Saturday 16 December 2017

TV review: 'The Disappeared' cut through the babble to heart of tragedy

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The Disappeared was a work of art.

To put it simply, it made you feel the way you feel when you're watching a great movie, completely engrossed while it is on, and with a heightened sense of awareness when it's over.

It was a work of art, though it was also a work of journalism – contrary to the prevailing wisdom, you can have the two going on at the same time.

But eventually it doesn't matter what you call it. You just admire the achievement on the part of reporter Darragh McIntyre and director Alison Millar, not least because most viewers would have felt that the stories of the people who were murdered by the IRA and "disappeared" were already well known to us.

I have read many articles about Jean McConville, but then almost everything we know about the North has been delivered through the cynical babble of politics and the hard-boiled narratives of the newsmen.

And eventually in those allied trades, with their shared language, there is a sense of shallowness, of a failure of the imagination. It is only when you see something as brilliant as The Disappeared, that you realise the extent of that failure.

Indeed, it took an act of the imagination on the part of Darragh McIntyre just to think that it might be done in a different way. That you could make a documentary which had the feel of a well-made movie, without the movie-makers' bad habit of just making up stuff that suits them, inventing things that didn't need to be invented.

Essentially McIntyre and Millar told us, not just what happened, but what it felt like. Not only did it show us where the bodies were buried, it gave us some sense of what it might have been like to be taken out in the dark to some bog in Monaghan by members of the IRA, realising that they are going to shoot you.

Some of this was conveyed in the words of relatives of the victims, to whom McIntyre clearly listened with great care and attention, over a long period of time. Some of it was done through visiting these wild places in which the deeds were done, and through the use of lines by Seamus Heaney. Some of it was done through talking to Gerry Adams, face to face in a large room.

It was a room which you could imagine being used as a rehearsal space by a theatre company, which itself was fitting. Because in this work of art, the character of Adams could be seen more clearly than when it is viewed in its usual safe environment of "current affairs".

He was faced now, not with cliches and posturing, but by the real hard stuff. And it made him seem like some strange fictional creation – which of course, to a large extent, is what he is.

Indeed it may be the outstanding achievement of The Disappeared that it was possible to look at Adams in this situation, and to feel pity for him. Surrounded on all sides by people telling the truth, and telling it so eloquently, Adams seemed like a figure removed from the present reality, like an exhibit in some museum of Northern weirdness.

If this had been a play, you'd have a compelling character there, a man who has lived on bullshit all his life, and who may eventually have reached the point where he actually doesn't know that it's bullshit any more – that would be for the audience to ponder.

Except this was not a play, it was just organised in such a way that it had that energy.

Interestingly, Millar also made that magnificent 2008 documentary about Fr Michael Cleary, in which we saw that old footage of him pottering around his home with his "wife" and their son, who were known to the world at the time only as his housekeeper and her son.

What is left of a man who has made bullshit his life's work?

Adams, of course, is still around, still holding an essentially different view of himself to the one that is held by everyone else.

Then again, a steadfast denial of reality is probably the first principle of Irish nationalism.

We are hearing much about Adams becoming an embarrassment to the movement – in truth he is the purest of them all.

Sunday Independent

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