An Unreliable Witness is a hot-and-cold documentary about the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland. The story is told from the present day by very human, and therefore unreliable, witnesses. It’s not so much a followup to, as a revisiting of, the story of what happened that day.
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The film centers on David Tereshchuk, a journalist among whose first assignments was the march that ended up being “Bloody Sunday.” Now in 2001 (when the movie was shot), he goes back to Derry to testify before a commission.
The film spends a lot of time on Tereshchuk anticipating his return, driving to Derry, and standing in various locations wondering how the deposition will go. But after a too-long 20 minutes, when Tereshchuk actually visits where he was that day, and the movie starts intercutting his reminiscences with historical footage and photographs, the movie really becomes engrossing.
The movie also touches on something that science is beginning to prove: that human memory is inherently unreliable. Tereshchuk ‘s most vivid memory is of a soldier in a red beret, kneeling, aiming his rifle, and firing directly at him. But there also happens to be a photograph of the same moment, and it shows a soldier in a steel helmet, standing. If Tereshchuk is wrong about his most vivid memory, how can we trust the accounts of anyone 30 years after the fact?
An Unreliable Witness makes the point — the same one Tereshchuk makes in his deposition (which we never actually see) — that even though we may get the details wrong, the lessons learned from the mistakes made that day by the British army are still valid. And even though the movie was shot before the September 11 attacks, those lessons still resonate loudly today: that dissent is not treason, that institutional divisions — by religion, race, or class — foment anger, hatred, and violence, and that defending injustice with military might is doomed to fail in the face of the power of history.
The modern portions of the movie are shot on very good-looking video. The colors are rich and the details are sharp. In addition, cinematographer (and director/editor) Michael McHugh is willing to contort himself to find the best angle. He also has a somewhat distracting but nevertheless interesting penchant for framing his interview subjects behind large foreground obstructions, as though his subjects were hiding from sniper fire.
But the worst thing about the movie, and this is unforgiveable in my book, is that the film presents the archival footage and photographs squished to fit the widescreen format that frames the modern day footage. The technology is just not that hard, and the historical footage deserves better treatment than that. Perhaps I’m being prejudicial, but I call that sloppiness, laziness, and disrespect.
And while I’m on the subject of aspect ratios, let me add that An Unreliable Witness reveals one of the problems with the Starz FilmCenter. Their video projection is not the best in the world. Having seen the setup at the Mary Riepma Ross theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, Starz pales in comparison. Case in point is An Unreliable Witness. Start with a blank movie screen at widescreen aspect ratios. Project onto it a square (leaving the sides blank). And within that square leave the top and bottom blank because of the letterboxed video program, and you might as well be watching An Unreliable Witness on a very good home theater.