The Film Interview: Michael Winterbottom

The director talks about adapting Naomi Klein -- and the morality of on-screen violence.

Michael Winterbottom is the director of Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and The Road to Guantanamo. He spoke to the NS about his documentary adaptation of Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine - and responded to criticism of his most recent fiction film, The Killer Inside Me

The Shock Doctrine argues that since the 1970s, the US and its allies have used global crises ranging from the Pinochet coup in Chile to Hurricane Katrina to impose their extreme version of free market economics. What did you hope to do with a film that couldn't be done in the book?

I thought that it was a great book and one that covers a huge area, so it was interesting from my point of view to make an archive documentary.

Naomi's book spreads over 30 years and across different continents, so it was a mammoth job. But one of the things that appealed about The Shock Doctrine was that there was a relatively small group of characters who you could follow over the course of those years.

One of these "characters" is the economist Milton Friedman. Early on, Klein describes his contention that free market economics go hand in hand with democracy as a "fairytale". That suggests the film is really about competing versions of history.

Naomi's argument is against what she perceives as the dominant narrative, the dominant idea. The events she picks out span my adult life. For me it was about making people see them in a different light -- especially the war in Iraq and how it has connections to Chile in the 1970s.

Milton Friedman seemed extreme at the time of Thatcher's election, but the last Labour government seemed to be living under the same ideology as Thatcher. It is important to show alternatives.

Do alternative narratives appeal to you as a film-maker?

People want a story. So you're not really questioning a narrative when you make a film, you're trying to find one.

Your other film currently on release is The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel about a murderer in small-town Texas. What do you make of the criticism that its depiction of violence, particularly when directed at the female characters, is too extreme?

Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion on a film. It's easy to make the criticism that the film is in some way promoting or supporting violence, but it's just wrong.

I don't think anyone will go and see that film and think Lou Ford [the murderer] is a man to copy. It's a film about his weakness and his violence -- and these are horrible. It is a violent world, men do these things to women and I think you should be allowed to make films about that as long as they are honest.

Even if people criticise me, it would be far worse to make a film that casually shows violence or says it's OK. I think those things are immoral. If you show violence as brutal then it's moral.

Were you making a conscious attempt to reclaim violence from its casual portrayal in many mainstream films?

The starting point was to make a film of Jim Thompson's book. I think it's a great portrait of a weak, crazy, horrible killer. And to be honest, it's not as though the violence is visually that explicit compared to a lot of films. But it's about someone killing people who love him, so it's the emotional content that people are reacting to.

Feminist critics such as Natasha Walter objected to what they perceived as the suggestion that women in those sort of relationships somehow like being abused.

I don't think that is the case. In the case of Amy [Lou's girlfriend], within the story -- and we are taking a story, not making a film about domestic violence -- it's true that Amy does forgive Lou. There's a letter where Amy says she worries about what was done but still loves him. Everyone knows that in violent relationships, people do endure it for long amounts of time.

But the story is told by Lou himself. All the other characters, men and women, are only seen from Lou's point of view and only insofar as they affect Lou. It is a first-person film and Lou is the only person you really get inside the head of. All the other characters are one-dimensional.

What is the common thread running through your films, from fiction to the more politically engaged documentaries?

I just try and make films that I'm interested in. We have a rough idea, we develop them and make them. The only thing for me is whether the idea is interesting: am I going to spend three or four years trying to make it?

The Shock Doctrine is released on DVD on 19 July by Dogwoof. The Killer Inside Me is in cinemas now

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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How Tony Blair's disingenuous line on Iraq eroded our faith in politicians

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne reveals how Blair exagerrated evidence from the intelligence services to parliament – and the public.

In this incisive book, Peter Oborne calls the invasion of Iraq “the defining calamity of the post-Cold War era” and I am inclined to agree. Not long after the March 2003 attack, I interviewed Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and UN ambassador for Iraq. He told me that he had visited President George W Bush in Washington a few weeks before the invasion and begged him not to go ahead with it. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would, Pachachi warned, lead inevitably to civil war between Iraq’s two main religious groupings, the Sunnis and the Shias. Bush was shocked. According to Pachachi, he had no idea that any such division among Muslims existed.

Granted, Bush was an ignoramus – but you would have thought that someone might have explained this crucial fact to him. Pachachi turned out to be right. Iraq has fallen into a disastrous religious civil war as a direct result of the invasion and Isis, a more extreme force even than al-Qaeda, has come to the fore. Nearly 5,000 coalition soldiers died; many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps a million, have lost their lives; and the man who led the whole terrible business didn’t know that the danger even existed.

Pachachi, like many politicians across the Middle East, found this puzzling. The US had never understood the Middle East, he said, but the British did; so why hadn’t Tony Blair warned the Americans what was going to happen? We know the answer to that: although Blair was far cleverer than Bush and had better advisers, his approach was always a subservient one. Like the entire British establishment, he believed that Britain’s influence in the world depended on sticking close to the US and he was prepared to be led around on a leash because he knew that this was the only relationship Bush’s people understood or wanted from him.

To “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Bush – at least, to stand closer behind him, head bowed, than any other national leader – Blair had to persuade the British people that Saddam posed a threat to them. Oborne, in fine forensic form, demolishes (his word) the notion that Blair was simply repeating what the intelligence services had told him about Saddam’s weapons and capability; he shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence he was given.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who had investigated the government’s pre-invasion use of intelligence, said the same thing in a speech in the House of Lords in 2007. He described Blair’s approach as “disingenuous”: mandarin-speak for dishonest. Oborne quotes Butler at length:

 

The United Kingdom intelligence community told him [Blair] on 23 August 2002 that, “We . . . know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988.” The prime minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.

 

Oborne’s central point is that this dishonesty has done serious damage to the fundamental trust that the British people used to have in their rulers. There are all sorts of reasons why people have lost faith in politicians but it was the charismatic Blair – along with his head of communications, Alastair Campbell – who let us down the most.

Campbell is a former journalist who, even when he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror, seemed far more concerned with pushing a party line than with trying to report things truthfully. In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused him of “sexing up” the dossier on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was irate. In July, Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who had briefed Gilligan, committed suicide. If, indeed, it was suicide – once you start losing faith in the ­official version of things, there is no end to it. And that is Oborne’s point.

Kelly’s death was followed by the scandalous Hutton inquiry, which managed to deflect attention from the questionable nature of the dossier to the way in which Gilligan had reported on it. However, although Kelly wasn’t a sufficiently senior source for Gilligan to base his report on, there is no doubt that Gilligan was essentially right: the intelligence dossier had been grossly hyped up. Campbell’s frenzied efforts to protect himself and Blair did huge damage to the BBC, the judiciary, the intelligence and security agencies and public trust in government.

Oborne’s excellent book is clear-headed and furious in its condemnation of Blair. But what about the Chilcot report, when it appears on 6 July? The ludicrous delay in publishing it has given people the expectation that it, too, will be a whitewash. Yet we are starting to get leaks that it won’t be – that it will be just as savage as Oborne would like. That is the only way we can start to drain the poison that has built up in our national life since Blair took the calamitous decision to follow the US into invading a country that its president knew zip about.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the world affairs editor of the BBC

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne is published by Head of Zeus (208pp, £10)

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad