Ken Loach: "We could have made a whole film of brutal acts and gone on for 24 hours."

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty create a stir with Palme d'Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
Cannes, 2006

This is the second film you have made about Ireland, the first being Hidden Agenda. Why Ireland again and why this particular period?

(KL) "Paul has a long family connection to Ireland and I've been interested in this subject for a long time, and I think we both felt that those years of 1920-21, 1922, were pivotal. Those were the crucial years because they defined everything that had gone before and everything that came after. So not only was it the central story for British-Irish history, it also was a classic account of a colony struggling for independence, of an army of occupation dealing with a civilian population, and equally important, of when there is a possibility of independence, what kind of society do you construct? Because there was a leadership struggle to decide, what kind of society can we build? And Damien actually says, ‘I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it.' What was that Ireland? So those three things apply over and over again in many different situations."

Both brothers, Damien and Teddy, would be labelled terrorists today, wouldn't they?

(PL) "This is a fascinating question when you think about it, isn't it? The notion of terrorists and how it's been defined and how it's been constructed, because if anyone took an objective view from a human rights point of view of how many innocent people have been killed, by far the majority have been killed by state terrorism. That shouldn't really be contentious but it's almost impossible to say. But look at Columbia just now, look what's happening in Iraq. All you have to do is look at the history of Latin America and Central America, which I had lived through and I had seen - it was actually financed by states. Now it's been defined as Bush's ‘war on terror'. It's really quite fascinating how they got away with it and I think it really shows a lack of critical thinking.

"But going back to your question in relation to the brothers, this is why we were very keen to place it just after that vital election in 1918. It was the last all Ireland, all British election; Sinn Fein won 72 out of 105 seats, they had a democratic mandate for complete independence from the British Empire, they set up a parliament in consequence of their mandate, Lord French banned that parliament, when they complained they were put in prison, when they wrote about it they banned their newspapers, so what do they do in those circumstances? All peaceful methods were actually barred to them. There was violence perpetrated against those people who tried to follow the democratic wishes. So out of that came the war of independence. But it's fascinating that the people who opposed the British state are always deemed to be the terrorists. I think it's worth unravelling and going back and examining that."

What is the human cost of violent revolution?

(KL) "Well you can count the cost in many ways. First of all trying to establish a peaceful independent country the cost was brutal oppression by the British. And then once that has happened, it is inevitable that people will resist, because they always do. So I guess the cost is the exposure of the hypocrisy of empires in this case. You can count it in all kinds of ways but it just exposes the hypocrisy of empires, in this case the British Empire, which claimed to be exporting civilisation and tolerance but was actually exporting violence, brutality and oppression."

There was a critic on British TV yesterday who said that while he really liked the film he felt we had to be careful not to glorify the IRA.

[Loach bursts into laughter] "Oh God preserve us! God preserve us! It is amazing! It is amazing!"

But do you differentiate between the IRA of the 1920s and the IRA who years later carried out bombing campaigns in London, Birmingham, and so on?

(KL) "I think this is an outrageous question and an outrageous point to make. The brutality is on record. We could have made a whole film of brutal acts and gone on for twenty-four hours. I mean just imagine it: they slit a man's throat, they tie him to a cart, they drag him for a mile and kill him. They beat a man's skull in. A woman comes to the door with a child in her arms, they shoot the mother. I mean how much brutality do you have to show for someone to actually take it and say, ‘Yes, we did that', without trying to get a sort of dagger in underneath?

"The IRA of the 60s and 70s was a product of the despicable treaty that the British imposed at the point of a gun. If the British hadn't imposed partition, there would be no Provisional IRA. The entire responsibility lies with the British state. The entire responsibility. Everything that has emerged has been a protest, sometimes a violent protest, sometimes an aberrant protest, but nevertheless a protest, from the brutality of the British and the brutality of the British Empire embodied in bastards like Churchill, who not only sent the troops into Ireland, he sent the troops against Welsh miners in his own country when they wanted a decent wage. So I mean we should have no tolerance at all for these questions that try to indicate that somehow the resistance to British brutality is not acceptable."

Post-9/11 most resistance is now classified as terrorism, isn't it?

(PL) "Actually, it's funny how the language and the psychology hasn't changed very much. There was that great phrase by Churchill, talking about Ireland, ‘We have terror by the throat'. It doesn't really change very much."

Do you think the movement from a struggle for freedom to civil war is an almost unavoidable process?

(KL) "No, I think if people were to accept a democratic decision that people take, and were not to occupy them and were not to oppress them, civil war is not inevitable. Doesn't history tell us that? It comes from the denial of democracy, not the assertion of democracy. People don't go out onto the streets to vote. They go to vote and then they are denied the democratic will and then there's violence. That's the way it seems to me."

Is it easier for you to talk about the present through the past?

(KL) "I think we have to rescue the past. You know, it's the old, much-quoted saying, ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.' We have to rescue the past."

I really like the way you combine the political and the personal and show how we got to where we are, whereas I was a bit troubled by something like United 93, because that doesn't contextualise the event and its power almost makes it seem obscene to ask questions about the reasons for 9/11. So what responsibility do you think filmmakers have when they are dealing with historical subject matter, and especially events which are still having repercussions today?

(PL) "I suppose, because there's a thousand different ways to tell this particular story, I mean you could have told the story from the point of view of a young Tan and that would have been fascinating. You know, a demobbed soldier, brutalised after the First World War, unemployed, given money and sent over to terrorise. That was a systematic and planned decision that came from the British cabinet. There's a fascinating story to be told there. But the one that we thought was most interesting to us, and gave us more possibility to examine many ideas that were current at the time, was through a flying column, because you've got different classes within that group. You've got young farm lads, young farmers' sons with different interests from the farm labourers, you've got artisans, and, actually, I discovered, the Cork medical faculty was very Republican, and there was actually three young medical students with a flying column, and a voice like Dan, played by Liam Cunningham, a railroad worker who had lived through the 1913 lockouts, who had seen what Irish capitalists had done to the urban worker, through that they've all got different points of view and their vision of Ireland is all very, very different.

"So, though a flying column, it gave us a chance to echo, reflect and mix up all these contradictions, so you feel that you're being truthful to the times really. So we felt a massive responsibility to be accurate with that. I'm not saying that every single voice was Socialist, but some were, and many were not. Many were confused, like Steady Boy Murphy, who cannot deal with it. So we tried to touch on and paint a mosaic of many different voices."

(KL) "I think the other point you make is, what is the responsibility like in general terms? You can get very pompous about this, really, but I think it is that if you can ask the root questions, which is what we tried to do - we may have failed - but when you take an incident the interesting thing is to ask the questions that get to the bottom of it rather than just describing the event."

I think with 9/11 the problem is that the why hasn't really been addressed. People like Chomsky and Gore Vidal posed questions early on but they were shut out by the mainstream, and films like United 93 and, we're told, World Trade Centre, although we have yet to see the final film, essentially depoliticise what is a political event.

(KL) "Yes, I agree. I agree."

(PL) "But it doesn't only happen in films. It happens in the news agenda. It happens like Gordon Brown on January 15th saying we must stop apologising for the British Empire. It's all part of that same matrix. You know, this selection of facts to suit our politic."

Your next project is going to be a contemporary piece. Which is more difficult: making a historical drama or something set today?

(KL) "Well doing something set in the past is only a challenge for research and art direction and clothes. Everything else is the same. You're still battling with the light, you're still struggling against the clock, and everything else. But having done this, which is quite a large film, we wanted to do something short and sharp and contemporary."

(PL) "To have done this film in 35 days was amazing, really."

You have courts run by women in the film, which I think many of us didn't know existed. Also, you include scenes where the characters just debate issues, something you were widely criticised for doing in Land and Freedom.

(KL) "They were real the courts. And when the treaty was proposed, there were huge discussions within what they call the Republican Family, to decide what the opinion should be. But I think there is an important point here because in Britain there is a kind of heresy in film criticism which is that film can only deal in images and that verbal conflict and dialogue is not dramatic and cinematic, and I fundamentally disagree with that. I think certain things have to be expressed in language. The ideas that Paul was talking about you have to express and refine in language, because only language can carry the nuances. Images are too ambiguous. And it was a struggle for ideas, it was a struggle for political position, it was a struggle for class interest, and you find that in language. So there is a real issue here that film can deal with argument and ideas and conflict like that."

(PL) "Talking about the Republican courts, what was key, following the new parliament, when that was not recognised, was they were very creative and they said, ‘Okay, it's not just a war, we'll try and set up our own infrastructure. We will take control of our own courts.' All the local authorities started recognising the banned parliament so there was an attempt to build up an alternative power structure outside the British Empire, and women were key to that just as they were key to the safe houses and intelligence."

The actors said when they worked with you there was no script and they went along with the events in the film. Is that how it is?

(KL) "No, it's not like that at all. There is a script, which is a result of a long process, which Paul writes and is very precise. The only point, which is a really minor point, is that in order so that you feel it's really happening, rather than being very heavily rehearsed, is we shoot in sequence and they have the script as they go along. But they get the script. Ninety-five per cent of what they say are Paul's words. They sometimes feel they've improvised more because when we were shooting we improvised a lot more. It's just a technique and it's not a thing to make a big deal about."

(PL) "They've got to believe. When you see them in the eye if you don't believe that you don't believe anything and you've failed."

Ken, you are very good at creating intimacy within a broad historical context. How do you go about achieving that?

(KL) "Again this is something that is shared between us but I think if you choose fictional characters then you can choose an array of characters and relationships that have an in-built conflict and in-built tensions, and the story is really the working through of those tensions. But because they come from different positions, their history gives them different experiences and they reflect the wider tensions and the wider conflicts. I think if you remove that personal narrative you're just left with big political figures doing big political things and you lose that sense of lived history.

"One way of looking at the film, I think, that we were aware of is the relationship between the brothers, Teddy and Damien. Teddy, as he says, he's older, he was the man of action, he's dynamic; Damien was more reflective, he's a thinker, he's more academic, and Teddy has always been the stronger of the two. He says he was always the stronger of the two. But in the very last scene, when Damien is going to be executed and they face each other across the table, Teddy is losing power in the relationship and he's saying, ‘Please, will you tell us where the arms are? Will you go back home?' and Damien is the strong one. He looks him in the eye and says, ‘No.'"

Which of them do you prefer?

(KL) "Well, you know, it's not a preference. It's the kind of struggle of person against person. It's the kind of working through of a sibling relationship. It's principle against pragmatism."

Some people have said that Damien is a fanatic or fundamentalist.

(KL) "I don't think he's a fanatic at all and I don't think he's fundamental. I think he's got quite a shrewd reading of history. You know there are such things as revolutionary times, where revolutions are possible, and they're very rare, you know? It doesn't happen very often. His reading of the situation is: this is the moment when things could change. Somebody says in as many words, ‘If this moment passes, never in our lifetime will we see it again.' I don't know if you will agree, you may not, but there was a sense that the door was just a little bit open."

So we should be on the side of Damien?

(PL) "It's very easy to look back. What we're very keen to do is be true to the time. The key event there was the threat from the British cabinet of ‘immediate and terrible war'. From their point of view and what they'd lived through, that was a real and genuine threat. I'm sure you know there is a great debate about how serious that threat was, and many historians think it was a real and serious threat. But what would you do in those circumstances? You're a young man, you're 20, you've seen friends tortured and murdered, and you're looking ahead and saying, ‘Right, will they invade and just absolutely wipe us out and many more besides?'

"There was great integrity, I think, in Teddy's point of view there - it was the [Michael] Collins argument - when he says, ‘Freedom will achieve freedom.' It's alright for us sitting here in Cannes, drinking gin and tonics, to say, ‘Nah, nah, I'm going to take on the British Empire.' And don't forget Teddy says as well, ‘You're part of a minority government, are you going to give the green light to Africa and India?' Those were really key, thoughtful, intelligent reflective points. But at the same time you can understand Damien when he says, like, ‘John Bull has his hands round your bollocks. You have the Attorney General who can veto everything. You will be a puppet government.' There was great truth in that as well. I think it's very finely balanced and I think it would be incredibly arrogant of us to say, ‘I would be on his side.' I think it's a lack of imagination to think how fucking terrible war is, really."

These aren't ideologists they're a grass roots response to what was happening.

(PL) "Some are confused. Some are frightened. Steady Boy can't deal with the [civil] war afterwards because he's been through the First World War and he can't shoot his friends. There was terrible confusion and people were mixed up. For young people, don't forget they're all under 30, most of them, the idea of being picked up by the British and being tortured was terrifying. So it's very easy to look back in hindsight and say we'd do this or that.

Which do you find easier to make, Ken, historical films such as this and Land and Freedom, or social issues films like Sweet Sixteen?

(KL) "These have a dimension that those don't have. The difference is this, I suppose: the pictures that are, I think, stories of everyday life, like the boy in Sweet Sixteen, you can simply tell their story, because the characters have a consciousness which is just very ordinary. They're not political, they just live their lives. But like in Spain, or Ireland at this point, because the conflict is so public and so great, in the course of the conflict, people get political. It politicises people. So then the added problem of doing a film like The Wind that Shakes the Barley is to absorb and do justice to that consciousness, which is politicised and can use arguments, and can be self aware in the way that characters in Sweet Sixteen are not self aware. They just see life at ground level. But these characters, like Dan and Damien and the others, they're beginning to see the whole picture. So the difficulty is trying to include that while moving the narrative forward."

Do you believe cinema can change people's consciousness?

(KL) "Well cinema could be like a library. You could have a documentary book, you can have a historical record, you can have a dramatisation, you can have a fantasy. It should be as wide as a library, really."

Do you think a British audience is ready for this story?

(KL) "British audiences, yes. British film critics are something else. They see the world like a horse with blinkers. The problem is getting past the critics to the audience."

(PL) "A question in one of today's papers was: ‘Were the Black and Tans really that bad?'"

(KL) "This is a serious, respected, newspaper reviewer. One of the most respected in the business."

(PL) "It's a matter of record, you know? They always like to portray it as the exception, as a few bad eggs, but they were sent there with the mission to terrorise and that is directly linked all the way back to the British cabinet, and there is minutes there to prove it. It would take two minutes to check it out. It's not contested. The Central Court was burned down. The library was burned down. A hundred creameries were burned down. Hundreds of civilians were killed. Many were tortured. It's quite amazing, really."

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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