Windows on the world
Journalist and film producer Kevin Toolis talks about his latest film ‘Complicit’, torture, suicide bombers, Achill and his fascination with Reverend Edward Nangle
“Just have a look at the view,” states Edinburgh-born journalist and film producer, Kevin Toolis as he nods in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean as the waves roll onto the beach.
“I have visited many places around the world but I never fail to be cheered coming back to Achill. It has a unique quality.”
It is no exaggeration when Kevin says he has visited many places but unlike most people the places he has visited just happened to be some of the most volatile and unstable societies in the world. The son of Achill-born emigrants, Kevin has worked for a number of years reporting extensively on conflicts in Africa, Ireland and the Middle East and is acknowledged as a ‘terror expert’.
His works has brought him face to face with failed suicide bombers, witnessing Palestinian fighters smuggle AK-47s through secret tunnels into the Gaza Strip and visiting torture chambers of the former Gaddafi regime - all a world away from the relative tranquillity of the village of Dookinella on Achill Island where his father Patrick was born.
Kevin was back in Achill recently with his family where the ‘premiere’ of his latest movie ‘Complicit’ was shown in the nearby Crossroads Inn. ‘Complicit’ is the latest hard hitting drama from Kevin’s production company, Manyriverfilms, which looks at the mirky world of British intelligence, international terrorism, rendition and torture.
Commissioned by Channel 4, ‘Complicit’ follows Edward (David Oyelowo) an MI5 officer desperate to foil what he believes is another 9/11 style atrocity planned by British terror suspect Waleed (Arsher Ali).
Having followed Waleed to Egypt, Edward is convinced he has got his man but faces the moral dilemma of using the Egyptian forces to torture Waleed to get a detailed confession from him.
The film dramatically examines the role of torture in the so-called ‘war on terror’ and challenges the viewer to ask themselves is this morally justified and what would they do if they were in Edward’s shoes.
“The film puts people in ‘the moral cockpit’. It is not like a documentary where there is a clear yes or no answer. It’s a drama designed to engage the audience,” Kevin explains.
“It is a drama which confronts the audience with the moral dilemma people face in the intelligence world. Because its drama the aim is not to provide a simple answer, the aim is to project the audience into the situation and ask what would I do if I was in that person’s shoes. How would I react, would I tell the guy to torture [him] or would I not? It is about the emotional truth.
“I’m a film maker, I’m not in business to legislate, the value of ‘Complicit’ as a work of film is it seeks to engage with the wider audience. It doesn’t have a simple political measure and is not a straightforward pro or anti torture film. It is that complexity.… what would you do if you were in that situation.”
While Kevin stresses ‘Complicit’ does not support one side or the other, he personally is firmly against the use of torture to obtain information. In January he travelled to Libya where he met with Abdel Kakim Belhaj who is suing the British government after he was kidnapped by MI6 in Asia in 2004. He was delivered to Gaddafi where he was kept in a cell and systematically tortured for five years.
“If democratic states like Britain, the US and Ireland engage in those activities then it is a green light for other states who have a far less regard for human life. For 300 years western democracies have tried to establish the rule of law and if we deviate from that you just go back to the past and all the injustices.
“It is morally wrong, if you start saying like the British state and the American state in particular have said that it is all right to torture people as long as you torture people abroad then why don’t they just start doing it in New York or Dublin. If it is so effective in solving crime why don’t we just start torturing people here at home. We don’t think that so why should there be a different moral standard.”
The latest Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, which dramatises the hunt for Osama Bin Laden has generated controversy for the use of torture as critical in gaining intelligence in finally finding and killing the al-Qaeda chief. Kevin is dismissive that torture was critical to his capture and asks if it was why it took so long to find him.
“The interesting thing about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the hunt for Bin Laden is most of the individuals who were arrested and tortured were tortured quite early on in 2003 and 2004. But Bin Laden was not killed until 2011. If torture was a short circuit to find Bin Laden then clearly it did not work. It was nothing to do with torture and much more to do with betrayal - someone told the Americans the information and the allegation is it was someone inside the ISI [Pakistani Secret Intelligence].”
Kevin has written extensively for the Guardian, New York Times, Daily Mirror and came to wider prominence in the mid-nineties when he published, ‘Rebel Hearts - Journeys Within The IRA’s Soul’, a publication which he says he is ‘very proud of’.
He has also written screenplays and founded an Independent television production company, Manyriversfilms, which he says is ‘dedicated to making exceptional films’ to try to understand somethings which ‘appears irrational to the majority in society’.
His reporting and producing credits include ‘Getting Away With Murder’, ‘The Devil Amongst Us’, ‘Circus Days’, ‘Circus Nights’, ‘Africa’s Schindler’s List’, ‘Anatomy of Attack’, ‘Cult of the Suicide Bomber’, ‘Car Bomb’ and ‘The Big Heist’.
Kevin grew up in a family of seven in Edinburgh where his father Patrick and his mother Mary Gallagher emigrated to from Achill. Despite growing up in Edinburgh he feels he and his family have more of a connection to Achill than Scotland. His two sisters, Teresa and Angela live on the island and in 2004 he too lived on the island for a time where his eldest daughter Storme - who recently starred in the Inbetweeners film - attended Dookinella National School. He currently lives in London but has a home on his father’s ancestral homestead in the shadow of the Minaun cliffs and gets back whenever he can.
“My parents went to Scotland but we came back every summer and we always had a house in the village. Like many people in Achill you need to go where the work is but I come over a lot. We are back and forth and spent the whole of last summer here.”
The subject of one of his next projects is very much closer to home - the Reverend Edward Nangle and his Mission Colony in Dugort.
Rev Nangle was a Protestant evangelist who founded the Achill Mission in 1831 which over time included schools, cottages, an orphanage, a small hospital and a hotel as well as producing a newspaper called the ‘Achill Missionary Herald’.
Initial funding has been secured from Northern Irish Screen and Kevin said he hopes to produce a television series about Nangle who he described as an ‘extraordinary character’ and modern communicator.
“Nangle was an extraordinary character and in a way a peculiarly modern character in that he founded the colony in 1834 but by 1837 he acquired his own printing press and from there the Achill Herald was born. He must have written about three or four thousand words every day for the next 40 years. He had this monthly newsletter printed on Achill which was extraordinary back then because everything had to come in from pony and cart and if anything went wrong the nearest place to get a part was Westport. There was no electricity and the circulation was as far away as Canada and India.
“He was clearly very anti-Catholic and there was effectively a religious war on Achill and for the next 20 years he used the newsletter as a device of mass communication to keep funding the colony. In a way if Nangle was alive today he’d be in the middle of Africa with his own YouTube channel broadcasting because that is effectively what he did. He used that newsletter to increase his subscriber base which is very modern.”
Many people who look at Kevin’s work may think he must be some sort of ‘war junkie’ who gets a rush of entering war zones and volatile environments. Yet he sees things differently, downplaying the dangers of the work which he sees as necessary to get a greater understanding of other societies.
“Most of the places aren’t nearly as dangerous as they are presented, I’m sure its as dangerous travelling along the Castlebar road. It is partly about expanding your own horizons and discovering other societies, and using journalism and film as a window to try to understand other people - and in some ways ourselves.
“Someone once asked David Livingstone, ‘why didn’t you stay at home?‘. He answered, ‘Well you don’t discover the Victoria Falls in Kirkcaldy’. My work is genuinely interesting, it’s an attempt to see for yourself what’s going on in these societies. You have to believe that it is important to try to understand other people’s societies. You can’t do that staying at home, you have to go there and see if for yourself.”
Name: Kevin Toolis
Partner: Well-known travel writer Dea Birkett
Children: Daughter Storme and twins River and Savanna.
Complicit is currently available for viewing on 4 On Demand on the Channel 4 website, www.channel4.com/programmes/4od.