Directors: Vinny Cunningham and John Peto
The image of Fr Edward Daly holding aloft a white handkerchief trying to get the wounded safe passage was to become an icon of the Bloody Sunday attack in Derry on 30 January 1972. Thirteen people were killed outright; a fourteenth was to die later of injuries. The Saville Inquiry concluded in 2010 that none of the dead had posed a threat.
To mark its fiftieth anniversary, Kieran Griffiths, director of Derry’s Playhouse Theatre, explains in the BBC documentary The White Handkerchief how he collaborated on a theatrical elegy. He wanted, he says, to fulfil a promise to the family and friends of the victims that their lives would be celebrated. But he also had a desire to bring historical events alive for Derry’s young people. The work is very much a community piece across the sectarian divide and Griffiths talks about approaching it in a spirit of “purposeful enquiry.” Together with writer Liam Campbell and composer Brian O’Doherty, he creates a piece of musical theatre staged at the Derry’s Guildhall – the intended destination of the 1972 Civil Rights march – on the anniversary in January 2022.
Made by Vinny Cunningham and John Peto, The White Handkerchief is a fly-on-the-wall documentary which follows the nine-month process of its creation. Part of its thrill is watching the emergence of this striking piece of work following an open casting call to locals in their teens and twenties, many of who admit at the start of the process to knowing little about Bloody Sunday.
The film shows the emergence of the play’s focus on, William McKinney, a 27-year-old printer, who had set out on the day to film the civil rights protest and was shot dead. Other prominent characters that the script develops include Peggy Derry, a 38-year-old widow and mother of 14 who received a debilitating injury but survived, and the heroic Catholic priest, Fr Daly. The genre of the play – musical theatre – is a daring one. Griffiths talks on camera, and later in the Q&A following the screening, of his fears that it might not seem appropriate to the tragic events. “What helps me understand,” he says, “is to think of grief as love that has nowhere to go.” And that song is a powerful medium to express what words alone cannot.
In the documentary we see scenes of auditions. Griffiths’ instinct to go with young, inexperienced actors pays off. Many are around the same age as the young people who died and it is their youth which underscores the tragedy. We are given a strong sense of the way in which events of fifty year ago come alive for them. We follow extracts from the rehearsal process. Griffiths felt that the focus should be on the victims but not on their dead bodies. Instead, in an especially moving moment, the fatally wounded McKinney is raised up by the others: elevated both literally and symbolically. We later see the anxious, excited backstage moments as the cast wait to go on for the first performance, a private one for the families of victims. The performance is clearly a thrilling one, the intense emotional engagement of the audience palpable.
The screening of The White Handkerchief at the Riverside Studio as part of the Irish Film Festival London, was followed by two lives events. First was the performance of two extracts from the play and then a Q&A at which Griffiths explained that the stage play is to be part of a trilogy, the second one to commemorate the Good Friday Agreement.
The White Handkerchief screened at the Irish Film Festival 2022.