Northern Ireland: The Life Missed

A Sense of Loss At the Central Square Cinema

A HAGGARD, HONEY-HAIRED 37-year-old mother of seven children spoke to me last July in the locker room of a Catholic boys' school in the Andersonstown section of Belfast. She chose the locker room not as a secret meeting place safe amidst the bombs and bullets of the Troubles, but because it happened to be where she and her children lived at the time. Theresa McGinnis slept on a canvas camping cot beside the entrance to the showers and her children slept on the benches between lockers, abandoning them for the floor after falling off a few times. She had been burned out of her house in a mixed Catholic-Protestant area by members of the Protestant Ulster Defense Association (UDA) in order that the neighborhood might be made more "homogeneous." More than any of the political ranting in the pubs, what she said seemed to penetrate right to the core of the problem for the average citizen of having to live in a war zone: "We don't really have much of a life. I can go to the bar for a drink every once in a while, and there's bingo on Thursday. I went to Lenadoon (Catholic area near Andersonstown) the other day to see a friend but I got caught in a gun battle. Life just gets very monotonous; there's nothing to do. In fact, I just cleaned the sink for the sixth time today, I got so fidgety (it was 2 p.m. at the time). What we have here is an existence, nothing else. There's really nothing to hold people here and I often think of going to New Zealand or Canada or Australia."

And there's bingo on Thursdays. That bingo is a regular feature of working class life in any of the British Isles is not the point. It is rather that in any situation where the weekly bingo outing represents the high point of a person's existence, there is something wrong in either the situation or the person. And in Northern Ireland it is clearly not the people. It is just this feeling of life lost, perhaps unrecoverable, yet barely out of reach of each person's grasp that occupies the central position in Marcel Ophuls's new film, A Sense of Loss.

THE FILM BEGINS with a St. Patrick's Day parade down Broadway, white-booted Tuesday Weld types high-stepping to the tune of Irish songs played in the martial American way, all of this in the name of a protest sponsored by Northern Aid in support of Irish unification. There are a few skirmishes with the police, but the tone is definitely one of romantic American American support for the glorious struggle taking place over there. Intercut with this is a sobering interview of a Catholic couple, he having gotten out of Long Kesh internment camp a little while ago, and she crippled permanently by a British Army soldier's bullets. That the Provisional IRA is supported almost totally by contributions from Americans is no secret, but there is nevertheless a severe discrepancy between the fancy parade image and the actual realities of living in Belfast and Derry.

We are then taken into the middle of the struggle and, mixed in with some astoundingly real and violent newsreel footage, are the Ophuls trademark interviews, which switch back and forth between Catholic and Protestant, militant and moderate, British Army and children, with the emphasis, in terms of both length and rationality, strongly on the side of the Catholics. The usual epithets are hurled back and forth between the two sides, with the militant Protestant spokesmen almost universally depicted as the fools and bigots they are by Ophuls's remarkable interviewing skill. John McTeague, a leader of the Ulster Vanguard, perhaps the most militant of the Protestant organizations, when confronted with a series of songs which openly glorify and urge the murder of Catholics, says lamely, "We have not been convicted of incitement to violence." He then says in answer to a pointed question by Ophuls that the Catholics really are nothing more than "filth and scum and scruff because that's the way they've been brought up--something has gone wrong somewhere and that's one place to look."

For the most part, though, the interviews with both Protestant and Catholic leaders tend to the obvious; the hate, the bigotry and the small-mindedness are all there but that is unfortunately all that is shown. Nowhere is there a hint of why these people feel the way they do given. Notoriously absent in the film is any sort of indepth discussion with actual Provisional IRA members, particularly those on the lower rungs of the power set-up.

OPHULS SHOT THE FILM in five weeks, a fact which he justifies by citing the rumor level in a place like Belfast which would tend to make jumping back and forth between sides for a longer period somewhat hazardous, and the fact that he wanted to create a sense of immediacy, particularly by a unification of events. He quite obviously did not want to go into any deep analysis of people's lives, and he did not want to try and trace the historical roots of the conflict. He wanted to portray the struggle as it exists to the people living in the midst of it, that is, as a fight which though rich in folklore and history, nevertheless keeps going primarily on a day to day level. A person is found with a bullet through the head and a hood over his face; it is discovered he is a Catholic; the next day a Protestant is shot or a store blown up. That is the way it happens, and despite patriotic references to 1916 or the grand plan of Irish unification or the continuance of the Protestant majority that is why it keeps going. It is a very personal war.

Ophuls apparently saw that and yet he seems merely content to state the immediacy, rather than give us some idea of what it is about. That is what is disturbing about the omission of serious interviews with actual Provisional IRA and UDA volunteers. Why do these people fight? Do they have the support of their communities? Are they noble knights of a cause or are they merely hoods, and do their neighbors perceive them as such? These are important questions and Ophuls does not address them. He only touches on them in a confused and inconclusive discussion with a Catholic school teacher head master who had Martin Meehan and Dutch Doherty as pupils, both fabled (presumably due to a lack of heroes) Provisional IRA gunmen in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. Friends of the two told me that they were just violent punks in school, bullies, and when 1969 came along and the IRA revitalized, they found an organized outlet for their violence. The teachers, however, mention only that one was cheerful but didn't do so well in school and that the other had an attendance problem.

Disturbing too is that a meaningless interview should be given such an inordinate amount of screen time. The section dragged miserably, its length hardly justified by the penny-ante "atmosphere." In fact, the whole film is far too long (2 hours and 20 minutes), especially considering the emotionally charged nature of the subject matter. The personal, emotional, grieving scenes are by far the best and their impact is severely cut back by the long repetitious interviews with political figures. But if the total length is a bit much, it is almost saved by the perfect rhythm and timing of the cutting. Newsreel footage and sit-down interviews are brought together with only a minimum of clashing, and juxtapositions (Bernadette Devlin on the beach at Port Rush and speaking to a crowd of angry Republicans, for instance), are extraordinary.

OPHULS'S PORTRAYAL of the way in which the struggle touches people, particularly the families of people killed, is done with a rare sensitive and emotional touch. We are made to feel strongly the life that might have been, had not the 16 month-old baby been shot in the head, had not the gardener-husband been blown to smithereens by a bomb, had not the teenage girl who liked boys and James Taylor and Melanie been run over by an Army Saracen on the way home from a dance. Bernadette Devlin talks for a long time sitting on the beach where she used to go as a child. She cannot go there any more because there are more urgent things to take care of in Derry and Parliament, and because to go to a beach and be identified as either Catholic or Protestant would be just plain asking for it. For the average person it is safer to sit at home drinking tea, listening to the reports of bombings on the tube, venturing out for bread and milk only if absolutely necessary, counting the days till next Thursday's bingo game.