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