An emotionally powerful new documentary on the life and death of Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands is receiving widespread praise, but also criticism from different ends of the political spectrum in Ireland. The movie, which is 105 minutes in length, went on general release last Friday, August 5th.
Titled "Bobby Sands: 66 Days" and directed by Brendan J. Byrne, the film centres on the Belfast IRA activist's fast to the death at the H-Blocks in the Maze Prison-Long Kesh. Sands began refusing food on March 1st, 1981, shortly before his 27th birthday, and died 66 days later on May 5th.
A few weeks earlier, on April 9th, Sands made world headlines when he was elected on an abstentionist basis to the British House of Commons, filling a vacancy created in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency by the sudden death of the independent nationalist Member of Parliament, Frank Maguire.
Some unionists expressed outrage that public money was used in funding the documentary project. Financial backers of the film included Northern Ireland Screen, a state-supported agency for the promotion of the film, television and digital content industry, which contributed £76,000 (approximately $90,000) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which also provided support but did not disclose the amount given.
Former Northern Ireland finance minister Sammy Wilson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) objected to the funding and described Sands as a convicted criminal who took his own life in order to encourage others to commit similar crimes.
Another former DUP minister, Nelson McCausland, wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the film was being used as part of a concerted effort to "try to turn a terrorist into a freedom-fighter, poet, author and philosopher".
In a review for the Belfast-based News Letter, the Member of Parliament for East Londonderry, Gregory Campbell of the DUP, described the film as "in effect a video-diary" of the hunger-strikes in which Sands and nine other republicans died.
He added that the documentary "makes good dramatic viewing, if overly long, but it is a million miles away from an accurate depiction of what happened during those harrowing days in 1981".
However film critic Donald Clarke gave the movie four out of a maximum five stars in the Irish Times and described it as "a comprehensive, balanced, gripping tale of terrible times".
There was mixed reaction at a question-and-answer session after the film was shown at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin last Friday, August 5th.
The audience, which included a small number of Sinn Féin party workers, gave the movie modest applause after the viewing and, although there was strong praise for the production, a number of questions and objections were raised about the content.
The director, who is himself a native of Belfast, said the project, which also received support from the Irish Film Board, "took about three years from start to finish". He said the BBC "were initially a bit nervous, naturally" but this was overcome.
Sinn Féin's Dáil Deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the film "struck a hugely-emotional chord with me" and was "a powerful work that should be seen by people of all views".
However, he dissented from some of the opinions expressed by interviewees in the movie and there was applause from some members of the audience when he added that he "would take exception with some of what [Irish Times columnist and literary editor] Fintan O'Toole would have had to say".
A question was raised from the floor as to why no members of the Sands family were interviewed and the director said they had not taken part in such interviews since 1985 and had "very politely declined" to participate in his documentary.
"They were the women's voices, including his mother, who I would have wanted in the film, as well as Bernadette McAliskey, who I also approached, and she refused to be interviewed."
He continued: "There was no other women's voices that I managed to capture, through the course of making the film, that ended up earning their right to be in the film." He added that he wasn't seeking to underplay the role played by women in the story.
Regarding the prominence given to Fintan O'Toole, the director explained that this was done on the basis of the latter's analysis that Sands had changed people's perceptions of the republican movement, as well as the fact that O'Toole had regularly challenged "the core IRA mission" and his presence would make the film more balanced.
"I think what the film is trying to say is that, without the 1981 hunger-strikes, there wouldn't have been a democratisation of Sinn Féin, there wouldn't have been the Good Friday Agreement and there wouldn't have been the self-governing parliament at Stormont."
Byrne added: "I think what Fintan is saying at the end is that you don't win by inflicting violence, you win by enduring suffering and you win by capturing the public imagination."