Remembering Antonia Bird

The British filmmaker, who died last week, made an impressive contribution to British cinema in the 90s - most memorably in "Safe", "Face" and the genre-bending opus "Ravenous".

Antonia Bird, who died last week aged 62, was a big deal in British cinema of the 1990s, and made at least one notable contribution to filmmaking the following decade: her taut and troubling television film The Hamburg Cell, about the preparations for the 9/11 hijackings. Her work is not, sadly, that widely known or discussed any more. The one that tends to be—Priest, which starred Linus Roache as a closeted Catholic clergyman in Liverpool—was hobbled by a didactic Jimmy McGovern screenplay (if that isn’t a tautology). Her best work with actors can be seen in Safe, a scrupulously tough 1993 BBC film about homelessness, where she coaxed brave, bruised performances from Aidan Gillen, Kate Hardie and Robert Carlyle; and in Face, a 1997 heist movie: not a great piece of cinema itself but one in which Ray Winstone and Phil Davis bringing aching tenderness to their old-lag roles.

Bird worked in Hollywood with mixed results (the 1995 Mad Love, a teen romance with clumsily handled mental illness themes, was an unhappy experience for its makers and its audience alike). But I still admire her most bizarre and uncharacteristic movie, Ravenous, the 1999 cannibal horror-comedy-western that she was brought in to salvage after two previous directors had already jumped or been pushed. It’s mere inches away from being a truly great movie. But it is an enjoyably berserk one. Parts of it reach giddy heights of operatic intensity, helped by a churning and inventive score from Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (the latter had acted for Bird in Face).

The look of Ravenous is pure McCabe and Mrs Miller—pastoral snowbound plains through which grizzled soldiers trudge on a mission to find the half-masticated human remains spoken of by an unhinged stranger (Carlyle, daft as a brush, mad as a hatter). The tone is half-revue, half-snuff movie, as the corpses mount up and the jokes get ever more grisly. An acquired taste, perhaps, but the eccentric cast (including Guy Pearce, David Arquette and Jeffrey Jones) add spice. Perfect for Halloween, too.

Raoul Bova, Youssef Chahine and Antonia Bird at the Venice Film Festival in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage