The Hillsborough Documentary That Shows What Really Happened In 1989 Will Finally Air This Weekend

We spoke to director Daniel Gordon about the harrowing process of interviewing the families of the 96, and why he included the voices of police officers in the story.
06 May 2016, 10:25am


The Hillsborough disaster was a human crush that killed 96 Liverpool fans during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15th of April 1989. Following the disaster, police attempted to cover up their failings with a series of lies, apparently intended to shift blame from themselves onto the fans. Last week, after 27 years, the jury in the Hillsborough inquest finally ruled, finding that the 96 people who died that day had died unlawfully.

Daniel Gordon's documentary Hillsborough is an in-depth examination of the events that led to the crush and its repercussions. Graphic, intense and moving, the documentary features footage of Hillsborough that has never before been shown publicly, as well as the testimonies of survivors, families of victims and police officers.

The film was released in 2012, and though it was prohibited from being screened in the UK while the inquest was ongoing, it has been shown in North and South America, New Zealand and Australia. It was named Most Outstanding Factual Programme at the ASTRA awards in Sydney last year, and in 2014 was nominated for an Emmy in the Exceptional Merit In Documentary Filmmaking category.

Ahead of the film's UK debut on Sunday, we spoke to director Daniel Gordon about the incredibly emotional process of interviewing the families.

VICE: You're a Sheffield Wednesday fan, and you've made a lot of sports documentaries. Were those your motivations for making this documentary?
Daniel Gordon: I do make a lot of sports documentaries, but to me the human stories behind sports are always the most interesting thing.

I was actually meant to be at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster. I was going to be a steward – a volunteer selling programmes. Now I'm relieved I didn't manage it, because my mates who were there selling programmes were in the gymnasium [used as a makeshift mortuary for the deceased] counting their money, when everyone came in.

I was 16 then, so the same age as an awful lot of people who died. You get that "it could have been me" feeling. I'd been in crushes, as all fans of that era had been. I'd been in similar environments to the Leppings Lane terrace [where the crush took place]. It really struck a whole generation of football fans.

One striking element of the documentary is that there is no overarching narrator. You use talking heads from the police, experts and survivors, and there are lot of silences. Why did you decide to do that?
I wanted the story to tell itself. Viewers aren't getting guided by a helping hand; they're just seeing the story unfold before them. I think that's especially important for a story of this magnitude. It helps that we've got Professor Phil Scraton in there [who wrote the book Hillsborough – The Truth and led the Hillsborough Independent Panel]. He is almost the narrator, he fills in a lot of gaps without being scripted.

But when you include a traditional narrator you have to decide what kind of voice you will have. But I didn't want a voice. I wanted a story.

I was surprised by your decision to include the voices of police officers in the documentary, and I was surprised by how candid they were about their experiences. Why did you decide to include the police given how controversial their roles were in the disaster? How did you persuade them to be so candid?
I wanted a truthful account of Hillsborough, and for me that had to include police officers. The Taylor Report of 1989 noted the heroic deeds of junior officers in "ghastly" circumstances, and they were let down by the senior command. I felt it was important to tell their stories too.

They were nervous about how they came across and how they would be treated by other bobbies. One dropped out of filming and had to be persuaded to come back. Being interviewed for a documentary requires a big leap of faith for any film, let alone one about Hillsborough. I had to build trust.

I approached South Yorkshire Police and they wouldn't cooperate with me, and advised the officers who contacted them about the documentary not to cooperate either. They said that was policy. So I found officers through personal connections.

Family members of the Hillsborough victims gather at St George's Hall in Liverpool to mark the outcome of the historic inquest this week. Photo by: Peter Byrne / PA.

One of the police officers recounts, in shocking detail, a breakdown he experienced as a result of Hillsborough. He talks about bursting into tears involuntarily, and wetting himself.
I was hugely surprised by the extent they were willing to share details like that. He was an ex-squaddie, ex-miner and a former police officer. He was a very tough cookie. I thought it was very brave of him to tell me about his breakdown.

It was also clear that he needed to talk about Hillsborough. I have a friend who was at the other end of the ground who says he still can't block those images out. People can't just get over Hillsborough and move on.

The police showed signs of PTSD, and in the macho environment of South Yorkshire Police at the time there was no help for them.

The person in charge of the day was David Duckenfield. Before Hillsborough, Duckenfield hadn't had any experience of policing football matches. The documentary could have portrayed him as a man who was simply out of his depth, but instead he comes across as hubristic and arrogant. What was your impression of him?
People do stupid things in the heat of the moment, and if he had admitted early on that he'd made a mistake, people might have accepted that despite the horrific nature of the deaths. But he didn't – he was very defensive during the Taylor Report in 1989. In fact Lord Taylor criticised him for his evasiveness.

The first time he apologised was during the inquest 26 years later. He lied on the day, suggesting that Liverpool fans had broken the gate down to gain access to the terraces [in fact it was Duckenfield himself who had opened the gate, South Yorkshire Police corrected the story later on]. It was a very big lie, and one of the reasons some people believe to this day that Liverpool fans were responsible for Hillsborough. He told that lie when there were 90-odd people dead 50 yards from him.

He was in overall control and he didn't make himself familiar with what he was supposed to do. His defence was that he had once policed a Billy Graham concert. Billy Graham is an evangelical preacher – it's not exactly the same crowd!

It's not just about hindsight, either. I was a 16-year-old when Hillsborough happened, I could have told you then when the crowd was out of control – a good half an hour before the gate was opened.

The bulk of the documentary is devoted to events on the day itself, as opposed to the way the establishment responded in the 27 years since. Even people who have watched a lot of footage of Hillsborough will be affected by how distressing that part of the documentary is. Why did you put so much emphasis on what happened in the stadium?
The actual day has never been explored in that level of detail before, and I think in order to show what went wrong and the complexities of that, the day does need to be deconstructed forensically.

There was original footage in the documentary that has never been shown before. Only wide shots were released for news, but I got hold of all the footage of the day. The footage in the documentary is what jurors in the inquest had to sit through before they came to the verdict of unlawful killing. I felt it was important to show people what had happened, and be sensitive and mindful of what is being shown. I wanted to make sure the families I spoke to were ok with it too. Some were grateful to be able to see what had actually happened. They had always been denied that chance.

There are scenes that you want to unsee. There are a lot of stills that are just horrific, and the footage of the crush itself is terrible. There were moments where you would see someone alive in the footage, and then moments later you would realise they were dead. It was really, really horrific – the utter chaos and desperation. Some footage was too upsetting to include.

It was really horrific – the utter chaos and desperation

On a personal note, a lot of the shots were taken from the part of the ground where I would sit to watch Sheffield Wednesday. It felt very familiar; like I was there. I wanted to make the viewers feel like they were there too.

What role did the city of Liverpool itself play in the disaster?
At the time, Liverpool was being beaten down by the Thatcher government, and – as a consequence – by society at large. Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. And the Guardian's David Conn observed that cities like Liverpool were a threat to that belief, because there was community and people were organised. It would have been easier for Thatcher if Liverpool had been a broken city. There was a lot of sneering at the Hillsborough campaign because of the way Liverpool as a city was viewed.

The people going into court for the inquest – the survivors and families – were just ordinary people. So for them to achieve such a victory in the face of everything that was thrown at them is an incredible thing. I'd like think that any city would have done that, but I think Liverpool was better placed to win because of the sense of community. Also, because Liverpool was isolated, it developed a siege mentality – it was like that Millwall chant: "no one likes us, we don't care." That attitude allowed them to keep going even when they were being ignored.

In the documentary, Professor Phil Scraton says, "The price of Hillsborough was institutionalised injustice." What does Hillsborough mean to you?
Hillsborough should make us a lot more sceptical of authority. Doreen Jones was a member of the community who trusted the police. Her son was a PhD student, and the police implied he was a drunken hooligan who had caused his own death and the deaths of others. We should take time to learn more about what we're being told, instead of simply reacting.

Hillsborough is also a story of institutional complacency. In 1981 there was a crush at Leppings Lane, which was remarkably similar to what happened in 1989. The chairman of Sheffield Wednesday said the idea that people could have been killed was "bollocks". He didn't like the fact that police had allowed fans to escape the crush by sitting on the perimeter of the pitch because it looked untidy. The warning signs were there and they were ignored.

But there was another side of Hillsborough that has been lost to history to an extent. People in Sheffield allowed fans to use their phones to tell families they were safe, and this was in the days when phones were quite expensive. Taxi drivers took families from the hospital to the morgue and wouldn't accept a fare. There was goodwill from the ordinary people from Sheffield.

When you look at the footage of the day, it is obvious that the problem wasn't drunken fans. You can see fans trying to help the injured and dying. In light of that, why do you think the untruths persisted in the face of so much evidence?
The initial coverage of Hillsborough was horrific. The Sun headline "The Truth" is notorious, but nearly every paper ran similar stories. There are people who still believe the police's version of events. I think they don't want to believe the police could fit them up. They want to retain faith in the system. Without that, what do you have?

Perhaps it goes back to that feeling of, "it could have been me." People wanted to think that the fans must be to blame, because if innocent people can be treated in that way, we could all be treated in that way. But I also think stereotypes of working class people as a "tanked-up mob", to quote Bernard Ingham [Thatcher's press secretary], came into play. It was divide and rule.

The establishment closed ranks over Hillsborough too. The Hillsborough Independent Panel found that Thatcher refused to welcome the findings of the Taylor report because it was critical of the police.

The most moving element of the documentary is the testimony from survivors and the families of victims. What was it like to work with them?
It was hard, but also rewarding. One day we interviewed seven or eight family members for about 11 hours, and by the end of it I felt broken. But that was one day for me; they've had to deal with it for 27 years. No one could ever imagine what they've been through. A double tragedy: first the loss, and then the lies.

She wasn't allowed to cuddle her son because he was the property of the coroner

I built personal relationships with family members, I've become very close to them. I will be watching the documentary with Doreen Jones in Liverpool next week [the mother of Hillsborough victim Richard Jones, who died with his girlfriend Tracy Cox. Stephanie, Doreen's daughter, was also at Hillsborough and survived]. She is wonderful. In the documentary, she talks about the fact that she wasn't allowed to cuddle her son because he was the property of the coroner. She says, "I brought him into the world. I needed to see him out. I needed that." It brings tears to my eyes.

Hillsborough isn't just 96 people, it's 96 generations – it has rippled through generations. Every family will have had relatives who died before justice was done. Some children of survivors and victims who weren't even born at the time have taken up the fight since.

Dan Davies was a survivor who spoke publicly about Hillsborough for the first time in the documentary. When the inquest verdict came through, he was the first person I called because I knew he was working in London and wouldn't be in the court. We just cried on the phone. It was amazing.

Hillsborough airs on Sunday 8th May, 9pm, BBC Two

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