Malachi O’Doherty – The Belfast Telegraph
25th February 2016
As BBC NI screens the film version of David Park’s novel The Truth Commissioner, Malachi O’Doherty meets stars Roger Allam and Conleth Hill and screenwriter Eoin O’Callaghan to try to separate fact from fiction.
What is truth? asked Pilate, in circumstances in which the answer seemed fairly clear. And, rather than try to unpack the details of the story presented to him, he resorted to a semblance of democracy, a popular vote on who should go free and who should die.
In Northern Ireland, truth is more complicated, but the same problem that faced Pilate faces us; are you better off knowing the truth – should that even be possible – or are you better just placating as many people as you can and letting the rest hang?
This is the central question in the film The Truth Commissioner, made from Eoin O’Callaghan’s screenplay and based on the novel of David Park.
We know the circumstances at the start of the film. A peace deal has been made in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein is in the power-sharing Executive. It is all working reasonably well. Of course, it is fiction. And the next step in building the peace is to try to reconcile victims to the past.
Thousands of people have been killed and, as we know, questions still bother their families. So, a future prime minister, a woman, stands on the steps of Stormont and announces the appointment of a Truth Commissioner.
The question hanging in the air is whether he will be allowed to get at the truth, or will he be nobbled?
The commissioner, played by Roger Allam, has, naturally, a few difficulties with the truth himself.
This is the genius of Park’s book, carried into the film with some nuanced differences, that the commissioner’s own past is understood in different ways by himself and his daughter, aggrieved at the break-up of his marriage.
And the challenge he faces in real life is exactly the same as the one he faces when he sits in the hearings of the commission; to try to assuage people with truth when there might, in fact, be shortcuts that would suit everybody better.
Without wanting to give anything away, the parallel is maintained to the end and the daughter, reconciled to her father by his courage and commitment to truth, may not have grasped how brave, or otherwise, he actually was.
This is Eoin O’Callaghan’s first “made” screenplay, but he developed his skills in radio and production, so there is no trace of amateurishness about it. But it is different from the book.
The book, like others of Park’s, combined the separate stories of key characters evolving apart from each other. It is a psychological study, whereas the film is a thriller.
O’Callaghan says: “We needed the machinery of a thriller to move it forward. I found the book very symphonic. David gave us licence to do what we needed to do. He didn’t want to read the screenplay before production.”
He says a film of the actual book would have been three hours long.
It was finished a year ago, before the Fresh Start talks and started around the time that Gerry Adams was arrested, so there was much in the air at the time to make the management of the past topical.
There was also, surely, some risk that events might have overtaken the plot, say if a Truth Commissioner had either been appointed before completion, or a clear statement had been made that one never would be.
O’Callaghan is keen to emphasise that the film was researched and grounded in the real concerns of the time.
“It is our story and we wanted to tell it. It is an important story for this country and, when you get an idea like David’s, a good thriller and a good human story, to address the larger questions, you press for it to be made,” he says.
This despite the fact that he has often heard broadcasters “groan” at proposals to make films about Northern Ireland and the Troubles.
But to what extent does he buy into the idea in the film that sinister machinations by the security services, or Machiavellian Provos, have their own agendas, neither of which is to expose the truth?
“Not entirely,” he says. “It’s a slightly operatic version. But the allusions are there and the assertions are there that forces of reaction would retard the natural progression of things and that there are people who don’t want the stone lifted from their heads.”
He’s talking about the real world as much as about the fiction of the film.
“It seems to me very strange that people can move from the violence of the past to assuming power without ever acknowledging their past. It doesn’t mean that they have to wear sackcloth and ashes, just that this was not great, a lot of hurt was done. But not even an apology? That’s my opinion and it is implicit in the film.”
It is also implicit that MI5 would seek to protect Sinn Fein ministers. If evidence was about to come out that a lynchpin minister had murdered someone, then the intelligence services would move fast to prevent that.
Eoin says: “Does it come across to you that MI5, having put so much energy into putting an agreement together, don’t want to see it all dismantled? I hope we made the argument that they had a case.”
For Conleth Hill, who plays the part of the Sinn Fein Press officer close to the party leader – who also in the film (though not in real life) is a minister – it is important to emphasise that this is all fiction.
The coincidence of him actually looking in the film rather like the real Sinn Fein Press officer, the portly and grey-haired Richard McAuley, is unintended, he says. In fact, he seems miffed at the suggestion.
O’Callaghan and the production team say they didn’t know that the minister’s home in the film, located in Norfolk Drive, was close to the actual Belfast home of Gerry Adams.
Maybe it was pure fluke that such coincidences occurred in the production.
O’Callaghan says: “We did find out when we moved in there. Someone said, ‘Do you know Gerry Adams lives in this street’?
And he didn’t invite us in for tea.”
Conleth Hill is more concerned that victims might be offended by the film than that politicians will.
“But everyone knows that it is fiction,” he says.
The Truth Commissioner himself is well cast as Roger Allam. He bridles a little at the suggestion that his deep and plummy voice is perfect for a judge. He’d rather be thought of as someone who was once almost an opera singer.
“My father was a vicar and I sang in the choir. I had lessons in the English National Opera, toying with the idea of going into classical singing.”
Still and all, he jokingly credits “red wine and cigarettes” for giving his voice gravitas.
This is a good film, depicting a parallel universe Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast is one of the characters in it. And it looks well. There are some wonderful night shots from on high.
The commissioner’s apartment is in the Obel Tower, the offices of the commission are filmed in Methodist College; the actual hearings in the Guildhall in Londonderry.
Allam jokes that Belfast is a perfect place to make a film because you don’t have to travel far between locations, and the production team is keen to emphasise that NI Screen was hugely supportive and wants to support other “indigenous” productions, though in the way of modern filmmaking, money has to be roped in from different sources.
All of those who permitted filming on their premises were shown the full script and some who were asked baulked at helping.
But among those asked and shown the script who were happy to oblige were the First and deputy First Minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. That’s because part of the film was shot in Stormont.
So, Sinn Fein could have taken umbrage at the representations of their party leader and Press officer and been awkward, but they didn’t. Perhaps they liked the bit about the sneaky MI5 types skulking around.
Perhaps they were content that there was not enough truth in the film to bother them.