Wind That Shakes the Barley, The: Interview with Ken Loach

Cannes Film Fest 2006–British director Ken Loach talks about his new political film, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which won the top prize, the Palme d’Or in the 2006 Festival de Cannes.

Initial interest

I first became interested in Irish history through Jim Allen, when he wrote “Days of Hope,” the story of a soldier who volunteers for the First World War, but who gets sent to Ireland, instead of going to fight in France.

Hidden Agenda

My film “Hidden Agenda” was about contemporary events in the North, but we always felt that those events could not be understood without knowing why Ireland was partitioned, and how the conflict originated.

Pivotal moment

I think what happened in Ireland in 1920-1922 is one of those stories that is of permanent interest. Like the Spanish Civil War, it was a pivotal moment. It reveals how a long struggle for independence was thwarted at its moment of success.

Economic power

The colonial power, in divesting itself of its empire, still managed to keep its strategic interests in tact. That was the cunning of people like Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead et al. When they were forced into a corner, when it wasn’t really in their best interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country and give their support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands, who, in the time honored phrase, ‘they could do business with.’

Iraq War, U.S. and Britain

There is a pattern you see again and again, this kind of manipulation by the ruling power, how different interests will unite in the face of a common oppressor, and then ultimately how these contradictions inevitably have to work their way out. I am sure you can see it in place like Iraq now, where the opposition to the U.S. and Britain brings together a lot of people who will find that they have different interests when the U.S. and the British are finally forced out.

What was possible in 1922

Could the anti-Treatyite forces have won, and in what direction would they have taken Ireland It was only five years previously that the 1916 uprising was led by the Marxist socialist James Connolly, whose independence movement was based on class struggle: ‘The cause of Ireland is the cause of labor.’ In contrast, the malign effects of what was actually agreed in the Treaty stayed with the Irish for decades. Continuing hardship meant that people left in their thousands for England and America. Partition lead inevitably to the war in the North, with its suppression of civil rights.

Lingering memory

I was surprised how familiar the arguments still are in and around Cork, where we were filming. Obviously, it’s very current in the North of Ireland, because they’re still fighting some of the same battles. I thought in the South it would have faded, but we were always meeting people who had stories to tell. Most people knew the names of the characters involved, of the local Flying Column heroes, and had a knowledge of dates and incidents’a tan was chased across that field there, so and so was caught here.’ So the memory lingers a lot longer than people think.

Starting a new narrative

At the start, there is only a blank sheet of paper and the big historical canvas, and the question is how to distil this into human experience. The screenwriter Paul Laverty sets out the characters and a narrative, which follows then through different conflicts, alliances, and resolutions.

Limited understanding

If you get that right then the characters are absolutely rooted in their own experience and understanding, but that understanding is necessarily limited. The film’s understanding must be separate from all these individual points of view, and be able to see them operating on each other.

Research

When we are making the film, we have to trust that we’ve done this earlier work well enough so that, if the actors are simply true to their characters, then everything else will be implied and revealed.

Implying rather than stating

Paul Laverty is very good at working out a narrative where everything is implied. Things don’t have to be said head on. It should be like a field of turnips really, where you can just see a little bit coming out of the soil, but everything is below the surface. If the script is right, the characters should then be able to be as idiosyncratic as they need to be, and you know that the heart of the story will still be there. Anything that is wrong in the script is rarely resolved after you start filming.

Authenticity challenge

What was a challenge, that I am not sure we could quite resolve, was finding the balance between period authenticity and keeping the film contemporary and current. There may be some purists who will draw in their breath at one or two phrases. But in the end I think that’s a small price to pay. You can never recreate the past exactly, it’s always an approximation, but you try and catch the spirit and avoid any clichs. Older people might notice the language more, because they’re closer in time to it. That’s a difficult balancewhatever you do is never entirely satisfactory.

Films’ collective character

What’s always extraordinary to me is that films take on a collective character. If you pick the right program for preparation, it sets the context for the whole film, and the way the actors will work together. On this one, there was a weeklong basic training just before the shoot. So, although the first week was quite physical and tough, the character of the film emerged and that’s then what you live off, that collective spirit.

If the actors were turning up on a daily basis and just doing it and going home, it wouldn’t workthere’s got to be a collective consciousness, which you can all refer back to. The collective effort always includes running gags, one or two people who are nominated as comics, and there’s usually a couple that mysteriously develop injuries, which means they can’t do the toughest jobs!

Hypocrisy of war films

There is often a hypocrisy going on in war films, where they claim to be anti-war, but then a large part of the entertainment involves all the explosions and the blood. That doesn’t seem very anti-war to me, if you’re saying we hate killing, but let’s enjoy it while it’s on screen. There’s a long tradition of it going back to Jacobean drama, but without the poetry I think it’s a bit cheap. If you see a lot of blood on screen you know that presumably they haven’t killed thousands of people, so it becomes a distraction, and takes you out of the film.

Anti-British film

I wouldn’t call my film anti-British. I’d encourage people to see their loyalties horizontally across national boundaries, so that this isn’t a film about the Brits bashing the Irish. People have much more in common with people in the same social position in other countries than they do with, say, those at the top of their own society

Viewers’ responsibility

You can argue that we have a responsibility to attack the mistakes and brutalities of our leaders, past and present. Far from being anti-patriotic, it is a duty we cannot ignore. It’s interesting that Blair has recently been discussing anti-Americanism. In doing this, he wants to substitute the American government for the people, i.e. don’t attack the bad things the government is doing, because you’re attacking the people. It’s a false argument that’s been used for a long time.

British legacy

The British left a terrible legacy in Ireland, and progressive forces suffered huge setbacks after the Treaty. But in spite of this, and in spite of the suffering that is depicted, the fact still remains the British marched out. There is an element of hope in that.