AFTER his kidnap in Beirut on April 11, 1986, Brian Keenan did not see the sun for 1596 days. Held hostage by members of the fundamentalist Shi’ite group Islamic Jihad at various locations around Lebanon, he was eventually released on August 24, 1990. Blind Flight, the new feature film based on Keenan’s ordeal and that of fellow hostage John McCarthy – who was not released until one year later – condenses their experience into a screen time of 96 minutes.
Scripted by Keenan and director John Furse, with McCarthy contributing as consultant, the film uses elegant cinematic shorthand to tell a long story. In an early scene, McCarthy, played by Linus Roache, asks one of his captors if he might be allowed to see daylight, if only for a second. “This is your sun now,” says the armed guard, flicking the bare lightbulb above their dismal cell. Keenan was, and is, a lecturer in English – that’s what he was doing in Beirut – and had won prizes for poetry in his younger days at the University of Ulster, near his native Belfast. An Evil Cradling, Keenan’s written account of his captivity, was published in 1993, and recorded those four-and-a-half years with a desperate eloquence.
“My imagination gave me images,” he wrote, “some beautiful, some disturbing … at times I felt the compensation of this gift, at other times cursed my imagination that it could bring me sensations so contorted, strange and incoherent that I screamed.” Although the book has been held up as an inspiring and consoling experience in itself, as tends to happen with well-written true stories of human endurance, Keenan wrote it only for himself. “The book was a working part of my own recovery,” he says today. “I was honestly surprised that anyone else wanted to read it.”
He forgot nothing but, for all his facility with language, Keenan found it hard to explain in words how he had sustained his hope and sanity. “It was extremely difficult to write about, because almost nothing happened in that time. Or, everything happened in the mind, while very little was going on in terms of external events.”
The idea for a film had, in fact, come first. Shortly after Keenan came home from his “holidays” – which is how he still refers to his time in Lebanon – a painter friend told him he must have “a very clean eye” after looking at brick walls and the insides of blindfolds for years. “It was a wee while before I understood what he meant,” says Keenan. “But I suppose the painter precedes the poet in me. I see things in terms of textures and colours before I see them in words, and that sense might have been heightened by not being able to see anything for a long time. Your eyes get sharp in the dark, and you’re actually living in a very visual world. You rely on the mind, and your dream life becomes very important. I thought a film might be able to carry that with a more profound immediacy than words alone could articulate.”
Keenan met film-maker John Furse before Islamic Jihad’s other prize Western captives of the period – including British negotiator Terry Waite, US journalist Terry Anderson and John McCarthy – had even been released. Their initial plan was for a first-hand documentary about the hostage crisis. But Keenan’s deep sense of the emotional drama inherent in what he and McCarthy went through together, sharing physical and psychological space in tiny, fearful rooms around Beirut for the best part of five years, gradually inclined him towards a more imaginative piece of work.
“People know about the hostages,” he says. “They know the basic story of these guys being held in Lebanon for years. What they don’t know, and what I still get asked about most frequently, is how we coped. And that question might be answered in going on the inward journey that this film takes, which shows you that we survived entirely because of each other, and hopefully gets to the integral truth of it – that in the worst of all possible situations, the best of what we are comes through.”
As it turned out, Blind Flight took 13 years to make. Keenan waited until McCarthy was freed in 1991 before getting started, and they worked intermittently on the screenplay over a few years while both men re-engaged with the world and their families. Aside from the script, they didn’t talk about Lebanon, and still don’t. But when it was finished, nobody was prepared to pay for the production. By the mid-1990s, a movie about the Beirut hostages seemed both too far removed from its original political context – in 1986 Islamic Jihad had been specifically offended by British and US support of Iraq’s war against Iran, holding Western hostages in a muddled attempt to get revenge, obtain information, and make demands – and too near the knuckle in a world terrified by fundamentalism. “The film business,” sighs Keenan, “is all about money. That dire worry about bums on seats.”
Ian Hart was brought in to play Keenan as far back as 2000 – pleasing the man himself, who had stressed the need for “real actors, not movie stars” from the beginning. Hart is an actor who projects himself so far into every role that he describes himself as “the invisible man”. Keenan asked him “not to do an impersonation, just to read the script and try to internalise that conflict”, which suited Hart just fine. “From my point of view,” he says, “the question is how to take on aspects of Brian’s character without distracting from the story.”
But the financiers recoiled again after 9/11, and Hart and Joseph Fiennes – originally scheduled to play John McCarthy – were forced to shoot brief scenes together as promotional clips to raise funds. When the production finally got underway, with Roache as McCarthy, the five-week shooting schedule wasn’t enough time, and (pounds) 3.5 million wasn’t enough money. The Lebanese government, now mindful of the country’s tourist appeal, refused to permit filming – forcing a relocation to Tunisia. By the final week, budget-tightening obliged Hart to give back some of his wage. “If you’re doing a movie you believe in,” he says, “you don’t want to see it fall apart over some piddling amount of money.”
Huge chunks of Keenan’s original script were cut because Furse couldn’t afford to shoot them: scenes around Beirut that he thinks would have added “colour and texture”; scenes of their three failed escape attempts that would have given a real sense of the “dramatic highs and lows”. Hart was worried that so much material was cut that the film “just wouldn’t hold together”, but he’s “amazed” how well it turned out. Keenan himself says it’s “very good”, if not as “very fine” as it could have been. “I look at the film as an interesting exercise,” he says, “and I suppose it does achieve its own kind of poetry in showing what it is to be human, and how that humanity may sustain itself through the most awful circumstances.”
In paring the story down to the painfully, movingly co-dependent relationship between the two hostages, acted out with great economy of gesture by Hart and Roache, Blind Flight expresses exactly what Keenan said in the first press conference he gave after his “holidays” – that “the degree to which I differ from another man is the degree to which I am enriched by him”. The captors are marginal figures, but presented as Keenan has always described them: alternately cruel and sympathetic, “prisoners to their own weapons and zealotry”.
This understanding – absent from prevailing political thought – is what makes Blind Flight seem apposite. “There are ayatollahs in the White House now,” says Keenan. “I don’t believe in vengeance, and I don’t think the apocalyptic rhetoric of the US government is any more useful or meaningful than the language Islamic Jihad would use. It’s about displacing or transferring the blame for what you recognise and despise within yourself, which is how our captors could look at two guys beaten and blindfolded and chained up in the dark and say, ‘Yes, these men are evil’.”