“This film is going to be very controversial”: Kneecap movie director Rich Peppiatt on Irish-language rappers’ biopic premiering at Sundance Film Festival

David Roy chats to Rich Peppiatt about the Belfast-based director’s biopic of the anarchic west Belfast rap trio, which will become the first ever Irish language feature to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next week...

Kneecap in a scene from Kneecap
Kneecap in a scene from Kneecap

“THIS film is going to be very controversial in the north, moreso than anywhere else,” admits writer/director Rich Peppiatt of his feature debut, Kneecap, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah next week – the first ever Irish language movie to do so.

It stars the titular west Belfast-bred Irish language rap trio – Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and balaclava-cad DJ Próvaí, aka Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin and JJ Ó Dochartaigh – as themselves, alongside a supporting cast including Michael Fassbender in a fictionalised, fantastical version of their headline-grabbing origin story as talented, anarchic post-Troubles troubadours with a knack for annoying all the right people.

Set in 2019, the film finds Kneecap rising to fame while becoming figureheads for the civil rights movement and saviours of the Irish language. Along the way, they do battle with police, paramilitaries and politicians.

“Everything in the film is slightly exaggerated,” continues south Belfast-based Peppiatt, a former London tabloid journalist turned award-winning film-maker, “but we always said if we were going to do this film, it would need to be true to who Kneecap are – saying things that no-one has dared to say, not pulling their punches and breaking down some taboos.

“We’ve certainly done that, and not everyone is going to be happy about it.”

West Belfast rap trio Kneecap pose with a red 1980 Mazda 626
Kneecap being Kneecap with a classic 1980 Mazda 626. Picture: Peadar Gill
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To date, it’s mainly the north’s PUL contingent who have been irritated by Kneecap, thanks to the group’s vocal support for an Irish Language Act and a united Ireland in their lyrics, onstage comments, social media posts and specially commissioned wall murals featuring burning PSNI Land Rovers.

By the sound of it, the upcoming film is unlikely to be seen as any kind of olive branch, as Peppiatt explains.

“We have one scene where Liam Óg is being chased over the Tates Avenue bridge by an angry Orange Order band while wearing a green Ireland World Cup Italia 90 tracksuit – our Lawrence of Arabia shot, as I like to call it,” reveals the director.

“I remember thinking, ‘Yep, this is going to get us in trouble’. But I think it probably helps that I’m English: the fact that I can say, ‘Well hang on, I wrote the thing, and I’m a “Brit”’ will give us some sort of defence against the usual suspects.”

A photo of Rich Peppiatt, smiling awkwardly
The Kneecap director is a former tabloid journalist

He adds: “My wife is from Belfast and we’ve lived here for five years now, but I’d been coming over for 15 years or so before that – so it feels like home. Although I will always be a Londoner at heart.”

The director first encountered Kneecap when he stumbled upon one of their gigs back in 2019. It wasn’t long before his journalistic and film-making instincts kicked in, as he explains.

“I didn’t have any idea what they were rapping about, but people were going mad for them. To my great shame, at that point I thought Irish was only spoken by a gaggle of farmers in the countryside – it wasn’t spoken by young people from urban Belfast.

“I didn’t realise this community existed, and I found that really interesting. The government was collapsing over the Irish Language Act – meanwhile, here were these three young guys reclaiming Irish as their own and forging a very modern and controversial identity through it.

“Then I spent the next few months trying very unsuccessfully to convince them to have a drink with me.”

Happily, Peppiatt eventually wore Kneecap down.

“We went to Maddens and had a pint, and that pint led to another pint, which led to a 12-hour bender,” chuckles the director, who spent two years learning Irish while working on the project.

“By the time I emerged from their house at some ungodly hour the next day, our fate was sealed: we were going to make this film.”

Kneecap, who are set to release their debut album later this year, were heavily involved in the creation of their eponymous feature film debut.

“I said to the band from day one that this was going to be a collaborative process,” advises Peppiatt, whose acclaimed 2014 documentary One Rogue Reporter found him taking his former tabloid paymasters to task.

Produced by Belfast’s Fine Point Films, it seems the Kneecap project captured imaginations within the industry right from the start.

 Kneecap: Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí
Kneecap: Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí

“We’ve had this real blessed path of people getting behind us,” explains the director, who interviewed the band extensively to help generate story ideas and also organised acting classes for them with top local teacher, Kieran Lagan.

“We’ve had lots of people putting money behind it from the early days. I think they were also recognising it was a story that hadn’t been told before.

“It really helped that Kneecap’s profile was building the whole time: they went from being an underground Belfast band to the whole-of-Ireland recognising them, and then the UK and America too.

“They have this uncanny ability to find themselves in the news pages and even on the front pages in a way that most bands don’t.”

A massive boost of publicity for the film came when Michael Fassbender signed on to play Móglaí Bap’s father, a former republican hunger striker.

“Michael got back to us to say he’d read the script and wanted to have a chat, so we had a Zoom conversation,” recalls Peppiatt.

A black and white photo of Kneecap director Rich Peppiatt on the set with actor Jessica Reynolds
Kneecap director Rich Peppiatt on the set with actor Jessica Reynolds

“And that was it, he was onboard. That put a rocket up things. That was the moment where we went, ‘oh, s***: this is real. We’re making a proper film now’.”

Of Fassbender’s character, the director says that “there are parallels with Bobby Sands, which we play with a little bit. Because [Bobby Sands] is a role that Michael is known so well for [in Steve McQueen’s Hunger], I think that was a good access point for him to get under the skin of this character.”

And, despite the Belfast group’s lack of previous acting experience, it seems the top Irish star was very impressed with Kneecap’s dramatic skills.

“Móglaí Bap had a two-hander with Michael quite early in the shoot,” recalls the director.

“It was quite the emotional scene, with a lot going on, so I was nervous – but he smashed it. It almost brought a tear to my eye.

“I couldn’t believe he’d pulled it off, nor that someone like Michael Fassbender was so impressed by him.”

Next week, Kneecap do Sundance. Next year – the Oscars? You’d probably be unwise to rule anything out at this point.

Kneecap premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 18 and will be released in Ireland later this year. More info at finepointfilms.com