

    The IRA say they did awful things in order to ‘free’ us from oppression of the British. It would be cowardly not to challenge that kind of narrative.

  • Thomas Girvan

    You were half right.

  • Jollyraj

    And as to artist? He was no more an artist than any junkie you might find.