The Truth Commissioner – Interview with Barry Ward & Declan Recks
Directed by Declan Recks and starring Barry Ward, The Truth Commissioner looks behind the narrative surrounding the Northern Ireland peace process. Adapted from the original novel by David Park, the story is set in a post-Troubles Northern Ireland and follows the fictional story of Henry Stanfield, played by Roger Allam, a career diplomat who has just been appointed as Truth Commissioner to Northern Ireland. The story revolves around the lives of three men who are directly or indirectly involved in the disappearance of a fifteen-year-old twenty years ago. The three men are summoned to testify in the case and are forced to face the reality of their past and how it is still impacting its victims today.
Andrew Darley sat down with the director Declan and actor Barry to discuss how the film is a thought-experiment and the nature of forgiveness.
The Truth Commissioner will be released in Irish cinemas tomorrow (Friday, 26th February)
The author of the original book, David Park, gave free reign in bringing the book to the screen. Did this allow you to go where you wanted or were you mindful of his original vision?
Declan: Eoin O’Callaghan who wrote the screenplay was very conscious of being faithful to the book because it has a lot of fans. The last thing you want to do is alienate them. The book gives equal time to the four main characters so it was a challenge to boil that down to 98 minutes. David Park didn’t want to read the script and didn’t see the film until it was done – so no pressure! Thankfully he really liked it.
In terms of the time in which it is set during the Northern Irish peace process, did you feel responsibility in how loaded that period is and how to execute a narrative within it?
Declan: While the film is based around reality, it’s still a fictional story. The fact that a real Truth Commission hasn’t happened in the North gave us artistic license to explore the idea. We all want to understand the past and only by understanding it can you move forward. When someone has unresolved issues, it causes an arrested development. Despite all the progress made in the North, there still exists a simmering air under the surface. The film deals with how the personal and political are completely intertwined. We want to show the personal stories behind the headlines we are all used to seeing.
Barry, your character Michael Madden is an ex-IRA volunteer who rebuilds his life in the US and is brought back to Belfast for the current investigation. How did you get into the headspace of this character?
Barry: A lot of what he is carrying is a guilt-of-sorts, which as a strict Catholic boy, I can relate to! I spent a lot of time thinking about his IRA activity and the particular incident that comes out in The Truth Commission. I tried to make that real to me and what he was going through.
It’s being dubbed as a “political thriller”. What are the key things in creating the tension that the film holds throughout?
Declan: I think the tension is in-built in the story. You have six people who are connected through this incident that happened over 20 years ago, who are all now have to face it again. The tension emerges from the battle between those who want the truth to come out and those who don’t.
Barry: I think the brilliance of the writing is that it doesn’t offer clear-cut solutions or easy answers – it’s murky and complicated. As an audience, you’re constantly questioning and evaluating which is very satisfying.
What do you think this film says about how men behave in terms of power?
Barry: The events in the movie are very specific but it could be taken as the universal idea of power and its abuse. The circumstances that they relay are of a time past. My character joins the IRA thinking it gave him power and suddenly he has to realise that he was idiot. He was used by others back then and the only way he can regain power today is to admit it to the victims. There’s also a great depiction of powerlessness in how the victims look for some kind of closure.
How do you feel about the release of this specifically in Ireland?
Barry: I’m excited about it. The reception so far has been very positive and generated healthy discussion. It feels like a thought-experiment in what would it be like if a Truth Commission actually happened. Overall, I think it’s a very good drama and it could be enjoyed without knowing the whole history behind it.
What was the experience like filming in Ireland?
Declan: Belfast is very positive place to film because everybody wants to help you. We wanted to portray Belfast as a very modern, progressive city and not to show the stereotypical stock look it has become known for.
A strong underlying theme of film is the idea of forgiveness. Do you think this film offers a sense of hope or resolution?
Barry: No, I think it’s healthily cynical actually. What the script and Declan did very well is show up the complexities of truth and forgiveness and how slippery it is. It’s funny you mention forgiveness because I’m a philosophy student. Derrida has a great essay called ‘On Forgiveness’. That was my point of reference for this script: if you substitute the word ‘truth’ with ‘forgiveness’ each time in this script, it’s basically Derrida’s essay come to life. His point was that true forgiveness is impossible. He says that to truly forgive the unforgivable is impossible because that would mean it’s forgivable. This film examines the complexity of that.