What’s in a name? They’ve been the cause of some of the great atrocities in history. As a badge of identity they’ve started fires, sparked wars and even kept two star crossed lovers from pressing lips. And names are the focus of Ian Palmer’s tragic and sincere new documentary Knuckle. More appropriately though what our names can engender within us; loyalty, tragedy, love and in some cases even death.
In Knuckle Palmer has stumbled upon a visceral and brutal reality that is implicitly fascinating. A violent subculture whose use of bare knuckle boxing to resolve their pseudo-tribal factionalism only ever seems to perpetuate the partisan, familial feuds that corrupt the bonds of the Irish traveller community on film.
Depicting this quagmire Palmer’s embarked on an ambitious narrative. Collated from footage captured over a twelve year period immediately it can feel at times disjointed and ill directed. But equally Palmer’s technique feels as bare and honest as the fighter’s intentions themselves. He admits fully that he’s immersed himself in a world in which he admits he’s become complicit; bludgeoned by the beguiling nature of this underground phenomenon.
But the pure interest of the event – the fights – isn’t enough to compensate for a lack of exposition or context being adequately illuminated. With the intricacies of the feuds and the general complex nature of traveller’s familial relations the narrative flounders in being fully cohesive. The documentary lurches from one brutal encounter to the next, staging them as plot foundations, tethers in a progressively unclear layering of old and new hostilities that feel bewhilderingly complex.
Ironically, this opaque style of storytelling is perhaps representative of the traveller’s understanding of the feuds themselves. There’s a sense that Palmer’s lack of clarification is indicative of a lack of information emanating from those perpetrating the feuds. Inveterate rivalries that sparked before clear memory rarely leave anything other than a resentful afterglow, and it’s this afterglow that serves to continually fuel the fires on display in Knuckle.
Perhaps the most affecting moments of Palmer’s footage are the often lingering shots of traveller children. His camera hovers just long enough to see them imitate the jabs and hooks of the real fight that’s just taken place. An ominous bout of play boxing that feels as though it’ll soon develop into something greater especially with the evident emphasis on settling problems through feats of physicality. More than an imitation though, the boxing has become a cultural institution, a genuine mark of the male traveller’s existence, as opposed to an effective way of settling a feud. Indeed demonstrably it serves only to thrash out tensions for a time until they inevitably boil over once more.
The hereditary pressure and expectation to fight is both inexplicable and deeply tragic and Palmer’s privileged grassroots approach never feels patronising. Even at times it begs for him to be a bit more critical of those on screen. The ongoing tensions in these inter-family relations is undoubtedly emerging from somewhere specific and sadly Palmer never really pries into this super secretive area of the boxing itself; settling instead for a superficial if admittedly shocking and fascinating portrayal of a complex phenomenon.