KEN Loach would rather people like me didn’t call Route Irish his “film about the Iraq war”.
“Tell everyone it’s a mystery, or a revenge thriller!” he laughs.
The highest form of patriotism is to criticise your country when it’s wrong… that’s the point of a democracy – Ken Loach
Of course, 73-year-old Loach has been in the business of making films about the unpleasant complications of real life long enough to know that his doing so tends to drive various authority figures and right-wing media outlets into a frenzy, quite often without the inconvenience of actually seeing the film.
But it’s also true that Route Irish actually isn’t about the Iraq War as such, although that’s certainly the backdrop to the film, shot last November at locations in Liverpool, including the Malmaison hotel, Merseyside Dance Initiative on Hope Street, the docks and near St Bride’s Church on Percy Street, with Jordan (the country) doubling as Iraq for a week of key scenes.
Named for the infamously dangerous road that runs from Baghdad’s airport to the international “Green Zone”, and penned by Loach’s longtime writing collaborator, Paul Laverty, Route Irish explores the murky world of British ex-soldiers who work for private contractors in Iraq.
Many of them, such as the film’s main character, Fergus (Mark Womack), are grieving for lost colleagues or suffering from post-traumatic stress. Back in his home city of Liverpool, living in an apartment funded by his contracting work, ex-SAS man Fergus is having to face the demons Iraq visited on him.
We first meet him burning up with anger and thoughts of revenge at the funeral of Frankie, his close childhood friend, killed on Route Irish.
Frankie is played by Liverpool comedian John Bishop who, at the film’s London Film Festival Premiere, seemed slightly in awe of his director and what some actors call “being Loached”.
“I’d heard Ken Loach was looking for a comedian to play this character and I just went through the casting process,” he recalls. “It was fascinating, because it was all ad-libbed.
“Because you only get to see the finished script at the end of filming, I didn’t know what was going to happen to my character until it was all done. It’s only then that you can say, ‘Ah, now I see why that happened, now I see why he did that.’. But apart from being terrifying, it’s extraordinarily liberating and I’d do it again in a shot!
“For instance, the person who played my mother and the person who played my brother had an afternoon where we improvised me telling them that I was going to go back to Iraq to work as a private contractor,” Bishop adds.
“It was a really tense situation where I was arguing that I had to go back to get the money, and the one thing that my mother kept on saying was ‘I don’t want to be burying one of me sons’. The next time they turned up was after we’d been filming in Jordan. Everybody was waiting for me to turn up when Ken walked in and said that they were going to my funeral! So the emotions you see on that screen are as close as possible to being real.”
“I should point out that in Paul’s script pretty much every word is there,” adds Loach, “but you hope that the people playing it will bring that sense of spontaneity to some scenes.
“From the point of view of making a film it all begins with the writer, without writers we’ve got nothing to act or direct.”
Despite the familiarity of many of the settings, the film is very different in tone to Loach’s last, the mischievous, Manchester-shot Looking For Eric. A key scene, for instance, sees a car bomb blow some characters to kingdom-come in a suburban car park.
“‘Iraq in an English country garden’ was what Paul wrote in the script,” Loach remembers, “so the idea of a car bomb here - as opposed to there - was important to bring the actual experience of the war home. You can’t do these things over there without consequences here, is what the torture represents, and then the car-bomb explosion.
“There are a number of traps if you set out to make a film about the Iraq war, or the British involvement in the Iraq war,” he acknowledges. “If you go head-on and make a film about the war’s illegality and the massacre of the Iraqis, and the political reasons for the war, and the demand for oil and so on, and so on, it could be rather predictable.
“So what we also talked about was the privatisation of war, how that has happened by stealth, and how no one has ever voted for it. But nevertheless that’s what’s happened, the out-sourcing of the military.
“I think we always knew it was going to be a difficult film to make, a difficult film to pull off, because you’re dealing with a hero who is not immediately sympathetic. It’s also dealing with his disintegration, and the post-traumatic stress that he’s got,” says Loach.
“Our protagonist is English and has his own tragedy, but we wanted to leave the audience with the feeling that it was the Iraqis who had suffered above all. That balance was really hard to find a way of bringing in. We couldn’t make the film in Iraq, I don’t speak the language and you can’t get into that world as a filmmaker. But, nevertheless, we wanted the audience to come out feeling that it’s the Iraqis who have suffered the tragedy.”
“They’re left with fewer choices than we think,” he points out. “We had a contractor come in to see us called Steve. He’d been in the Army, he’d been a private contractor for a couple of years and he was in a neck brace when he saw us because he’d been in an incident where a land-mine had blown up and killed the other three people, out there with a gas company or whatever, in the Land Rover with him.
"He’d spent the last three months in recuperation and he was just starting to get his faculties back. Nevertheless, he was planning to go back as soon as he got out of the neck-brace just because he couldn’t see that he could do anything else.
Bishop continues: “I’ve spent time with the troops preparing to go out to Afghanistan. Their reasons for joining the Army might at one point have had something to do with patriotism, although economics more likely, but the point is, their loyalty stays within their unit, the lads they serve with.
"What the politicians decided and what the Government’s policy was, was secondary to the fact that they were looking out for their mates. Part of the reason many of them want to go back even though they’re damaged is that there’s nothing else left for them.”
Loach differs slightly, holding that “the highest form of patriotism is to criticise your country when it’s wrong, I think, because that’s the point of a democracy. ‘My country right or wrong’ is not an option. But love of country is nothing to do with war, which is by and large the ruling class in pursuit of its own interests, markets and spheres of influence.”
“They said I was a worse propagandist than Leni Riefenstahl!,” reflects the mild-mannered Loach sadly. Route Irish is a work of fiction, of course, but “there was incident after incident we could have based it on. If anything we erred on the side of not alleging anything we couldn’t substantiate. We had example after example of contractors being put in dangerous situations because of corners being cut regarding the safety of the vehicles and so on. The level of danger and the cheapness of life in that situation, one can only imagine!”
He adds: “The thing that disturbs me about the critics is that they will not deal with the substance of the film. If there’s a review of a book on the Iraq war, for example, it would tend to discuss the book and its content, the motives for the war, its consequences. But,” he predicts, “we won’t get a review in the mainstream press that will even discuss any of that.
“I think there is a lot of class hostility. And on ‘the left’ there’s a fear of seeming old-fashioned, of not tapping into the current zeitgeist and the current mood. There’s such a pressure to be whatever the current word for ‘hip’ is, and to be up to the minute, to be detached, to be cool, not to be passionate, above it all. That’s not what we do.
“There are a number of subjects that are urgent, but which we don’t yet know how to tackle. There are all kinds of things that you feel need to be said, but I don’t quite know how to say in film terms.
“I suppose you just feel an obligation to keep your shoulder to the wheel, apart from anything else.”