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Conflict and Controversy in Small Cinemas


Edited By Janina Falkowska and Krzysztof Loska

This book examines small cinemas and their presentation of society in times of crisis and conflict from an interdisciplinary and intercultural point of view. The authors concentrate on economic, social and political challenges and point to new phenomena which have been exposed by film directors. They present essays on, among others, Basque cinema; gendered controversies in post-communist small cinemas in Slovakia and Czech Republic; ethnic stereotypes in the works of Polish filmmakers; stereotypical representation of women in Japanese avant-garde; post-communist political myths in Hungary; the separatist movements of Catalonia; people in diasporas and during migrations. In view of these timely topics, the book touches on the most serious social and political problems. The films discussed provide an excellent platform for enhancing debates on politics, gender, migration and new aesthetics in cinema at departments of history, sociology, literature and film.

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2. The troubled image: The conflict in Northern Ireland as seen by the Irish and the British (Karolina Kosińska)

← 32 | 33 →

Karolina Kosińska

Instytut Sztuki, Polska Akademia Nauk

2. The troubled image: The conflict in Northern Ireland as seen by the Irish and the British1

Abstract: “The Troubles” – this is the name given to the conflict between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (and, in a sense, between the Irish Republic) which lasted from civil rights protests in the late 1960s up to 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Troubles significantly dissipated political tensions in that part of Europe. However, this conflict is not only a political one but also national, economic, sectarian and cultural. The approach to this conflict defines issues of Irish identity from the northern part of the island. Cinema is also engaged in this conflict as the Troubles became the subject of films directed by both the Irish filmmakers (Pat O’Connor, Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, Terry George) and the British ones (Alan Clarke, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Paul Greengrass). The aim of this chapter is to look into these narrative patterns and to the dominating ideological attitudes present in these films.

Keywords: Northern Ireland, Troubles, Irish cinema, British cinema, conflict


The cinematic image of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is always troubled, by definition. In all accounts concerning films about this conflict, there is persistent question: ‘which side are you on?’ Is it the republican or the unionist side that is supported? Is the film made from the Irish, British or Northern Irish point of view? Whose nationality makes the nationality of the film itself: the one of the director, the screenwriter, the producer or the film company? The ‘identity’ of these films is always disputable. The character of the two-side conflict suggests that it should be quite easy to divide films into two groups – representing pro-republican (Irish) and pro-unionist (British) narration. But it is not. The aim of this chapter is to look into these narrative patterns and to show that even though there are some dominating attitudes, their diversity is more important. ← 33 | 34 →

It is said the Troubles started in the late 1960s, with the protests against the discrimination of Catholic minority, and lasted until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The events that instigated this phase of conflict were the declaration of war between Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Volunteer Force and the civil rights march in Derry in October 1968 that was banned by the authorities and eventually evolved into riots. What happened next – the deployment of the British Army, the radicalisation and escalation of the terrorist actions on both sides, and the crucial events of the conflict, such as ‘Battle of Bogside’, McGurk’s bar bombing along with plenty of other bomb attacks, Bloody Sunday, brutal Shankill Butchers murders and hunger strikes in Maze prison –built not only the history of the conflict but also its mythology.

Although some British film critics, as Roy Greenslade suggests2, still may have a problem with accepting the dominating cinematic image of their country’s role in Northern Ireland as a cruel coloniser or occupant, it would be difficult to find a film – at least in more or less official circulation – that would openly support unionists’ cause or justify Britain’s politics. Even if IRA in itself is usually shown as a ruthless (even to its members) and criminal organisation, there is always a figure of a pro-republican or of an IRA member that resists the stereotype of a merciless terrorist. He (as it is always a man) feels, thinks and doubts; he ultimately doesn’t believe in violence; he is a ‘gentle gunman’3 – he saves the good name and represents the real face of republicanism. IRA may be defended or condemned, but there is always some understanding for it. Which cannot be said about the loyalist paramilitaries – although they hardly ever appear on screen. The main protagonist – regardless of the national origin of the production – is nearly always Irish, or republican, or nationalist. So usually these films tell the story of an Irishman as a victim of Britain, in every meaning of this word.

But the shades of this attitude may be numerous and depending on many factors, even if its core is the same. Brian McIlroy in his publication Shooting to Kill argues that “prevailing visualisation of the ‘Troubles’ in drama and documentary … is dominated by Irish nationalist and republican ideology and that the Protestant community is constantly elided by American, British and Irish filmmakers … who prefer to accept the anti-imperialist view of Northern Ireland’s existence”4. ← 34 | 35 →

It’s hard to disagree: cinema usually takes side of the republican cause and that is an objective observation. But writing about his growing up in Belfast, McIlroy hints at his non-Catholic background. His pro-Protestant attitude soon becomes clear – his arguments and rhetoric only confirm it. Of course, he has an unquestionable right to write in his own voice – especially that such a voice is a rare one in academic writing. But it proves, along with every account concerning films about Northern Ireland, that it is impossible to be apolitical while discussing this subject. It applies to the filmmakers too. And as this whole cinematic image seems to be rather homogenous, at least with respect to the distribution of guilt and harm, it is not that division that decides about the message, but the attitude structuring every level of the narrative.

These attitudes oscillate between the sense of wrong and the feeling of guilt associated, respectively, with the Irish and British attitudes. This pattern proves true regardless of the phase of the conflict during which particular films were made. The Irish (and/or pro-republican) attitude involves the accusation of the British authorities of their colonial cynicism. The British filmmakers admit the British guilt, but their arguments are not so much an apology to the Irish side as the condemnation of the imperial attempts of their country. The crime of imperialism, as these films say, is always a fundament of all terrorism that happens on the Northern Irish ground – no matter if it’s on the republican or unionist side.

To illustrate my point, I would like to take into account a few representative films made by Irish, British or Northern Irish filmmakers and produced by Irish or British companies.

That’s why I leave aside works such as ‘71 (2014) directed by Frenchman Yann Demange, American hits such as The Devil’s Own (1997) by Alan J. Pakula or genre films just exploiting the subject, such as Resurrection Man by Marc Evans (UK, 1998). I am interested only in these films that were made during the Troubles or directly related to them. The tone and direct slant of these films fully depend on the year of production – which is probably why there was such an outburst of films in mid-1990s, when the ceasefire came into force and the peace process seriously began. These films were part of the more or less free debate on over two decades of terror.

Although it is tempting to recognise particular films as Irish or British, it is not always possible to do this. It may be clearer if the nationality of the filmmaker is self-evident and we are sure he or she is an author fully responsible for the shape of the film, which is the case of Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach or Steve McQueen. The problems begin with co-productions whereby we have to ask a question: which producer, Irish or British, shall we consider responsible for ← 35 | 36 → the overall message of the film? And what is the decisive factor concerning the provenance of the film: whether it is who is funding the film, whether what is the country of the production company or what is the nationality of the staff? And to what extent does producing the film by Irish or British institution becomes a political statement? All in all, Northern Ireland is neither Ireland nor Britain. Or maybe it is both at the same time? A similar problem emerges when we consider films made by directors who may be identified just as Northern Irish (such as Terry George, director of Some Mother’s Son, 1996; Tom Collins, who made the Irish film Bogwoman, 1997; and Pearse Elliott, director of Irish/British production The Mighty Celt, 2005), and this kind of identity is a fragile one.

Nevertheless, every discussion about cinema and the Troubles must start with the founding myth – the Odd Man Out by Carol Reed (UK, 1947). This masterpiece established the whole pattern of nuanced narrative embracing ambiguity, an interplay of condemn and support, where the covert attitude opposes and dominates the overt one: we know that the main hero, Johnny, is doomed, just like his republican organisation. Still, he is the hero and the audience is somehow forced to sympathise with him, to admire his nobleness. As John Hill stresses, Odd Man Out established a pattern for subsequent Troubles’ films in many other respects: it presents the view of the conflict based on fate rather than politics, it clashes public and private spheres, and it gives the whole story a form of classical tragedy5.

The Irish: a sense of wrong

It is surprising how marginalised the political perspective is in the Troubles’ films made by Irish directors. The republican/unionist conflict appears here as an internal affair, a purely social issue where the division line is drawn not between the society and the authorities but rather between two sides of the broken community. Both sectarian and nationalist natures of this division seem to be a forgotten source, not a real problem. We don’t dwell on a religious matter and we are not given a rational or political cause of this conflict. What Irish films usually present is raw tribalism that has more in common with the sense of invincible fate and not with the explicable, sociopolitical and in consequence economic problem. This kind of attitude is particularly clear in Cal (1984) by Pat O’Connor. The dual nature of tribal conflict helps to give the film the structure of a classical tragedy. In Cal – directed by an Irishman but financed by a British company – an IRA member, Cal (John Lynch), falls in love with the Catholic wife (Helen Mirren) ← 36 | 37 → of a Protestant policeman assassinated by him. There are no clear motives, this initial killing has no substantial meaning; it is just an incident that serves as an explanation for the impossibility of the love story. The military conflict or IRA causes are just an obstruction, a curse – Cal doesn’t seem to believe in anything, he’s bored and apathetic. And the failure of this love affair is not a question of sectarian, class or national differences – it’s all about destiny and violence, inevitably interrelated. And it is the question of living in Northern Ireland: this place is tantamount to destiny, you can’t escape or change it.

This bleak and firm conviction starts to melt down during the peace process, in mid-1990s. The social division is still overwhelming, but the films express a more optimistic attitude. Although In the Name of the Father, based on the true story of false accusations and imprisonment of ‘Guildford Four’ supposedly responsible for a pub bombing, is set in the middle of 1970s, its message is closely related to the climate of the 1990s. Sheridan’s attitude is not yet conciliatory – not until The Boxer – it mercilessly accuses Britain and calls for justice. But at the same time, it says that the peace process must involve an honest settling of accounts between both sides: Great Britain and IRA. The main protagonists – Gerry Conlon and his father, Giuseppe (Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite) – are the victims of both IRA and British authorities. The visibility of Britain’s law system adds to the political character of Sheridan’s film, but it is the emotional load of the family relations that decides about the film’s impact. And again, it is politics that seals the heroes’ destiny. And the figure of ‘family’ serves as a symbol for the whole Northern Irish society: it is broken by injustice and politics, both on IRA’s and British side. As McIlroy stresses6, and as the very title suggests, it is the father figure that is the fundamental subject of this film. Who should the republican Belfast boy rely on? A maniac IRA commander, British authority or Giuseppe, his biological father, straight and upright, a Catholic victim of an exploiting and discriminating system? Proving the convicted innocent certifies both the moral authority of Giuseppe and the innocence of the republican cause. They become synonymous. It is not the republicanism that has to be abandoned, but the methods of terrorists.

Some Mother’s Son (1996) by George (formerly involved with the Irish National Liberation Army)7 also uses a family melodrama structure. And again, strictly political matters and tensions, this time the infamous hunger strikes of the republican prisoners in British prison, are mapped onto a family dilemmas and, as ← 37 | 38 → a result, the film’s articulation of ceasefire politics is subordinated to the modes of family and romantic melodrama with which it is interwoven8. This subordination doesn’t mean the political stance is weakened in any way. Quite the contrary – the emotional impact of family distress gives the political attitude more strength. In Some Mother’s Son, we watch a ‘mother and son’ relationship, with the mother becoming an ideologically, religiously and emotionally tinted symbol of both Mother of Christ and Mother Ireland. The strikers are almost invisible here, being vehicles for the tragedy of their mothers: Annie (Fionnula Flanagan), politically committed and fiercely supporting her son, and Kathleen (Helen Mirren), shocked by the very fact her child is into politics (or terrorism). To Kathleen, the biggest challenge is to understand and accept her son’s choice and, as a consequence, to make a stand about the political struggle as well. Again, director’s target is both the IRA and British justice, the latter, however, being the real source of violence. IRA appears here as both a uniting force and a threat to the local community. The difference in attitudes of Annie and Kathleen has class foundations and that tackles an important question: whose issue is the republican cause, middle or working class? In her everyday life, Kathleen, a middle-class woman, avoids the Troubles by pretending they don’t exist. Annie’s family experiences worse discrimination as being the lower class and Catholic at once. As such, it is more politically informed and radical. But the activities and causes of IRA are almost erased – it is not important what the strikers are accused of. They are not victims but martyrs, and this aspect is underlined by a clear Christ-like appearance of the inmates, especially the strikers’ leader, Bobby Sands (John Lynch). In this light, Kathleen gains the status of Mother of Christ, with one difference: she won’t let her son die and will take him out of strike. This failed martyrdom has a political and religious meaning – Ireland wants to have her children alive, regardless of IRA or Britain. That’s the first step to reconciliation.

This new conciliatory tone is dominating in The Boxer, made in 1997, while the peace process reached full speed. As a repetition of a Romeo and Juliet structure, with lovers divided by the conflict (although both are on republican side), it can be compared to Cal. But here the main hero, Danny (Daniel Day-Lewis), is – in contrast with Cal – a committed and active one. This development of the protagonist may reflect the change of time: Cal was passive as he couldn’t see any future for him and his love, while Danny is in the midst of the transformation of Northern Ireland and he wants to be a part of this process. It is symptomatic ← 38 | 39 → that Britain is almost completely eliminated from this image, as if success of the ceasefire was solely the question of internal affairs.

Just like in McIlroy’s observation, not only Britain is eradicated in these films, but also the Protestant side of the conflict, unexpressed and invisible. That gives an unjust impression that the Troubles concern only Catholics and republicans with victims being only on this side. There are exceptions – such as Nothing Personal (1995) made by an Irishman, Thaddeus O’Sullivan, as it gives a double portrait of both communities. But still it is just an addition, a completion of the predetermined picture, suggesting a need for a community agreement without offering an opportunity to tell a different story.

The British: the sense of guilt

Regardless of the official stand of their country, British filmmakers have never justified British military presence in Northern Ireland. It is worth debating for and to whom they direct their films. Is there an internal accusation of home authorities, an anti-imperialistic outcry or an expression of atonement or compensation for all injustice and harm done? Ken Loach in Hidden Agenda (1990), Paul Greengrass in Bloody Sunday (2002), Steve McQueen in Hunger (2008) – all of these are not much on republican or Irish side as they are fiercely against the British forces. Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989) by Alan Clarke are more puzzling cases, as they seem to distillate the very essence of the conflict. It is striking though how British filmmakers, in contrast to the Irish, avoid the private perspective to give way to a more political view.

The exception is Mike Leigh’s Four Days in July (1984), a rare attempt at describing down-to-earth existence of Catholics and Protestants. Leigh shows two couples expecting babies – and the delivery date is estimated for the vulnerable days of Northern Irish community: 12th of July is the day of the Protestant parade commemorating the 1688 victory of William of Orange over the Catholic king in Battle of Boyne. During the Troubles, this annual parade often resulted in riots. In Leigh’s film, despite the focus on the ordinariness of everyday life, the conflict marks everything – it’s in the Catholics’ small talk of life in prison and injuries suffered during the bomb attacks, and in distasteful anecdotes of Protestant soldiers about the border patrols. It is also in the narrative structure as Leigh divides the plot between two families letting them meet only in the final scene when babies are born. There is no space for peace or understanding: the children will be given purely Irish or British names, symbolically carrying the war to another generation. But equality in showing two sides doesn’t reflect in director’s attitude; while the Catholic couple is warm and tender for each other, ← 39 | 40 → their Protestant counterparts are cold and distanced. It is easy to believe this difference stems from the political and social tensions.

The film that is entirely concerned with politics is Hidden Agenda. Here, in contrast with the Irish cinema, the republican voice is used as a trigger for unveiling the scheming of high-profile British politicians (Loach leads the source of terrorism straight to Margaret Thatcher herself). An American couple, civil rights activists Ingrid Jessner (Frances McDormand) and Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif) investigate the methods used by the British authorities when interrogating republican prisoners. Just after closing the case, Paul dies in an ambush, while being driven to an IRA quarters and carrying a tape with testimonies dangerous for the British state. Loach leaves out the love affair and IRA issues to focus on the British politics that has the power to break every resistance. Hidden Agenda is a political fiction drama; the events depicted cannot be taken as facts, but the mechanisms are indicated by Loach as believable and realistic.

Films by Greengrass and McQueen are based on true stories – and the ones that are the most susceptible of myth-making. Bloody Sunday recalls the events that took place in Derry, 30 January 1972, when 26 civilians were shot by British forces during the civil rights march. Greengrass uses the convention of the documentary style, covering 24 hours of this ill-fated day. The protesters were Catholic, but their leader, MP Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) was a Protestant. What we see here is a bleak, detailed re-enactment of the events, with the chaos, horror and disbelief that accompanied them. Greengrass makes his style austere, but he cannot escape aestheticisation of image and, in consequence, the whole story. The disorder in the frame builds the tension but the good/bad division drawn here is clear. It is the conflict between British and Northern Irish, with the result already determined. The juxtaposition of personal tragedies with the uniformed military actions only deepens the feeling of guilt. But the soldiers have human faces too, and just like in Irish films, republicans were the victims of both IRA and British authorities; here these army boys are victims of their government, thrown in a war they don’t really understand or accept. Greengrass’ usage of documentary convention somehow legitimises his vision of Bloody Sunday. The ending credits informing the audience reporting the legal actions after this ‘Bogside Massacre’ and informing that British army bore no consequences for this operation give this depiction a powerful credibility.

While McQueen comes back to the historical events as well, he goes away as far as he can from any documentary convention. To some extent, Hunger recreates the 1981 dirt and hunger strikes, but its idea is to re-imagine the horror of it and not to bring back sheer facts. In contrast to George using the strike as an excuse for the universal narrative, McQueen focuses on it entirely, showing in hypnotising, ← 40 | 41 → visually sophisticated frames, and shots all the sensual and physical aspects of dirt protests and of suffering hunger. But here Bobby Sands is not the one known from the imagery spread in republican mythology. With the face and body of Michael Fassbender, he becomes a modern, universal figure, taken out from the historical context. But Greengrass, although distancing himself from political accusation, repeats George’s strategy in one respect – torture and dying of Bobby Sands is presented like in The Passion of the Christ and this trope determines the meaning of Hunger. The camera caresses every wound, worships the weakening and finally deceasing Sands’ body, fitting perfectly in the religious imaginary of republican martyrdom.

McQueen’s film is entirely visual, with almost no dialogues. There is, however, one scene set in the middle of the film, breaking this coherence and establishing the centre of gravity. It is the conversation between Sands and the priest, explaining the motivation, consciousness and consequences of the striker’s decision of starving himself to death. The reductive minimalism of the set adds to the intensity of words. This dialogue has also religious undertones – in both content and form (Bobby’s tale as a parable). It echoes a similar moment from Odd Man Out when Jimmy’s girlfriend talks to the priest expressing firmly her stance about Jimmy and the doomed fate of the Organisation’s cause. McQueen’s film may be seen as incoherent and too formalistic9, but it accomplishes an important aim: it attributes the republican cause with a dignity of an almost mystical nature.

In the films by Alan Clarke, there is no dignity at all either in the terrorism or in the fight against it. Clarke, quite surprisingly, given his social realist background, moves towards somehow experimental minimalism. Contact, an adaptation of a once controversial book by Anthony (AFN) Clarke, depicts the routine of British border patrols in Northern Ireland. The director abandons most of the narrative communicativeness of the book leaving just sheer repetitiveness of tours and hunting for unnamed enemy – local terrorists. Narrative information is radically reduced – the dialogue is scarce, we know nothing about the reason of this hunt or psychological motivation of the soldiers. The result is the sense of complete alienation and danger, the reification of fight. This almost behavioural depiction of conflict – from the British perspective – results in a painful question: what is this absurdity about and what are these people (British soldiers) doing here? This question relates both to the narrative and to the conflict in general. Elephant is even more radical as it rejects any narrative. It shows eighteen executions carried by unspecified terrorists – the film consists only of walking and killing, shocking ← 41 | 42 → in their dull repetitiveness, with no commentary in words or images. The last execution breaks the pattern and wakes up the hypnotised viewer unexpectedly building up an ambiguity of interpretation. Clarke avoids any clear attitude, he’s just giving the visual material – the viewers have to decide for themselves.

Other voices

All of these films were directed by men. And although sometimes they focus on women’s experience, the frame perspective is always male. There are a few exceptions though: one of them may be Margo Harkin’s Hush-a-Bye Baby (1990), a story about a pregnant teenage girl whose boyfriend is serving a sentence in a British prison. But it is Maeve (1983) directed by Pat Murphy that expresses not only female but also a feminist point of view. It doesn’t mean the film is didactic in any sense – there is no edifying immediacy here. Murphy presents life in its fluency – as a series of contradictions, choices, a process of engagement and work10. She engages various modes of storytelling, equalising life experience with storytelling itself and opening the film structure; the present, the past, reality and myths, all of them entwined. Maeve leaves Belfast and leaves the Troubles. She is haunted by it, but her stance is firm – the conflict is something external, and she opposes it by rejecting any participation in it. That forms her feminism and distinguishes her from typical imagining of a woman in Troubles’ narratives as a ‘mother of us all’11. This kind of feminism is inevitable as there is a total lack of common ground or space for interaction between republican interests and the feminist cause12.

As most of the Troubles’ films focus on the conflict, there is only one, I suppose, that gives all attention to the place itself. In I am Belfast (2015), a film essay by Mark Cousins, Belfast is an elderly woman talking with the director and showing him her own space, independent and proud, though traumatised. Although Cousins’ work isn’t specifically about the Troubles, it lies in the centre of the story as the time of destruction for both the place and the community. What is more important, Cousins, born in Belfast, seems to be the only director that restrains from indicating the guilty side and says: we do it to ourselves. Like in the scene when She-Belfast tells the story of how birds were eating human flesh scattered on the streets after the bombing. She is asking: are we just meat for each other? It’s not about the reconciliation, it’s about the communal therapy. ← 42 | 43 →

This tone of I am Belfast may be possible in 2015, when the narrative of the Troubles is in a way closed and the new one, concerning life after the conflict, opens up. One may expect these new accounts would be equally traumatic as the earlier ones, for both the Irish and the British, and especially for the Northern Irish community. The lack of military conflict doesn’t mean the end of the Troubles. The violence was, paradoxically, offering a meaning of life for so many. The new essence is still in the process of emerging and needs new ways of cinematic imagining.


Greensdale, Roy. “Editors as censors: the British press and films about Ireland.” Journal of Popular British Cinema, Vol. 3, 2000, pp. 77–92.

Hawken, Janet. “Maeve.” Undercut, No. 6, 1982–1983, pp. 8–9.

Hill, John. Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics. London: British Film Institute, 2006.

McIlroy, Brian. Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Richmond: Steveston Press, 2001.

Rayns, Tony. “Hunger.” Sight&Sound, Vol. 18, No. 11, 2008, pp. 63.← 43 | 44 →

1 This publication had been completed as a part of the project British postwar social cinema financed by Narodowe Centrum Nauki (2014/13/B/HS2/02638).

2 See Roy Greensdale, “Editors as censors: the British press and films about Ireland,” Journal of Popular British Cinema, Vol. 3 (1954), pp. 77–92.

3 See John Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics (London: British Film Institute, 2006), pp. 192, 195.

4 Brian McIlroy, Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland (Richmond: Steveston Press, 2001), p. 11.

5 Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, p. 191.

6 See McIlroy, Shooting to Kill, pp. 76–77.

7 George co-wrote his film with Jim Sheridan and is also a co-screenwriter of In the Name of the Father and the screenwriter of The Boxer.

8 Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, p. 203.

9 See Tony Rayns, “Hunger,” Sight&Sound, Vol. 18, No. 11 (2008), p. 63.

10 Janet Hawken, “Maeve,” Undercut, No. 6 (1982–1983), p. 8.

11 See Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, pp. 236–242.

12 Hawken, “Maeve,” p. 9.