Alex Gibney: ‘People are locked in this prison of belief’
The documentary maker has a habit of taking on big subjects. Now he’s investigating the unsolved 1994 Loughinisland massacre – and is not afraid to name names
Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned is an odd sort of documentary. The staggeringly prolific film-maker – veteran of investigations into Scientology, Enron and Lance Armstrong – has turned his attention to the Loughinisland massacre.
In 1994 the UVF burst into the Heights Bar in Co Down and murdered six citizens who had gathered to watch Ireland play Italy in the World Cup. Nobody has yet been arrested. Many felt that collusion between security forces and the paramilitaries impeded the investigation. Were informers being protected?
An initial report by the police Ombudsman found no evidence of such collusion. Gibney’s film comes to a very different conclusion. But, in that respect, No Stone Unturned doesn’t quite count as an exposé.
In June 2016, a second Ombudsman’s investigation by Dr Michael Maguire reversed many of the first document’s findings. Dr Maguire had “no hesitation in saying collusion was a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders”.
Here is the oddness. No Stone Unturned has ended up as a film that supports the (new) official version. I wonder if Gibney was anticipating another cover-up.
“That would have been an interesting story,” he says. “But part of the tale here is that I am a big admirer of the Ombudsman. If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that hangs over the Loughinisland incident it is the determination of the Ombudsman to get to the truth. The power of the story is that there was some success. In that sense the story is more satisfying than if the second report had been a cynical cover-up.”
Gibney’s film does, however, feature one striking revelation. For the first time, No Stone Unturned publicly names the chief suspect in the killing. It’s a daring move. Does Gibney have any reservations about the decision?
“I thought it was appropriate and served the public interest,” he says. “For many years – and we chronicle this – there was so much evidence pointing to him, but there seemed to be more effort made at protecting him than at ferreting out the truth.”
It is more than a month since the film premiered at the New York Film Festival. Has there been any word from the alleged suspect or his lawyers?
“No. And I should say we reached out to him and his wife,” he says. “We let them know that we were going to name them. We notified the police Ombudsman’s office. We notified the police that we were doing this. We were careful in fulfilling our public responsibility and our responsibility to them.”
The official report identifies the individual solely as “Person A”. A mass of connections eventually led Gibney to the likely suspect. To this point, the actual name has been almost entirely absent from news reports. A search on this newspaper’s website brings up no mentions. Indeed, was hard to find a single reference on the internet before the release of Gibney’s film.
“We dug back and found a newspaper clipping in which he is named as being arrested in connection with a terrorist incident,” Gibney says. “That is the only incident we could find anywhere. In this era of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook that is very unusual – so unusual that we wondered if they had been purposefully scrubbed from electronic media. So they are still being protected in some way.
“We don’t know that. But it’s something we suspect.”
Gibney’s interest in the Loughinisland case dates back to a short film he made for ESPN in 2014 titled Ceasefire Massacre. He admits now that the conclusions they then came to were (to say the least) unsatisfactory. No Stone Unturned offers a service to the victims’ family. It also seeks to correct those earlier errors.
“We got it all wrong,” he says without hesitation. “We concluded that this had been some rogue gunman who had very little experience in this kind of thing. Seemed like amateur hour. We thought an American had been involved or at least that he had been inciting the reason for the attack. It was never understood why this particular pub was attacked. But we got a lot of it dead wrong.
“It turned out there was a gang operating who had committed a lot of murders. As we dug into the story we did a much better job of getting close to the story.”
It can’t be easy for a documentary filmmaker to admit to such an error.
“No. But you have to embrace that,” he says. “You can’t be afraid to make mistakes. As the president of Toyota once said: mistakes are precious. They teach you things.”
Investigation is a family tradition. The director’s father was the prominent American journalist and author Frank Gibney, an expert on relations between the US and Japan.
Raised in New York city, Alex attended Yale and then UCLA Film School. It’s a weirdly lopsided sort of CV. He fought to get work for most of his life and then, in the first decade of this century, when he was cresting 50, Gibney hit a breathtaking run of activity.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) was nominated for an Oscar. Taxi to the Dark Side, a tale from the Afghan occupation, won the award two years later. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson came along in 2008. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) investigated clerical sexual abuse. The Armstrong Lie (2013) attacked Lance Armstrong. Finding Fela (2014) looked at the musician Fela Kuti. There are many more where those came from.
“There’s no trick to it. It’s hard work,” he says. “As a young man, I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I should. I am making up for lost time. None of these films are done quickly. I am able to involve myself in a lot of films because they are investigative. And those investigations rarely proceed in orderly fashion. You never know where the trail is going.”
Three years ago, he bravely took on one of the world’s most awkward organisation in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. I suspect the Church of Scientology has barely left him alone since.
“I have a mountain of threatened lawsuits,” he says. “But no actual lawsuits. All you have to do is Google my name. The first thing that comes up is a hate site against me and everyone who participated in the film. That gives you some indication of how assiduously they attack. When I go to Los Angeles, people turn up to stare deeply into my eyes – like they are the Children of the Damned who are going to unhinge my brain.”
He is braver than most of us. He claims that he has no regrets about going after Scientology. That phrase “the Prison of Belief” is important to him. Gibney argues that blind commitment to belief fuels much of the world’s evils. The day before we speak, eight people died in a terrorist attack near Gibney’s office in New York.
“You wonder how anybody could do that or the killings on Loughinisland,” he sighs. “I suspect it’s because people are locked in this prison of belief. They believe the end justifies the means. That’s a very dangerous path. That’s a very dangerous path.”
Five of Alex Gibney’s best
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
We needed a documentary to explain what the heck Enron – canaries in the financial coalmine – did before it collapsed. Gibney obliged.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
Gibney uses the sad tale of a taxi driver beaten to death by American soldiers to dissect the US involvement in Afghanistan. Won the Oscar.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)
One of several powerful films investigating clerical sexual abuse, Silence in the House of God focuses on a home for the deaf in Wisconsin. Hard to watch for the right reasons.
The Armstrong Lie (2013)
Rigorous investigation into the web of deceit built around Lance Armstrong (above) as he doped his way to seven Tours de France.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
Perhaps Gibney’s best film. Going Clear offers a searing, angry study of how the Church of Scientology forwards its barmy belief system. Disquieting and gripping.
- No Stone Unturned is in cinemas now