“I just carried on screaming, and then all of a sudden, I just heard somebody say, ‘Come here’ or ‘Come here, love,’ and I was literally sort of grabbed, sort of pulled, and I found myself on the pitch with a camera on my face.” Stephanie Jones’s voice chokes, now, some 25 years after the Hillsborough disaster. And here the documentary Hillsborough cuts from her present day interview to the moments she remembers, when she was a girl on the pitch with a camera on her face. It’s a startling image, not only because she looks directly into that camera, looking pale and panicked, but also because behind her and to her left, you can see the disaster in progress, bodies piling behind her against a fence, and the pitch, green and open to her right.
Illustrating Stephanie Jones’ memory, still harrowing so many years later, the shot also reminds you that there are other images of that day, recorded on surveillance video and by TV cameras on hand for the FA Cup Semi-Final match, between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, to be held at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on 15 April 1989. Daniel Gordon’s film, the first program in 30 for 30 Soccer Stories, a series leading to the FIFA World Cup in June of this year, remembers the 96 people killed by the crush of bodies on that day (technically, a few died afterwards, in hospital).
At once hard-hitting and tightly focused, it exposes the official cover-up and corruption that blamed “fans”, in particular visiting and inebriated fans from Liverpool, for causing the disaster. (This particular point was exacerbated when the coroner tested for blood alcohol levels in all corpses, numbers that were not incriminatory, but the idea of the numbers did their own damage.)
This cover-up remained in place for decades, even as it was challenged repeatedly, in particular by an extensive investigation by Phil Scraton, who wrote Hillsborough: The Truth, and in turn, headed the Hillsborough Independent Panel, formed by the British government in 2012.
The documentary is framed by Scraton’s work and his extended interview here. But even if you know the outcome of the Independent Panel’s report or the findings in Scraton’s book, the film’s narrative structure according to his investigation makes for an emotional ride. This because it features interviews with several victims and their families, granting them opportunities to speak, following years of being silenced.
And so, they remember not only the fear and outrage of that day, but also their frustrations and ongoing horror as they were repeatedly turned away by legal bodies. This terrible history becomes clear in interviews with Stephanie, her parents Les and especially Doreen, as well as Margaret Aspinall, whose son James died at Hillsborough.
Some of these stories are heart-wrenching, of course. Margaret Aspinall recalls James’ excitement at the chance to see the match, so sure that his team would win. “I just shut the door,” she says, remembering him as he went on his way, “never knowing that would be the last time I’d ever see my son alive.” Stephanie Jones describes herself as “not a very grown up 18-year-old,” naïve and happy to be spending time with her older brother Charles and his fiancée Tracey Cox, both of whom were killed.
The consequences of what went wrong that day extended far beyond the deaths; as Margaret Aspinall recalls, the inquiries never found fault except with those who were dead, leaving their families feeling victimized yet again. After one inquest’s results, she says, “I thought there was nowhere else for me to go. I came home and I think I sat in the corner, I felt like somebody had beaten me with a big stick.”
The film goes on to complicate and also underscore such responses to the disaster and the aftermath — that is, the official blaming of victims — by revealing yet another set of victims, the untrained, unprepared constables who were on the scene. Their interviews are accompanied by mostly black and white footage of the disaster, carefully selected grainy images of faces the officers describe as “purple” or otherwise contorted and battered, pressed against fencing, crushed under so many other bodies.
Not only were the police hampered in efforts to act on 15 April, they were also used by official inquirers to cover up what went wrong. As the film shows, their statements were doctored by those taking them, and delivered into more than one report as “sanitized” versions. As Scraton recounts his discovery of boxes and boxes full of original statements, marked up and copied over into clean drafts, the film offers reenactments of him poring over papers, as well as copies of the documents he found, showing the incredible ineptitude of the officials. Not only did they rewrite statements, but they stored them alongside the originals.
That decision now allows for very dramatic filmmaking, of course, as Scraton’s discovery turns into a kind of redemption, not only for surviving family members and their lost loved ones, but also for police officers, whose stories, told here, are equally dreadful. Hillsborough reports that the disaster led to changes in stadium policing and preparation for such events. Still, the specter of 15 April1989 remains difficult to comprehend.