Hot Docs ’16: Digging deep into the Bobby Sands story

Director Brendan Byrne tells realscreen about the intensive preparation and archival research he undertook for Bobby Sands: 66 Days (pictured), which had its world premiere at Hot Docs this week.
May 6, 2016

The life of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands gets a thorough examination in a BBC-backed documentary having its world premiere at Hot Docs this month.

In Bobby Sands: 66 Days, Belfast-based filmmaker Brendan J. Byrne pieces together the Irish Republican Army member’s early years and political philosophies with a forensic eye while simultaneously unpacking Sands’ legacy as a political martyr.

At the height of the conflict between Britain and Catholic paramilitary groups that wanted to end London’s rule over the territory, Sands and several other jailed IRA members went on two hunger strikes to protest the UK’s decision to revoke special status for political prisoners. The British government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, steadfastly refused to make concessions and Sands died in prison at 27.

Although director Steve McQueen told the story of the strike in his 2008 film Hunger, Bobby Sands: 66 Days delves deeper into the social, political and historical dimensions to the period known as The Troubles, as well as the impact Sands – who was elected to the British Parliament during the strike – had on the republican movement and eventual peace process.

Byrne uses the 66-day structure to ground his expansive exploration, which draws on archival footage, excerpts from Sands’ writings, re-enactments, animation and interviews with witnesses and experts.

Though Sands has faded into history for a younger generation of viewers, the director knew the story had to be handled with care and heavily researched the topic before pitching it to the BBC. Once ‘Storyville’ commissioner Nick Fraser signed on, BBC Northern Ireland followed suit and provided the bulk of the financing for 66 Days. Funding also came from the Irish Film Board, Northern Ireland Screen and networks in Sweden and Denmark.

Trevor Birney and Fine Point Films produced the project, and Alex Gibney – who has a long-standing relationship with Birney – came on board later as an executive producer.

Content Media Corps is handling worldwide sales for the film, which will open theatrically in Ireland and Northern Ireland in August before airing on the BBC later in the UK. At present, UK theatrical rights are still up for grabs, as are all rights outside Sweden and Denmark.

Ahead of the film’s premiere in Toronto, Byrne spoke with realscreen about the intensive preparation and research he undertook for the project.

Why did you decide to tackle the story of Bobby Sands?
Bobby Sands is someone people know about through the iconic photograph, but they don’t really know much about the man. Most of the modern generation only know a version of his story. Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is brilliant as an experiential look at someone who is on a hunger strike for political beliefs, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about Bobby Sands and who he was.

I was drawn to reclaim the real Bobby Sands and explore Irish Republicanism and youthful idealism of that time. He wasn’t just a person in a moment or a time; Bobby Sands was very clearly looking back at Republican history and drawing from the influences of other Republicans who chose to martyr themselves. [The film] is really about the tragedy of Ireland and how the romantic notion of Ireland that all the visitors have is also a very powerful notion for people who live in Ireland in the sense that they feel it’s enough to justify fighting for.

Were networks and financiers keen to help you tell this story?
Not really. There is always going to be sensitivity around this subject. The story has its roots in Ireland and Britain so I knew it would receive most of the finances from those places but they are also the places that are most sensitive about the subject matter.

I decided I wasn’t going to do a regular pitch because I knew key financiers could be kind of nervous. So I did much more preparation than I would normally. I wrote a very detailed treatment based on the ’66 Day’ structure. I wanted to show people that this wasn’t a whim. This was something that I was serious about doing and the document I produced demonstrated that very clearly. It was through that seriousness and the forensic nature of the pitch that I overcame any nervousness about tackling the subject. Once that was done, people embraced it wholeheartedly.

The doc makes extensive use of archive from the area. How big was the effort?
The story of the archive is partly the person who was charged to find it for us – Fran R. McCormick – who has a significant knowledge of the BBC’s archive in Ireland, which represents 75% of the archive source for this material.

Brendan Byrne

It’s also partly my editor, Paul Devlin, who did a fantastic job of weaving the archive into the film. I’d seen bits of this archive from that period before but I’d never seen that much of it in one place. It casts the place in a light that feels like a revolutionary South American film but it’s Northern Ireland. My editor and I made archive a central motif throughout the film whereby it is a character in the film and a visual thread in its own right rather than a way of cutting a shot here and there.

How hard was it to source images of Bobby Sands?
There are no moving images of Bobby Sands in existence. None whatsoever. All there is, is a limited number of stills, most of which are in the film, and then there is a further but limited archive of films of the younger boy that is the property of his family.

Why is this story important for you personally?
I’m continually drawn to exploring stories about the conflict. Whilst we enjoy an uneasy peace here – in theory the conflict is over. I felt taking a fresh look at Bobby Sands would be a good way of understanding that, actually, without Bobby Sands there wouldn’t have been be a peace process. The very fact that Bobby Sands exists means there are still fault lines within contemporary Irish political circles.

I also wanted to cast him in a slightly new light and a more contemporary context for a different generation. My kids were brought up in this country where I grew up but thankfully are not living through conflict, which I did. Nonetheless I want them to have a deeper understanding of the forces that shaped their country and, for that matter, their father.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days screens at Hot Docs on Saturday (May 7) at 7 p.m. at Hart House Theatre. Visit the festival’s website for ticket information.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.