Loach’s view of men in frontline of corporate war

War is being privatised and the losers are ordinary folk like you and me, says Ken Loach. He spoke to film critic Tony Earnshaw about imperialism and his new film Route Irish.

Age has not wearied Ken Loach. The 74-year-old is still raging against British foreign policy and the faceless people who manipulate what goes on in faraway conflicts so as to present something halfway acceptable to the great unwashed.

His 22nd feature, Route Irish, centres on the experiences of British security contractors in Iraq. Once upon a time these men would have been given a more provocative name: they would have been called mercenaries.

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So has our government changed its attitude to freelance soldiering? Loach, on a whistle-stop visit to Leeds as part of a rapid promotional tour, ponders the question and gives his response.

“They don’t want to acknowledge what it is they’re doing,” says Loach. “They’re privatising violence, privatising the war. And it’s in line with their political philosophy, which is that everything is better done by private companies rather than the state.

“Whether it’s the railways or the hospitals, everything is better off private. That’s why they use euphemisms, like ‘collateral damage’ when they kill civilians because the reality is too horrific to contemplate. One of the many things which wound us up was the notion of the politicians who had experience of defence in government now being closely associated with these security companies. They make millions. I mean, if that doesn’t smack of corruption I don’t know what does.”

Route Irish is Loach’s 11th film with screenwriter Paul Laverty. In its 109 minutes the picture considers war crimes, torture, the on-going “war on terror” and the actions of out-of-control British private security contractors in Iraq.

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I ask Loach what specific issues he wanted to cover as the film’s anti-hero, Fergus, finds himself galvanised into action after a friend is killed in mysterious circumstances on the notorious Baghdad Airport Road – aka Route Irish – while engaged with a company that Fergus introduced him to.

It also becomes clear that the tightly-wound former soldier is suffering from post-traumatic stress. With no official channels open to him, his condition goes unchecked.

“A contractor in Fergus’s position is a product of all these different things that are going on. The war has been privatised to a large extent. The contracting companies are making fortunes from it. The war was fought in the interests of big corporations. So in a way it’s come full circle. The contractors are doing this. They were immune from prosecution for a long time. As far as we know for all the abuses that have been carried out against the Iraqi people, not one [contractor] has been accountable to the Iraqis in their courts.

“These lads who are acting as contractors contain all these contradictions and issues; they embody them in the very work they’re doing.”

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Fergus’s friend Frankie, played by Liverpudlian stand-up comedian John Bishop, is killed after he witnesses a taxi being sprayed with gunfire by fellow contractors. The incident was based, claims Loach, on a real-life incident involving the shooting of two women and their children in Baghdad. Perhaps the stand-out scene in Route Irish is a key sequence in which Fergus (Mark Womack) interrogates a fellow mercenary using waterboarding – covering the face with a towel and pouring water onto the nose and mouth to simulate the effects of drowning. It wasn’t faked: actor Trevor Williams did it for real. “It’s a central plot point: the relationship between the torturer and the tortured and what they say and why they say it,” observes Loach. “We tried Trevor Williams [with] a mask and a pipe in his mouth and it just didn’t work. And he said ‘Oh, to hell with it. I’ll just do it.’ So we did it. For four hours. After every take we said ‘Are you okay?’

“On the way back to Manchester he had a serious panic attack and didn’t know where he was. Then he had nightmares for the next couple of weeks. So it certainly affected him. But I hope that his effort was worthwhile because it is plainly degrading and inhuman treatment. Abhorrent, really.”

Williams’s efforts sound like Method acting taken to extremes. Does Loach regret condoning it for the sake of his film? He pauses. “Ahem, no... And certainly Trevor doesn’t. It shows that you torture people to get the truth and of course you don’t. People say whatever they need to say to stop it.”

Review: Route Irish ***

A long distance companion piece to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Route Irish considers some of the same issues: British interference in the ways of a foreign land, with violence and cruelty as the driving forces. Mark Womack is Fergus, a private security contractor (aka mercenary) recently returned from Iraq where his old friend Frankie (Liverpudlian stand-up John Bishop) has been killed. It was Fergus who persuaded his old mate to head to the Middle East and with the answers to what occurred appearing more than a little murky, he begins his own investigation. Route Irish – the title comes from the highway on which Frankie meets his death – is drenched with the partisan politics that one expects from a Ken Loach picture and asks searching questions about the involvement of British mercenaries in foreign wars. Yet it is muddled and even a little ham-fisted in its approach. Loach and writer Paul Laverty cast Frankie as a principled soldier. It’s as cock-eyed as it is simplistic: the man went to war for money and discovers his scruples on the mean streets of Baghdad. This, then, is the spine of the film – that and the war crime he witnesses. Following in the wake of Loach’s predilection for using non-actors, Bishop gives a plausible performance, but the film is built on Womack and Andrea Lowe, playing Frankie’s widow. Neither creates anything close to dramatic sparks. Part conspiracy thriller, part overt condemnation of western interference in the Middle East, Route Irish also focuses heavily on the widely reported use of torture by western forces. Fergus appears to be an expert in waterboarding, the interrogation technique allegedly favoured by the US. His use of it, and the climax involving another mercenary, is but one aspect of a film that brings a dirty war to British shores. Loach sets the film in Liverpool; it could be any blue-collar city with a disaffected population of ex-squaddies. A minor entry in the Loach canon, Route Irish nails its colours to a very particular left-wing mast. The film would have benefited from a more balanced approach.

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