By Evan Bergstra - March 15th, 2015


I know next to nothing about the IRA and the conflict between loyalists and Irish separatists dating back to the 1960s. Wikipedia tells me that the conflict did not see resolution until the Belfast Agreement of 1998, meaning the struggle lasted a full thirty years. Over that span, 3,542 people were killed and countless more injured. I’ll admit to feeling a little embarrassed for not being more familiar with the details, but somehow its story never made it into local public school curricula, nor our general cultural narrative. It was with helpful ignorance, then, that I went to a screening of ’71, the debut film from French director Yann Demange that toured film festivals in 2014. Knowing nothing gave the film an opportunity to tell its story to me with optimal impact, and it accomplished exactly that.

Though I understand the conflict to have arisen largely by Irish separatists with more political motivations, the explicit focus of the conflict as referenced by the characters is rooted more prominently in religion. Interestingly, even religion is only mentioned briefly here and there, and above all the nature of the conflict amounts to a general oppressive presence hurting both sides rather than the specific product of a particular issue. I think this is important for the humanization of the characters because it keeps the viewer from getting bogged down by politics and ideology, allowing an uninterrupted focus on the pain and struggles of the people involved.

“Knowing nothing gave the film an opportunity to tell its story to me with optimal impact, and it accomplished exactly that.”

The film follows Gary Hook, a young British soldier newly stationed in Belfast over the course of a single, grueling, relentless night he spends hiding in the city after being separated from his unit during a riot. Over the course of that one night we see people beaten, stabbed, shot and bombed. Because he is entirely alone there is a dominant feeling of helplessness around Hook, which builds a sense of both fear and panic throughout the film. The effect is also aided by the dialogue, which is kept down to what is essential and little else. The accents are thick and many of the lines are delivered so quickly that, while being entirely appropriate as storytelling elements, were at times nearly unintelligible and I found myself wishing for subtitles more than once.

The technical elements of the film favour a photojournalistic approach. There is a lot of handheld camera work, and no aerial or crane shots are used. Even though most of the story takes place at night, the lighting is designed to mimic ambient light throughout. This means that much of the footage is quite dark, and as the situation worsened for Hook I found myself craving the relief of daylight. Smoke, fog and rain all provide environmental aids to the pervasive feeling of aimlessness. The score is murky and minimal, composed using synth textures, fluid percussion and simple, melodic electric guitar melodies. The product is an ageless, unsettling soundscape that compliments the story well.

“The performances are solid. While it doesn’t feel like there is one standout role, there are no weak links either.”

The performances are solid. While it doesn’t feel like there is one standout role, there are no weak links either. The film is tense and dramatic without feeling theatrical. The actors’ deliveries are appropriately understated for the stylistic framework of the film, and when the credits rolled I found myself thinking more about the horrible time in Ireland’s history more than the fates of the characters involved in this tiny slice of it. And that is the selling point of the film for me. WWII was an unquantifiable disaster, but as a Canadian its current narrative is safely insulated by decades of peace. What was jarring to me was the depiction of open battle in what could easily be seen as the streets of a contemporary Western city; not as sensationalized fiction but as a piece of recent history. A recurring line in the film refers to the conflict as a “confused situation,” and Demange was very effective in illustrating that. It was a sobering experience and a reminder of how easily we can devolve into monsters.

’71 opened on select Canadian screens on March 13.

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  2. You should have brought Sully with you to translate.

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