THE WORLD OF the Truth Commissioner feels very familiar – it’s a world that’s just slightly different to our own.
This Irish film, set in a post-Troubles Belfast, follows as Henry Stanfeld (played by Roger Allam, of the Thick of It), a British diplomat, takes over the role of the new Truth Commissioner. His commission is supposed to bring about some reconciliation in the north, and help politicians share power in a new, more honest country.
But he soon discovers that there are some truths that very powerful people want covered up, and that the disappearance of a 15-year-old, Connor Roche, goes all the way to the top of the power chain.
The book is an adaptation of the bestselling David Parks book of the same name, and took five years to get to the screen.
Director Declan Recks (who was also director of RTÉ show Pure Mule) and star Barry Ward – who plays Michael Madden, a former young IRA volunteer – called into TheJournal.ie offices to tell us more about the film.
‘You want to be sensitive to people who have lived through the Troubles’
Parks wasn’t precious about his work – he effectively gave the team carte blanche when adapting the book. He didn’t read the script, and only watched the film when it was completed.
“He was quite enthusiastic about this idea but unusually, and generously, he had no interest in getting involved in the adaptation,” says producer Kevin Jackson. “He had done his work and understood that whoever would take it forward would have to recreate it in the form best suited to a feature film.”
What the filmmakers had be cautious about was that, though fiction, it’s clearly rooted in fact. The stories told in the Truth Commissioner – teens going missing, IRA murders, sectarian violence – all touched many people’s lives in today’s North.
“You want to be sensitive to the fact there are people who have lived through the Troubles, who have lost people, or who have people who are still the Disappeared, so you are conscious of that,” acknowledges Recks.
He points out that the book is an examination of the Truth Commission, and what its impact might be in Northern Ireland.
“He was kind of ahead of his time in thinking,” says Recks of Parks. “And a lot of what is in the book, some of it has come to pass.”
Naturally, chunks of the book had to be left out due to lack of space. Scenes featuring Ward’s character Madden – replete with fake tan – in Boston were all cut for the sake of the narrative.
“He has to deal with his demons”
Ward says he was attracted to his character’s chequered past, and how he has to face up to it.
I like the idea of someone carrying that burden and that weight, but to all intents and purposes leading a relatively normal life until boom – suddenly [they're] knocking on his door and it’s all coming back and he has to face up to it.
Madden is called to appear before the commission, and his memories lead to an explosive revelation.
“He has to deal with those demons in a very public manner, which is obviously highly dramatic and good to play, it’s meaty,” says Ward.
Almost all of the characters are “pretty flawed”, says Recks. “The flawed characters are more interesting than perfect straightforward people, particularly in drama.”
“You expect him to be squeaky clean”
The commissioner himself is going through his own truth and reconciliation process – and he’s not portrayed as someone who always does the right thing.
“You expect the truth commissioner, someone who is presiding over that, to be squeaky clean and someone who has his life together, but actually he’s kind of messed up, he’s lonely, he’s isolated, his own daughter doesn’t speak to him, he’s a messed-up individual,” agrees Recks.
He is behind the idea of a truth commissioner. “I think there are definitely going to be negatives, people who are going to use a process like that for their own ends, but then you’ve got people like [character] Maria Roche and those victims’ families who will get something out of it. It’s hard to weigh up but none of these processes are perfect.”
“Yeah, it’s very murky waters, it’s not black and white you know,” adds Ward. “Some people will benefit and some people will wish they’d never gone there.”
Asked if the film is telling people they have to forgive, Allam has said:
I don’t think it comes down either way – It says this might be necessary for some people, but it’s difficult it’s complex and painful.
Recks has spent a good bit of time in Belfast over the last few years. “It’s a city that is very progressive now, people there are looking forward, not back,” he says.
“But you do feel like there is that underlying current of unresolved issues and unless you have something that draws a line in the sand they are always going to be there, and that’s the purpose it would serve, because how else would you solve these things.”
In particular, Recks was taken by the character Francis Gilroy, a senior Sinn Féin politician, and how he evolved.
He is an interesting politician as someone who has left the paramilitary behind and very much decided ‘I’m going down this democratic route’. I think he is quite a positive character.
“I think what the movie demonstrates is that truth is a political tool, it’s not some ideal, it’s not something that exists quite simply,” said Ward.
The screenplay was written by Eoin O’Callaghan, who was born and reared in Belfast. He was their “sounding board” on set, said Recks, along with with their other producer, Belfast-based Kevin Jackson.
In addition, they also had BBC Northern Ireland, the Irish Film Board, the BAI and Northern Ireland Screen on hand. “They made sure we kept grounded and I don’t think they would have let us go too far off the path,” says Recks.
What lies ahead
Recks’ next project is called The Flag, written by Eugene O’Brien, who wrote Pure Mule. It will star Moe Dunford and Pat Shortt.
Ward is working on another Northern Irish project called The Maze. “It’s about the prison breakout in 1983 – it’s a terrific script,” he said. “It’s a fresh take on a prison breakout movie, it’s more of a character study.”
With the Oscars on this weekend, all eyes will be on Irish cinema. Is it a good time to be a film maker?
“Every success definitely helps in perception,” says Recks. “Particularly when you’re making the movie it opens doors a bit. Ireland is definitely on the map again as a kind of a centre of excellence for film.”
The Truth Commissioner is in cinemas now