'71: A Sundance Retrospective

Written after the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

by Beau Wammack

My foray into the festival began with ’71, the first directorial feature from Yann Demange.  With lead Jack O’Connell as one of only a few recognizable actors, the film effortlessly immerses its audience in the thick of The Troubles, centering on a single British soldier lost in Belfast.  Of all the movies I saw at Sundance, ’71 was easily the most standard: well-made, robust performances from top to bottom; convincing scenery and dialogue; a somewhat ambivalent message, yet sporting an ending that keeps the audience’s hopes largely intact.  O’Connell’s soldier visits his younger brother before setting off to crowd-control an IRA-held section of the city.  The deployment quickly deteriorates, leaving him stranded and on the run from numerous adversaries in this conflict-laden city.

I enjoyed the film as I would enjoy a typical movie at my local indie-plex, and it so it wasn’t until the film ended that the first idiosyncrasy of Sundance hit; this was the point at which the director came to the front of the room for a Q&A.  Having been no more than a handful of films with a crew Q&A, and none in recent memory, I’d forgotten what an indelible experience it is.  Mr. Demange fielded a few questions, and shared a bit about his use of steadicam, his penchant for long-lens shots, and his dislike of jumbled action sequences.  These were interesting enough, but then Mr. Demange switched gears, from the technical to the philosophical, and I found myself grateful to be in that particular room on that particular evening in that peculiar town.

One conspicuous remark Mr. Demange made was how, in the few instances of death in the film, he had striven to make sure that the persons killed did not go unnoticed, and to make it clear that their deaths were noteworthy.  Think about that for a moment: when was the last time you saw a movie (especially an action movie) where each time someone is killed it affects the surrounding people, and they are as struck by it as they would be if they were actually in the presence of such a thing?  Can you remember a movie that pauses, even if the deceased is a bit role and those affected are equally bit roles?  It’s rare, and it was striking as I watched the movie, and then it was all the more striking when the director confirmed that that was exactly what he was trying to do.  Namely, to make every human life count, regardless of importance or goodness.

Mr. Demange went on to explain that in the making of this film he drew upon, and saw parallels to, numerous current events – he specifically mentioned Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine – where house-to-house fighting occurs continuously and clarity as to who’s on what side, not to mention who’s on the right side, is in short supply.  As someone with heartfelt interest in, and half-cocked understanding of, each of these four situations, I was immediately both drawn and confused.  The current Ukrainian crisis began in February and March of 2014; clearly that began after this movie was made, let alone written.  So my question - and, as this was my first Sundance outing, a question I did not have the wherewithal to ask - would be: did Mr. Demange find these situations informing his understanding of the film, or did he find his film informing his understanding of these situations?  Which was on which end of the lens?  For me, it was undeniably the latter.  Who are the good guys?  What is the proper course of action?  What role do civilians play in a conflict zone, when their actions may protect one person while endangering others?  Where does the combatant/police role end and the commoner/bystander role begin?  And is there any hope to be had both in and for such hopelessly wrecked conflicts?

The film’s noblest character is a child who shepherds O’Connell through the boroughs.  He asks few questions, requires no commitments, bears no duplicitous or deceitful thinking, and benefits in no way from his actions toward the astray soldier.  He simply, merely, and casually helps someone in need, laying himself out to procure safety for an acquaintance.  If there is a heart to this film, perhaps it is this boy and his tragic end.  Perhaps we are being guided toward that ancient notion that at times the giving up of oneself for another actually means giving oneself up, with the requisite thought that such an action could be where hope is found even in the bleakest of circumstances.  Regardless of the truth of that sentiment, I heartily recommend this movie.