Shortly before the release of Ken Loach’s film Route Irish, the Cameo hosted a preview screening in conjunction with Take One Action, the Edinburgh based charity ‘celebrating the people and movies that are changing the world’. Loach, one of the UK’s most prominent directors known for his highly politicised social realist filmmaking, has followed-up the relative levity of Looking for Eric with a return to earlier territory with the tragedy of a character imprisoned by circumstance. Route Irish in portraying the role of private security contractors in Iraq casts light on the increasing commercialisation of war. The film’s billing as a conspiracy thriller has perhaps invited some unfair criticism, as although somewhat uneven Route Irish deals deftly with the horrors of a foreign war we have largely been sheltered from. Loach is able to explore the abuses executed by, and on, these uncounted mercenaries, and the trauma they are left with on their return home. Alongside this Loach creates moments of quiet pathos which seem more representative of the film’s overall tone than the occasional burst of violence.
Prior to this screening we had the opportunity to speak with Ken Loach and Take One Action’s artistic director Simon Bateson about privatisation, the ability of cinema to create change and the current state of the British film industry.
White Lodge: Route Irish focuses on the increasing privatisation of modern warfare which is quite an unusual approach to the situation in Iraq. What was the origin of this story?
Ken Loach: Well the origin was when we saw the soldiers leaving and the private contractors becoming more important, and it was happening without people taking too much notice. It obviously seemed to us really significant particularly for democracy, because if the military’s involved, if the army’s involved, then the politicians have to be accountable, they have to answer questions. To subcontract the jobs to private security contracting companies then nobody knows about them, the bodies don’t come home in a coffin with a Union Jack on them, politicians don’t have to stand in parliament and answer questions, the papers aren’t saying “bring the troops home”, so we privatise it we hide it, and if you hide it it’s not democratically accountable. So that’s why we thought we should dig into it.
WL: You’ve mentioned finding the ‘microcosm that suggests the bigger picture’ and, as with your films in the past, Route Irish uses a very personal and intimate story to reflect larger issues. What were your intentions in exploring the more personal horrors of war and locating these expressions of trauma and anger back home?
KL: I mean the microcosm is Frankie’s death and what caused it, and the relationship between Frankie and Fergus and Rachel, and Fergus’ post-traumatic stress; his disintegration. So we hoped, and I think this was Paul’s idea with the script, that as you unravel the mystery of the death one revelation is not only about how he might have died it’s also about the circumstances of Iraq, the circumstances of our contractors’ behaviour, of the military’s behaviour, of what we’re doing there, the consequences to the Iraqi people, the torture, the abuse. All these things which are big political issues, if you get it right, are just revealed through the story. You don’t have to make a speech about it. Nobody stands and makes political statements from beginning to end. It’s that little microcosm of a story that sheds a light on all those other things.
WL: And how did you become involved in Take One Action?
KL: Well [Simon] got in touch and said what he was doing. I think the idea that films should be good, should grab you while you’re watching them but then should have something in them that is worth reflecting on afterwards is a really important idea, because it can work both ways. You can have [instances] where the film is suggesting different perspectives, new ways of looking at things. You can also have films which are without declaring it supporting a status quo and are asserting things that are actually false. What was that American film that had the tagline ‘Truth needs a soldier’ about the CIA? It’s one of these all action films where it’s not only about the action it’s about the fact that the Americans are defending freedom and democracy which, you know, we would all challenge. So I think you can examine films both to identify the ideas that are implicit and then you might agree or disagree.
Simon Bateson: And that’s something that Take One Action’s all about, trying to give audiences the opportunity to verbalise together some of these critiques. We’re brought up with the idea of cinema [as a form of] religion in some ways, as this infallible reflection of the world that shouldn’t be questioned and shouldn’t be challenged. We show films which [are aimed at] getting people to debate and connect with filmmakers but also with campaigners and politicians after screenings. To take the story apart and ask questions about them and hopefully get on to “where does this story come back to my life”, which is obviously what’s great about Ken’s work and why it’s great to have Ken involved or have Ken associated with what we’re doing, [in] that often with really difficult issues; like Iraq, like war in Nicaragua, or even poverty in Scotland, people can feel like these are stories that are statistics and too big to engage with and overwhelming and on the other side of the world. But bringing it right down into the personal lives of the individuals that those issues affect gives the audience immediately a point of relationship to the issue that is so vital.
WL: There’s been criticism in the past that your films often express an inherent pessimism that leaves the audience ‘with little prospect of positive change, no manifesto of how things might be different.’ Do you both feel that film has the power to affect real change? And if so does a filmmaker have a responsibility to demonstrate this?
KL: No, I guess the only responsibility filmmakers have is just to deal honestly with the medium. I mean you can’t lay down; “films should do this, films should do that”, there’s got to be diversity. The state should have no policy on what films should be, that would be disastrous. But as to pessimism, I don’t think they’re pessimistic, I think there’s a lot of [optimism]. In this particular film which is one of the darkest we’ve ever done, there is some hope. I mean there’s an Iraqi singer in it who sings about his country and says that it’s the cradle of civilisation and that maybe one day it will be again. And I think that is hope but I don’t think you can offer false hope. I think that’s what most films are and what most newspapers do, what most presentations do is to offer false hope; that there’s a short-term fix, you know, in that, I think in this case, the idea that private security contractors can continue with a little regulation is a false hope. Their raison d’être is to make money and that’s what they have to do otherwise they can’t function, so regulation is not the answer. In every story there’s a little false hope. We once did a film called Kes about a boy who trains a kestrel and has obviously a very bad life ahead of him, and one of the reviewers said “well couldn’t he get a job in a zoo?”. Well that misses the point, it was a whole class of kids that were going to have that problem, they couldn’t all work in zoos, you know. I mean it just misses the point and those kind of short-term palliatives kind of miss the point, so I think you have to confront the reality before you can be optimistic.
WL: And then there’s obviously organisations like Take One Action that provide the audience with ways to take things forward. It doesn’t have to be the job of a filmmaker.
SB: Well I guess what we do is give a platform for, alongside great films and filmmakers, the people that are doing the really hard work day to day. Whether it’s John Hillary [Executive Director of War on Want] or someone else that’s involved with these issues. Ken I think you’ve been talking to John in the process [of making Route Irish] to not just find the glib solutions but to get stuck into the difficult issues, and I imagine John complicated things for you as much as made them easier in terms of the story.
WL: The next thing I wanted to ask about was the use of archive footage in the film and what motivated you to use this hybrid of documentary and fiction?
KL: Well we didn’t want to do a film of soldiers, or would be soldiers, dashing along the streets and shooting rifles and getting shot at and all that, because somehow the violence in Iraq is too raw for that, for a bit of film recreation. There were some things we had to recreate for the story but apart from that we wanted to show the audience real stuff because, A. it’s in Fergus’ head, so those are the images in his head when he’s stressed and [that are] responsible for his decline and B. they are so shocking that the audience has no escape but to say “this is what we did, this is what we set in train and in a sense we are responsible and our taxes have paid for it”. And I think you know when you see those images they’re not created for the film, you know that’s actually really what it was like. And we were, in this country, protected from those images. It was believed the war was very clean and tidy, so I think we need to see that. When you see the real things, you can’t say “well that’s just film blood.”
WL: You can’t shy away from it.
KL: No, and that’s our responsibility.
WL: How do you think film, by that I mean fiction, and documentary differ in their ability to show these issues? Because I know you’ve worked in documentary before.
KL: You need all sorts. I mean fiction can explore into people’s minds and relationships in a more intimate way, it can do what fiction does. And documentary can make arguments; documentary can try and do an interview with ex-defence secretary John Reid, or ex-defence secretary Malcolm Rifkin, say “what are you doing getting involved with private security contractors?” For us to put that into a fiction film you’d suddenly stop the story and do a bit of polemic and that’s not good filmmaking but in a documentary you can, so you need all sorts really.
WL: I wondered if you felt a particular responsibility at the moment, as a socialist filmmaker, to respond to the current political environment? Or maybe it’s too soon.
SB: Haven’t you been responding to the political environment for the last thirty years.
KL: I mean what else can you do but respond. I think as regards filmmaking, unless you’re doing a straight documentary, then in a way the films have got to be informed by the judgements you make about politics but not dictated at. I mean once you start to make a film you put that to one side and you just have to be true to the characters and true to the story, you can’t bend the research to fit in what you want. But no, I think it’s hard not to be motivated to try and give support to those who are really in the front line, whether they’re now health service workers or council, all the people who are threatened by the cuts and the privatisation and all that. You have to support them, how can you not?
WL: Have you any thoughts on the future of the British film industry, particularly in light of the UK Film Council’s recent closure? I know most of your funding comes from elsewhere in Europe so do you think this is a module other British filmmakers will have to follow?
KL: Yeah, I mean the biggest problem has always been distribution and exhibition. I mean there aren’t many cinemas like the Cameo around. Most people see most films in the multiplexes, most films shown in the multiplexes are American commercial films. I mean they run our film industry. Even a film like The King’s Speech, part of its success is because the Americans like it and they give it the awards. We’re colonised by the Americans in films and that won’t change, didn’t change under the Film Council. You can do little things but this government is intent on the market deciding everything, so we shall struggle, continue to struggle.
SB: Was there a lot of pressure after Looking for Eric to just make another Looking for Eric?
KL: No not really, not especially [laughs]. And we’re a cheap date, you know, we don’t cost much.
First published at www.screengrabmag.co.uk April 2011