For those whose only awareness of Bobby Sands comes from Hunger, Bobby Sands: 66 Days fills in many of the details that Steve McQueen’s film, with its terminally aestheticizing touch, eschewed. Those lingering shots in Hunger of excrement-smeared walls and urine-soaked floors being mopped up are now given proper historical and political context; through historians, former IRA members, and colleagues and acquaintances of Sands, Brendan J. Byrne’s documentary concisely lays out the whole history of the tensions between England and Northern Ireland that ultimately led Sands, an Irish Republican Army prisoner, to martyr himself. In addition, we hear Sands’s own words read aloud on the soundtrack (by Martin McCann), many of them written in a diary he kept in prison during the hunger strike that would ultimately claim his life, offering a more intimate peek into his thoughts than McQueen ever allowed.
Byrne’s fascination, though, with Sands does converge with McQueen’s in one intriguing way. A historian early on in the doc talks admiringly about the way Sands, through his hunger strike, turned his own body into “a slogan, a brand.” Hunger essentially treated Sands’s hunger strike as a work of art, with McQueen presenting the man’s increasingly frayed body in the film’s last third for our contemplation. 66 Days approaches Sands’s protest similarly, with historians and academics commenting not only on the broader political implications of Sands’s act, but to the possibility of nonviolent protest it opens up: turning one person’s physical suffering into the center of attention instead of to the suffering of anonymous others through bloody violence.
To some extent, Byrne’s interest in Sands as a political and artistic icon overwhelms his attempts to humanize him. Audiences get a brief biographical sketch of the man’s beginnings: how he was born to Roman Catholic parents in 1954, how be became a well-known soccer player as a teenager, and how he endured enough discrimination and physical abuse from the Protestant majority in the housing development in which he grew up to convince him that militancy was the only logical response. But despite the aforementioned words of his that we hear read aloud on the soundtrack, Sands remains as much at arm’s length here as he was in Hunger. We ultimately don’t really get to know him as a person beyond how outside political and societal forces ended up shaping his personality and behavior.
Still, 66 Days offers so much more historical and political context beyond just these brief gestures toward acknowledging Sands’s humanity that the film transcends its conventional trappings to become genuinely absorbing. Byrne even dives into the tradition of “institutionalized fasting” in Ireland, a tactic that dates all the way back to the earliest years of Irish history, when servants would fast in order to expose a lord’s injustice; this valuable tangent couches Sands’s own act into a broader context that’s as profoundly cultural as it is historical. With the film featuring a wealth of harrowing archival footage, and with the panoply of talking heads offering a wide array of perspectives on the conflict and Sands’s role in it, Byrne’s detailed and insightful film offers a sterling case of a documentary that may not be reinventing any aesthetic wheels but colors its familiar formal lines with welcome intelligence.