- by Michael Mansfield
A clutch of recent films seem to have attracted more than their fair share of critical flak. Michael Collins was planned as "IRA propaganda" despite the film's denouement (Collins murdered by the IRA): Hillsborough was described as "moral and intellectual slovenliness" and as "peddling lies and deceit about police behaviour", despite the damning conclusions of the Taylor Report: Some Mother's Son has been labelled as "scrambled history", "sentimentalised terrorism" and "republican propaganda's latest offspring", despite showing (erroneously) the IRA leadership wanting the hunger strike to continue. And now, Ken Loach's Carla's Song, the story of a Glaswegian bus driver who heads off to Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, is regarded as a love story submerged by polemic and slogans: "Ken misses the bus!"
Herein lies a mild irony given that much of the media which accommodates these slings and arrows can hardly claim the gilt-edged shield for unadulterated truth.
Having been closely associated with the legal repercussions of incidents that have been translated into a variety of formats - the Birmingham six, the Guilford four, the Mangrove, the Marchioness disaster, Lockerbie, Sara Thornton, the 1984 miners' strike - it is clear to me that the debate stretches will beyond film "versions".
Ordinary news reportage, particularly from countries whose regimes are disliked or are suspect, is also capable of attracting criticism. At the moment, there is a hot dispute between ITN and Thomas Deichmann, an expert witness to the war crimes tribunal, concerning the validity of notorious images broadcast around the world of emaciated Muslim refugees behind Serbian barbed wire. Even the interpretation and recounting of history is subject to the viewpoints of the teller whether they be Christopher Hill, Norman Stone or Martin Gilbert.
The fact, however, that the whole truth is elusive cannot be used to prevent its pursuit or to stifle passionate argument provided certain ground rules are understood. A square cannot be ridiculed for not being a circle.
If a film, for example, is pure fiction, then any resemblance to actual events/characters can be accepted as accidental or inevitable since human experience is rarely unique. At the other end of the spectrum, if it is intended to be a report/document/documentary then the viewer/reader is entitled to expect the reduction of human interpretation to be kept to the barest minimum. Plainly it can never be eradicated. It is the territory between these two which causes the heartache and consternation.
An excellent example of such a dramatised documentary was Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father. There is a catalogue of factual errors in this film which, to a lawyer, become thoroughly irritating and intrusive. Gareth Pierce, the solicitor depicted by Emma Thompson, has never been seen leaping up and down in public, let alone the Court of Appeal! Nevertheless, despite all the concessions made to the market, American, no doubt, there was a basic reverberating and everlasting truth cast in clear celluloid - the gravity of the miscarriage, the role of the state and the human cost.
A film-maker who consistently achieves such exposés is Ken Loach - from Cathy Come Home through to Raining Stones and Land and Freedom. These films are in a category beyond the dramatised documentary; they are dramas inspired by actual events. Carla's Song is not a blow by blow account of Sandinistas versus Contras; nor is it a rehearsal of the competing political doctrines that lay beneath the violence. Rather it is a continuing plea for the importance of challenge, resistance and struggle whether in Glasgow or Nicaragua.
Some Mother's Son, in the same vein, is less about Bobby Sands and the IRA than the apolitical mother figure who has to face a sudden realisation of the activities of her own son. This is another struggle, classically endured by the Irish and which has been echoed by writers such as Edna O'Brien in House of Splendid Isolation. These are not documentaries, nor are they dramatised documentaries, they are dramas inspired by a course of events. Provided this is made clear and everyone understands this objective, there can be no deception or complaint.
Both the documentary and the dramatised documentary have an illustrious history in their own right. Granada's World in Action (where John Birt once worked) established a significant track record in courageously unearthing material which, undoubtedly contributed to a change of events which led to the release of men who would otherwise still be in prison. Granada's dramatised documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? ensured that important issues were aired and pursued.
But we should remember Who Bombed Birmingham? was vilified initially as irresponsible for not naming names and latterly, when it did so, for becoming trial by television. There can be little doubt, however, that the public awareness and disquiet aroused by these programmes eventually culminated in legal redress. I am a firm believer that this tradition, which has been followed also by Rough Justice and Trail and Error, provides a vital mechanism for investigation of the truth where no other presently exists. It has taken the best part of a decade to establish the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which was set up finally this January and is to begin its work on 31 March. The commission will provide no real improvement on the Home Office - it is not adequately resourced or staffed. There is therefore an imperative need for continuing journalism of this kind described.
The next obvious example is the role of persons still living whose lives are touched upon or being portrayed. In The Name of the father, Schindler's List, Hostages, Dead Man Walking, JFK all ran into this dilemma. To what extent should we heed or incorporate their views or ultimately accord them the right of full veto?
If it is a documentary, the responsibility must be to ensue that the individuals and communities have their views accurately represented. But when we move into the field of dramatised documentary, the balance shifts. There may be a greater good in ensuring that the essence of the story takes precedence even if feelings may be hurt in the process.
Once one goes beyond this into a drama inspired by real events than the scales tip even farther away from the individual and community. They should never be ignored but it may be that the pursuit of an important dynamic or truth as perceived by the creator must determine the final product.
An excellent current example of this is the critically acclaimed movie, Shine. But behind the universally warm critical reception has rumbled a background of bitter hostility from a sister, brother and biographer of David Helfgott, the pianist. They have suggested that there are entirely fictitious scenes showing David's father as an unfeeling, brutal man who drove him insane. The Observer's film critic, Philip French, in the same breath as extolling the virtues of the film ("hard to find a better one in 1997") went on to say: "It is not the first time and won't be the last that a true story is twisted to make a film more watchable".
In an overall sense, he is right because this is not a documentary, let alone a dramatised documentary. But if he means that the film-maker is merely making something watchable without intending to portray a truth about the relationships surrounding the pianist, then the objective has been lost at this point. So has accountability and responsibility.
The writer is a barrister.