The danger when you show real-life criminals and criminality on screen is that you inadvertently glamorise them. That seems a distinct possibility as The Guards: Inside the K, Virgin Media’s glossy new documentary about gardaí policing west Dublin, begins.
There are lots of brooding overhead shots of “the K” , the police district covering Blanchardstown, Finglas and Cabra. “I thought I was being dropped in Beirut,” says one officer. “They were firing arrows at each other.”
Is this, then, to be an uncompromising look at the fight to preserve law and order in a part of the capital that has seen increasingly brutal drug feuds? Or something more sensationalist, a sort of Grand Theft Mulhuddart?
There are certainly the raw materials for a tabloid-style plunge into Dublin gangland's heart of darkness. So it is to the credit of Virgin Media that Inside the K prioritises journalistic verisimilitude and resists both negatively stereotyping west Dublin and portraying crime there as a glorified game of cops and robbers.
The gardaí we meet are themselves more than a little larger than life. William O’Keefe, a detective, had wanted to be a policeman since the day a family member was murdered. Selina Proudfoot is a former hairdresser who is told every night that she doesn’t look much like a Garda sergeant. Det Insp Thelma Waters, the daughter of a nurse, signed up because she wants to help people.
They’re compelling protagonists, whom we accompany in the aftermath of a gangland killing. With the officers working to solve the case, Virgin Media wisely sheds the slick trappings and lets the story tell itself.
As the saga unfolds, Inside the K also unpicks the stereotype of the garda as a rural copper slightly lost in the big smoke (a phrase nobody outside of Dublin has obviously ever uttered). The officers come across instead as committed and professional.
The criminals are rather less sympathetic, perhaps unsurprisingly. A victim of a gangland shooting swears up a blue streak at the first-response garda trying to assess his injuries. As he is carried to an ambulance, family members gather and harangue the police. It’s shocking, as is one garda’s explanation that families involved in crime often feel they have done nothing wrong.
One encounter is especially chilling. A squat, head-shaven man with tattoos gets in the face of a garda and threatens to sexually defile him. Freud would have a field day. It’s a side of policing in Ireland we rarely see, and Inside the K must be applauded for unflinchingly depicting just what gardaí are up against patrolling some of the country’s meanest streets.