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“It’s not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer.” These words by Irish author and politician Terence MacSwiney, who died during a hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920, resound throughout Brendan J. Byrne’s thoughtful, thorough and even-handed new documentary Bobby Sands: 66 Days. This is not just because they summarise the position adopted by Sands and fellow hunger strikers in the early 1981 but because they also speak to historical and theoretical rigour that they adopted during their struggle, and that this new film, about the years and months leading to Sands’ death in HMP Maze, also shows.
The subject matter is naturally provocative but Byrne and his collaborators navigate the terrain dextrously. The enigmatic Sands provided the perfect canvas on which to paint a mythology for the Republican movement, claims the film, and he provides an equally useful canvas for the filmmakers. There are scant few photographs of moments of footage of Bobby Sands; he remains the iconic empty shape at the film’s heart, filled in only by brief gobbets from his writings from prison and secondhand accounts, while an array of voices swirl around him providing the wider political context.
It’s an ideal entry point for those whose knowledge of the situation – either with regards specifically to Sands and the hunger strikes, or the cause more broadly – is limited. Byrne’s approach seems to be inspired by the Republican movement which is nostalgically described as engaging with an enormous range of writing around their purpose in an attempt to understand their best course of action; Che Guevara, Ho Chi Min, and the aforementioned MacSwiney are just a tiny selection of those named.
The film’s own frame of reference is equally vast with experts weighing in on elements from the history of self-inflicted suffering as protest, to the UK government’s response to IRA terrorism, from the physical effects of starvation to Sands’ personal desire for grassroots societal change. The central crux of the film follows through the months for which Sands protested – text regularly appears on screen to outline his gradual deterioration – but it leaps back and forth in time when needed. Byrne and his editor Paul Devlin make use of shadowy reconstruction, animation, archival newsreels, academic diagrams and medical materials amongst other things to reduce the volume of direct-to-camera testimony. It both maintains visual interest and negates the concern that the film becomes a polemic. Though it is clearly a work of great empathy and respect, Bobby Sands: 66 Days takes pains to offer alternative perspectives and as such makes for a richly textured and complex portrait of man, myth and movement.