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Extraordinary doc on Bobby Sands justifies public broadcasting by John Doyle

Feb 21, 2017

Source: Globe and Mail

First, public TV broadcasting is a necessary part of the culture both here and in the United States.

One of the bedrock reasons why public broadcasters need to exist is to provide an alternative to mainstream commercial entertainment. (Let’s leave CBC TV out of this right now. In TV it is a public/commercial hybrid and unrepresentative in this context.) This coming weekend will be dominated, across countless platforms, by the Academy Awards. Who won, what won, and what women were wearing.

In this neck of the woods, TVOntario will offer an alternative to all that – an intense, powerful, provocative documentary about a hunger strike. We’ll get to an in-depth review in a minute.

Before that, take note that the Trump administration is very likely to take aim at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and gut it. Those who have advocated for the CPB to be axed or have its funding drastically reduced are the ones in power now. PBS and NPR won’t disappear immediately but will be looking for more corporate support and begging supporters on-air for yet more money.

Also, take note of what PBS offers. On Friday’s Great Performances (PBS, 9 p.m.), it’s the New York City Ballet performing two classic ballets by George Balanchine – Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C, and Sonatine, set to the music of Maurice Ravel. It is unlikely that anybody involved will get their picture and apparel details featured in People magazine. And on Sunday, while the Academy Awards go on for hours and hours, PBS is offering a marathon of episodes of Victoria. An alternative.

An important contributor in this neck of the woods is TVOntario and that’s where you will find an astonishing doc this weekend. It airs Saturday and is available online to everyone on Sunday.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days (Saturday, TVOntario, 9 p.m.) is a doozy, a visually stunning, sobering and vastly informative look at what drove IRA prisoner Bobby Sands to die on hunger strike in a Belfast prison in 1981 and what his death, and that of other hunger strikers, meant. That is, what it meant as protest, as art and its long-term consequences in the strife that wracked Northern Ireland for so long.

Released last year (and featured at Hot Docs) to mark the 35th anniversary of Sands’s death, it is crammed with information and perspective that makes it transcend the category of documentary about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It offers a full picture of Sands himself, a man of 27 when he died. Actors read his powerful, resonant prison diary as the full context of the hunger strike and its ultimate meaning is delivered.

It is vital to be reminded now that the hunger strike was about prison conditions and prisoner status. The British authorities had made imprisonment in Northern Ireland a weapon and a tool. First, there was internment without trial. Men young and old were swept off the streets of Belfast and imprisoned without charge, judge or jury. They just disappeared into a prison system.

At one point, those interned had “special category status,” and essentially recognized as political prisoners who wore their own clothes and had greater freedom inside than those defined as criminals. When Sands was arrested and jailed for the second time, that status had been revoked. Sands, the IRA and Sinn Fein wanted it restored. First, they used the “dirty protest” of refusing to wear prison garb and making the cells a hell by smearing their waste on the walls. That protest achieved nothing. Then came the hunger strike.

The idea of a hunger strike was not new in the Irish nationalist movement. Nor in Irish culture – it is connected to the Catholic ritual of self-denial and, of course, to the Great Famine. In 1920, Irish nationalist rebel Terence MacSwiney had died in Brixton prison after a 74-day hunger strike. MacSwiney said, famously, “It is not those who can inflict the most but those that can suffer the most who will conquer.” Sands used the quotation with particular force to justify his action.

He lasted 66 days and we get a clear, unnerving picture of the bewildering events that unfolded as he slowly died. Three governments – the British, Irish and American – were involved and watching closely. While dying, Sands was elected as an MP to the British parliament, an event that terrified those governments and, ultimately, the doc suggests, shifted the politics and sectarian violence of Northern Ireland in a new direction. In a way, the program suggests, Sands and those who died on hunger strike after him, won. The tactic of hunger striking, of passive, suffering resistance, was, ultimately, victorious. For a start, the British governmet restored the special-category status.

The footage of events, protests, bombings and riots in Belfast is enormously evocative. At one point we see a riot is in full swing, with rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown and a young man out jogging simply zig-zags through it all. But the doc’s main point is its exploration of the deadly theatre of the hunger strike and the potency of the martyrdom that ensues.

The doc – made by Brendan J. Byrne and in part by public broadcasters in several countries – is shocking, meaningful and illustrative about terrorism, politics, hate and hope. “If I die,” Bobby Sands said, “God will understand.” And you think, well, there was a lot more to it.

© Globe and Mail