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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The win that shook the balmy

I’m a bit late with it, but here is my Cannes film festival report. Did I mention that I didn’t go again this year?

Still, for once, there was a considerable flurry of interest in the festival this year in Ireland, aside from the usual interest in what the celebrities were wearing as they paraded down La Croisette. That is because this year the Palme d’Or went to a movie filmed in Ireland and featuring Irish talent, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Predictably, the immediate response of the Irish media was to print several pieces by columnists and analysts confronting the question: is this movie Irish or English?

This is a philosophical/cosmological/theological question that we have examined in these pages before. Given the increasingly international teaming that goes on in making movies plus the mobility of directing and acting talent to cross borders for work, it’s hard to rigorously put a national label on any flick, even ones produced by the Hollywood studio system. What sparked the question in the case of the Palme d’Or winner was the fact that its director is Englishman Ken Loach but its subject is one that goes to the heart of Irish nationhood, the country’s war for independence against the British and the subsequent Irish civil war. Is this movie which, given that it takes the point of view of the Irish rebels, can fairly be described as anti-early-20th-century British military, English or Irish? The waters were further muddied by the fact that a couple of British tabloids, which publish Irish editions, gave strikingly dissimilar coverage to film’s triumph in their English and Irish editions. In Ireland, the papers hailed the movie’s win while, in Britain, the papers decried the film as anti-British.

Add to all of this the fact that the Irish are generally going through a fair amount of soul-searching these days, as the seemingly interminable Northern Ireland “peace process” goes through fits and starts and the nation observes a string of anniversaries related to the birth of the modern nation. Some of the country’s treasured lore has been getting revised by some, while others continue to cling to it tenaciously. This may help explain why a Sligo-born Irishman like Neil Jordan would make a movie (Michael Collins) that portrays founding father Eamon de Valera as some kind of psychotic weasel, while the son a of an English midlands factory foreman who (the son says) probably voted Tory, makes a movie pointing out the sheer brutality of the hated British paramilitary reserves, called the Black and Tans.

Would this make Ken Loach the Michael Moore of Britain? Only in the sense that he inspires admiration and abhorrence from different sides of the political spectrum. This was on full display in the various reactions to his win at Cannes. In The Daily Telegraph, one Simon Heffer wrote, “He hates this country, yet leeches off it, using public funds to make his repulsive films. And no, I haven’t seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.” During an Irish Times interview, critic Donald Clarke read this quote to Loach and asked him if he would accept Heffer’s description of him as a “Marxist.” Loach dodged the question and added that “having a label hung upon you by a neo-fascist is not helpful.” (The usually quick and witty Clarke gave no indication he saw the irony of this response.) In terms of filmmaking talent, there is absolutely no comparison between Loach and Michael Moore. While his movies are sometimes a bit too earnest, Loach has created a significant body of well-crafted and respected feature films. While Moore has shown much skill and humor as a documentarian, his feature film output is limited to the inane comedy about a U.S. invasion of Canada, featuring John Candy and Alan Alda, called Canadian Bacon.

Loach previously examined Irish politics in 1990’s Hidden Agenda, in which Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif played American members of a human rights group, who go to Northern Ireland to investigate British excesses. Brian Cox played a British police official investigating a shooting that may not have been justified. Again, Brits in uniform do not come off well, as British security is shown to be corrupt up to the highest levels.

One of Loach’s admirable qualities as an artist is his consistency. You cannot watch his films and not know where he stands. The wish-washy term “left of center” does not do him justice. This is a man of the left, with no apologies. But, while his films can be seen as political tracts of a sort, he is no crude propagandist. His 1996 film about the Spanish civil war, Land and Freedom, had its heart squarely on the side of the Loyalists who fought against Franco. But rather than merely romanticize that doomed struggle, he analyzed why it might have failed, highlighting the fighting that went on among the various leftist groups that were meant to be cooperating. He also more or less brought the action to a complete stop as he had his characters debate land collectivization. Reportedly, he does something similar in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, in which he portrays an IRA column betraying a revolution ideal of redistributing land.

In his acceptance speech at Cannes, Loach proclaimed (to the certain ire of Daily Telegraph pundits), “Our film is about a little step, a very little step, in the British confronting their imperialist history.” And, inevitably, he later suggested that Britain’s (and America’s) imperialism is not entirely in the past, as he compared the events depicted in the film to the current situation in Iraq. If I could sit down for a chat with this filmmaker, I would dearly love to ask him, in all seriousness, what the British (and Americans) could or should do to actually confront their imperialistic history. Besides making and watching movies, I mean. And I would ask this in all sincerity. Some of us have hoped that our governments would, as distinct from the past, get on the right side of history. That they would stop propping up dictatorships for political expediency or opposing democratically elected governments simply because their leaders’ ideology was seen as “anti-American.” You see, some of us had hoped that maybe this was actually happening. After all, Tony Blair is no Tory; he’s the leader of the Labour party, for goodness sake. Saddam Hussein was brutal dictator who was responsible for thousands of deaths of year. Since his removal, there has been mass participation in national elections under United Nations auspices. Are not the Baathist insurgents more comparable to the forces of Francisco Franco than to the Loyalists, who (with significant help from foreigners) defended Spain’s democracy? I could be wrong. After all, I have been fooled before.

I cannot conceive of having the opportunity to have this conversation with Ken Loach anytime soon. And, if the opportunity did present itself, in all likelihood I probably would not engage him politically at all. Instead, I would congratulate him on the honor that was bestowed on him and for the more human aspects of his considerable work, notably in films about the working classes. Films like Kes and Raining Stones and, most recently, his rousing finale to the anthology film Tickets, in which three Scottish working-class soccer fans illustrate Loach’s faith in the ultimate nobility of the common people.

-S.L., 15 June 2006

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