An uncivil partnership

Paul Kagame’s oppressive regime has hurt the British government’s hopes of an international aid succ

One afternoon in the hamlet of Mwoga in south-east Rwanda, I met a 43-year-old single mother named Mary Nyiratabaro. Wearing a bright orange igitenge dress, she was holding a piece of paper in her hand which, for her, signalled security. Rwanda is a country of 11 million people, most of whom live in rural areas and work as subsistence farmers. In the past, the state owned the land, but a British-funded programme to formalise and digitise land ownership is changing that. By 2014, the Department for International Development (DfID) will have spent £23m providing title deeds to about eight million smallholders, guaranteeing them ownership of land and providing collateral for bank loans to cover seed, fertiliser, a cow or school fees. The land reforms allow women to inherit and bequeath land for the first time.

“It gives me great confidence to have land to pass on to my children," Mary told me. "It is my land now and with this certificate I can make long-term plans."

Later, in Kanombe, a suburb of the capital, Kigali, I visited the Efotec secondary school. As classes broke up for lunch, the students stood to sing. Rwanda is a God-fearing country, mostly Catholic but with a rapidly growing Pentecostal movement, and from the red-brick, tin-roofed classrooms, I could hear hymns being sung. Then I heard a different song al­together and saw bemused children being led by a young British man from Wolverhampton through a rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". For two weeks this summer, Arun Photay, a banker and Conservative Party member, was a teacher with Project Umubano, a social action volunteering scheme.

Andrew Mitchell, now Secretary of State for International Development, set up Umu­bano in 2007. During the years of opposition, the project became an incubator of Conservative development policy. It also taught Tory politicians the importance of a success story. I found Stephen Crabb, an affable Conservative MP from South Wales, sitting on a desk in a classroom. "Tories used to have little interest in development, but when Andrew [Mitchell] talks about development he's talking about what he's seen and learned through Umubano.

“This project is about how we think and how we do development," he said. "There's a uniqueness to Rwanda because of the genocide history and unspeakable suffering [it caused] but the wider application of what we learn here is you need a government that provides security and stability for development to take hold."

President Paul Kagame, who was born in the village of Ruhango, central Rwanda, in 1957, has applied military discipline and a rule of near-Leninist order since his rebel Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded the country and ended the three-month-long genocide in 1994. As many as 900,000 people were murdered between April and July that year, most of them ethnic Tutsis or so-called moderate Hutus. Many of them were killed by their neighbours or people they knew. Ethnic Hutu husbands murdered their Tutsi wives.

It has been the self-appointed mission of the soldier-politician Kagame to rebuild a wrecked and divided country. In this cause, his government has been generously supported by foreign states, perhaps motivated by guilt at their failure to intervene in the spring of 1994 to halt the genocide. Kagame's achievements are considerable, even if his methods have been harsh, and he has as many admirers as he does disparagers in the outside world. But he is admired in particular for the discipline with which he has led the country back from the abyss and towards a future that, he has said, will help Rwanda become a technology-based, middle-income country - an African Singapore.

On 9 August, Kagame was re-elected for a second and final seven-year term with 93 per cent of the vote. Because two opposition parties were blocked from standing, all three of his rivals were members of his ruling RPF coalition. However, his victory was overshadowed by the mysterious deaths of political opponents and critics, and by the closure of independent newspapers. In June, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, acting editor of the banned newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot in the face and killed in Kigali. In the same month, a dissident general survived an assassination attempt in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, in July, André Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the Democratic Green Party (one of the barred political parties), was murdered near the southern city of Butare. The Rwandan government denies involvement in these incidents.

None of this was surprising to those who follow events in Rwanda. In the late 1990s, there was a series of disappearances and killings, including one of a former minister of the interior, Seth Sendashonga, who was assassinated in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998. Ahead of the 2003 presidential election, a judge "disappeared" and a politician was murdered. "It was exactly the same thing: small numbers of people turning up dead," said one western diplomat.

In spite of the turn towards even greater authoritarianism, British support for Rwanda has continued. A British government official conceded to me: "We've invested a lot of cash [in the country] and our reputation in Rwanda, which makes it very hard to back off." The repression and murders that preceded the vote are, said Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa programme at Chatham House in London, among "the quite unpleasant side effects" of regimes that, like Kagame's, prize security above all else. "The danger is that the example of Rwanda can lead people to have far more faith in the ability of authoritarian regimes to deliver than is often the case."

Kagame was also implicated in a UN report, published on 1 October, on the decade of violence that convulsed the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1993 and 2003. The report accused Kagame's Tutsi army of possible genocide in the Congo. "The apparently systematic and widespread nature of the attacks, which targeted very large numbers of Rwandan Hutu refugees and members of the Hutu civilian population, resulting in their death, reveal a number of damning elements which, if proven before a competent court, could be classified as crimes of genocide," said the report.

Emotional investment

To date, Britain has given Kagame's Rwanda more than £400m in aid. An agreement signed four years ago promised at least another £46m
a year for the succeeding ten years. The £55m to be given this year makes Britain Rwanda's biggest bilateral donor. Two-thirds of that sum will go directly to the Rwandan government to spend as it chooses. That shows a trust in the government's efficiency that seems well placed.Transparency International rated Rwanda the least corrupt country in the East African sub­region, according to a report published in July. The World Bank also declared Rwanda top reformer of business regulation in its annual Doing Business report, which ranks countries according to "ease of doing business".

The British government's relationship with Rwanda pre-dates the present coalition. During Clare Short's time as international development secretary, from 1997 to 2003, she had an extraordinarily close working relationship with Kagame. Today, Tony Blair sits on Kagame's advisory council along with entrepreneurs and evangelists. In 2007, Kagame addressed the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, after Andrew Mitchell had led 47 volunteers to Rwanda for the first time. "The UK has an awful lot invested in Rwanda and Kagame - financially, emotionally, symbolically," says Dr Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. "The irony is that the UK needs Rwanda more than Rwanda needs the UK." Rwanda proves the British government's belief that foreign aid to Africa can work. At the same time, the Rwandans can turn to many other big donors, such as the United States and the EU.

Britain is committed to giving other countries 0.7 per cent of its annual GDP as aid by 2013. The overseas development budget has been "ring-fenced" at a time when other departments are being subjected to punitive cuts. "The DfID budget will rise to £11.5bn over the next four years," the Chancellor, George Osborne, told parliament on 20 October, announcing details of the Spending Review. "We owe it to the hard-pressed British taxpayer to show that for every pound spent on development we really get 100 pence of value," Mitchell said when we met in Nairobi in July. "We will never sustain public support unless we do that. On behalf of the taxpayer, we are vigorously bearing down on value for money. We are rigorously focused on results and outcomes."

Rwanda delivers results. Take its Revenue Authority: £24m of British aid over 12 years has transformed this once-moribund office into a crucial earner of government income. The department now brings in the same amount - £24m - each month, and helps to fund free basic education and an expanded network of hospitals and health clinics. But not all the aid money is as well spent. Among the institutions DfID has funded is Rwanda's Media High Council. Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who was expelled from Rwanda in April after the government refused to issue her with a work visa, told me that the media watchdog played a "negative role" in the run-up to the presidential elections in August, shutting down two independent newspapers and restricting free speech.

The benign dictator may be a good development partner, but only as long as he remains benign. Kagame's game plan is to maintain iron control, grow the economy and stop people talking about ethnicity until they become rich enough not to care any more. If that goal is achieved at the cost of basic freedoms, human rights and democracy, it is a price he is willing for his people to pay. But because Rwanda is small and landlocked and has few resources other than coffee, the president's partners in development, which together contribute 45 per cent of his government's annual budget, are complicit in his repression. "Rwanda brings the dilemmas of development sharply into focus," said a British official in Kigali.

Like the other diplomats and foreign aid workers to whom I spoke in the capital, he asked not to be named. As did ordinary Rwandans. At coffee shops, hotel restaurants and open-air bars, people would lean in solicitously or glance over their shoulder when talking. Human rights activists speak of a "climate of fear". Even behind the fortress-like walls of one of the western embassies, the diplomat I met paused mid-sentence when a local employee walked by. Nobody has long conver­sations about sensitive matters on the phone, for fear of tapping, and journalists expect to
be shadowed.

Still Hutu v Tutsi?

Victoire Ingabire was studying in the Netherlands at the time of the genocide and stayed there until January 2010. When she returned to Kigali, it was as the chairwoman and aspiring presidential candidate for the FDU-Inkingi party. As soon as she arrived in Rwanda, Ingabire, an ethnic Hutu, visited the main genocide memorial in the hills above Kigali and demanded that Kagame - and, by implication, all Tutsis - acknowledge that during Rwanda's long history of violence, crimes against humanity were also committed by the Tutsi minority against Hutus before and after the genocide.
Her words were incendiary in a country where the designations "Hutu" and "Tutsi" have been removed from identity cards, and all but erased from open conversation. Kagame never refers to himself as a Tutsi, but only as "Rwandan", and encourages others to do the same. This is as politically expedient as it is socially necessary: Tutsis dominate the government yet account for only 15 per cent of the population.

I met Ingabire, who is 42, in a red-brick house in the "Vision 2020" estate (named after Kag­ame's plan for the rebuilding of Rwanda) in Kigali. Her party was blocked from registering for the August poll and she is facing charges of "genocide ideology", "divisionism" and supporting a Congo-based Hutu "terrorist" group. "Everyone in Rwanda is afraid," she told me. "Tutsis are afraid that if they lose power they may be killed; Hutus are afraid that if they speak out they will be accused of having a 'genocide ideology'."

Ingabire was frustrated by Kagame's supporters in western governments. "The international community is not pushing Kagame to accept democracy in our country, and that is a real mistake," she said. "What they want, and what Rwandans want, are not the same thing." Since we met, Ingabire has been arrested; late last month, she was charged with terrorism and moved from her house, and is now in jail awaiting trial.

In Rwanda, western donors are increasingly compromised: they speak of democracy and human rights while offering no resistance to creeping autocracy. "Rwanda shows the limits of aid, because it is very difficult for a donor nation to bind together development aid with good governance and democracy," said Knox Chitiyo of the RUSI. Although Britain generously helps to bankroll the Kagame regime, there is no evidence that aid delivers influence. After all, to cut off aid punishes not the ruling elite, but ordinary Rwandans. "Rwanda demands real questions of what values are important to the west in their development partners, and what western countries can do about it if they're not happy with their partners' values," said Tom Cargill of Chatham House.

There are few answers, but nor is there clear proof that the western democratic model is a faster track to prosperity than the kind of non-democratic path that Rwanda is following. The second route is made even smoother by the influence and deep pockets of China, whose presence and investment in Africa continue to grow. China's centrally controlled, repressive model of governance has nevertheless hauled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The danger for a Conservative-led government that claims to champion individual freedoms and has forged such close associations with Kagame and Rwanda is that the success story is harder to sell when written by an autocrat. One of the diplomats I met in Kigali had been left disillusioned by "waves of repression. We all construct these imaginary futures where Rwanda opens up political space, democratises and so on," he said, "but where is the evidence? These are just fantasies."

 

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?