Mike Leigh speaks to the NS

The Film Interview: why the director wants to make "epic" movies.

How did the idea for Another Year come about?
I have ongoing preoccupations of an emotional, social, personal -- and, if you like, political -- nature, which you can see in all of my films. And here we are looking again, I hope, in some way that digs a bit deeper than some of my films, at issues of family, of the relationship between work and the personal, responsibility, of isolation, of disappointment, of parents and children. So to talk about where the idea came from is not really appropriate. I felt I wanted to make a film that started from where we -- that is to say, we who are in our late sixties -- are.

You've said that you have reached a point in your career where you want to "paint on a bigger canvas".
Yes. If epic can be measured in terms of the emotional experience of the audience, then I hope this is an epic film, just as Naked is an epic film and, I would suggest, Vera Drake is an epic. In other words, my intention is to break through the apparent constraints of domestic life on to an epic or operatic scale emotionally. I think that's important.

Do you think that the "baby boomer" generation squandered the proceeds of economic growth from which it benefited?
That is a deeply suspect position. I'm slightly older than the baby boomers because I was born during the war. But the world they and I grew up in was one in which what had been fought for and won was a national health service, a very good state education system, on the whole free university education for people, and so on.

Of course, the sins that are implicit in what I've just listed - the abandoning of fundamental ideology - cannot be laid at the feet just of the coalition government. We go back to Thatcher, we go back to the fact that we had well over a decade of so-called socialist government that did nothing to correct any of the things I've just been talking about. So to bash the baby boomers just because they had it so good is obscene, because it can only be some kind of massive excuse for inequality.

Class seems to be back on the political agenda. What do you make of the way it is portrayed on screen in Britain today?
I don't know the answer to that. You absolutely cannot make a film about England or Britain that is not rooted in class -- in a way, you can't tell stories about anybody anywhere, because in the end class is an endemic part of the social human condition. But, despite everything, I have never consciously gone around thinking about class, as such.

I grew up in a very working-class part of Salford where my old man was a doctor. We lived over the surgery and I went to the local school. I therefore have a very, very clear sense of working class and middle class. But because that's my world and background, I take all this for granted.
The reason I can't get to the serious answer to your question is that there are very few British films that I think depict life accurately anyway, and I take it for granted that class is part of what's real.

Critics of your films say that they present caricatures of working-class life.
I take all this with a pinch of salt. If people start reacting to Another Year in that way, quite honestly they're so missing the wood for the trees that it's not really worth thinking about it. Life is complex. People are complex. That's what I do and what I've always done.

We normally ask this question at the end of the NS Interview, but it seems appropriate to ask it here, too: are we all doomed?
Well, let's put it like this: I find it very uncomfortable to think about the world in which my grandchildren and certainly my great-grandchildren will find themselves living.

You can read Ryan Gilbey's NS review of "Another Year" here

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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis