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Silent War, The (1990)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Silent War, The (1990)
For True Stories, Central Independent Television for ITV, tx. 8/2/1990
60 minutes, colour
DirectorMichael Grigsby
ProducerJune Ellwood

The fears and concerns of the families with children growing up on both sides of the divided community in West Belfast, 20 years into the Troubles.

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Second of a trilogy (with Too Long a Sacrifice, ITV, tx. 13/11/1984, and Rehearsals, Five, 2005) shot by Michael Grigsby during Northern Ireland's 'Troubles', The Silent War is not unique in concerning itself with the 'ordinary people' caught up in the conflict. But it stands out for its skilful and sensitive way it puts their voices at the very heart of the film. There is no commentary, except for a female voice reading a letter to an imagined character (a device probably borrowed from Humphrey Jennings' A Diary For Timothy, 1946). Otherwise, the film is made up of the faces and voices of Belfast people in natural settings, intercut with images and sounds of the conflict.

The Silent War has both poetic and observational qualities, but it is also a political film, revealing a controlled anger at the British state for allowing the conflict to continue so long. Though shared by many of the film's audience, this view breached the bipartisan political consensus of many years that the UK government was acting as an honest broker between opposing sides of a divided community.

In fact it is Grigsby's differing treatments of the 'two communities' that is most problematic. Much greater screen time is devoted to representatives of the Catholic / republican community than to those of the Protestant / loyalist one. This perhaps reflects Grigsby's instinctive political bias, or even of that of the London media. Equally arguable is that Grigsby is deliberately attempting to counter an establishment bias in mainstream news reporting. The lack of balance, however, probably reflects circumstance as much as intention. Predating the IRA ceasefire by five years, this cannot have been a straightforward or safe film for the English Grigsby and his crew to make, leaving them dependent on those they could coax to appear on camera. The general reticence of loyalist communities and their greater distrust (paradoxically) of the 'mainland' media may partly explain their relatively infrequent and less vocal appearances.

Still, Grigsby's real sympathies clearly lie more with human beings than with ideologies. Whereas their Catholic counterparts' conversations betray their nationalist perspective, the Protestants are not recorded making political statements. But they are treated sympathetically as warm human beings and as equal victims of the conflict - in marked contrast to the British soldiers patrolling the streets, who appear as silent and unsympathetic symbols of the impersonal state that is the film's main target.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
1. Introduction (1:28)
2. Remembering Seamus (3:30)
3. Community relations (2:04)
Grigsby, Michael (1936-)