Belfast Telegraph

How great art sprang from the wreckage of war

Oscar-winning writer-director Terry George's best work is forged in the flames of the Troubles - without ever seeking to glorify them, says Malachi O'Doherty

People are afraid that, if former paramilitaries will write from their experience and insider knowledge of the Troubles, they will produce not just propaganda but clever propaganda. This isn't how it has worked out.

The films of Terry George, for example, the writer-director of the Oscar-winning short film The Shore, have been replete with the kinds of insight that could only have been enriched by life as a hard man republican Leftie, but the fruits of that in the work are insightful and valuable.

The Shore itself has no political content, though George said after the award that the film was about reconciliation.

It is far from being his best work, for all that it got an Oscar. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry, but the storyline is shambolically stitched together.

There is no strong suggestion that the two men (played by Ciaran Hinds and Conleth Hill) are estranged by anything but happenstance and procrastination.

One might guess that, in an earlier draft, Joe was a Protestant and Paddy a Catholic. If so, the traces of the Troubles have been almost totally excised.

Perhaps there is a hint in the film that reconciliations are never perfect: one man seeks the forgiveness of the other, but, in doing so, provides the other with an excuse not to disclose his own responsibility for the division between them.

A metaphor for a stitched-together peace process? That's probably reading too much into it, but it was Terry George himself who suggested that, at a deeper level, the play is about conflict and peacemaking with echoes of the Troubles.

Belfast-born George handled the past much more directly in some of his earlier films. In The Name of the Father was based on the trial of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven and the work of lawyer Gareth Pierce in getting them freed.

History was distorted for the sake of the story - most notably when the Four met the Seven. A crucial part of the defence of the Maguires was that Paul Hill and Gerry Conlon, who were fitted up with the bombings, had never actually been in their home, yet the film, for the sake of plot, put them there.

And there were similar, if less disturbing, contortions of history. The depiction of riots and a kneecapping at the start of the film hammed up the whole awfulness to entertain the audience.

A young man about to be shot in the leg is ordered to take his jeans off so that the damaged fabric won't contaminate the wound. All very considerate and an excuse for a camera to get a lewd shot for the ladies.

Terry George was most venomously accused of propaganda in the film Some Mother's Son, which starred Helen Mirren as the mother of a young IRA prisoner who joins the 1981 hunger strike.

This betrays rash judgment of a wonderful film. On the one hand, yes, it suggests that ordinary people with no sympathy for the IRA might be drawn into supporting the protest out of compassion for the men.

But there is much more to this story than a demonstration of how the IRA's campaigns could implicate ordinary Catholics who instinctively opposed them.

The film explores also the political machinations within Sinn Fein and depicts the Sinn Fein leader as dogged and insensitive. It also has an insight into the prison culture that George had himself been immersed in.

In Hotel Rwanda, Terry George explores sectarian violence in a context outside Northern Ireland, but with his vision intelligently informed by his experiences here.

A dedicated hotel manager tries to use his workplace as a refuge for people who will be slaughtered on the streets if given nowhere to shelter.

We see depicted in the film the gradations of malice, from the nakedly vicious to the self-protective, to even the well-intentioned UN workers who pull out and let the killers get on with it.

It is inconceivable that a Northern Irish film maker working on such a film wasn't drawn to reflect on what violence here has shown of how ordinary domestic concerns can interact with savagery.

The difference between the Hutus and Tutsis was shown to be no more substantial than that between Protestants and Catholics and Terry George, the child who, as a Catholic living in a Protestant area, had seen division erupt in the streets he had played in, had insights to bring to Hotel Rwanda that are not acquired from books.

He was interned as a teenager and affiliated himself with the Official IRA while inside, then joined the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) - the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) - after a split in the Officials.

He was arrested in a car in which a pistol was found. The INLA killer Gerard Steenson, known as 'Doctor Death' was in the car, too.

Sentenced to six years in jail (of which he served three), George studied and secured himself a place at Queen's University. A smarter move still was getting out and away.

As an illegal immigrant in the US, he found work with director Jim Sheridan and honed his own skills close to him.

Which is surely the best possible result for a young man who was swept up in the Troubles, who might alternatively have been killed in one of those INLA feuds, or imprisoned for decades, or found himself miserable, broke and unemployable, like so many others.

But the real credit to Terry George is that his work shows the evidence of a life that has come through violence, but does not glorify or make excuses for it.

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