Ken Loach Takes Aim At The Mission In Iraq, Capitalism, And Corporate Greed

Sitting down with Ken Loach to discuss his explosive new film, Route Irish, I remind him that the last time we met he was under attack from the likes of Michael Gove, now the Government's Education Secretary, and Simon Heffer over his sympathetic portrayal of the Old IRA, in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. “Oh yeah,” he says smiling. “Right-wing shits, they are.”

Heffer hadn't actually seen the Palme d'Or-winning film but declared pompously that he did not need to “any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.” Far from feeling hurt, Loach says he regarded such criticism as “a badge of honour”. If they hadn't attacked him and the film's screenwriter, Paul Laverty, “I don't think we would have done the job properly,” he insists. “When you catch [people like Gove and Heffer] on the raw, that's brilliant. The urbane ruling class mask of genteel superiority slips and you see the kind of bandits they are underneath.”

He expects – and I suspect he might be disappointed if he doesn't receive – similar blasts for Route Irish, which explores aspects of the Iraq War that Loach believes no one on the Right wants to talk about. “They just want our brave boys doing a brave job,” he says, whereas Route Irish addresses “the torture that we've either done or approved of or accepted or condoned,” and “the greed that was involved and the corruption. I don't think they want to hear that anymore.”

Taking its title from the dangerous stretch of road connecting the relative safety of Baghdad's Green Zone to the city's international airport, the film follows Fergus (Mark Womack), an Iraq war veteran in Liverpool, as he tries to uncover the truth about his best friend and former brother-in-arms Frankie's (stand-up comedian John Bishop) violent death in Baghdad. He was working for a private security firm and his bosses claim that he was simply in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. Fergus is unconvinced and sets about investigating events, all the time haunted by the horrors of the Iraq war and struggling with the damaging effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That Loach, an outspoken opponent of the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, has tackled the controversial war is not surprising. What is, however, is that his film has arrived four years after Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha, Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah and Brian De Palma's Redacted, among others. I ask him why has it taken this long?

“We just didn't want to join the group of films where it was all about the minds and the bodies on the street and people running around shooting each other, because what we wanted to get at were the things you wouldn't necessarily see if you do that, which is the illegality, the corruption, the lies, the greed, the brutality, the torture and the privatisation.”

The privatisation became more apparent, he says, when the military began to move out and private security outfits like Blackwater started to move in to take their place. Operating under Order 17, they had the freedom of the land and immunity from Iraqi law, which they exploited with sometimes lethal consequences for the local population. Their emergence “brings it full circle”, argues Loach, because “it was the greed of the big corporations that drove the war. They have to constantly expand. They are driven to find new markets . . . That means they have to have an expansionist foreign policy which means that their political apologists, or the political people that they put in power, effectively, like Bush and his gang, pursue their interests through American foreign policy. It was very important for us to deal with the private contracting companies because they are a part of that. So there is a kind of virtue in waiting to see that.”

As Fergus's probing peels back more layers, it reveals more of Loach's litany of iniquities: “So you find out everything you need to know just in investigating that death." Fergus's behaviour throughout is informed by the brutality he has witnessed and been a part of, first as a soldier and then as a security operative. At one point he even waterboards someone in a desperate bid to extract a confession. Trevor Williams, the actor who played his victim, experienced panic attacks for days after shooting the scene, says Loach. “He's a brave guy. If there's any justice, he'd be up there collecting his bauble.”

The film leaves little doubt, if there were any, about where Loach stands on the war and its effects. The violence doesn't stay on the battlefield but comes home with the men whose lives have been changed irrevocably by their experiences. Fergus is a danger to himself and other people; violence is his primary mode of connection. “Car explosions, landmines, torture have been his world for a long time,” says Loach, “and he can't make contact with anyone. His normal human interaction is denied him. He's horrified by what he's done but he can't relate in the normal emotional give and take with people.”

A nurse working with soldiers with PTSD – a timebomb which can take 15 years to go off, according to the filmmakers -  told Laverty, “These men are mourning for their former selves,” because they can never be who they were, such is the damage done to them. A soldier said, “The Army winds us up but they can't wind us down,” recalls Loach. “They come back and they're shot to pieces mentally. They're edgy and they're volatile. It's not surprising, really.”

Meanwhile the people responsible for the war appear to have got away with what the film-maker regards as a crime. He doesn't expect Chilcot to turn up anything new, and believes that we already know enough to haul Blair et al into court. “The illegality couldn't be any clearer. And waterboarding is torture. This rendition that they talk about is collusion because they're taking [people] places to be tortured. So there's no question of their guilt." As for Teflon Tony, "What really gets up people's noses about Blair, I think,” spits Loach, “is that he's on the American lecture circuit coining millions from his villainy.  Jesus, I just hope he can't sleep at night.”

Route Irish is available to buy on DVD, courtesy of Artificial Eye

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