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Occupational Hazards 

Bloody Sunday's relevance is obvious; this well-chronicled if biased critique of the hazards of occupation shows what can happen to a body that is where it should not be -- the belligerent stranger in a strange land. Were it not for the war on Iraq, perhaps the parallel of the British presence in Northern Ireland to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would resonate for an American audience a bit more profoundly. After all, a year and a half removed from 9/11, we are still fumbling with the definition of terrorism and its one-way-street implications.

The film, which screens Tuesday at the Prytania courtesy of the New Orleans Film Festival, details the massacre by British troops of 13 innocent, unarmed civil-rights demonstrators during a peaceful march in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972. Fourteen others were injured, with one of them dying later. Bloody Sunday, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, is based on eyewitness Don Mullan's 1997 book, Bloody Sunday: Massacre in Northern Ireland: The Eyewitness Accounts (re-released last year in paperback as Eyewitness Bloody Sunday). The book has been credited for the re-opening of the case after the 25-year seal on report records was broken. The inquiry, requested by British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been ongoing for four years now.

The film comes to town bursting with critical acclaim, winning not only Best Picture from last year's Sundance Film Festival but also, in this month's issue of Premiere, ranked No. 4 in a nationwide critics' choice poll of the best movies of 2002. (It's my third favorite film of last year.)

Using a straightforward, documentary-style technique, Greengrass works in snippets, dropping in to check up one development before skittering away to another; his scenes don't segue so much as they stumble into one another. They're more like updates than actual scenes as Greengrass sets up the house of cards that will surely tumble at the story's end.

The situation feels like one big recipe for disaster, and while Greengrass' agenda is clear, he tries to look through this prism from several angles: a British general hell-bent on restoring "order" and expecting violence after encouraging it; a Northern Irish civil-rights leader caught between moderate and extreme elements in his own pacifist movement; the occupation's military leader who is caught between the prodding general and the frustrated local chief of police; a British paratrooper stunned at the itchy trigger fingers of his comrades; a slum-bound teen who allows himself to get sucked into antagonizing the troops; and the unnerving presence, if unclear actions, of the IRA.

The story begins the previous evening. In contrasting press conferences by the opposing sides, Maj. Gen. Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) bans any marches and civil-rights leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) calls for a peaceful march to protest the recent British decree of internment of citizens without trial. The stage, with its peripheral players, is set; the military plans to cut off the march's route, the organizers debate whether to alter the route or cancel, the younger boys of Derry consider staying with the march or confronting the troops, and the troops wait for permission to engage.

Even as the tension builds, Greengrass rarely succumbs to the temptation of contemplation. It's as if he shuts out any melodramatic impulses, in one instance having the phone ring just when a tender moment between Ivan and his girlfriend might actually become more tender. The criticism that Bloody Sunday is detached misses the point; as Ivan laments during this same scene, there's simply no time to "sort things out." The madness is too mad, the violence too violent. When you're caught in a perfect storm, when is the opportunity to feel?

As violent as Bloody Sunday is, and Greengrass' camera rarely flinches from the horror of this little war, it could be tons worse. In the hands of an Oliver Stone or a Ridley Scott, the camera would hover over a victim for minutes, capturing every quart of blood lost to the sounds of the symphony du jour. That's not Greengrass' way; there's too much chaos to consider, too many angles to explore.

If the accents are difficult for American viewers to decipher, Greengrass could be excused for holding to his cinema verite instincts -- his desire to give the viewer an authentic time and place remains a pure one.

The great irony of Bloody Sunday, of course, is that the massacre flooded the IRA with fresh, new, angry members -- terrorists, if you will -- who decided that dying in the fight against oppression was better than doing nothing at all. A similar scenario is being played out in the Middle East, as experts predict increased membership in "terrorist" groups fighting both Israel's occupation and the United States' presence in the region. The fumbling continues.

click to enlarge Civil-rights leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbit) finds himself caught up in the perfect storm that becomes Bloody Sunday.
  • Civil-rights leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbit) finds himself caught up in the perfect storm that becomes Bloody Sunday.
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