By Claudia Savage, Pennsylvania
After documenting the war in Iraq, an award-winning filmmaker has created a new series that features previously untold stories about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland is a new five-part documentary about the Troubles that combines personal narratives with archival footage to tell the stories of people and communities who face violence and conflict on a daily basis.
The episodes run chronologically from the start of The Troubles in the late 1960s to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Series director James Blumel said his experience directing the Bafta and Emmy Award-winning Once Upon a Time in Iraq inspired him to take on the task of telling the story of a conflict closer to home.
The English director said he found similarities between the divided societies of Iraq and Northern Ireland.
“It wasn’t part of the fabric of my reality, and I think that’s probably quite true for a lot of people in England, that there’s a kind of willful apathy about this subject, which is a shame given the British government’s role in the Troubles,” he said.
“And when I was creating Iraq and dealing with the Iraqi Civil War, which was a really terrible time in Iraq, I was struck between the language that people were speaking and the language that I kind of grew up hearing about what was going on in Northern Ireland, and I realized , that I never really struggled with what was happening in any particular way.
“I kind of had a vague idea that I knew roughly what it was about, but I realized that here I was in the Middle East, really researching a civil war that happened in Iraq, and on my own doorstep, I felt like it had been completely ignored, by one way that is, how did it feel to experience it.
The documentary features contributions from people across the political spectrum, from the son whose mother was kidnapped by the IRA, to a man from a loyalist estate whose family secret challenges some of his beliefs, and a woman who decided to plant firebombs.
Blumel said many of the interviews in the series had moments that surprised even the interviewees.
“Sometimes it’s surprising what memories can be kind of released, or discovered, kind of released. And they can be the most emotional in a sense because they are surprising to the interviewee as well,” he said.
“They’re not necessarily the stories that they’ve told many, many times, and when you see that processing happening in front of you, when you can see someone going, ‘Okay, I really hadn’t thought about this in a long time, and not in this way. ‘ and you can see it going through all of them and happening right up front. It’s incredibly powerful.”
One of the participants in the series, named James, is a former member of a loyalist paramilitary group.
Blumel said getting participants like James to open takes time and commitment from the team.
He added: “So the first interview we did with him, we interviewed James a number of times, we spent a long time building that trust. And he invested quite a bit in what this series was trying to do. And he saw value in that and wanted to be a part of that and wanted to add value to that.
“And part of adding value for him was being able to tell the truth, and what James found difficult at first was just saying the words.
“But once we started this journey with him, he really took off. And it’s not easy for him, that struggle that you see him go through in the chair is a very real struggle and I thought it was important to show that it’s not easy.
“It was important to include those moments where you can see him really struggle with the person he was.”
Blumel said he hopes the series will encourage empathy as the contributors tell their stories from a new perspective.
“That’s the thing, you want as wide an audience as possible to be able to relate and empathize with the person on screen, not push them into categories that maybe you could approach a subject like Northern Ireland with a lot of personal baggage. no matter where you are from,” he said.
“What I hope is that when you watch the documentary and see people present and talk about their lives in this way, you can be absorbed in that story.” Feel what they feel, sympathize, see things from their point of view, maybe you feel sympathy for people you never thought you could sympathize with.
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland will be broadcast on BBC Two, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC iPlayer on 22 May.