Directed by Brendan J Byrne, Bobby Sands: 66 Days is a documentary on the great hunger strike of 1981 within Northern Ireland’s notorious H blocks by Irish Republican, Bobby Sands. It was his mission to be considered a political prisoner, to turn heads and become a symbol, the face of a movement that eventually was won after his death, and the deaths of nine of his comrades.
The story of Bobby Sands is a very interesting topic, a man willing to die for his beliefs turned him into a modern day quasi-folk hero. Amazingly this isn’t a story told in schools, at least it wasn’t in my one.Everything I heard about Sands was from my Dad. So going in, not being fully aware of the whole story, the film captured my attention and is an enticing story, as it marked a key turning point in Bthe Northern Irish conflict, helping to bring it global attention, eventually leading to international attempts to resolve it.
The film uses archival footage, but none of Bobby during the hunger strike is shown. Instead his time in his cell is recreated with actors and strongly stylised so his face and the extent of his deterioration through hunger is thankfully never shown. The film does an excellent job at contextualising the story through interviews and on screen notes. The date is shown throughout the film accompanied with Bobby’s weight and current condition; ‘Day 8, 52.25 kg, Condition: Satisfactory’. It keeps the story compelling to keep updated on Bobby’s situation along with his voice-overs reminding us of his mission and unwavering commitment to sacrificing himself for his cause. However, we never learn too much about Bobby’s adulthood; we’re told of his upbringing and time with the IRA but never much of his later years. Old friends are interviewed and footage of his mother is shown but it would have been interesting to hear genuine dialogue from Bobby and what drove him to choosing hunger strike rather than other forms of protest. It’s more a story of how the people reacted to Bobby’s protest rather than about Bobby himself. Voice-over is given in the re-enactments but they are clearly scripted and lack a genuine feel, sounding too rehearsed.
Sometimes the footage shown relates to comparisons or facts that the interviews were currently talking about rather than the core story. This included an x ray of someone eating and drinking while the interviewee talks about the concept and effects of hunger strikes, apparently to help remind the audience what eating is. In case us folks watching haven’t consumed anything before and needed visual aid. Similarly, when quotes were shown, instead of showing the full quote it would show one word at a time for a fraction of a second and thus I have zero idea what any quote was or its relevance to the story. There’s trying to be different and there’s messing with insignificant details to the detriment of your point.
Another strange choice was during the interviews it sometimes wouldn’t say who certain people were. For example, Fintan O’Toole is the first person shown and narrates the opening over some lovely shots of Ireland, but when he first appears, he’s not named yet later in the film he reappears and then we are presented with his name and occupation. Some people towards the end were never named at all so I’ve no idea who they were. Using unnamed sources lacks the authenticity, even when identified later, the point they made earlier is still somewhat undermined as the viewer is left wondering who on earth they are. This unnamed person could be a journalist, a historian, an old friend of Bobby, since the audience doesn’t know the perspective they’re speaking from, their points somehow feel less valid. If you tell us that Bobby was a feisty young lad, that means more if you were an old friend of his and not a journalist who only read about it in his research before being interviewed. There was also very little mention of the other protesters. While Bobby was the face of the protest and the original man behind it, to briefly mention that other men were doing the same thing and, at the end, to just have a quick reminder that Bobby wasn’t alone in his pursuits and other people died too makes it seem like they were swept under the proverbial rug.
Bobby Sands: 66 Days is still a very strong documentary held high on the shoulders of the great story it’s telling. It remains compelling throughout its full run-time and is a key point in Ireland’s modern history. It will be showing in selected cinemas from 5 August 2016.