‘You can lay those deaths at our door’

Veteran director Ken Loach proves his political fire remains undimmed with new film Route Irish. By Richard Smirke

Over 40 years experience of filmmaking has taught Ken Loach practically every shortcut and time-saving method that can be utilised on a shoot. But even with his wealth of experience, the sheer physical, mental and emotional rigour involved in making a movie can still be an overwhelming, draining endeavour.

“To begin with, before shooting starts, you think: ‘I will never get through these six or seven weeks. It’s too much. I should stop now,’” he states. “Then you get into it and you get into a rhythm, but you still feel quite buggered. As you get towards the end your spirits lift and you think: ‘I could go on all year doing this.’ And then you finish and a day later you feel complete shafted. About a week after you’ve stopped, you feel quite deflated and you have no energy for anything.”

Comedian John Bishop gets his first serious role in Loach’s Route Irish

Still he continues, though. Now aged 74, Loach has been producing gripping, moving, confounding and, more regularly than you would perhaps think, damn funny cinema and television for over four decades, commencing with his directorial debut on a 1964 episode of long forgotten BBC drama series Teletale. Career highlights include the influential TV docudrama Cathy Come Home (1966), his first full length feature Poor Cow (1967), and the still timeless Kes (1969), which the British Film Institute voted no less than number seven in its poll of the best British films of the 20th century.

The 1970s and 1980s was a less profitable period, with the under-rated Family Life (1971) a critical and commercial flop, leading Loach to return to earthy television drama and forthright political documentary, much of which was never screened through fear of upsetting union leaders, broadcasters or government officials. Thankfully, the 1990s brought a remarkable reversal of fortune, starting with the Cannes-winning thriller Hidden Agenda (1990). What followed arguably stands head to head with any auteur’s back catalogue: Riff Raff (1991), Ladybird Ladybird (1994), Land And Freedom (1995), My Name Is Joe (1998), Sweet Sixteen (2002), The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) and Looking For Eric (2009) are just some of the highlights in a startling body of work that places Loach among the all time masters of European cinema.

“It’s just a privilege to be able to do the work,” he shrugs bashfully, his slight frame wrapped snugly in two jackets and a scarf to combat a cold.

Route Irish, Loach’s latest film and his first to tackle the Iraq conflict, does not rank alongside his best but is still an honourable, powerful work that sets its crosshairs on the western corporations and governments that have privatised war. Reviews have ranged from the wildly enthusiastic to the indifferent, but its director appears not to be unduly concerned by either opinion.

“I think it’s going to be a difficult film to judge. It depends whether it grips you or not. Oddly enough,
I think it might play better with audiences than with critics,” states the softly-spoken, intensely humble septuagenarian, ahead of a well-received public screening in Sheffield.

Written by long-term associate Paul Laverty and set jointly in Liverpool and the war-torn streets of Baghdad, Route Irish is a bleak and moody revenge thriller exploring the murky realities of private security firms working in Iraq. Having long pondered making a film about the occupation, it was the real-life appointment of private security firms throughout Iraq, coupled with the passing of Order 17, which essentially granted contractors freedom from the law, that gave Laverty and Loach the foundation for their story.

“For big business to dominate it demands an aggressive foreign policy.”

“We thought that brought it full circle because the war had been fought, it seemed to us, in the interest of the big corporations,” explains the Nuneaton-born director, who recruited native Scousers Mark Womack and comedian John Bishop to head his cast, ably supported by the superb Andrea Rowe. “The big corporations are making money not only out of the fact that they will have a sympathetic, welcoming government there but out of the war itself, by getting contracts to fight the war and to maintain the occupation.

“That’s the dark art of the whole thing. For big business to dominate it demands an aggressive foreign policy, which Bush and Blair delivered. At the route of this is the desire to dominate. It’s the old imperialist urge, isn’t it? We have to plant our flag everywhere and this is one place where they decided they wanted to plant their flag.”

Filmed partly in Jordan (doubling as Baghdad), where Loach and his crew met many Iraqi refugees who shared with them “horrific stories of family members being killed”, Route Irish pulls no punches in its acerbic attack on the occupation and those responsible. Loach openly admits that the character of Haynes, a soulless smooth-talking security executive, is modelled on Tony Blair, while one of the film’s most unsettling moments features a contractor being waterboarded. For an indication of how realistic this scene is, the actor Trevor Williams, whose character is subjected to the torture, had a panic attack and nightmares for two weeks following the shoot. The controversial inclusion of newsreel footage of dead Iraqi citizens has, meanwhile, triggered acquisitions of exploitation – a charge that Loach strongly denies.

“When people see the film we want them to feel horror and anger that this has happened,” he states, the faintest trace of menace creeping into his otherwise warm and friendly voice. “I think if you’ve been in something traumatic, you want the world to know. So I think that’s an appropriate way for the footage to be used. It’s important that we know what we instigated. You can lay those deaths at our door and at the doors of the Americans. We began it. We paid for it. It’s down to us.”

The physical challenge of film making becomes tougher

Unsurprisingly, Loach’s vitriol for the Labour government of Blair and Brown is equalled by his contempt for Cameron and Clegg. Following the preview screening of Route Irish at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema, he urges the audience to support the 26 March anti-cuts march, talks up the virtue of collective action and takes a sly dig at organiser the TUC for its lack of stealth. The political fire that has long driven his films still burns brightly, it seems, even if the physical challenge of film making becomes tougher with each passing year.

“Getting up in the morning gets harder,” he states ruefully. “You need a buoyant group of people around you to carry each other through.”

His next film will be set in Glasgow, Loach says, and will revolve around criminals doing community service orders. “There’s a few smiles in that. It’s just a story really of everyday folk, really,” he adds, almost downplaying the notion that anyone would be interested in what he does. Admittedly, box office receipts for his low-budget, often understated movies are never going to trouble Hollywood blockbusters but there still remains a loyal and eager audience for the type of rich, challenging and poignant cinema that Loach creates (although not in America, he jokes. “They prefer the Americans to be the heroes.”).

“I guess somebody is going to have to say stop because you’re not up to it anymore,” he hesitantly offers when asked about retirement. “I hope that they will. I hope that I’ll recognise it.”

In the meantime, there remain numerous stories to tell and films to make. Inspiration is everywhere, he says with a playful grin.

“You’ve only got to sit on a bus and overhear people’s conversations. People are always doing things and going through things that are good subjects and good stories. Listen to the Today Programme and you’ll start the day in a rage. That inspires you to fight back, raises the blood pressure and generally gets you moving.”

Route Irish is out now. Ken Loach photo: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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