On Irish-language hip-hop drama Kneecap: “When people start having a pop at something they’ve not even seen, that’s just ignorance”

Director Rich Peppiatt joined us from Sundance to discuss his new fictionalised drama about real-life hip-hop trio Kneecap.

Kneecap (2024)

Writer-director Rich Peppiatt’s Kneecap is named for the Irish-language hip-hop trio, themselves named after the brutal act of shooting, or otherwise maiming or disabling, a person’s knees. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the term became known as a malicious act of ‘punishment’ meted out by paramilitaries and others on both sides of the Republican and Loyalist divide.

The feature, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund and filmed in Belfast and Dundalk in seven weeks from the end of February 2023, charts the semi-fictitious rise of Kneecap. Irish-language teacher J.J. Ó Dochartaigh (aka DJ Próvaí) leaves his job to make beats for rappers Liam Óg Ó Hannaigh (aka Mo Chara) and Naoise Ó Cairealláin (Moglaí Bap), following a chance encounter in a police station where Liam refuses to speak English and needs an interpreter. 

The action unfolds in a riot of drug-taking, swearing and hip-hop, as the trio face angry splinter groups threatening violence and corrupt local police. Michael Fassbender features as Arlo, Naoise’s shadowy father, who was ‘lost at sea’ 10 years ago and believed dead but is still not-so-secretly involved in the Republican movement.

We caught up with Peppiatt – a former Daily Star journalist and co-director of the satirical doc One Rogue Reporter (2014) – on a Zoom after Kneecap’s world premiere at Sundance Film Festival. Peppiatt, originally from Staines, Berkshire, has parents in Canada and is the owner of British, Irish and Canadian passports. “I’ve always found the idea of nationalism to be quite a weird one, and that’s something that plays out in the film a little bit,” he says.

On our call, Peppiatt was in a bar, with espresso martinis being brought to his table at one point. He confesses: “I’ve been on it for about four days. We’re all just trying to find a way to get through now.”

What were your first impressions when you first saw Kneecap performing in Belfast in 2019?

Rich Peppiatt: I was blown away by the raw sensibility of them, their stage presence, the charisma. Also, the fact that they were rapping in a language that I didn’t understand, in a country that is essentially the UK. There was the best part of a thousand young people rapping back to them in that language as well.

I didn’t realise there was a community of young people in an urban centre like Belfast who were choosing to live their lives through a language like Irish. And that was my own ignorance, but I suddenly thought, hang on – I live here and didn’t know this, so I bet there’s millions of other people who didn’t notice either. That was the jumping off point of “maybe there’s a film in this”.

Had you been living in Belfast long at the time?

I had moved there about three months before, had had my second child, and I was having a baby night off. I thought I’d go for a couple of quick pints and decompress. That’s a kind of chance encounter, that sliding doors moment of deciding to walk into that bar, on that day, at that time, has obviously led us all the way to Sundance.

Rich Peppiatt

Did they take much convincing to make a film?

It took me about three, four months for them to finally bloody respond to an email. It was tenacity, just keeping at them. I was determined that they would at least hear me out. Eventually, I got them through their booking agent or something.

They agreed to meet me for a couple of pints of Guinness. We got on, and that couple of pints turned into about 10 pints, and back at their house, and all sorts of… A big night of it, should we say. By the time I emerged into the dawn the next morning, we were making a film.

As they say now, they were a little bit sceptical. When someone approaches you and say they want to make a film about you, you take it with a pinch of salt. I said to them, “Look, I will make this happen by hook or by crook.” I’m happy I managed to stick to my word on that.

What’s your relationship with the band?

My basis has always been that they’re not just my collaborators on the boat, they’re my friends. There’s been four years of working together. They live two streets away from me, and they’ve babysat my children. They come around for dinner, and we hang out all the time. I met them at a time when I just moved to a new city, from London, and didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t family.

They’re the people now. When you want to go for a pint, you call the boys. And they’ve been very welcoming to me. They’re into their circle, their community of Irish speakers. I’ve done my best to make myself part of that, by learning the language and all of that. Their reputation for hating Brits is not very fair, given that they hang out with me.

How well did you know Belfast and its history before you started making the film?

I’d been coming to Belfast for about 15 years. My wife’s from west Belfast. But the first time I went to Belfast, the only thing I knew about it was what I’d learned at school. That was a certain take on the history of the place, that was quite British-centric and framed things in a certain way. Meeting my wife, and going there, and learning a different version of history, was a real eye-opener for me, that it wasn’t anywhere near as clear cut as I’d been led to believe.

Belfast is a very alive and vibrant place. It’s very colourful, the graffiti capital of Europe. I think there’s a lot of personality everywhere. It’s always felt to me like a great palette for a film. Living in a place where you’re filming has its advantages, because you’re almost always scouting in a way. Every time you wander somewhere, you’re always saying, “Oh, I wonder. I could film there.” By the time we got round to filming, I knew it like the back of me arse.

Did your opinions of the city change while you were making the film?

In the process of learning a language, you become more and more immersed in that culture. The more you get to know the band, and their families, you become more and more part of a community. It makes you feel closer to the subject matter.

But ultimately, as a filmmaker, I’m coming in as an outsider. I think that Kneecap, the story, was sitting under everyone’s noses. It took an outsider, with an outside perspective, to be able to connect those dots, because I don’t necessarily come with the same baggage as someone who’s from Belfast.

Because Belfast, you’re either one side or another. That’s just how the place is. And obviously, coming in, you’re not quite as entrenched as that. It gives you a slightly different perspective, and allows you to take the piss out of both sides, and everyone, in a way that is more difficult if you’ve grown up with a very particular viewpoint.

The film has got a lot of life and a lot of local energy to it. What was the response of the locals when you shot the film?

Overwhelmingly positive. People were very warm trying to accommodate us. They’re very special people, the people of Belfast. They love stories about their city being told. I suppose one thing is, we had to be very conscious of where we were filming, because the film being an Irish language film, it’s very clear what colours are nailed to its masts.

In certain communities, that is not a good thing. There was one scene we did where it’s a chase across a bridge. One of the most fervent Loyalist communities in Belfast is right beneath the bridge; it’s called The Village. But despite this being dangerous territory for us, there’s no other bridge quite like this – that was the one time to get our Lawrence of Arabia shot.

We decided the only time we could probably do it safely was really early on a Sunday morning, when we worked out that probably most of the people who might cause us trouble would be in bed hungover, and might not be arsed to come out swinging. We managed to get away with it.

How did you get Michael Fassbender on board?

It wasn’t as complicated as some people might think. We looked up actors who we thought spoke Irish, and Michael had mentioned in a couple of interviews that he’d learned Irish at school. There was a fairly short list of high-profile actors we felt we wanted to try and get for the role. Michael was the top of those, as he played Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008). That’s a film that’s very, very close to the hearts of people in Belfast. There’s a huge amount of love for Michael Fassbender in the city.

It was certainly the band’s dream to have Fassbender in the film, and it turned out Michael was a fan of theirs. Very quickly, he said, “I want to do it.” That was a wake-up call of, “Shit, we’ve got a real film going on here.”

There’s quite a blatant reference to Bobby Sands, where there’s a mention of “wiping shit on the walls”. Was that a little in-joke at his expense?

Absolutely. It’s a very meta joke. Some people are going to get that, some people aren’t.

Were there any music films that inspired you?

”The Commitments (1991) is certainly a reference point. That’s one of the greatest Irish music films of all time”Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections. Photograph by David Appleby

The Commitments (1991) is certainly a reference point. That’s one of the greatest Irish music films of all time. When we were pitching this, it’s always something that came up. I love The Harder They Come (1972).

Beyond that, there’s been very deliberate nods to films in there. Some filmmakers hate the idea of anyone thinking they’ve copied, or taken inspiration from anything. But I don’t believe in that. I think that you can get inspired by other filmmakers and pay homage to them, and poke fun at things, and remind people of the things that they’ve done. That’s all part of the fun of film, and we shouldn’t take it too seriously.

You’ve got something like Trainspotting (1996), where there’s the toilet scene. And we do a thing, where they disappeared into a bin. There’s a very deliberate nod to one of my favourite films. We make no bones about that, that we’re ripping that off in a fun way. This is our nod to the films that have come before us, that have broken new ground and covered similar turf.

The film tackles a lot of big subjects. The religious divide, drugs, the paramilitaries, the malign or otherwise influence of the police. And against this, the background of the Troubles being the recent past that still affects society, and the erosion of language. Among all those big topics, was there any one main point that you wanted to make?

There’s lots of interconnecting issues that we were dealing with. I think it’s about the Irish language. When we have that postscript at the end where we say an indigenous language dies every 40 days, it’s there for a reason. There’s a universal message about the importance of language, and culture, and how they go together, how the English language has become so hegemonic. That when a language dies, it’s gone and it’s never coming back again, and with it goes a history and a culture. We can encourage people to look at the languages their grandparents spoke and make an effort to learn it. That’d be a great thing too.

You’ve got a past as a journalist yourself. The film has wound up certain elements of the right-wing press. To what extent do you care about that reaction?

As a man who knows the inner workings of the Daily Mail better than most, we just see it as good grist to the mill. If this film was liked by those elements of the press, I’d be more upset than the fact that they don’t like it. The other thing: they’ve never even seen the film. When people start having a pop at you, about something they’ve not even seen, making judgements about what it is and what it’s about, that’s just ignorance.

If they’ve seen the film, and they want to critique it on that level, great. I’m sure they will. I’ve no doubt there’ll be another wave of controversy when they actually get a chance to see it. But at the moment, they’re just swinging in the dark, because it’s a great headline for themselves. That’s cool, because, ultimately, Kneecap have always been a great publicity machine themselves. And we’re sitting here in a pub unphased by it.

Kneecap, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund using National Lottery money, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.