This week for Rialto Channel I have been tasked with writing about two very different personalities, both of whom are the subject of two very different documentaries that attempt to go beneath the surface and discover what makes the men tick.
In tonight’s film, BOBBY SANDS: 66 DAYS, director Brendan Byrne offers us an insight into the life and death of political prisoner Bobby Sands, a modern-day Irish martyr. Documentaries that look into the thoughts of desperate, incarcerated men are common, and their stories usually both compelling and polarising. A few weeks’ ago I looked at the film CHASING ASYLUM, which tells the story of Australia's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. It highlighted the sense of hopelessness brought about by long-term detention, with tales of detainees setting themselves on fire, stitching their lips and eyelids shut, and more. Bobby Sands’ own incarceration wasn’t quite as long as many of those innocent men, but for him it felt just as unjust and his actions just as extreme.
In the spring of 1981, the proud Irish Republican embarked on 66-day hunger strike that brought the attention of the world to his cause. Drawing on an Irish Republican tradition of martyrdom, Sands and nine other men - all prisoners at the infamous "H-Block" in Northern Ireland -starved themselves to death over the course of almost six months, in protest at the British government’s refusal to give political prisoner status to those who had been incarcerated for actions associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Sands was the first to participate and the first to die after a long, painful process that would leave him blind, unable to be touched by even blankets, and with a physique akin to a bag of bones. He was just 27 at the time of his death, and had spent the majority of his adult life imprisoned in the same location.
The film doesn't tell us much about the man behind the story, but it does examine the reasons Sands became an icon for the cause, and the worldwide face of the conflict. I was disappointed not to discover more about the man behind the story, but the film does demonstrate how Sands’ non-violent protest became a defining moment in 20th-century Irish history. His death was a key turning point in the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and it has been said that it turned a global spotlight onto the conflict that eventually triggered international efforts to sort the whole damn mess.
The following evening Rialto Channel presents HOCKNEY, which sees charismatic British artist David Hockney take director Randall Wright on an exclusive tour of his archives and into his studio, where he still paints seven days a week. It’s interesting that I left this film feeling a little short-changed as well, despite the fascinating nature of its subject. It’s definitely one for diehard fans of the artist but doesn’t deliver much for those perhaps less familiar with Hockney and wanting to know more. Indeed Hockney was an important contributor to the pop art movement of the 1960s and is considered by many to be one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, but it’s the scenes depicting his heartbreak after the end of his first “real” relationship and his time discussing the climate when the Aids crisis took hold that I found most compelling as a viewer. I also loved details like the fact that a Clairol ad persuaded him to dye his hair blonde, and his fantasies about the surfers he discovered upon moving to Los Angeles. “He was really like a high-school girl about it,” a friend remarks, and the devil as they say, is always in these delicious details.
Part of the PERSONAL PORTRAITS season on Wednesdays and Thursdays in October at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel