Award-winning director aims to show new perspective on The Troubles

After documenting the war in Iraq, an award-winning director has created a new series that features never before told stories of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland is a new five-part documentary about the Troubles that combines personal accounts with archive footage to tell the stories of people and communities dealing with violence and conflict on a daily basis.

The episodes run chronologically from the beginning of The Troubles in the late 1960s to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Series director James Bluemel said his experience directing the Bafta and Emmy award-winning Once Upon A Time In Iraq inspired him to take on the task of telling the story of a conflict closer to home.

The English filmmaker said he had found similarities between the divided societies of Iraq and Northern Ireland.

“It wasn’t part of the fabric of my reality, and I think that’s probably quite true for lots of people in England, that there’s a sort of wilful apathy to this subject, which is shameful considering the British government’s role in the Troubles,” he said.

“And when I was making Iraq and dealing with the Iraq Civil War, which was a really horrendous time in Iraq, I was sort of struck between the language that people were talking in, and the language that I’ve sort of grown up with hearing about what’s happening in Northern Ireland, and I realised that I hadn’t really ever, sort of grappled with what went on in any particular way.

“I sort of had a vague idea that I knew roughly what it was about, but I realised, here I am in the Middle East really examining a civil war which happened in Iraq and on my own back doorstep it felt like it’s been completely ignored, in one way which is, how it felt to live through it.”

The documentary features contributions from people across the political spectrum – from the son whose mother was kidnapped by the IRA, to a man from a loyalist estate whose family’s secret challenged some of his beliefs, and a woman who took a decision to plant firebombs.

Bluemel said many of the interviews in the series had moments that surprised even the interviewees.

“Sometimes it’s surprising what memories can be sort of released, or discovered, sort of unlodged. And they can be the most emotional in a way, because they’re surprising for the interviewee as well,” he said.

“They’re not necessarily the stories that they have told lots and lots of times and when you see that processing happen in front of you, when you can see someone, going, ‘Okay, I hadn’t really thought about this for a long time, and not in this way’ and you can see it running all through them, and it’s happening right in front. It’s incredibly powerful.”

One of the contributors to the series, named James, is a former member of a Loyalist paramilitary group.

Bluemel said getting participants like James to open up required time and commitment from the team.

He added: “So on the first interview, we did with him, we interviewed James a number of times, we spent a long time in building that trust up. And he invested quite a lot in what this series was trying to do. And he saw a value in it, and he wanted to be part of it and he wanted to add value to it.

“And part of adding value to it, for him, was being able to tell the truth, and what James found difficult at first was just saying the words.

“But once we had begun that journey with him he really pushed himself. And it’s not easy for him, that struggle that you see him going through in the chair is a very real struggle, and I thought it was important to show that it wasn’t easy.

“It was important to include those moments where you can see him really battling with the person who used to be.”

Bluemel said he hoped the series would encourage empathy, as contributors told their stories from a new perspective.

“That’s the point, you want as wide an audience as possible to be able to sort of relate and empathise with the person on screen, and not push it into categories that perhaps you might approach a subject like Northern Ireland with a lot of personal baggage, no matter where you’re from,” he said.

“What I’m hoping is that when you watch the documentary and you see the people presenting and talking about their lives in this way, that you will be able to get swept up in that story. Feel what they’re feeling, empathise, see things from their point of view, perhaps you’re empathising with people that you never thought you would be able to empathise with.”

Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland will air on BBC Two, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC iPlayer on May 22.