Troubles Brewing: Yann Demange and Gregory Burke on thriller ’71

’71 is a heart-stopping tale of a greenhorn soldier (Jack O'Connell) who gets separated from his unit in 1971 Belfast. Director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke explain why this muscular thriller is much more than a history lesson

Feature by Sam Lewis | 02 Oct 2014
  • ’71

Yann Demange looks ever so slightly jet-lagged. He’s just got back from the Toronto Film Festival, where his directorial debut, ’71, was screened to rapturous praise. It's a blisteringly powerful portrayal of a young British squaddie’s attempt to make it back to his Belfast barracks after being stranded behind enemy lines at the height of the Troubles. “Some directors go in and out of a festival,” says the 37-year-old director. “I’m like, ‘Forget that! I might never make another film that goes to a festival!’ So I’m there for the duration, I watch films, I go to the parties, I try to help promote the film. This is my first experience of this.”

Demange speaks, in turn, with studied eloquence about the weight of history that lies behind ’71 – both politically and cinematically – and with boyishly infectious enthusiasm about the reception it has received. Demange was born in Paris to an Algerian father and a French mother, but moved to London when he was two or three (“depending who you ask”). “I was obsessive about films,” he says. “We used to bunk off school and go to the cinema. I’ve never confessed to that!” Graduating through the world of music videos and TV (he helmed the acclaimed series Top Boy), Demange had been looking for a project for a first feature. He never expected it to be about the Troubles.

“I had no burning desire to make a film about Northern Ireland,” he confesses. “But, as soon as I read it I thought it could transcend the specificity of the Troubles – and have a universality. It reminded me of The Battle of Algiers; it reminded me of Iraq, Afghanistan. What’s sad to say is that I read it and thought, ‘this is so pertinent.’ Yes it’s in the context of the Troubles, and you have to be truthful and honest about that, but I don’t want to give a history lesson. It could be about humanity, and the shades of grey.”

’71 is also the first foray into cinema for screenwriter Gregory Burke, best known for the searing, acclaimed play Black Watch (similarly about young soldiers stranded in Afghanistan). Like Demange, he believes the success of ’71 lies in the way it resonates with contemporary events. “People are saying, ‘this is exactly like in our country.’ Young guys want adventure and to make a living, and the next thing you know, you’re in a situation where all bets are off. Everybody’s pursuing their own agenda. I think that’s why the film’s hit a nerve – these situations are relevant. Although we just set out to make an action movie – an art-house action movie!”

Indeed, it’s ’71’s blending of politics and aesthetics that allows it to rise above the level of ‘mere’ historical drama. Demange and Burke both quote John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Walter Hill’s The Warriors as reference points – decidedly apolitical, straight-up action movies with a focus firmly on a hero’s journey to get out alive, rather than on the nuances of geopolitics. That emphasis on one man’s struggle to survive the night was partially inspired, Burke says, by Mel Gibson, of all people. “I had just seen Apocalypto at the time, and I said ‘We could do something like that, where a guy has to get back.’ So the idea was Apocalypto set in Belfast.”

At the centre of ’71 is Jack O’Connell’s (SkinsStarred Up) soldier, stumbling bewildered from horror to horror, with no idea where to go or whom to trust. The film pulls no punches in depicting the British military’s collusion with paramilitary forces, playing one side off the other. For Burke, this was about pulling genre strings as much as depicting hard truths: “It was about jeopardy – you need a reason he can’t just flag down a jeep that’s driving past, or see a guy who he thinks is a soldier and just go up to him... The tactics were quite crude in those days – the MRF [Military Reaction Force – a covert British intelligence unit] were almost operating as another gang. But some of that is a device. It’s about finding a way to make everybody potentially hostile to him. He’s on his own.” For Demange, the film had to rise above the war movie genre: “It couldn’t just be a genre movie for the sake of it, it had to have a reason to exist, and something to say. And to have a soulfulness, a lyricism to it.”

“Why are our kids joining the army? For what? As a filmmaker, that’s what made me passionate about it” – Yann Demange

Both Demange and Burke are effusive about O’Connell’s central performance, at once brusquely masculine and visibly fragile. In an ambiguous, amoral world it becomes harder to do the right thing, especially for a character like O’Connell’s Gary Hook, a young man from Derbyshire in the early 1970s, left with little choice other than to join the army. “This film is about a boy trying to define what sort of man he’ll be,” Demange explains. “What sort of choices he’s going to make. Belonging against being your own man.” ’71 depicts a generation of young men cut adrift from society, young British soldiers hung out to dry by their superiors, as well as Irish boys – like Barry Keoghan’s reluctant gunman Sean, caught up in the emergent Provisional IRA – having to make desperate decisions about what side to take in a society on the verge of collapse (1972 would go on to be the bloodiest year of the Troubles). “Gary and Sean,” Burke explains, “are just two young boys that have been drawn into different gangs.”

Demange says that his status as an outsider allowed him a unique perspective on the conflict. “When we moved to London, the Troubles were going on; it was like the white noise in the background,” he explains. “No one in my household could understand what was going on – we spoke French at home! It’s not until I decided to take this film on that I got to grips with the sectarian divide. I’ve always had that outsider’s gaze.”

Burke was keen to ensure that sense of feeling alien in a familiar environment carried over into O’Connell’s portrayal of Hook. “What struck me about Belfast was how physically it resembles a northern English mill town. A young soldier from the north of England would think it was very familiar. We didn’t want to make it about a Scottish soldier because Scottish people have more of a grasp of sectarianism. We wanted it to be a guy who didn’t know one side from the other; he didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. The 70s in Belfast were chaotic enough for something like that to have happened. We were told a true story about two young soldiers who got caught in a riot and shot by the IRA. We just made it that one of them gets shot, and one of them runs.”

’71 depicts the Belfast of the time as a gateway to hell, full of shadowy figures murkily lit by Molotov cocktails and burning cars. Demange talks about the influence of Sam Peckinpah’s dark body of work, and some of that ferocity certainly carries over into ’71, full of twisted morality and visceral violence. “It was messy,” says Demange. “There’s a cynicism that kicks in. Those Peckinpah films caught that vibe, the vibe that’s in the air now – that the game is rigged. Why are our kids joining the army? For what? As a filmmaker, that’s what made me passionate about it. Because it’s worth telling. And it makes you angry.”

’71 screens at London Film Festival on 7 Oct and 8 Oct, and is released across the UK 10 Oct by StudioCanal