Sheffield may be 5,000 kilometres across the world from Toronto but even here, soccer fans can still see the effects of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The tragic incident took the lives of 96 Liverpool supporters, and forever changed the way stadiums around the world are constructed.
Filmmaker Daniel Gordon’s documentary Hillsborough carefully recounts the events leading up to the horrifying crowd crush, as well as the years of investigation that followed. Gordon has pedigree in sport filmmaking, directing the 2002 doc The Game of Their Lives about the North Korean team at the 1966 World Cup.
Hillsborough premieres in North America this weekend at Toronto’s Canadian Sport Film Festival.
The Hillsborough disaster is a very familiar piece of history for most soccer fans but to the general public in Canada, understanding of the event might not stretch much further than name recognition. Hillsborough has pretty much everything you’d need to know, as arguably the most comprehensive story of the disaster out there.
Gordon’s film relies mostly on interviews with people who were present on the day in Sheffield, including fans who escaped the crush, families of the victims, and stadium police officers. Gordon follows his subjects from the lead-up to that FA Cup semi-final matchday all the way to the latest inquest into the disaster, which wrapped up last year.
Hillsborough is long, stretching over two hours, but jam-packed with storytelling. The doc alternates between poignant personal anecdotes from the day and shocking accounts of the blunders that contributed to the disaster. Ultimately, everything seems to come back to the South Yorkshire Police; from a police prank six months prior that led to a department leadership reshuffle to the alteration of officer statements after the tragedy, Gordon’s portrayal of the force’s top dogs is scathing.
The first half of Hillsborough is a powerful narrative. The audience is taken right into the fray of the chaos in the Leppings Lane terrace and shown disturbing footage from the day. Fans and constables who were on hand take the film through it all minute-by-minute, splitting the viewer’s emotions between abject horror and outrage at police chief David Duckenfield’s inaction.
Although it’s easy to draw conclusions about the fate of the interviewees’ friends and family from their absence in the film, it’s still heartbreaking when we find out. Even if you already know all the details of the Hillsborough disaster, the movie’s description of April 15, 1989, is chillingly impactful.
The second half of Hillsborough recounts the convoluted pursuit of justice for the families of the 96 victims. Gordon shows the initial narrative peddled by the likes of The Sun, which - like the police - blamed hooliganism and alcohol for the tragedy rather than the poorly-designed stadium or Duckenfield’s failure to react.
The film follows the many investigations that have taken place over the past 28 years as the official blame seemed to shift repeatedly. The viewer feels the interviewees’ frustration as Hillsborough starts to piece together the extent of the South Yorkshire Police cover-up.
Hillsborough ends with the 2016 verdict from Sir John Goldring’s inquest, where – 27 years on from the disaster – the victims’ families were finally vindicated, closing the film on a rare note of comfort.
The latter half of the film can be a little hard to follow at times; it’s long, and it can be hard to keep track of all the legal battles. In a way, though, that helps the viewer sympathize even more with the interviewees. Gordon spares no detail in recounting the post-Hillsborough lives of his subjects.
The effects of the disaster on football are skated over a little, with the all-seater stadium rule one aspect the film misses, but Gordon chooses to focus more on the personal stories. In fairness, adding more runtime to the movie to touch on Hillsborough’s worldwide impact might make it much too long.
Hillsborough is not for children, with some of the darker scenes very difficult to sit through. It’s one of the best sports documentaries I’ve seen, though. It has very little to do with football really; anyone would be moved by the stories in Gordon’s film. It’s at once extremely detailed and deeply emotional, and well worth the two hours.