There is a trend in documentary filmmaking for the filmmaker to put his or herself in the film. No more the outside observer, filmmakers such as Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore have made this practice feel very familiar in the last decade. The director of Knuckle, Iain Palmer, whilst not visually present in the film, does become a major character in the film: interacting quite a lot with the subjects of the documentary. This is to some degree expected as he has made this film over 9 years and the subjects of the film would certainly have come to know him quite a bit. The flipside of this, however, is that Palmer risks his objectivity and one of the uncomfortable feelings watching his film is that he has become one of the gang. In fairness to the director he does point out the risk of this himself in voiceover during the film.
Knuckle tells the story of bitter feuds between various traveller families which seem to have been going on for decades. The central feud is the one between the Joyce Mc Donaghs and the Quinns. The modern incarnation of the feud seems to be a murder of the one of the members in London in the early 1990s. There seems to be no end to the fights and hatred that emanates from these two families. The men are the decision makers and fighters who are in charge of everything. The women seem to be submissive and, in this documentary, are rarely on camera.
This is a serious documentary with some appalling violence throughout as fights are organised. There is humour here however as the precursor to fights usually revolves around one member of the family sending a video challenging a rival for a fight and profanely insulting him. Anyone who has ever watched American wrestling will be struck by how eerily similar the videos are to the pontificating of the wrestlers being interviewed. But the fights themselves are brutal and bloody. You can feel every punch landed. There is admirably no sanitising it for the audience. Palmer is a filmmaker who clearly has the respect and trust of these men. There is unprecedented access to a community that is generally closed off. There is an argument to be had that he is only showing one particular part of the traveller way of life and it is probably a fair criticism. But in fairness to Palmer the title of his film points out exactly what he was looking to document.
There is one scene where Palmer finally gets a chance to talk to the women of one of the families. This scene is quite revealing as it shows an unexpectedly progressive attitude towards the cycle of violence that engulfs them. One is left wanting more of that kind of input. There is also the feeling that despite the rivalry and feuding that exists that there is another reason altogether for the fights and this is money. Up to €20,000 has been bet on some of these fights and one can’t help wonder if that figure is only what people are prepared to admit to. If this is a strong reason for the fights it adds a cynical edge to an already unpleasant business.
Knuckle is a tough watch. It is about an unpleasant subject yet it is hard to take your eyes from it. Palmer has crafted a fascinating and brutal documentary that enthrals and appals in equal measure. The people in the film are colourful and entertaining and come out with some hilarious phrases. Yet it is hard not to feel saddened by the limited viewpoint of the world that the men have in these two families and the lack of influence the women have. It is this in the end that is the great tragedy and not the fighting itself.