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Scene from Alan Clarke's Contact

Although the English film director Alan Clarke’s ground-breaking drama Contact (1985) is rarely shown, it is available on the BBC Player for the next thirty days until 20 November 2019. Catch it while you can…

Silence plays a special role in Alan Clarke’s Contact, a 67-minute TV drama that has an unusual take on the Troubles in Ireland. Then again, Clarke (1935-90) was a very unusual and special director.

The film opens with a long establishing shot on a remote country lane: a British Army patrol ambushes a speeding car, they shoot its driver dead and order the passenger onto the ground. The platoon leader – the film’s central character – stands astride the passenger and forces his rifle to his mouth.

Then, after all this noise and activity, it’s back to long periods of silent patrols again. Near the end of the film the same platoon leader will repeat this gun-in-mouth transgression in another burst of activity, another ambush on a country lane, another contact with the enemy, in a relentless symmetry.

More than three decades after Contact was first broadcast, it still divides opinion. The Northern Ireland Arts Council’s Troubles Archive (TroublesArchive.com) concludes that it was “one of a number of films which has [sic] been criticised for avoiding the difficult question of why British soldiers were in Northern Ireland in the first place, or offering an opinion on their presence.” Yet the same entry points out that “the film was never meant as a political discourse regarding the conflict, or as a propaganda piece for any of the sides involved.”

By contrast, writer and director Paul Duane (in “Misery, punctuated by explosions”, Mostlyfilm.com, 1 October 2014) is – rightly – ecstatic: “I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the best film anyone made about the Troubles, bar none. It’s an astonishing piece of work that looks as pertinent now as it did in 1985.”

The best film anyone made about the Troubles, bar none.

Contact breaks so many rules, from its casting to how it looks and sounds. It has little plot, no Hollywood A-lister or Irish soap stars, no music soundtrack, no Clannad theme song, relatively little action and next to no dialogue; this is an almost silent movie, that takes place against a green rural wilderness.

The film follows a platoon of a dozen soldiers on border patrol, away from base for days at a time. It’s based on a cynical, angry, vivid memoir by AFN Clarke (no relation to director Alan Clarke). The book chronicles his two tours as a platoon commander with the notorious Parachute Regiment, one around Belfast’s Shankill Road in 1973 and the other in Crossmaglen in 1976.

But the film script pares the memoir down, removes most of the overt signs of anger, and drops the book’s first half about Belfast altogether. At one level this may have been a production / budget question: urban scenes would have required armoured cars and tanks and crowds of extras in choreographed street scenes, and all the other costs and logistics involved in city filming.
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