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“Brothers and cousins fighting brothers and cousins”—this simple statement summarizes generations of hatred and a spellbinding feature documentary that is Knuckle.

Filmmaker Ian Palmer was working as a wedding videographer when he was thrown right in the middle of Irish Traveller culture and, within it, the perpetuation of clannish hate expressed most often through violent bare-knuckled fighting among the men. Asked if he would film a fight between rival families, Palmer was sucked still further into the mysterious lives of these Travellers who believe so dearly in the honor of solving problems with their fists.

Though himself Irish, Palmer confesses that he, like most people, knew very little of Traveller ways before this film. And while audiences around the world may have recently glimpsed a bit of what it’s like to be a female Traveller through the Channel 4/Firecracker Films documentary series, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, the male component has still been largely secretive. Knuckle sheds light on this very proud group of men who have dodged cameras and sociologists alike, and specifically explores the most volatile part of whom these men are as it follows three feuding families—the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces, and the Nevins—over a 12 year period.

James Quinn McDonagh is the most oft-featured character, a family man in his 30s who is famed far and wide as a great fighter. He is portrayed, or describes himself, as someone who never looks for a fight and was never forced to box as a kid, but simply learned out of necessity because he was bullied. All that considered, Quinn McDonagh is still only content when his family is on top. His decades-old feud with his cousins originates with a tragedy between families, only revealed much later in the film.

The clans taunt each other with homemade videos, threatening and insulting one another to entice the desired reaction—a fight. When the fights do come, they are well-organized but far from posh. Viewers most often follow an all-male crowd down a deserted country lane to watch two fighters attack each other bare handed. No one is there to bind the wounds or stop the blood—the fight ends when one is knocked out or one says he’s had enough. Family members are not allowed to attend in case of a mob reaction, and if a winner is named by onlookers, he wins a large purse collected from the family of the opposing fighter.

The difference in these fights, and the true key to this film, is that these are bloody battles of passion, not skill. They are ingrained in every young male Traveller as a badge of honor and a traditional necessity in proving oneself to the community as a whole. More than that, they are called “fair fights,” and are closely regulated by men from neutral Travelling families. Palmer seems to say that, while brutal, there is a kind of sense to these fights, and a logic to letting men “have it out” amongst themselves and their peers in a way they feel is both satisfying and just.

First-time director Palmer proves early on that he has a knack for storytelling. The filmmaking is undeniably the work of an amateur without a budget, and the grainy, shaky quality of many shots is quite conspicuous. However, because the story is so compelling, this is forgiven. Palmer is quite insightful in his organization of the film and, along with Michael Doyle, has a nice eye for detail in the actual shooting. The narrative is simply and clearly told, including copious material but never more than you can take.

The biggest downside to this film is the subtitles. Most people—even Irish people—can appreciate having subtitles to help decipher what the Travellers are saying through their thick dialect. That is not the problem. What is frustrating is that the subtitles in Knuckle are mostly paraphrased, a real loss to the character and depth of these people and their unique culture. They speak very quickly, so it seems fair to edit some of their words, but the deletion of colloquial phrases and descriptions is a crying shame.

Knuckle is everything a good documentary should be—it has a compelling storyline that follows a little-known group of people, it is well-paced, it tells a story well without needless distraction, and it is a real conversation piece. More than that, Knuckle provides its viewers a curious chance not to judge, but to ask oneself how different would we be, given the same circumstances?

Director:Ian Palmer
Starring:James Quinn McDonagh, Paddy Quinn McDonagh & Michael Quinn McDonagh
Release Date:2011