I was in New York earlier this week to attend two special screenings of the soon-to-be-released Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes the Barley. The film was the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or (for best film) at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival–and rightly so, because it is indeed as “masterful and staggeringly powerful” as one critic described it. The film tells the story of the events leading up to the Irish civil war through the story of two brothers, Damien (played by Cillian Murphy) and Teddy O’Donovan (Pádraic Delaney).
The film’s success at Cannes seemed to me to present a significant opportunity for the Irish American community to use its US release to educate the American public about the current state of affairs in the north of Ireland, and I immediately got in touch the the film’s London-based distribution company. By the time the film was released in England and Ireland, I had been in touch with a number of interested members of the Irish American political community who were all just as eager as was I. My idea was, in part, to organize volunteers across the country to flyer at the movie screenings in an attempt to highlight whatever political issue was the most pertinent at the time of the film’s US release (today, that would be power-sharing on 26 March). Alas, this effort has not materialized for reasons I will save for another post.
After getting in touch with someone from the film’s US distributor, IFC Films, I was able to participate in the organization of a private screening for the Irish American community in New York this past Tuesday evening. I was able to invite a number of people from the community, and New York’s Craic Film Festival and the Irish Embassy came up with the rest. The film screening was followed by an after-party at a pub called Sláinte on the Bowery that was hosted by the folks at Craic and the Irish Embassy. It was indeed great craic (would you believe there was free Guinness and Irish whiskey?!), as I’m sure you can imagine, and I was able to meet some new people, reconnect with old friends, and see my family. Most of the people I spoke to were blown away by the film.
The following night was the very low-key NY premiere of the film at MOMA, which was followed by a Q&A with Loach and three of the actors. It was great to hear Loach speak about the film in person, and to hear the actors discuss what it was like to participate in a film that was shot in the area where many of them grew up. Loach has a very unique style of directing in which the actors do not get to read a script before the movie is shot, and most often do not know what is going to happen in the next scene until the very last moment (the Wikipedia entry that I linked to above discusses this). This had an especially large impact on the two lead characters who did not learn of the final scene until almost the last minute (think about this after you’ve seen the film).
This screening was also followed by an after-party at Il Gattopardo, which was pretty stuffy and much less fun and exciting than the one the night before–despite the fact that I was in close proximity to Cillian Murphy for most of the evening. (Don’t get me wrong, it was awesome, but I’ve honestly been more giddy meeting true republicans in Belfast than folks who play them on the big screen.)
However, I did get to meet Ken Loach, who comes off as a very sincere, genuine and sweet man–not to mention very politically right-on. I’ve included some quotes from him below. Please, please go out and see this film when it is released, and if it is not playing in a theater near you, get your local theater to show it!!
Not surprisingly, the film was met by harsh criticism by many British folks who were not happy with the portrayal of the British army. Loach, however, was unperturbed, as an article in the Irish Times describes:
Mr Loach said while he had never experienced such a level of animosity over any other film of his, he had encountered similar reactions in a play he had directed about Zionism. “I’m not surprised that they attacked it, but I am surprised by the level of personal abuse and viciousness – it’s quite extraordinary – and it says far more about the people giving out the abuse than it does about us or about the film,” he said.
“I hope those with an open mind will appreciate it, but there is a kind of hysteria if you question the role of the British forces – this is the most savage response I’ve ever had to a film but I know where they’re coming from and why they’re trying to destroy the film. I never met them so I can’t be personal but when idiots like that abuse you, it’s like water off a duck’s back. As someone said to me, in a way, it’s like a badge of honour, it means you’ve hurt them where they need to be hurt.”
Loach had this to say in response in “The locals who shook the movie industry…and why Ken Loach is sticking to his guns over award-winning IRA film,” :
“We were well aware of the complexities involved. There isn’t a political agenda at work on our part – I think you’d need a pretty closed mind if you approached something like this with a set agenda. Our film is a little step in the British confronting their imperialist history. Maybe if we tell the truth about the past we can tell the truth about the present.”
Along with fellow director Mike Leigh, Loach has always been something of an anti-establishment figure in Britain, and says he wasn’t at all surprised by the negative response to the film in the UK.
“What we’re seeing in Britain is a rabid rightwing reaction really, from personalities who can’t bear to have their sacred truth challenged. Many of these people can’t accept the fact that the Empire wasn’t just about giving sweets to the natives. It was also about oppression and brutality and exploitation. It’s the most despicable form of journalism, which is both personal and vitriolic, from people who haven’t even seen the film. I blame the editors for allowing it to continue.”