Monday, 16 July 2012

On demand: "Knuckle"

The ratings success of TV's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the emergence of such get-rich-quick projects as the microbudget Britpic Travellers point to a renewal of interest in the travelling life. Perhaps the rest of us have come to realise that we, too, may end up on the road if the current financial climate persists; perhaps an element of escapism is being evoked by the sight of communities who remain unaffected by the present downturn, who've known nothing other than scrapping. Ian Palmer's documentary Knuckle, a labour of love and hate, charts a decade in an ongoing feud within the Irish travelling community, notionally resolved (but actually only perpetuated) in a series of bare-knuckle boxing encounters. In one corner, there are the brawny, balding Quinn McDonaghs, whom Palmer met when working as a wedding videographer. In the other, there are the hirsute, ferocious Joyces, whose clan leader Big Joe, the self-described "King of the Travellers", resembles a vexed Bill Oddie, as decked out in the bullying demeanour (and gaudy suits) of an American TV car salesman. Never mind Team Edward versus Team Jacob: this shit is real, and it's on.

The fights, the film's obvious hook, are extraordinary things; whatever drunken squabbles one comes across in Gypsy Weddings, they'd be as nothing compared to these wild donnybrooks in damp country lanes. You probably wouldn't want to be there in person, and risk catching a stray elbow or fist, but they're a compellingly banal spectacle, with shirtless grunters tumbling into nettle patches, and cuts and ellipses in the action that suggest the occasional car being let through. (You're reminded of the street hockey games in Wayne's World, and do rather wish the participants would bellow "game on" upon the resumption of hostilities.) The fighters even have their own semi-developed PR arm of sorts: a continual back-and-forth of VHS video recordings, often cursed with terrible picture quality and rudimentary on-screen effects, in which the boxers and their families issue boasts and threats to their rivals, missives that have the dread ring of men egging one another on.

For, while the fighters aren't destroying anyone with knives or guns, and while they've drawn up some form of guidelines around their particular conflict, the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces remain trapped in a pointless cycle of violence. There are dark hints at past betrayals, but nobody here seems willing to discuss at any length why it is these families (who turn out to be inter-related) have fallen out so; instead, there's a general acceptance that this is the way it is, and that this is the way it will always be. As one of the community's supposedly wise elders frames it, "there's always somebody in the wrong". Needless to say, as a portrait of gypsy fighter culture, Knuckle offers both greater authenticity and greater pause for thought than Guy Ritchie's Snatch; Palmer uncovers a particular psychopathology at work between the dust-ups in the gravel that makes for compulsive, often disturbing viewing.

It's there in the warped faces, and the equally distorted ideas of what constitutes a role model in this particular milieu; in the hangers-on hollering oafish threats into Palmer's camera, assuming their enemies and nemeses will eventually get to see them; in the moments where the fighters, coiled and terse for the most part, finally explode in rage, swinging and gnashing at everyone around them; and in the way all the participants, including (as he admits) Palmer himself, keep being drawn back for one more, notionally decisive fight. It draws to a close on a note of ambivalence - lead fighter James Quinn McDonagh putting all grudges aside to attend a Joyce family wedding, even as the Quinn and Joyce children and grandchildren put up their dukes and spar for the cameras - yet with the faintest hope these customs may change, or die out, with the times. If yiz are going to park up in a back lane at the start of the 21st century, wouldn't you be better off dogging?

Knuckle is available on the BBC iPlayer here, and on DVD through Revolver Entertainment.

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