Travellers are a popular topic in the UK at the moment. Channel 4’s recent documentary, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and its sequels shone an unexpectedly successful light onto the Traveller culture. The appeal of those films lies in the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of Traveller culture, the withering discrimination they still face, the rarity of their open interactions with what they call ‘settled people’ or ‘countryfolk’, and of course the infamous dresses. From a perspective of timing, Knuckle could scarcely have done better.
Director Ian Palmer first met the Quinn McDonaghs, an Irish Traveller ‘clan’, when he was hired to video a wedding in the late 1990s. This soon developed into him videoing ‘fair fights’ – i.e., bare-knuckle boxing matches, clandestine but highly organised – and selling copies of the tapes. Over the course of 12 years, Palmer videoed various fights for the Quinn McDonaghs. As he got to know them, he also filmed monologues by various Travellers – it’s impossible to call them interviews – about the fights, their role in Traveller culture, and what they feel about them.
Palmer filmed the movie almost entirely on hand-held cameras with no special lighting; the picture quality is crisp but the lighting is usually poor, and there is an awful lot of footage shot from the passenger seat of a car or the edge of the sofa. A great deal of the dialogue is paraphrased in subtitles; the Irish accents are thick, and the sound quality sometimes poor, but it’s the paraphrasing which jars. The fights themselves are brutal but very carefully managed, with careful and pervasive insistence that the fights be fair – nothing below the belt, no head-butts, and no biting. They are staged in farmyards, car parks and country lanes – for easy getaways should the police intervene. Palmer has a good eye for the heart of a fight and positions himself well for the key moments. The fights are watched live only by people unrelated to the fighters, to prevent potential violence amongst the spectators. The families gathered in the evenings to watch the tapes communally; Palmer filmed that too. The families also clubbed together to bet significant amounts of cash on the outcomes.
So the cash, duffel bags of cash, is only part of it; it’s also about family honour, whatever that means. Many of the fights follow from dis tapes – originally videos snail-mailed to each other, now uploaded to YouTube – in which men from the different families – sometimes grandfathers – trade insults of escalating seriousness. These tapes resemble nothing more than hip-hop ‘beefs’, but Palmer does not make that connection. He has nothing to say about ethnic minorities coping with their marginalised status, nor about Travellers’ ideas of masculinity, nor about their sense of community (there are children in almost every shot, and prominent Catholic imagery in every home) and how the fights contribute to that. These missed opportunities beggar belief, especially considering the amount of time Palmer spent working on the film. At one stage, one of the Quinn McDonaghs is shot, and a newspaper clipping describing the incident is shown, but when the victim refuses to discuss it Palmer drops the subject entirely. All the fights have two referees from ‘neutral’ families, but none of them are interviewed or identified, so we don’t learn how they are chosen, or how a family can stay neutral among the varying feuds. In his narration, Palmer bemoans the aspect of Traveller culture that kept him apart from the women, but it never occurred to him to bring a female colleague along to rectify this. At one point, a few women do decide to speak to him, but they are the only members of the various families who Palmer does not identify by name.
The main Traveller criticism of the Channel 4 documentaries was that the people featured were marginalised members of their community, and therefore not representative of Travellers as a whole. Despite some revelations about the history of the Quinn McDonaghs, Palmer never seems to ask himself why the family was so willing to let him into their lives.
Perhaps it’s harsh to judge Knuckle on what it could have been instead of what it is. As a depiction of real, raw fights, it does an excellent job. People who are used to CGI violence would do well to study the bruises and black eyes of the fighters, and how the injuries and occasional disgrace lingers long after they have gone home. Anyone who has been involved in a dispute, the start of which no one can remember, should also pay close attention, especially to the argument after one of the final fights. Isn’t it interesting that no one feels that they personally are ever in the wrong? But Knuckle doesn’t get as near to the heart of Traveller culture as it had the opportunity to. It’s a golden opportunity, squandered.
Knuckle is released on selected screens in the UK on 5th August and then on Region 2 DVD on 29th August.