Brendan J. Byrne’s 66 Days is a well presented look at the ten IRA prisoners who went on hunger strike in 1981. The main focus of Byrne’s documentary is Bobby Sands, the enigmatic leader of the prisoners who died after 66 Days of starvation in their protest to regain their status as political prisoners.
Tackling the war in the north of Ireland during this period isn’t easy. You walk a fine line between trying to tell a fully rounded story whilst attempting to take in both sides of the argument. 66 Days does manage to discuss both sides of the story, though obviously there is a certain bias as Bobby Sands is the film’s focal point. We see the hunger strike through his eyes, hearing powerful extracts from his diaries (narrated by actor Martin McCann) and learning about his life in and out of prison.
That’s not to say that Byrne’s film doesn’t highlight and criticise many of the tactics on the republican side of the argument. On the surface it may seem that this would cover much of the same ground as Steve Mc Queen’s Michael Fassbender-starring drama Hunger, but 66 Days places the hunger strikes in not only the context of Irish history, but it also shows where they fit within global events. It’s interesting to learn how the now iconic images of Sands which adorn a multitude of Irish murals were created from a dearth of photographs. Furthermore it’s fascinating to see how he was elected into a parliamentary seat in the House of Commons whilst still in prison.
66 Days has a powerful narrative, but it’s also a strong visual documentary that uses the obligatory talking head interviews along with archive material and some very impressive animation. It’s hard to imagine this type of thing happening today, but it has only been 35 years since Sands and his fellow prisoners tackled Margaret Thatcher’s government from behind the walls of Long Kesh. The battle of wills was a face-saving exercise for Thatcher, who wasn’t willing to meet the demands of prisoners, but it’s clear that Sands and his comrades ultimately achieved their aim in the long run.
Brendan J. Byrne has created an important historical document that manages to condense a complex period into a moving two hour running time. 66 Days is a captivating starting point for those who want to learn more about this time frame in Irish history, but also an important reminder for those who want to review a much darker political time.