Genre: Documentary, Biography, History
Directed by: Brendan Byrne
Right from the start Brendan J. Byrne’s film points out the obvious by making Bobby Sands’ fate clear. It’s a smart move. Sands is no unknown figure, the non-reveal freeing Bobby Sands: 66 Days from an unnecessarily drawn out build-up to his death. It also allows Byrne to delve deeper into Sands, both personally and by putting his actions in the context of their time and place. From this one campaign and this one act of defiance led by Sands, tendrils creep back into the revolutionary past and forward into a changed future.
Sands, only 27 when he died after two months on hunger strike in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, remains at the centre even as the documentary goes off down multiple avenues. A recurring counter displays the ever increasing length of time he’s gone without food, providing other information on weight and general health. His own words are also employed to give insight into his deteriorating situation, and the motivation behind it all.For a film about his landmark hunger strike, and one bearing his name, the attempt to reveal something of Sands is the weakest point. Old childhood friends recall playing football with him. An image of a tough man emerges, willing to fight for friends and unwilling to be broken. IRA colleagues recount similar stories but there’s an ambiguity about him that never gets filled out.
In a sense that’s partly the point. Bobby Sands is at its best when placing the struggle in its historical context. Byrne looks back to the Irish revolutionary struggle of 1919-1921, and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. The hunger strike tactic, copied from the suffragette movement, was used then. Bobby Sands death in 1981 is offered less as a drastic new approach to battling the British state, and more as a continuation of a long-running struggle. The focus was meant to remain on the underlying cause, not the man.
The wider revolutionary environment of the century is also connected to Sands’ actions. IRA activists are shown to be well read in the works of Karl Marx, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. The latter is even said to have drawn inspiration from the Irish struggles earlier in the century. The broadening of the canvas is Byrne’s biggest achievement as he uses a number of friends, enemies and experts (an impressive array of contributors include Gerry Adams, Norman Tebbit and Charles Moore) to show not just the immediate reasons for the hunger strike – to gain recognition as political prisoners – but the wider context in which it occurred. Surprisingly given how well known he is now, Byrne argues that his hunger strike drew little attention at the time. It was only when the sitting MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died and the IRA chose to run Sands in the by-election that he received the coverage they’d hoped for. In turn this led to a direct conflict between the use of violence and a campaign via the democratic process. Sands’ view, drawn from recent history and present throughout, is that of a man who believes the ultimate victor will be the side that proves it can suffer the most, not the one that kills more. That will cost lives, but his own is to be included in the final tally.
The film also does an excellent job of examining the political environment in the early 80’s, and how Sands changed it. A fine line is walked between extremes without picking sides. This is neither condemnation nor righteous affirmation of his cause. Why it happened and for what reason is of more importance.