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San Diego Museum Of Art Screens 'Bloody Sunday'

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Jimmy Nesbitt plays Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass' 2002 film "Bloody Sunday."

Paul Greengrass film gives historical context to Tim Shaw Beyond Reason exhibit

San Diego Museum of Art is screening "Bloody Sunday" in conjunction with its Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason exhibit. The film looks to the 1972 incident in which British soldiers shot at unarmed Irish protesters. I interviewed the filmmakers and some of the people involved in the protest back in 2002 when the film was released.

Paul Greengrass’ film "Bloody Sunday" depicts one of the greatest tragedies of the Northern Ireland Troubles. It also provides an important historical context for understanding the origins of artist Tim Shaw’s installation pieces at San Diego Museum of Arts’ Beyond Reason exhibit.

VIDEO: Sculptor Tim Shaw Serves Up Immersive Installation 'Beyond Reason'

The film opens with Protestant member of Parliament Ivan Cooper beginning Jan. 30, 1972 with high hopes. He had planned a civil rights march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. In the film, actor Jimmy Nesbitt conveys Cooper’s optimistic challenge to British Rule on that day.

"So we say this to the British government, we will march peacefully this Sunday and march and march again until Unionist rule ends and a new system based on civil rights for all is put in its place," Nesbitt's Cooper says in the film.

But by nightfall, there was nothing peaceful about the streets of Londonderry. The British Army had fired into the crowd of unarmed marchers, killing 13, wounding more than a dozen. The film shows how the violent events of that day remain unresolved.

The character Bernadette states: "I would just like to say this on behalf of us, the families of the victims and the victims, we will not rest until justice is done."

The official inquiry at the time failed to find any wrongdoing on the part of the army, which claimed soldiers were fired on first. But that investigation was later discredited. Don Mullan co-produced the movie version of the real life confrontation. He was there on that day.


"I had been in the vortex of the killing fields and I’d been in fact literally two feet away from Michael Kelly when he was shot dead," Mullan said by phone.

Mullan wrote a book called "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday." In it he gathered the accounts of 100 people who were also there that day. The book inspired director Paul Greengrass to make a film. Greengrass began by meeting with the families of the victims.

"I went to talk to the families," Greengrass said. "There are a group of people who waited 30 years for justice and here I was a British filmmaker saying I wanted to make a film about The Day and obviously they can be forgiven for being suspicious."

Greengrass’ British lineage raised doubts in Londonderry, known simply as Derry by Irish nationalists. But his being British helped lend the film a more balanced perspective.

"If Irish people, on their own, made this film, it would just simply be dismissed as propaganda. The fact that Irish and British people together worked with integrity to make this film, that is what makes it powerful," Mullan said.

Instead of actors, Greengrass hired former British soldiers and extras from the neighborhood where the march took place. The British aren’t made out to be a monolithic enemy. One soldier even dares to question his colleagues when they begin firing into the crowd. Greengrass acknowledges that the film sides with the civil rights marchers but he said it also captures a major turning point in Irish and British relations, and proved to be a tragedy for both countries.

"Bloody Sunday was the darkest day of the Troubles. It was the day that innocent people lost their lives; it was the day that drove many young Catholic men into the arms of the IRA; it was a day that sowed such bitterness that it would take a generation before the conflict could even begin to be solved," Greengrass said.

Ivan Cooper was a Protestant member of parliament representing an Irish Catholic constituency in Lodonderry at the time of the Bloody Sunday march. He says watching the film brought the day’s events back to life for him.

"It was quite an uncanny experience and the film itself is so realistic from every perspective that I was right back there on the streets — the terror, the fear, and most important of all, the hopelessness — it was all there," Cooper said.

John Kelly was there too. He was 23 when his brother, Michael, was killed. He didn’t know what to expect when he first saw the film.

"I was very uptight and anxious because I didn’t know what it was going to say. But by the time the film was over and done with, I was certainly relived and overjoyed that that the film portrayed Bloody Sunday as it actually happened. I know it might sound morbid but it was vitally important to us, we knew that this was a great medium to get the word out to the world, and it was vitally important that the killings be portrayed as they were and as they truthfully happened," Kelly said.

Whether the film’s version of events captures the truth still isn’t clear. But Greengrass said he tried to treat the project like the documentary films he used to make.

"I remember being in places like Beirut or El Salvador or the Philippines — places where there were tremendous conflicts — and what a camera does in a conflict is become skittish," Greengrass explained. "What a camera does in a conflict is become skittish. You very rarely see people shot on camera for one good reason, when guns start going off, nobody really knows where the shooting is coming from and no one can predict where the bullets are going to land. And then eventually when the camera settles, you see the cost, you see it there and that was really how I tried to do it."

The stark realism of the film has stirred sober reflection, but not rage.

"I think if a film had been made earlier about Bloody Sunday, it probably would have been a much angrier film, a film that was a call for vengeance, a call to arms, and that would not have been helpful," Greengreass stated.

The film shows in hindsight how Bloody Sunday triggered three decades of violence.

In the film Cooper says, "I just want to say this to the British government. You know what you have just done don't you? You have destroyed the civil rights movement and you have given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have and you will reap a whirlwind."

Tim Shaw
The scene depicted in the immersive installation piece "Mother the Air is Blue, the Air is Dangerous" part of Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason exhibit at San Diego Museum of Art.

That whirlwind claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people on both sides of the conflict. Greengrass said his film presents a moment in history when moderate voices were drowned out. Artist Tim Shaw says his installation pieces in Beyond Reason raise questions about what happens when talks break down and people walk away from the table. Both men show how art can help advocate for peace and reconciliation.

San Diego Museum Of Art Screens 'Bloody Sunday'
San Diego Museum of Art is screening "Bloody Sunday" in conjunction with its Tim Shaw: Beyond Reason exhibit. The film looks to the 1972 incident in which British soldiers shot at unarmed Irish protesters. I interviewed the filmmakers and some of the people involved in the protest back in 2002 when the film was released.