Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

27 September 2001 Edition

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H3: Telling the hunger strike as we saw it

Brian Campbell, co-writer with Laurence McKeown of H3, tells why it is so important that their film has finally made it to the screen

It is appropriate after many years of trying to get it made that H3 is going on release in Ireland as we mark the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes.

It is not that we can't learn from Hollywood about how to tell a story, but that the distortions and simplifications which some filmmakers here have engaged in have made their films uninteresting. It is drama without passion
It wasn't planned that way. There was a long period when we were struggling to raise the money to make the film. At one stage we were in discussion with a well-known broadcaster who was dangling half a million pounds before our eyes. It was the type of money that would have given the project the green light. Other investors would have been impressed that we had that sort of prestige backing and would have weighed in.

But first, the broadcaster wanted to discuss a few things about the script. They worried that nicknames for some of the prison officers (Toy Soldier and Busted Sofa) were ``dehumanising''. There were problems with the prisoners singing ``a well-known IRA anthem''. Could there not be a scene where a prisoner and a prison officer talk about how they both come from poor working-class backgrounds? And so on.

Most of the suggested changes didn't involve a huge political compromise so we debated them. We needed the money. But it was clear that they would have taken away from the truth of the film.

The truth was that the prison officers did have nicknames, as did the prisoners; it was true that the prisoners did sing rebel songs; and it was definitely not true that prison officers would have found the time or the inclination to discuss the Marxist theory of alienation in between slapping a prisoner about the ears.

All the little compromises would have made the film false. It would have turned into a film about how a bunch of film executives imagined life in the H-Blocks. We rejected their suggestions and shortly afterwards the half a million quid went to some other worthy project.

We felt quite liberated and pleased with ourselves. We were going to make the film the way we wanted it made. Except, of course, that we had no money. It was, as they say, a problem of the first magnitude.

Raising money to make a film is a very difficult thing to do. You are effectively asking for the type of money that would start a medium-sized business, or buy a profitable pub, or build a small estate of houses. And this on the very slim chance that you might get a return on your investment. It is a cold fact that 75% of independent films never get a cinema release. And those that do rarely make a profit. For every Full Monty there are a thousand heroic failures at the box office.

But thankfully, not all film financing is driven purely by profit, otherwise virtually nothing would get made outside blockbusters and dumbed-down dross. Of course, the potential to make money is a priority but there are still sources of financing who value film as a form of cultural expression; who are prepared to go outside the mainstream. Cinema can still be radical and subversive.

It is to the eternal credit of our producers at Metropolitan Films that they stuck with H3 and managed to raise the money to make it. Despite the peace process and the ending of Section 31 censorship, many people were hostile to our project. They didn't want ex-prisoners to tell the story of the hunger strike. They didn't want people exposed to our political point of view.

Some, to be fair, also felt that ``Troubles films'' were dead at the box office. With the failure of The Boxer, the film industry had made up its collective mind that people didn't want to see films about the conflict in the Six Counties. We disagreed, not least because we hadn't seen a `Troubles film' which had been true to people's experiences. They had all, to some extent, been through a Hollywoodisation process, whereby their makers decided to tailor them for a mainstream US audience.

It is not that we can't learn from Hollywood about how to tell a story, but that the distortions and simplifications which some filmmakers here have engaged in have made their films uninteresting. It is drama without passion. And it is drama that might claim to have no political bias, but of course it comes from a clear political position.

These debates didn't take up much time with financiers but, nevertheless, we managed to raise a budget. We would have liked twice as much, or three times as much but I'm sure that's a well-worn complaint among independent filmmakers. Among our investors were a number of private individuals who put up money at a crucial time and without whom the film wouldn't have been made. They deserve our great thanks.

Eventually, the film was shot at the end of last year in Ardmore Studios in Bray, Co Wicklow, with a couple of days of exterior shots inside the walls of an empty Long Kesh. In Ardmore we constructed a H-Block wing and circle (with great help from republican joiners and labourers from Belfast and Dublin). When some ex-Blanketmen came onto the set there was a moment's hesitation, as they were struck by the authenticity of it. And when they went into the cells, which had been dressed to replicate the no-wash period, the silence spoke of long-held memories of what they had endured.

Similarly, the air was heavy with emotion when members of the hunger strikers' families visited the set. It brought home to everyone connected to the film that we had a deep responsibility to tread carefully on people's memories. It has been clear from the many events organised this year that the emotional scars are still very deep.

We had set out to tell the truth of the hunger strike as we saw it. In a creative project like a feature film where, in this case, six months has to be compressed into 90 minutes and to be done in a way that engages an audience, it is impossible to tell everyone's story. We knew early on that we had to dismiss the obligation to cram everything in. This was a story that had to speak to a wider audience, many of whom weren't even born in 1981. At the same time we wanted something which would stand as a tribute to the men who had given up their lives for their comrades. We also wanted all those other people involved - the relatives, the Blanketmen, and everyone on the outside who campaigned on their behalf - to feel that the film is a tribute to them as well.

No doubt, in fine republican tradition, we will be told whether we have succeeded or not. For myself and Laurence, we are more than happy with what director Les Blair, a fine English republican, has done with the script and the cast he assembled.

We were very nervous when the film was first shown, in a private screening for the hunger strikers' relatives, former hunger strikers and H-Block/Armagh activists. It was a very special and very emotional experience.

When H3 opens this weekend it will be the end of a very long road for us. We just hope that as many people as possible go to see it and that they come away with a sense of the unbreakable spirit among those ordinary men in the H-Blocks that saw them through the extraordinary events of 1981.

H3 is being released in the following cinemas:















Don't miss this movie


Directed by Les Blair

Written by Brian Campbell and Laurence McKeown

Opens 28 September

Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to spend a day at Ardmore Studios in Bray as an extra on H3. Released nationwide this weekend, the movie is a fictional story set at the time of the 1981 Long Kesh Hunger Strike up to the death of Bobby Sands.

H3 was cowritten by former An Phoblacht editor Brian Campbell and former hunger striker Laurence McKeown, so authenticity is assured.

What struck me most that day was the age of the actors. They looked like kids to this hairy 34-year-old and I found myself strongly affected. The black and white pictures of the ten men who died just don't capture that. Witnessing those young actors and their half-naked vulnerability brought home to me in an entirely new way the enormous courage and camaraderie of those young men.

The hunger strikers are afforded almost mythic status in republican circles as the H Block Martyrs. Their actions merit that respect, but if we are to identify with them, it is also important to remember that these were not supermen; they were young men who, in atrociously difficult circumstances, retained their belief in the struggle of which they were part and in each other. The strength of their political beliefs saw them through four years of a no-wash protest and of brutal mistreatment by a callous prison regime before the ultimate weapon of hunger strike was used.

They died to prove that they were political prisoners and to defend the legitimacy of their struggle. Today, 20 years on, they inspire those of us trying to further their goal of a united Ireland.

So it is timely that as the anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike draws to a close, H3 arrives in our cinemas. There have been many big screen efforts over the past 30 years dealing with the conflict in Ireland, ranging from the atrocious Patriot Games to the quite good In the Name of the Father, but this is different; this is a movie about a defining period in Irish history told from an unashamedly republican viewpoint. It is also well made and extremely moving.

The story is almost entirely set in the claustrophobic Blocks of Long Kesh, and we are introduced to the abnormal living environment of the blanket protest through the eyes of new prisoner Declan (Aidan Campbell). He is put into a cell with Seamus (Brendan Mackey), whose character is obviously based on Bik McFarane, the prisoners' OC during the 1981 hunger strike. Aside from Bobby Sands, played by Mark O'Halloran, all other characters are fictional.

The introduction of Declan allows us to see, through the eyes of the uninitiated, what was involved in being on protest from disposal of excrement to `bangling' homemade radios to ingenious methods of smuggling messages and tobacco from cell to cell. The story follows the chain of events as the prisoners find themselves left with no other option but to go on hunger strike, through to Bobby Sands' election and ending just after his death. We watch Seamus struggle under the heavy responsibility that has been placed on his shoulders. We watch his best friend Ciaran break under the strain of life on the blanket and the constant abuse and beatings. There are also hilarious moments, such as Declan's attempts to brief his fellow prisoners on sport, fashion and music developments in the real world. His effort at The Undertones' My Perfect Cousin is a real side-splitter. The audience is constantly pulled between the spirit and determination of the prisoners and the horror of their situation.

If there is an overall theme here, apart from the obvious one of struggle, it is that of comradeship. In the bleak cells of Long Kesh, McKeown and Campbell have given us a window on how the strength of their convictions allowed men who possessed nothing but a blanket to defy a brutal prison regime and an uncompromising British government. This movie gave me a deeper appreciation of the hunger strikes. Whatever you do, don't miss it.


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