Film's take on Irish history rankles Brits
Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' shakes up Britain with its account of the rise of Irish independence.
In May, Loach marched up Cannes' red steps to receive his first Palme d'Or, a sparkling moment in a career spanning some 40 years. But just hours later across the Channel, a British backlash had begun against the film, which delves into Ireland's troubled colonial past.
"Why does this man loathe his country so much?" screeched a columnist from the Daily Mail, subsequently adding that, no, he hadn't seen Loach's new film, but he knew exactly what kind of filthy pro-IRA propaganda it contained.
Taking up the cudgels, a columnist in the London Times called the Nuneaton-born director a traitor to his country and compared him unfavorably to Hitler lenswoman Leni Riefenstahl.
"This kind of crude name-calling utterly stifled any real debate about Britain's occupation of Ireland and the Irish struggle for independence," lamented Loach by telephone. "The right wing acted hysterically because they can't stand the idea of the British Empire being questioned."
One central tenet of Loach's historically based film is that in 1918 there was a democratically held election in Ireland in which Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, won an overwhelming majority in favor of independence from Britain. The film says it was Britain's refusal to recognize this majority that gave rise to Ireland's fight for independence and the birth of the Irish Republican Army.
"We knew the film would be contentious," said Paul Laverty, Loach's longtime screenwriter. "Most of the right-wing critics who attacked us after the Palme d'Or had not actually seen it and were determined to rubbish it from the very start. They had made up their minds that what happens in the film was not part of the traditional narrative of how British history is taught."
Not the first time for Loach
THE vociferous attacks, Loach felt, severely limited the extent of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley's" release in the U.K., where Irish-themed films have traditionally struggled to break out. The film appeared on only 41 screens, compared with more than 70 in Ireland and more than 300 in France. (It opens in Los Angeles in limited release March 16.)
Indeed, something similar happened with Loach's 1990 Northern Ireland-set film "Hidden Agenda," which drew on elements of the Stalker "shoot to kill" affair, in which IRA suspects were fired on without any attempt to arrest them, and the "Clockwork Orange" plot, an alleged secret British security services' smear campaign against the Wilson and Heath governments of the 1970s. One critic went as far as to describe the film as the IRA's official entry at Cannes.
"You have to remember that a lot of people in Britain, and to a certain extent in Ireland, are afraid of their own history," said Irish director Jim Sheridan ("In the Name of the Father") by telephone. "As a filmmaker, you've got to feel passionate about making films about Ireland — it's certainly not a very financially rewarding career move."
Such was the case as far back as 1935, when John Ford, a man proud of his Irish roots, waived his considerable salary to make "The Informer," which, like "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," is set in Ireland during the "Troubles" of the 1920s. The film went on to win Ford his first Oscar for best director. Some 12 years later, English director Carol Reed made the remarkable "Odd Man Out" starring James Mason as a wounded IRA gunman on the run from police.
The highest-grossing film to be made about the IRA was Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" (1992), which made $63 million at the box office in the U.S. Initially Jordan's highly original script about a conflicted IRA gunman falling in love with a transvestite received no interest from the States. But Jordan persevered, and Miramax made an offer to distribute the film in the U.S.
"I think the Troubles has provoked some of the finest political writing, journalism, theatrical writing and films around," said English film director Paul Greengrass, who as a young journalist working for the British current-affairs program "World in Action" became the first reporter to film inside Northern Ireland's notorious Maze Prison.
It has taken a long time for much of this work to see the light of day.
'You didn't get anywhere'
GREENGRASS is not sure he would have been able to make his 2002 film, "Bloody Sunday" — a dramatization of the Irish civil-rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on Jan. 30, 1972 — if it hadn't been for 1998's Belfast Agreement.
"When I cut my teeth making documentaries for 'World in Action' during the 1980s, everything was hedged by immense restrictions," said Greengrass. "You couldn't film in Northern Ireland either on the BBC or ITV [Britain's two main broadcasters] without first informing the broadcasting authorities that that is what you intended to do. Film after film that 'World in Action' made was banned. It was the graveyard — you didn't get anywhere making films about Northern Ireland. It was sometimes a frustrating business bearing witness to what went on in Northern Ireland for British audiences at a time when British audiences weren't very interested in what was going on."
Feature films faced similar obstacles. Sheridan was an established director with films like "My Left Foot" and "The Field" under his belt when he wanted to make "In the Name of the Father," based on Gerry Conlon's book about his wrongful imprisonment as part of the Guildford Four. But he had to produce it himself because nobody else would.
Since then, Sheridan's production company, Hell's Kitchen, has produced Terry George's "Some Mother's Son," about the hunger strikers, as well as co-producing "Bloody Sunday" and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley".
"I look to support films about Ireland that are made by directors who have emotional honesty like a Paul Greengrass or a Ken Loach," said Sheridan. "The likes of 'Bloody Sunday' and 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' are much more than just films to me. They're a record."