Northern Ireland, War, and the Power of Unlikely Political Friendships | Sojourners

Northern Ireland, War, and the Power of Unlikely Political Friendships

Q&A with ‘The Journey’ Director Nick Hamm

Nick Hamm is the director of the new film The Journey, a film about the relationship between Northern Irish politicians Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, fierce political enemies who overcame their differences to work for peace. McGuinness was a former member of the IRA, and part of the leadership of Sinn Fein. Paisley, a Protestant preacher and fierce anti-catholic, was the leader of the conservative Democratic Unionist Party.

The film imagines a conversation between the two men as they begrudgingly travel together during the 2006 Northern Irish peace talks, and explores the reasons these two rivals compromised and decided to work together. Sojourners talked with Hamm about the themes of the film, and their relevance to the divided political times we’re in today.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Abby Olcese, Sojourners: What is your memory of The Troubles like, and how did that inform your interest in the story?

Nick Hamm, director, The Journey: My memory is quite acute. I was at school there a long time, in Belfast, and I have family there ... so I knew a lot about it. But really what I wanted to do was to make a movie about what I thought was one of the most unique political friendships that had existed ... The relationship between those two guys was so unique, so completely of its own. It was sort of known about in the U.K., and I don’t think anyone really understood how significant it was. I mean, their relationship allowed a process to happen which stopped people killing each other. I might have fictionalized that relationship, but what they did was an absolute real event. In that sense, I thought this relationship needed dramatizing. I needed to advocate it, and put it on screen. This thing is a celebration of peace, a celebration of concession, versus the other thing that was happening in Northern Ireland, which was bombs and bullets.

Olcese: When did you first have the idea for the story, and how long was it in development before it got made?

Hamm: You know, it was quite short-term development. We knew two things. We knew that politicians in Northern Ireland over the years had often traveled together when they traveled abroad. They’d go on the same commercial plane, and would refuse to get off together because they couldn’t be seen together. This is the nature of Northern Irish politics, they’d do one thing in private, and another in public, much the same as other politicians. So, we knew there were a lot of these events that had happened with different parties in Northern Ireland. We started working on this one story, and we find out that what had happened was that during those peace talks, (Ian) Paisley did actually fly back to Belfast, and they hired a plane ... and that (Martin) McGuinness did go with him, and that event, if you like, was the start of something. So I knew that occurred, and I talked to Martin McGuinness before we started filming, and I started talking to Ian Paisley’s family about what had happened, and they both said completely contrary things, and at that point the writer and I said (to each other) we can fictionalize it, because they both said the opposite.

So from the idea to the film going to Venice was less than two years, which is pretty extraordinary. Last year we finished it around summer, then we went to Venice, then Toronto, then six months later it was out in America.

Olcese: I ask that because I think the film applies very well to the particular divided moment that we find ourselves in the U.S., and also in the U.K. You were finishing it up last summer, and that would have been during the Brexit vote. Did that have any impact on the way you were making the film, or how you felt while making it?

Hamm: These things become very interesting, don’t they? You start by making this sort of domestic story of two individuals, and as that goes on, as you witness around you this incredible intransigence, and you see politicians who just appeal to their own constituents all the time, you think “My God, this is just getting worse and worse and worse.” Here’s an example of two politicians who reached out beyond their base, reached out beyond their own constituency, took their constituency with them, and achieved something. It’s obvious that we need more of that, because what’s going on is that no one’s talking. They’re all just declaring themselves ideologically to one side or the other, but they’re not reaching out and saying, “How do we sort this out?” This polarization in terms of Brexit is pretty extreme because, as you know, what that would result in, again, two countries in Ireland, which is ridiculous ... and so regressive. It could lead to all kinds of problems. It didn’t effect the movie, but my God, history has caught up with us.

Olcese: You mentioned that the two groups you spoke to had completely opposite things to say, which gave you some room to play around dramatically. How much of the story was theoretical, and how much was based on things you knew they had said, or parts of that experience you knew to be real?

Hamm: The dialogue is all fictional, but the writer is kind of immersed in Northern Irish history. He understands how they talk, and the politics and the culture. What they said to each other is fictional, although they had said all of that stuff before, in different circumstances, but they’d never said it privately like that. They don’t have any political debates in the movie, as you see, they just argue about their own side. They’re not negotiating. They state their own position.

Olcese: And then kind of agree to disagree by the end of the film.

Hamm: Which I think is a positive thing. You know, that’s OK, you don’t have to agree, but you have to have concession.

Olcese: I found that interesting, because going into the film I felt like that would be the resolution. As a moviegoer, that’s the thing you’re trained to expect, that the two characters would shake on it and say “we’ll agree,” but that’s not what happens here.

Hamm: Well that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not just here, it’s in Europe. It’s everywhere. I don’t know what happened. It’s like a disease almost. Politics has become different; it’s almost like it’s become showbiz. And the most unexpected things happen. We all predict one thing, and the reverse becomes true. That’s what happened in Europe over Brexit, and I knew that was when Trump was going to win (in America). As soon as Brexit happened, I knew that would happen.

Olcese: Given that you were working with the story of two very outspoken public figures, how much freedom did you feel you had to speculate? In terms of representing them on screen, how much did your subjects and your families weigh in?

Hamm: They didn’t. They never saw the script, and I never gave them any editorial control, and I never asked for any. They were very respectful of it. I went and talked to them before we started shooting the film, but it’s not a biopic. I wasn’t asking for their endorsement. But they’ve all seen the film and are supportive. We’ve done openings in Belfast and Ireland, and both Sinn Fein and the D.U.P. have come to see the film. It’s been fascinating to watch both sides embrace the movie, because they both realize it’s a very honest and fair account of what they were going through.

Olcese: In the creation of the film, did you find yourself sympathizing with one character or the other? Was one character easier to make more sympathetic?

Hamm: No. I couldn’t. I absolutely wanted to make the film balanced and fair to both sides. That was completely essential. Don’t forget, both these figures were not liked in Europe before they became statesmen. They were both radical. McGuinness was an ex-member of the IRA, Paisley was a firebrand preacher on the right. These were two men who were pretty much despised universally outside of their own base. It’s like "The Odd Couple" in the back of a car. I think what the humanity of that is when you take all that away, when you remove from the politician the artifice, and you get a chance to look at them as people, and I think that’s what happens in the movie.