By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Wind That Shakes The Barley,” IFC Films, 2007]
Ken Loach must have an awfully big trophy case. The 70-year-old British writer/director has won enough accolades for three filmmakers, including two British Independent Film Awards, two Césars, a slew of prizes from the Berlin, Portland and Venice Film Festivals and several awards from Cannes, including, oh, the Palme d’Or for his latest film, “The Wind the Shakes the Barley,” a story of two brothers in the IRA during the 1920s.
I spoke to Loach on the eve of the US release of “The Wind the Shakes the Barley”; he used the word “balance” frequently during our conversation balancing the political content in the film, balancing the needs of one audience against another. It’s one possible explanation for why the film, for all its anger, never loses focus, never becomes a simple laundry list of injustices, and never forgets the human cost of war.
Is there anything more satisfying than winning a Palme d’Or? As awards go, it seems like one of the best.
It is one of the best. You don’t make films to win prizes, but it did give the film a seal of approval. It was very satisfying, particularly because it’s for the whole film, the actors, the writer, and the producer, the cameraman, everybody.
What drew you the material?
Well, it’s an extraordinary story of how people who were not professional soldiers, who were farmhands and clerks and shop assistants, drove the British empire, the most powerful empire in the world, out of their country. In and of itself, that’s a brilliant story. And then how that conflict turned into a civil war and why that happened, and the tragedy of that, is a very important story as well. I had it in the back of mind to do it for a long, long time.
Are Damien and Teddy [two brothers who are the central characters of the film, played by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney, respectively] based on specific people who were in the IRA?
No, but there were brothers who fought each other. There were two brothers in the town we filmed in called the Hales Brothers. The one who was anti-treaty had his fingernails pulled out by the British. The one who was pro-treaty was assassinated.
The story is about huge political issues, but at the same time, it’s also about these two brothers and their story. How do you balance those different aspects? It’s got to be difficult.
Yes, it is. It’s a balance but, in the end, the personal has to take priority, because otherwise you’re stopping the film to point something out to the audience and that’s just bad work. When you’re looking at the script, you’re thinking, “Well we’ve got to have a scene where we show this or that.” But actually, when it’s all cut together, the total effect makes things a lot more implicit and you don’t need to spell things out. I’ve found in the past that dialogue you put in in order to make a point you invariably cut out, because you don’t need it.
What’s the reaction to the film been like in England?
Well the right wing was apoplectic and seriously disturbed. There were a handful of right-wing commentators who just poured abuse on the film, particularly when it won the award at Cannes, because they hated this view of history being approved. A typical comment was, “I haven’t seen the film and I don’t intend to see the film. And I don’t need to read “Mein Kaumpf” to know what Hitler was like.” This was typical! It’s not an argument, it’s just abuse. You can’t discuss that! Apart from that, the reaction has been very good. In Ireland, it was amazing and really warm and supportive.
Watching the film, I was particularly struck by how often the soldiers are simply pointing their guns and yelling at the Irish. At some times there seems like there’s more screaming than actual dialogue in the film.
It’s the army technique! The British soldiers in the film are, by and large, real ex-soldiers. The Army wouldn’t help us, the reservists wouldn’t help us, so we had to find ex-soldiers. And I said to them, “How would you deal with this situation in real life?” They said this is what you’d do. This ‘wall of sound’ is a technique to disorientate the people. It isn’t about individuals being brutal, it’s a technique they’re taught.
I remember when I was given military training, you were taught how to bayonet an enemy soldier, and you had to shout as you were doing it. It’s part of the drill. You put the blade in, twist it around and you’re shouting all the time! And the shouting is, as I said, to disorientate and to confuse and to not give them time to settle. Cause if they settle, they’ll fight back.
Despite all the violence in the film, the most intense scene may be the one where the members of the IRA just sit and debate the treaty that’s just been passed [making the Irish state a dominion of the British empire].
Yeah, it was a very enjoyable scene to do. We’d had sessions beforehand where we talked about why people would argue from a certain point of view, and what their best arguments were. Everybody came to the scene not only with the script in their mind but with their own ideas that they could supplement. The substance of the scene is scripted, but I ran it like a real meeting and we filmed it like a documentary.
There’s an interesting line of dialogue in the film that goes, “It’s easy to know what you’re up against. It’s another thing to know what you’re for.” Do you agree with that statement?
I think it’s absolutely true of the vast majority of people. People will see injustice, or they’ll see the illegal war in Iraq or they’ll see exploitation of people and they’ll say, “This must end. This must stop.” But how do you construct a society to put in its place? That’s one of the interesting things that comes up at times like this. When an imperialist country is being forced out, the question becomes “What kind of society can we build?” And that’s the big question. In Ireland, some people weren’t into it, they just wanted the Brits out. Some people want the society to stay the same, they just want to be the ones in power. All that is up for grabs, but it was in many colonial struggles. The American constitution, for God’s sake; it wasn’t just about getting the British out, it was about Thomas Payne and the rights of man and wanting a different kind of country. And you’ve ended up with George W. [laughs]
“The Wind That Shakes The Barley” opens in limited release on March 16 (official site).