Director Ken Loach
Ken Loach directs The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2007). Photo: IFC Films

Ken Loach’s new film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, won the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. According to critics, the subject matter—Irish resistance to British rule in the 1920s—made it a safe choice. Political and engaging, the story concerns two Irish brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who join the freedom fight against the Black and Tan squads sent by the British to repress the Irish independence movement. The film details the horrific abuses of the British—boys shot in the back, girls raped, villages raided—at a fast-paced rhythm, and educates the audience as to the roots of the Irish conflict today.

Although the storyline seems somewhat forced, with each scene having a predictable crescendo of tension, the movie succeeds in making the subject vibrant and visual for viewers today. The climax of the film is a stalemate treaty between the British and the IRA, with the two brothers taking opposing sides: One opts for a conciliatory attitude toward the British, leading the way to a compromised Ireland, while the other urges the fight to the finish, despite the fact that it would mean more violence. It is a topic relevant to power imbalances today, states the director, a comment on the war in Iraq, the situation in the Middle East and other conflict areas where one foreign power dominates another. MM caught up with Loach and The Wind That Shakes the Barley screenwriter Paul Laverty to get to the bottom of the matter.

Karin Badt (MM): Can you comment on the importance of the past? Does cinema need to remind us how conflicts began?

Ken Loach (KL): Yes, absolutely. You can’t understand how things are now unless you understand the journey of how you got there. The turning point in Irish history is a result of the events we depict in the film. For 700 years, the British ruled Ireland; it was a long struggle to get independence. Then, when they fought Britain to leave, the British made a deal which divided the country and left them with a legacy of pain, which has gone on for nearly a century. Also, the kinds of things that happened in Ireland repeat in various countries: Armies of occupations, a colony trying to gain independence, an imperial power trying to defend its interests, debates about what kinds of societies we want to build. It just recurs and recurs.

Paul Laverty (PL): If you tell this story truthfully, about a colony fighting for independence and the question of resistance, I think there are lots of parallels—backwards and forwards.

MM: Everyone seems to lose in history—at least in the historical films you have made. Is that your conclusion?

KL: No, it’s always two steps forward, one step back—a long struggle backward and forward. Will people win? Will the Palestinian people gain independence and be able to live in peace? Who knows? It depends on us. We all share responsibility to do whatever we can.

PL: There were moments when peace was possible. If the British elite had the forbearance to move away from Ireland, there was a chance. But they had so many economic interests in other parts of the world. You see, the British do not respect democratic systems, because it means sharing resources. That’s the struggle in the United States as well—it’s a corporate culture.

MM: Can you comment on the aesthetics of the film? How do you work with your cinematographer?

KL: I’ve worked with [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd for a long time now. We try to develop an aesthetic—if I may use such a pretentious word—between us, like a pair of eyes that you share. It has to do with a certain kind of light, a certain range of lenses. It’s not extreme, like wide-angle lenses, which turn people into objects, and it’s not the telephoto kind of thing, which is quite unnatural. It is a perspective and a rhythm of editing and accuracy of detail that you light in a way that just lets the drama be, without highlighting it in an unnatural way.

The actual operating of the camera is quite creative, because there’s a freedom for the people in front of it. Barry’s very good at finding frames that are pleasing and also spontaneous. So that if I am speaking and you interrupt, he will be on you; when he hears your voice, he’ll just find you. Your frame will be as pleasing as mine, and compatible. So often, when we’re shooting a scene, we’ll just find one point of view on it.

MM: Are there other moviemakers whom you admire for their storytelling methods, in terms of dramatic arc and rhythm?

PL: We really appreciated Michael Haneke’s last film, Caché. Just the skill to have you gripped by the story the whole way—it was like a little bomb at the end.

KL: I admire some of the older films, such as The Bicycle Thief, and the Czech films of the 1960s.

MM: What is the difference for you between making a historical film and a contemporary film?

KL: The consciousness of the characters is very different. In most of the contemporary stories we have done, the people don’t see their situation in perspective. They live their lives; they deal with events as they experience them from day to day. Their consciousness is at eye level. The stories set in the past that we have done have been stories of conflict, war and engagement. That forces people to become political. Everyone gets politicized and engaged.

At that time of this film, people were very political in Ireland. There had been a big industrial dispute in Dublin, the Easter Rising against the British in 1916, then the war. People were politicized—conflict makes you political. The characters have a consciousness that is quite high and you have an opportunity to absorb that into the drama.

MM: How do you feel about the British response to your film? Didn’t they shout at you?

KL: The British are very sophisticated at dealing with dissent. They don’t take you on. The shouting was unusual; usually they slight you with a review that says “That’s kind of interesting, but we’ve heard it all before. Don’t go and see it.” They won’t take you head-on. The reviews in Britain are very different from everywhere else. The British are a very sophisticated ruling class. You know the phrase “repressive tolerance?” That’s how the British deal with dissent.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley will be released through IFC First Take on March 17, 2007.

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