In the early 70's Reginald Maudling said of Northern Ireland that the best we could hope to achieve would be a return to
'acceptable levels' of violence; almost ten years later, these levels continue to operate.
This film show's not only what
those 'acceptable levels' mean in practice to the Belfast community, but the precise mechanism by which they are
made acceptable to the English public.
A teenage boy is routinely beaten up by British soldiers on his way home. The next day his younger sister is requested to appear in a BBC documentary about children growing up in Northern Ireland. Conversations between producer and series editor, director and researcher reveal that what is required is. moving, 'human' picture of how the terrible events in Belfast affect its children. As the English film team moves in on Div flats to interview a schoolgirl, Roisina, the gap between the inhabitants' day-to-day experience and the TV director's search for shock value, combined with sentimentality, becomes more and more apparent.
Meanwhile, detailed characterisation stresses the differing levels of ‘acceptance' both among the film crew (from the researcher with a conscience to the electrician cracking 'Irish' jokes) and within the community (a group of women argue their different reactions to a husband hypothetically- supergrassing).
During Roisina's interview, her best friend is shot dead by a plastic bullet in the street below. The film crew rush down and film not only the child's body but an angry woman shouting to the camera, 'show that on your TV programme!". Eventually this Belfast family sits expectantly to watch the documentary they have helped to make; we share the betray: of their expectations.
The street killing sequence has disappeared from the programme, turning Roisina's tears in' a generalised symbol of a remote 'horror'. Although set in Northern Ireland, this film is about more than 'the troubles': it is about the responsibility of those in the media to the people they film and photograph, and the abuse of that responsibility in pursuit of 'acceptable'news and entertainment.
'Acceptable Levels' is the result of a collaboration between Kate McManus and Alistair Herron from Belfast Film Workshop and John Davies, Ellin Hare, and Robert Smith from Frontroom Productions in London, who came together while working on the BFI film ‘Maevc'. The script, develops with writer Gordon Hann, drew together their experiences both in Belfast and within the TV industry—a process continued during the production of the film itself through improvisation with a cast of professional and non-professions actors and actresses.