September 7, 2006

The 2001 Toronto International Film Festival was horrifically interrupted by the attacks on the United States. A year later the festival presented the world premiere of 11’09”01, an omnibus of eleven short films focused on 9/11. Now the directors behind the three best pieces are bringing new feature films to the festival. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Mira Nair will present their work in the coming days, but the first offering is Ken Loach’s latest, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

In recent years, the Palme d’Or lavished attention on gems like Elephant and The Pianist. Then there was the aberration of Michael Moore winning the prize that should have gone to Oldboy. I don’t yet know if Loach has made a better film than Babel or Volver, but for the time being it seems that the Cannes Jury’s returned to form.

Set in Ireland from 1920-23, Loach’s film depicts the growth of the Irish nationalist movement during the Irish War of Independence, and its splintering during the subsequent Civil War. Though the subject is expansive, Loach keeps his canvas intimate, centering the action on two brothers, Damien and Teddy O’Donovon, played convincingly by Cillian Murphy and Padriac Delaney. Employing the naturalist style he’s known for, Loach creates a film that, while not striving for the documentary-realism of Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, manages to convincingly portray the action with a credible, urgent sense of veracity.

Predictably, British conservatives are attacking Loach, claiming that he’s made an unabashedly anti-British, pro-IRA film. I wonder how many of these commentators stayed through the film’s second half, or watched it at all. Loach is certainly sympathetic to the IRA’s nationalist goals, but his portrayal of Britain’s brutality, while certainly not balanced, is fair.

A more justified argument is against Loach’s use of the IRA to comment on current events. When prodded by the sympathetic Socialist Worker, Loach admitted that he finds the Irish nationalist movement largely analogous to the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Regardless of your opinion on those wars, it should be evident that there’s a substantial difference between people who want to expel an occupying force in a bid to achieve democratic self-determination, and people who’d rather install reactionary theocracy. But while I can understand why some of Loach’s critics have allowed his comments to colour their judgment, they are wrong to do so. Loach never allows his contemporary concerns of creeping American empire to overpower his period drama. Yes there is talk of “occupation” and “martyrs,” but surely such conversations occurred in 1920s Ireland.

This isn’t the type of hyperbolically anti-British film Mel Gibson would make, nor does it subtly whitewash imperial sins like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. The historical truth is undeniable: the British Empire, whether in Ireland, India, or anywhere else the Sun Never Set, was often a ruthless, oppressive entity. If depicting this truth makes The Wind That Shakes The Barley Niall Ferguson’s most-hated film of the year, so be it.

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This is the first of several posts I’ll be making from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Nav Purewal | 9:01 pm

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