Friday, September 22nd 2017

Five Minutes of Heaven; a lifetime in hell

An award-winning movie puts fear under observation, terror under surveillance — and reflects both the faces of hate and compassion

five minutes of heaven1 202x300 Five Minutes of Heaven, a lifetime in hellBY DANNY KENNY — In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Five Minutes of  Heaven”, characters played by Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt deal with universal themes of reconciliation, revenge and forgiveness, set against the backdrop of the Irish conflict.

Through the prism of post-9/11 America, it also examines  pent-up and painful emotions, as well as uncomfortable questions that surround those age-old themes.

This cinematic text offers an insight into the ongoing, daily struggle for sanity and serenity — for those on both sides of the political and/or religious divide — who try to carry on living with themselves after their world has been shattered.

Nothing but the same old story?

As a sensitive young Irish lad, and a stranger in the strange harsh industrial heartland of B’ham, England, I was always acutely aware of being different. Even my first day in school, where roll call and your (Irish) name alone is a dead give away, highlighted the differences, not the similarities.

But none of those growing pains — subtle, or more often, outright bigotry behind the desks, bloodshed behind the bike sheds, and black-and-blue-beatings on the behind — prepared me for the instant alienation I would experience as a 14-year-old in the wake of  the  Provisional IRA’s Birmingham Pub bombings of Nov. 21, 1974.

ira terrorist 030205 2881 Five Minutes of Heaven, a lifetime in hellThe events at first shocked, and then polarized, the city and the country and — tore the very fabric of our community in two. It, thus, played, somewhat predictably, into the  hands of extremists on both sides by forcing decent, hard working people to face their fears around the meaning of loss in all its forms, and then choose their friends and enemies well — or face the  ”bloody consequences.”

Some say rather light-heartedly that fear is a great motivator. But it’s no laughing matter for those living with hate, suspicion and  fear — and it’s that kind of fear that I could tangibly feel in Five Minute’s of Heaven’s opening narration.

It’s the kind of fear that sounds like cold-blooded hatred when you first hear Alistair Little (Neeson) explain how he became a “child soldier” at the tender age of 17, and then try to ”rationalize” the murder of 19-year-old Catholic, Jim Griffin. So it would be an easy step for me, or any mild-mannered, liberal American on a spiritual path,  to instinctively empathize with the victim’s brother, Joe (James Nesbitt), as we witness his emotional meltdown during a chauffeur-driven, media manufactured “reconciliation” 33 years after witnessing the murder of his 11-year-old brother.

But nothing about a movie like this is ever going to be easy to watch, for me or anyone else who witnesses the nightly news — and mercifully, the film stays true to itself and the heart-rending emotional landscape it inhabits.

Do you know the enemy

Five Minutes of Heaven explores the true face of terror, revealing that it does not live behind a mask or a flag; it lives and dies in the faces of the victims and the survivors against whom these acts of atrocity are perpetrated — and the rest of the watching-world forced, or invited, to bear witness by the cameras. And it’s that kind of terror and its aftermath that Nesbitt’s character (as the victims brother) relives so painfully and vividly, throughout his journey towards finally facing the man behind the ski mask.terrorist1 196x300 Five Minutes of Heaven, a lifetime in hell

As we edge uncomfortably and inexorably towards the face-to-face climax, so clinically and cynically staged in front of  the unforgiving  glare of the TV cameras, we gain deeper insight into the two characters, their problems and solutions, and where their lives have taken them since their paths collided so violently. As with any long running unresolved conflict, the lines between them inevitably begin to blur.

It also puts the differences between reconciliation and forgiveness firmly on the front line: these two acts and actors wear different masks at different times, as they search for their, or perhaps our, sanitized TV safe version of “reconciliation.”

The sublime face of forgiveness — pardoning, or waiving, any negative feeling or desire for punishment, and the stoic face of reconciliation — a coming to terms with or simply accepting something as it is. Their visible struggle with each step, making it almost impossible to decide whether either of them really wants or even expects either forgiveness or reconciliation.

Perhaps even more poignantly, the film challenges the viewer to empathize with the man behind the mask — and conversely or perhaps even, perversely — consider what it would take for any of us to step into the role of judge, jury, and executioner. In other words, what would make us feel justified in taking a life?

The real face of terror

Ironically the subject of justification is a concept that angers the real-life Little, who said in a recent interview:

They are all saying that these killings can no longer be justified. Does that mean, then, that murder was somehow justifiable in the past? There are probably thousands of people out there who have lost loved ones and are feeling as angry as I am right now.

Which only adds to the dilemma, because in an extraordinary twist of  fate, after spending 12 years in prison, Little now works in conflict transformation. He runs workshops for the traumatized in Ireland, Israel, the Balkans and South Africa, demonstrating in a real-life case of life imitating art (and vice-versa) that once you humanize a situation, nothing is ever going to be just black and white, red, white and blue, or in my case, green, white and gold.

Five Minutes of Heaven is a work of fiction based on actual events, that challenges us to recognize our role, however passive, in the justification or use of deadly force. It invites us to evaluate, or perhaps even reconsider, the bitter emotional price for the victims’ families and loved ones — and for those who take up arms for any cause, however noble or otherwise, because our decision to support them or not as the case may be, is one we all are called to reconcile ourselves to.

DANNY KENNY is a San Francisco based Irish writer.  October 5th marks the 41st Anniversary of the modern outbreak of’ “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. This piece is dedicated to the 3,526 victims of the conflict and their families.

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6 Comments on “Five Minutes of Heaven; a lifetime in hell”

  1. I like this because I had not heard of the movie, and it's not like reading a New York Times review by an armchair American critic.

    The point of view of a child who was there on the front lines makes this an especially powerful and transformative story.

    The lesson can be applied to everything from Iraq to Afghanistan to road rage. Thank you for writing from a place of knowing, both first-hand and spiritually.

  2. Any identity we assume automatically carries and "us" and "not us" delineation. We mark the line with humour, name calling and sometimes blood, a bit like a dog marks his territory with piss. Birmingham in the mid seventies was a forest of cocked legs and bared teeth.
    The evident truth is that some ideas are worth dying for and we confuse that with believing that some ideas are worth killing for. I am no pacicifist, but until we make a disticntion between these two beliefs then we will create more hatred in trying to wipe out stupid concepts like racism than we eliminate. It is like trying to clean a window with a dirty rag.
    You cannot kill ideas by killing people, look what happened when the romans had a go at christianity. You kill ideas by coming up with better ones - applied Darwinism, the survival of the fittest.
    Anyway - great article, it stimulates thinking, which leads to good ideas...

    Love Always Finds A Way,
    Jonah K

  3. Nice article Danny, your recap alone along with reference to real life accounts make this very much appealing. I can't wait to hear more from you!

    - Jon

  4. Danny Kenny tackles the subject of terrorism with heart and intelligence. Drawing on personal experience and a sophisticated world view, Mr. Kenny delivers a holistic and compelling article. I find his view on the power of forgiveness and reconciliation particular germane in daily life as well as in the political sphere. Mr. Kenny is my primary reason for returning to Soul's Code.

  5. Thanks for your great review! It was interesting to read your take, since you personally experienced the polarization of your community after the Provisional IRA's Birmingham pub bombings. Well done, and looking forward to reading more from you. We're definitely seeing this movie!

  6. I have not seen but look forward to seeing this movie; an, apparent, insight into the violence that touched so many lives and how it is perceived differently by different involvement. Depending on one's psyche, victims of violence react differently; some are forgiving, some hardened and sociopathic, some roller-coasting through life to an unpredicted end, some withdrawn and depressed.......

    From experience, I can say, it is a journey, that which the individual is ultimately responsible for the cessation of it's traumatic effects.

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