NO STONE UNTURNED (15) 2017 USA/UK 111mins. Directed by investigative documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney.
I suppose for an investigative documentary intended for television (this film has larger ambitions despite some of its funding having television origins) it’s fine to have one act, or perhaps one act and a coda, a short ending that wraps everything up. But one act means one big reveal, one climax, one story arc, to use a technical term. (Sorry, I love this kind of thing.)
But to elevate a documentary to being worthy of the cinema, the big screen, you are going to need three big acts, three big reveals, three climaxes. And those three acts are going to need to take the audience somewhere they really didn’t expect to go, somewhere with real heft, somewhere almost earth shattering, somewhere that really shakes the foundations of our everyday convictions, our easy assumptions.
All good, tick, tick, tick. And the film asks some big questions: were the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary as was, fighting on one side in a civil war, or were they investigating crimes committed in a civil context? And what exactly is the difference? And if this was actually a war, are the rules of engagement clear and defined or are they complex and muddy and is everyone involved hopelessly compromised and thus being drawn ever deeper into a morass of moral viciousness?
And amidst all the earth shattering stuff are some very human moments, people struggling with complex motivations, but trying to do their best in a very difficult situation.
Ok, so far so good. This is an excellent documentary that gets to the truth of some horrific, inhuman events, far beyond what could be called ‘acts of war’. In truth, acts of real cruelty, banal, horrifying, cowardly, stupid, life destroying, as much for those who survived as for those who were killed.
Dramatically, the film works as an investigation of an investigation, two or three layers of investigation in fact: the initial police handling of the murders is subject to two further examinations by the office of the Police Ombudsman. The first investigation is ruled inadequate and the film really focuses on the second investigation, interviewing the main players and, ultimately, filling out many of the details that the official investigation, subject to rules and regulations of the Good Friday peace agreement, have to skirt around.
The film is constructed to move from one particular atrocity, as horrific and senseless as it is, just one atrocity among many during ‘The Troubles’, to drawing ever deeper and broader connections, connections leading to collaborations and collusions at the highest levels of the British Establishment.
At bottom, as one person says in the film, the war in Northern Island was a ‘classic insurgency’, an urban terror campaign, and when it became clear that the British Government was happy to accept a certain level of violence and death within the province and IRA then decided to take the war to England, to the very door of power, decisions were clearly made that the only way to deal with this situation was to engage the enemy at their own game, to fight what amounted to a ‘dirty war’. Put simply, the ends would henceforth justify the means.
The upshot was servants of the State came to have blood on their hands. They were making decisions about who would be killed and who would be protected. Naturally this led very quickly to a situation where these officials, at whatever level, were able to blackmailed. ‘If I go down, you go down, and if you go down who knows who you could take with you?’ Even to the level of Downing Street the film suggests.
It’s the connections, the chain of evidence that leads inexorably to a conclusion, one step at a time, link by link, any metaphor you like. A documentary such as this gets its impact from the truth of its revelations, that this is fact.
It also gets its impact, I would suggest, from the relentless focus on the facts, the progression from one seemingly insignificant detail to the next, until we are brought to the gut-wrenching conclusion that the victims and perpetrators are still living in the same houses, in the same village, cheek by jowl, a revelation that is shocking, not simply to us but to the people involved.
Simply, it is about the connections, links between people, especially those which are being concealed for corrupt of nefarious reasons.
Why can’t drama, ie. that which is made up, achieve the same kind of impact? Why do we have wall to wall super heroes, zombies, murders of young girls, medieval fantasies, political or organised crime dramas that don’t seem in any way to touch on the issues that really matter, that try to explain the deep crisis we find ourselves facing?
Because, I would suggest, the stuff which is made up, in contrast to the stuff which is about real events, focusses to its own detriment on the internal life of its characters. It invariably turns inward. This blunts its message. It makes the genre toothless, entertaining, diverting only, without impart or importance.
I would go further: if there is a way to make sure drama doesn’t matter, doesn’t really confront the real issues, isn’t honest but is fundamentally self-serving, make it all about feelings, about intense emotion, about so-called empathy, about the inner life. Maybe there’s a reason that Hollywood funds the films it does, that the BBC makes so much drama about girls being murdered, police dramas as soap opera: there is an unwritten rule that drama that uncovers the connections between people, about the outer life is simply too dangerous, too close to the bone, to be allowed.
As long as documentary has the monopoly on what’s really important, what really underlies the apparently inexplicable events that are creating upheaval everywhere, as long as art in general and drama in particular insist on turning inward, artistic expression recedes further and further into irrelevance.
Perhaps it’s not an accident that so many artists of all persuasions are enthusiastic patrons of off-shore tax havens. Now there’s a subject for a drama!