Bobby Sands: 66 Days – Film Review by C.K. MacNamara
A film by Brendan J Byrne
Director Brendan J Byrne’s account of the 66 day hunger strike of Bobby Sands achieves the near perfect balancing act of being both cinematic whilst keeping in line with its primary role as a documentary.
Bobby Sands is remembered chiefly for his leadership and personal sacrifice during the 1981 hunger strike, which lasted 66 days resulting in his death and elevation as a martyr to the Republican cause. It represents a turning point in the IRA resistance campaign, in giving the group an ‘untainted’ figure to rally behind, which was further amplified by his election to the British parliament in 1981 whilst still in prison. This double-effect of political notoriety and personal sacrifice raised Sands to the level of international fame and solidarity, in line with figures such as Thích Quảng Đức (the Vietnamese monk who burned himself to death in protest of the American invasion of Vietnam).
The documentary frames itself around the day-to-day countdown of the hunger strike, flipping back and forth between the past and present in order to establish its context on the fly, whilst keeping itself visually engaging through a mix of archival footage, set reconstruction, animation, and eye-witness testimony.
However, in spite of this there is the occasional feeling that the film prioritises these impressive visual elements to the detriment of the overall narrative, taking small liberties to deviate from the historical events in order to show off a flashy animated transition or graphic that serve only to crowd the frame, rather than better convey the central facts.
Sands’ own prison-time diary entries are narrated over the day-to-day countdown timer, serving as an appropriate transition between the different stages of the narrative, and giving an intimately human aspect to what might otherwise be an accurate, but detached account of the man himself and the spiritual struggle taking place during his physical starvation.
The kernel message of the film is to underline the shift in the IRA’s methods brought about by Sands; in the words of Terence MacSwiney: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer”. The IRA’s shift from overtly violent terrorist attacks, to the demonstrative protest of self-destruction, brought about an outpouring of solidarity, particularly amongst the civilian populace and the international community, and served as a rallying point for the resistance movement.
Overall, the film is centrally a cinematic experience, with its constantly-refreshing mix of visual styles, yet manages to keep itself anchored to its role as a documentary, mainly due to its impressive cast of eye witnesses and experts. The result is a niche hit that wraps itself up as a passionate and informative snapshot of one of the fulcrums in both Irish and revolutionary history.