The Patriot Game
Truth and distortion

by Angela Martin

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 32-33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

What follows are some thoughts provoked by our response in England to the situation in Northern Ireland, by THE PATRIOT GAME, and by various discussions with its director, Arthur MacCaig. A film like this — indeed any film on Northern Ireland — raises a number of important questions which cannot, for various reasons, be covered in an interview. It's not my intention here to "have the last word." I simply wish to suggest some questions which one shouldn't necessarily expect a film's director to answer but questions which require further work and which might also provide some useful starting points in discussion of this film.


One area of consideration is the economics of film production and distribution within the left. An extract from the interview appeared in a British left paper, Socialist Challenge (21 June 1979), to coincide with the London opening. Knowing the enormous cost of making the film and also the knock-on costs to the distributor of a film like this and thence to the renter, it seemed important to signal that situation in the left press. The proceeds from the screening — organized jointly by The Other Cinema and the United Troops Out Movement, both distributing copies of the film — were to go toward the production costs.

So, alongside the interview with Arthur MacCaig, there was to have been an interview with The Other Cinema about the cost of making prints, running a London opening, publicity, etc. But this second interview was cut and replaced by a very large still from the film. Once again the economics of left film production were to be ignored.

There has been an increasing number of feature-length documentary/agit films (HARLAN COUNTY, ON COMPANY BUSINESS, THE WAR AT HOME, DIRT CHEAP — the Australian film about uranium mining on Aborigine land). Any left group wanting to show them is almost forced to think in terms of a film-show with tickets, rather than simply inserting a film into a meeting as an element in the discussion. This is not only in relation to the cost of a film and hence by implication to the limited financial basis of much political work but also in relation to length. Many of these films last longer than a meeting reasonably should. A number of points should be made here: actually there is nothing wrong with a film-show in this context, and I would argue that pleasure, entertainment, and humor in political work is an excellent thing. However, for many groups, films are an extra expense, which may not succeed in getting people to march and lick envelopes or ensure that important issues are discussed at union meetings after a long day. It is certainly very difficult to persuade trade union headquarters or pressure groups that a film costing anything between $10,000 and $100,000 is something they should be financing. On the other hand, of course, film workers are concerned that film — indeed, all cultural production — should be considered to have importance for the left and to be seen as a crucial element of struggle.


Discussion of content apart, a film like THE PATRIOT GAME raises questions of truth, distortion, the redress of balance, propaganda, etc., and is similar to the frequent discussion — though in reverse — around the news media representation of Northern Ireland. Two pamphlets [1] had recently been published, both crucially discussing the incidence and the nature of misrepresentation and censorship in the media. The IRA is not recognized in the arena of political discussion on television:

"Over the years, the BBC has evolved what might be called a 'public order' broadcasting policy on Northern Ireland. This consists of [the following] important elements. First, there is general support for the British Army and the RUC and their role in law-enforcement in the Province. Second, there is a negative evaluation of extremism and terrorism, and of the IRA in particular, which is presented as the principal enemy…"[2]

Within this context, one also has to consider the professional practice of media (particularly news) workers:

"Dominant notions of the 'newsworthy' define certain occurrences — violent events, for example — as worthy of notice and others — political debate — as deserving less attention. Thus much news reporting on Ireland consists solely of the recounting of shootings, bombings, arson, weapons searches and the like … Patterns of repetition set up their own conclusion; by the simple accumulation of journalistic example. Irish politics becomes implicitly identified with meaningless violence."[3]

MacCaig is very clear that he wanted THE PATRIOT GAME to show historically the mass struggle of the people of Northern Ireland through the Republican movement. In a way, his film's point of view on the question of truth is settled at the beginning of the film, when the camera pulls back from a TV screen in a Republican club, out through the door and into the street. But the battle around truth is very complex.


Now, there is no dispute — or ought not to be any — that the media support (British) state interests in their approach to Northern Ireland. The established media's denial of their being a conventional war situation and of the Republican Army as a legitimate enemy in that context forces the Republican movement to find an outlet for its voice elsewhere. The question then arises: to whom should this oppositional voice be addressed and, therefore, how?

There are several reasons for posing this question: the left has a very negative record on Ireland's liberation — both in the North and the South — and there has been almost no general left support for the Republican movement. The two major demands around which sections of the left in England have organized are for the withdrawal of the troops and for free speech on the situation. But while the first is possibly the only gathering point of a relatively broad left grouping, the second represents — as much, if not actually more — the concerns of media workers in England, rather than the people's case in Northern Ireland.

And the implications would seem to be that, from the English point of view, either there is no mass voice in the North that is being denied a hearing or that there are several conflicting voices which are so contradictory as to make the wholehearted support of any one impossible.

The British state has set the public terms of the struggle as those of civil disorder by terrorists from a religious minority, squabbling with the loyalist Protestant majority. But none of the various interest groups is actually employing the same terms — or, rather, is but paints them in a different color so that there appears to be no solution. The British government talks of civil disorder, British authority and responsibility, decent law-abiding citizens. The Republicans talk in terms of a united Ireland (since nationalism is historically the only framework of opposition). The loyalists talk in terms of being British, which assures their continuing dominance. The British media talk in the reductionist terms of balance and numbers — like scorekeepers of a game (similar to the one played around race and immigration). And the left in England talks about class disunity, half-heartedly supports the idea of self-determination but is prone to the bloodbath theory (i.e., that if the troops were pulled out civil war would ensue), is cautious about nationalism, and above all — albeit correctly — demands freer access to information.

Consequently many people on the left in England feel that THE PATRIOT GAME does not touch these issues and contradictions. It is, of course, unreasonable to ask of one film that it take every aspect of a situation on board, and certainly any inadequacy in the film must be seen in terms of the chaos of the information game in which it is just one of the players. But it also has to be said that unless contradictions are taken account of by a film they will continue to question the position that film supports, even after it has been screened.

This is not the first film on Northern Ireland from the left. Cinema Action made PEOPLE OF IRELAND under extremely prohibitive conditions and at a time when, one of the group has pointed out, the left in England simply would not have believed that the right to film anywhere in Britain would be denied. The Cinema Action member went on to say that when it was finished, the intellectual left in England was unable to understand what was happening in the film whereas most of the workers who saw it understood immediately that the situation was indeed one of class struggle.

It is certainly important to ask why there appears to be no widespread middle-class liberal and intellectual support in England for the Republican movement as there has been for other liberation struggles. Who and where are the intellectual left's heroes in this movement? It isn't just that the era of heroes has passed: there haven't been any in the Irish situation since James Connolly. The Irish people certainly have their heroes — and heroines — but there is very little writing for the intellectual left to get its teeth into. At the same time we don't actively search out the music — the main cultural expression of the people — and we don't subscribe en masse to Republican News. We too accept — or fall into — the terms set by the British government and the(ir) media.

Somehow, it seems, being either romantically or theoretically involved in the situation is not possible for the English left as it was, perhaps, in relation to Vietnam. At the same time, the close-to-home aspect that that war took on for middle-class American families, which enhanced and enlarged the antiwar movement, does not exist here. The British Army does not conscript from across the board but recruits from amongst young, bored, and unemployed working-class men. Hence the visible expression of the soldiers' disenchantment has been small: UTOM prints testimonies in its paper and there is just one film about ex-soldiers — HOME SOLDIER HOME. In addition, the extremely important and active campaigning of people like Pat Arrowsmith in England is met with consistent and often violent harassment by the state and disinterest from the left.


In April 1980, the National Film Theatre in London screened a very successful retrospective of films by Santiago Alvarez. In this program there was a number of films about Vietnam, showing the mass struggle of the people in the North, their determination to win and the beginning of socialist unity. Almost immediately after the event there happened to be a TV program about the "boat people" and their new life in Britain. The program began with footage of South Vietnam right after the war had ended. The images chosen were alienating and the impeccable and authoritative English voice talked about the terror of people faced with "these communist tanks coming towards them down the road" so that they had no choice but to flee.

In other words, for this film, there was certainly no item on the agenda about building a united country. And because this was so different from what we'd been watching at the NFT, the shock of the difference and the realization of those "patterns of repetition" and "simple accumulation" mentioned earlier was enormous. Our general viewing situation vis-à-vis Northern Ireland is just such an accumulation of negative images with very little radical break like the totally unintended juxtaposition I've described here of material on Vietnam.

There are two major problems about Northern Ireland then for left cultural workers. (It is not just a question of there being lies and deliberately constructed absences to be corrected, both of which THE PATRIOT GAME makes a crucial contribution towards rectifying.)

One major problem is the terms in which we understand the situation, particularly in England and on the Left, so that the voice of the people of Northern Ireland does not continue to fall on deaf ears. For example, we need to understand why the troops are still there. We need to understand precisely the structure of neocolonialism affecting Eire and its relationship with the North — and the shifts in that structure. We need to understand the importance of religion in practice. We need to sort out the question of class/ nationalism in relation to this specific situation. We need to interrogate the cultural myths and stereotypes operating amongst Catholics and Protestants about each other and amongst us in England about them both. We need to understand much more coherently the ideological workings of the bloodbath theory. We need to deconstruct these myths and stereotypes visually and visually construct alternatives.

Alongside this is the other major problem of the accumulation in the media of visual representations, the images which stand for that dominant view of the situation: for example, soldiers working under difficult conditions; before and after bombings; politicians and army personnel talking in tones of "reason" about violent minorities and decent citizens.

Therefore, we need to interrogate the media's own terms of reference so that their point of view is called into question each time it is presented to us as it is by those people directly involved in the struggle. For example, on very few occasions when we have seen a bomb go off on the news, is it made clear that we can only see it because sufficient warning had been given for a camera crew to reach the scene and, of course, for casualties to be prevented. But because the news is expected to be immediate, it is easy to think camera crews appear almost by magic. Such factors have important implications, I think, for the kind of filmmaking THE PATRIOT GAME belongs to, not just in terms of the presentation of the media's images, but also in terms of the film's own meaning construction. Perhaps this can be made clearer by looking at some concrete examples from other films.

The very impressive French Canadian film, LA DANSE AVEC L'AVEUGLE, which lasts seventy-five minutes, is about the situation in Guinee under Sekou-Toure, whom the film implicates unquestionably in an indictment of state repression and violence against the people. But the film uses footage of the president shot at close quarters and with apparent free access, which could not possibly have been the case if the filmmakers had indicated the intention of their film or shot the material themselves. However, the source of these images is not indicated and the viewer is left wondering why Sekou-Toure allowed himself to be filmed or who these filmmakers are, or just confused.

LAST GRAVE IN DIMBAZA was uncredited for several years because it had been shot clandestinely. Yet several more recent films about South Africa talk about extreme repression and censorship and yet do not seem to have been subject to this themselves. In this respect some of them — like one of the least useful politically, THE DISPOSSESSED — virtually support (despite what they're about) the South African government's claims that greater freedom exists.

An excellent new U.S. film, THE WAR AT HOME, leaves the viewer unclear about Karl Armstrong (in many ways the most important person in the film) because the interview with him is shot like all the others and looks as if it was perhaps conducted in the same house his father is speaking in. It is clear — from their very careful editing — that they wanted to build up to his sentence for the bombing, but when we do find that out, they could have made Armstrong's situation easier to read without jeopardizing him or themselves.

THE PATRIOT GAME uses footage which MacCaig bought from TV stations and which he would not have been able to shoot himself even if he'd been there at the tine because the Brits get very jumpy around cameras, and even an 8mm one is likely to bring half a dozen soldiers brandishing rifles. Yet the film does not make clear the different statuses of the images.

In other words, we don't seem to take into account the importance of the material conditions of specific footage to the overall image a film wants to create nor, indeed, the ability of the state to recuperate even its own images and its own mistakes. Last year's broadcast in the TV Current affairs series WORLD IN ACTION looked at the background of the Maze prisoners' hunger strike. Not only was Bloody Sunday there and apparently admitted to be an error on the army's part, but the director had also secured an interview with one of the hunger strikers, Raymond McCartney, for one question and a rather lengthy reply. Loyalist MP James Molyneux took the matter up with Margaret Thatcher, who replied in the House of Commons two days later: "It was thought that the government has absolutely nothing to hide about the Maze Prison or about its hunger strike. There can be no such thing as a political prisoner. It was thought this was one possible way of counteracting the IRA propaganda." Now both the BBC and the ITV have made serialized histories of "The Troubles" which are very likely to make understanding the situation more rather than less difficult.

Filling in the gaps and correcting the lies is important, but we — and especially the misinformed English in this respect — cannot keep up, unless we are very conscious, with the continuous outpourings: the repetition, accumulation, and reformulations of the same basic lies. We can only really counteract them when we understand not only the basic lies but also the specific nature of their constant reformulations.


Since Art and I agreed on the final version of this material for JUMP CUT, the situation in Northern Ireland has changed considerably and so have attitudes. The British Government went back on its word at Christmas 1980 about prisoners' demands,and Bobby Sands began his hunger strike. During its course, 30,000 people who could not be so easily dismissed as a violent minority elected him to the British Parliament. Some 150,000 people attended his funeral.

The British media was, it would seen, completely surprised. Too important an event to ignore and impossible to be reductive about, considerable space was given to its representation by the news services of other countries (including the USA). The difference in approach was extraordinary and could not fail to impress the reader or viewer. It was at that point particularly clear that the rest of the world saw the situation from a completely different point of view.

Other IRA prisoners have followed Sands' hunger strike and had huge success in the Eirean elections. Thatcher began to make public her discussions with the Eire government (first Haughey, now Fitzgerald) about the possibility of dual responsibility for the North. But still playing for time with the hunger strikers, she has sent in an Irish Commission for Justice and Peace — and more recently the Red Cross — to negotiate terms with then. However, she can no longer con everyone into believing that she means well. She has begun to lose the media battle she thought she would so easily win.

A further miscalculation on the part of the British was the unbelievably stupid attempt to snatch IRA men with guns in the middle of Joe McDonnel's funeral as they followed the hitherto unimpeded ceremony of firing over his coffin, presumably intended to be an Iranian Embassy siege-style media coup.

In addition, we have begun to see in England, as MacCaig and others have predicted, the use of tactics against rioters that have been developed in Northern Ireland. Recently the police used CS gas (first used in Ulster in 1965) in the street fighting with the working class kids in England's own ghettos, the English police have also been equipped with "plastic bullets" (an extremely hard projectile/club, five inches long and two inches around, fired at very high velocity). But so far they haven't been authorized to use them.

Finally, I recently attended a screening in Paris of THE PATRIOT GAME (which still impresses me). Afterwards the very first question was: why is support for the IRA In England so weak? But I don't think this means that the problems I've been discussing only arise in terms of an English audience and are not, therefore, relevant to the film in a more general viewing context. They do exist in a specific way around THE PATRIOT GAME in England, but are, as I hope I have argued, important for any documentary-based film work aimed at political change.


1. The British Media and Ireland, Campaign for Free Speech in Ireland. May 1979, available from Information on Ireland, 1 North End Road, London W 14; Media Misreport Northern Ireland, Belfast Workers Research Unit Bulletin, No. 6, April 1979, available from 52 Broadway, Belfast.

2. Phllip Schlesinger, Putting Reality Together, Constable, London, 1978.

#3 Jim Grealy, "The Media's War in Ireland," Screen Education, No. 31 (Summer 1979).

(Go to Angela Martin's interview with
The Patriot Game's director, Arthur MacCaig