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'Unquiet Graves' Director Sean Murray Talks with IFTN
06 Mar 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Unquiet Graves
IFTN caught up with Northern Irish filmmaker Sean Murray to discuss his new documentary ‘Unquiet Graves’ and the importance of not censoring the past.

‘Unquiet Graves’ investigates the role the British government played in the murder of over 120 civilians during the Glenanne Gang’s campaign in Counties Armagh and Tyrone from July 1972 to 1978. The feature-length documentary details how members of the RUC and UDR (a British Army regiment) were centrally involved in these murders during the conflict, revealing how state collusion accommodated these actions. The so-called Glenanne Gang rampaged through Counties Tyrone and Armagh and across the Irish Republic in a campaign that lasted from July 1972 to the end of 1978.

The powerful work, narrated by Stephen Rea, continues Seán Murray’s investigation into the legacy of the Northern Irish conflict through this testimony-based documentary. Seán Murray is a documentarian and filmmaker from Belfast. He has made a number of short films and documentaries that have been screened in film festivals around Ireland, the UK and Europe including ‘Broken Lives: The Legacy of Conflict’ and ‘Fractured City’. His work mainly reflects the social, economic and political landscape of Belfast, with a particular view to redressing particular historical events during the recent conflict in Northern Ireland.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Sean to find out more about the documentary.

IFTN: What inspired you to pursue the documentary in the first place?

Sean: “First of all, several members of my own family have been killed by the state and I've always been interested in looking at an overarching story around collusion as something that points to a more institutional figure, at the British state rather than the likes of ‘No Stone Unturned’, which looks at a particular instance. I thought the Glenanne Gang's series of killings between 1972 and 78, probably offered the biggest case of collusion that I had read up on and that I researched. Then, of course, I read Ann Cadwallader's book ‘Lethal Allies’ and once I had finished the book, I made contact with Ann. I just think for me, Glenanne was a big one.”

IFTN: The documentary is split between a number of different mediums such as interviews and re-enactments. How did you decide upon that format when you were approaching the project?

Sean: “It's a hybrid documentary, there's no doubt about it and of course, when you're dealing with something so sensitive, the use reenactments could be very, very tricky. I’ll give you an example, the killing of Pat Campbell - I'm sure you've seen the Margaret Campbell interview. Her husband was murdered on his doorstep and she witnessed it. We used the reenactment of the killing and then, of course, a couple of weeks later, when she was brought to the police ID parade. For me, that's the most powerful testimony I have ever witnessed, as a filmmaker. I'm privileged to have captured something like that and I just thought- it's one of those things you might never capture again. It was such a powerful testimony.”

“We had many other issues to consider because we're using animation, using titles in the way we did. I think it's just a mixture of great collaboration between many different artists in the film.”

IFTN: As you mentioned, it is a very delicate subject matter. How did you choose your exact approach to telling the story. Were there any considerations made when approaching the structure of the story unfolding as it did in the documentary?

Sean: “The good thing about the Glenanne series and making the film, was that there's so much information and it is very, very daunting at the beginning of the process to have so much information. When you're trying to deal with 120 civilian’s killings, it's trying to pick out a number of those killings which fit into an order that would have universal appeal.

The first thing I did was I met the families almost four years ago and I explained to the families that not everyone obviously, could be featured in the documentary but one person's story is all your story and that I had to make a creative decision to pick just some from the series of Glenanne to fit a narrative.”

“Another example would be the Rob Boyle attack. Even though there was no one killed in that attack, I thought that had to be some part of the documentary because that was a smoking gun. That's where all members, all attackers, were members of the police, the RUC, even some were on duty at the time. I thought that was very damning and in the guise of collusion. It led onto the comments by Justice Lowry who said that these people were under a lot of stress and they were trying to rid the land of pestilence and should be given suspended sentences. Collusion wasn't just about members of security forces being involved in killings; it ran right through the judiciary. What we're saying is that this ran to the very top.”

IFTN: As you said, you couldn't include everything. In terms of the editorial process, was there anything that you deemed too sensitive or possibly too biased to include in the documentary or how exactly did you decide upon that?

Sean: “Obviously the whistle-blower in the documentary is the ex-police officer John Weir. I remember things when I had met John in South Africa, he would've told me but of course, I couldn't corroborate much of that with the historical inquiries team, the Government body that was set up to look at the legacy cases. So anything that you see in the documentary was corroborated by a body set up by the British Government themselves. I needed to keep the documentary watertight and therefore much of what I was told, I couldn't use in the documentary. I also know the names of perpetrators, particularly high ranking RUC men, that were involved with the Glennane Gang. I'm very confident that my sources are correct in saying that but of course, I needed to verify that in a couple of different channels and I couldn't do that so, therefore, I had to pull it back.”

IFTN: You've mentioned John Weir who is a self-confessed Glenanne gang member. How exactly did the opportunity to interview him come about and how crucial was that to telling the story and getting a perspective from the other side?

Sean: “It was Margaret from Justice for the Forgotten who had the contact for John Weir and she first made contact with John Weir and told John that we were working closely with the families and with both Justice for the Forgotten and the Pat Finucane Center and that as a filmmaker, I could be trusted to tell their story. John Weir then agreed and I flew to South Africa and we had that interview that you see in the film.”

IFTN: In the documentary, you speak to a wide range of people including Pat Campbell's widow, Margaret. As a director, how much did your approach vary from person to person, in terms of going from someone like John Weir to someone like Margaret?

Sean: “It's different when you're dealing with a perpetrator than it is when you're dealing with a victim. I always think that I have a good rapport when I'm meeting victims. I don't know, maybe on an existential level because maybe I've lost family members myself to the state. I'm also well known within certain circles and around advocacy groups. I've always worked with human rights groups in the work that I do. I’m also a Ph.D. candidate and also finished a Ph.D. in Film at Queen's University so, I'm well known for that kind of work. This would have been explained to the families well before we would have decided to interview. Plus before I conducted any interviews, I held a number of meetings with family members and I explained to them how I aim to produce the documentary, what we were going to do with the documentary and how I'd hoped to give them a voice, where previously their voice would've been marginalized in regards to broadcast media.”

IFTN: There is a significantly different mentality between someone from Northern Ireland who has been affected by the troubles and a person from the Republic, who may be a bit desensitized to the whole thing. Have you experienced difficulties conveying this information to someone who may not be as aware of the extent of what the Glennane Gang did, someone who might view it as a conspiracy theory or that might find it hard to believe the sheer extent of state collusion in some of these murders?

Sean: “The Republic of Ireland is just as difficult to crack the market, I say that in inverted commas, than it is for the British market because it's a culture of censorship in the Republic of Ireland in regards to the political stories in the North but it’s the same in Britain. It’s a very political thing actually, after partition there's just a culture of it and it is very difficult. People are far removed from the stories of the conflict in the North. I think that Unquiet Graves has a chance to penetrate that because I believe that this documentary is very different from other conflict documentaries. I think it's made from a filmmaker's view. Most of these documentaries are made by journalists and I think it gives people a bit of space to take a step back and also look at an alternative narrative to the international narrative, the hegemonic view of the conflict which would have been viewed through broadcast media over the last number of years. I think artistically it gives people a bit of space. It does raise a lot of questions and I think it will be accepted fairly as how we see it by audiences in the South.”

IFTN: Stephen Rea has been quite tightly associated with the troubles through his time as the voice of Gerry Adams, if I am not mistaken? How exactly did you get him involved in the documentary?

Sean: [Laughs] “Section 31, yes. He was the voice of Gerry Adams. Well, I approached Stephen Rea through a third party and asked to meet him. I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision for Stephen Rea. First of all, he didn't know me; he didn't know where I came from. But the third party who made the contact would have known Stephen and also was a friend of mine so I think once I had met Stephen it was almost a yes right away. He had one condition was that we would recite the famous Seamus Heaney poem at the end of the film. Then, of course, we needed permission from the Heaney family and of course, we needed to do that. Once we got over that obstacle then that was it, he was on board.”

IFTN: The movie came out on Friday, March 1st in Northern Ireland. What exactly are the plans for a wider release to the Republic of Ireland?

Sean: “Well, we had access cinema involved, who have run the film to a number of cinemas around Ireland so we're just waiting on word back from that. Tristel in Cork has been in contact, there's also a screening at the Irish Film Institute on the 13th of March. So we're beginning now to tie down some dates for April because of course, it's being screened in May on RTÉ.”

‘Unquiet Graves’ is currently on limited release in Northern Irish cinemas.

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