Russian rally

Was it the car or the country? The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov travelled from St Petersburg to Ek

In an old Lada, you will surprise no one in Russia and no one will notice you; Russia and the Lada are in complete harmony. Driving into Russia in a brightly painted Mercedes, one of 70 such cars, accompanied by their own fuelling station, is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, they crossed the border without me. I got into car number 69 in St Petersburg, where the crew, which had driven from Paris, handed over the ignition key. The next leg of the Paris-to-Peking rally course would take the 70 Mercs, including mine, to the Urals and Ekaterinburg.

A handful of people covered the entire rally course. They included the technical support group, the chief driver, Johannes Reifenrath, and the 63-year-old president and chief executive of DaimlerChrysler Thailand, Karl-Heinz Heckhausen - who was driving in a generally homeward direction anyway. The others, including me, all took part in one of the five legs of the journey. The participants were from 23 different countries. I was surprised to see the Ukrainian flag in the publicity material, and asked whether there really were any Ukrainian participants.

"You, of course!" came the reply.

That was when it sank in that I was a participant. Some 50,000 hopefuls had sent CVs and eulogies to the Mercedes-Benz rally website; 500 entrants were invited to Stuttgart for interviews, a medical and a test of their driving skills. On my leg there were two Estonians (both engineers), one Lithuanian, three Poles, one South African, four Swiss, six Americans and quite a few Germans. There was also a Russian team: two young chaps frequently to be seen posing for photographers draped in the Russian flag. I was certainly the only Ukrainian, invited as a writer rather than a competitor.

At St Petersburg, we were presented with our rally equipment - jacket, gloves, hat and rucksack with unbreakable Thermos flask. Then we were given a pep talk by the chief driver which included the warning: "Europe is behind you. Beware! Bad roads, unpredictable drivers and unpredictable traffic police lie ahead."

He seemed concerned that some cars might not make it to the Urals, and so, soon, we were all feeling nervous, spacemen heading off to an unknown planet.

At eight the next morning we assembled on Isakovskaia Square to set off. I had already met my partner driver, Oliver from Switzerland, and we were expecting a third team member - a certain Joe from New York. He had last been seen in the hotel bar at three in the morning, and after all attempts to find him had failed, having waited 90 minutes, we set off without him. Joe was the first victim of this little-known planet, "Russia".

No sooner had we crossed the city limits than a grey sky lowered itself over a road riddled with potholes, reminding us of the previous evening's pep talk. On either side, wooden houses flashed by, some occupied, some abandoned. Often a village had more abandoned than occupied houses. Their wooden façades, darkened by the damp, provoked autumnal thoughts. The great metropolis of St Petersburg was a world away. We were travelling in a Russia that had changed little since 1917. Occasionally, the modern era would intrude in the midst of the tumbledown cottages - a perfectly up-to-date petrol station, for example.

But mainly, the roadside services were remarkable for their simplicity. With surprising regularity we would pass a makeshift table on which stood a huge, old samovar, watched over by a woman bundled in layers of clothes. Dark coal smoke would rise from the samovar funnels and there would be a few token buns. On Russian roads, the most important thing is tea; everything else is an extravagance.

Fishwives and pilgrims

Now and again there would be a stretch of good road and we would see samovars and their keepers less frequently. They knew that drivers would brake and stop near a samovar only when the road was poor. On a half-decent surface, drivers want to fly past (checked only by the black-and-white stripe of a traffic policeman's baton). The speeding fines amused my fellow drivers, at least those who understood Russian. For exceeding the speed limit by 25 kilometres per hour, they were fined 100 roubles (about E3). Those who understood no Russian nervously handed over ten to 20 dollars and, thinking they had got off lightly, drove on.

Soon our drivers began to understand the headlight signals given by local drivers warning of traffic police and were able to avoid the fines.

Some 300 kilometres from St Petersburg, the "fish" villages began. Along the fences and on the gates of houses, in huge letters, were written the varieties of fish caught, smoked and sold locally. In the village of Zavidovo (from the word meaning "envy") we stopped outside one such fish house. The lady inhabitant, on seeing a camera pointed at her home and at the sign advertising her trade, immediately protested: "This is not a palace! There's nothing to photograph here!"

We moved 20 metres further down the road; the lady of this next house was more welcoming. She led us into her yard where, under a cloth, lay a smoked fish. She uncovered the fish and exclaimed: "That eel! It's only 1,500 roubles!" The price of fish obviously depended on the make of one's car. When the lady realised I spoke Russian without an accent, the price immediately fell to 1,000 roubles. But I really had no need of a metre-long smoked fish, so I opted for a smaller one, costing 100 roubles, and won the right to be photo graphed with the metre-long eel.

But the strongest image on that first part of the journey, for both Oliver and me, was the group of Orthodox pilgrims walking in the direction of St Petersburg. There were about ten: men in monks' gowns and women simply dressed with headscarves. One pilgrim carried a banner, another an icon. When they saw us, the icon-bearer turned it towards us as if, it seemed to me at the time, to ward off the devils in the foreign car. Later, I remembered the incident and realised that the icon had been pointed at us as a blessing for a safe journey. At the time, the dark group on the muddy road filled me with foreboding.

Moscow began suddenly. We jumped from one era into another. The single-storey wooden houses became fewer, until we were abruptly among the high rises of Moscow's suburbs. The dark evening was left behind. Above Moscow shone the bright sun of electric light, so that no one could say they had not seen the dawn of the new Russia. I felt sorry that Moscow was not a cake that could be cut into slices and shared throughout the land so that the other Russia - wooden, damp and puddle-ridden from lack of drains - could take some of the capital's energy, riches and optimism.

Later that evening, the rally participants ran about on Red Square and the nearby streets. I decided to take a walk along Varvarka, one of the corners of Moscow which dates back to when the Kremlin was Moscow. I saw the first British Mission building and the aristocratic town houses from the 15th century. Behind them, brightly illuminated, hundreds of builders were working in three shifts to dismantle the largest hotel in Europe, the Rossiya.

I stayed there once, in the Eighties. I think my room was on the ninth floor. I remember the 15-minute walk along corridors to get to it and the 15-minute search for the breakfast room the next morning. The ninth floor of the USSR's most important hotel had already disappeared. The architectural revolution is speeding up in Moscow. New buildings are overshadowing the old villas. On every road something is being built or reconstructed.

Early in the morning I made for the Old Arbat, where I wandered around for about an hour, watching the city's most popular street wake up. The first people to appear were Tajiks and Uzbeks. They swept and cleaned the road. Conversing quietly, they emerged from the side streets carting display stalls and cardboard boxes full of matrioshki and other souvenirs. A few English and American visitors walked by, briefcases in hand.

I heard the Russian language only later. Muscovites sleep longer and live a lot better than the immigrants who fill the vacancies that Russians disdain. Today, Moscow is swept and looked after by central Asia. Among wealthy Muscovites, it is fashionable to have a maid from the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. Most popular are young women who don't speak Russian. They earn about $600 a month and often never leave the flat in which they work, terrified by the huge city and their inability to communicate.

Recently, the newspapers wrote of a curious incident. A woman reported her Filipina maid missing after she ran out of the flat wearing only her housecoat. She had been told off for some small oversight. After a two-hour search, she was found in a neighbouring yard. Coming from a culture where voices are never raised, she had understood from her employer's intonation that she was about to be murdered.

Bright lights of Kazan

The Republic of Tatarstan can boast both oil and gas and its own Kremlin, in Kazan, where, apart from a number of Orthodox churches, stands a newly built mosque, the biggest in Russia. There is also a monument: a Russian standing beside a Tatar, their expressions making it clear that, together, they are about to build a new state. But you need to remember that in the 16th century Russia seized the Kazanski kingdom, which has since been part of the Russian empire - an empire now called the Russian Federation.

Our American companion, Joe, had caught up with us by plane in Moscow and travelled with us to Kazan. He was amazed at the brightness of the evening streets in the city centre, at the number of pedestrians and their relaxed deportment. There were casinos, clubs, boutiques and shopping centres and, at the heart of it all, the luxurious Shalyapin Palace Hotel. Here the rally drivers rested before continuing the journey east.

To discover the less-well-lit Kazan, I walked half a kilometre along a murky little street and saw a policeman outside a bar, truncheon at the ready.

"It's understandable," I thought to myself. "The peace has to be protected. After all, the bright lights of central Kazan are unlikely to shed their rays on this part of town for a good while." So I thought, until I came across a noticeboard with an announcement that caught my imagination. Someone wanted to buy a railway branch line, together with land.

"Good idea," I thought. "Branches are the right things to buy, especially those with trains on. The price of transport can only go up."

On a well-lit street in Kazan, I went into a café. I ordered a hot chocolate and, as I drank it, marvelled at the way the waitress jumped back and forth between Russian and Tatar. The Tatar women do not cover their heads. Later, I was made welcome at the biggest mosque in all Russia and taken to the balcony for "the press and tourists", as it was called. During Muslim festivals, up to 2,500 people worship in the mosque. For those who can't get in, the prayers and sermon are televised.

The next day we journeyed east. The villages looked familiar, but there were more brick houses and the fences and yards seemed better kept. We passed a petrol station with small mosques attached and 50 kilometres further on we saw another mosque, this time built amid a cluster of cafés.

From Kazan to Udmurtia, the road was full of Tatar traffic police. They waved their batons cheerfully at every Mercedes they saw and it was difficult to understand what they were most interested in: a chat or extra income. "What Russian is averse to travelling fast?" wrote the great Ukrainian writer Gogol. Well, the Swiss, the French and the Germans are just as partial to it.

Thus, not noticing any signs of Muslim fundamentalism, and lost in thought concerning the raison d'être of the Tatar traffic police, we left Tatarstan behind and entered Udmurtia. The republic was expecting us, and the welcome was warm. The head of the border region's administration was waiting for us with a giant samovar, a pile of Udmurt pies, and a song-and-dance troupe. Amid the snow, on a concrete platform, before a concrete symbol of the new republic, these Russian Udmurtis threw a tea-party-cum-concert for us, their bright costumes warming our spirits as the tea warmed our bodies. The dance troupe wanted us all up dancing and, in the end, even less-than-sociable Joe joined in.

The Russian birch trees that had accompanied us on the trail from Moscow came to an end in Udmurtia. Firs and pines took their place. There were far fewer villages, but the roads were excellent. None the less we came across several lorries, their long trailers lying in the snow-filled ditches beside the road. The many crosses and wreaths along the roadside also warned us to drive with extra care. Russians don't like to observe regulations, and traffic regulations especially, so it is not enough to drive carefully; you have also to be aware of what everyone else is doing and allow those in a hurry to overtake.

Hidden from Brussels

On a hill, roughly a hundred kilometres outside Ekaterinburg, stands a concrete obelisk marking the border between Europe and Asia. It is just as well that they don't know about that obelisk in Brussels. What nightmares the bureaucrats would have if they knew where Europe really ended. Most of Europe, it turns out, has nothing to do with Brussels at all.

Having said that, Ekaterinburg, with its population of just over a million, is a completely European city. The moderate-sized central shopping mall has two mobile-phone shops. It is a rich town effusing calm, in contrast to Moscow, which is a rich town effusing frenzy. Here, in 1918, in the cellar of Ipatiev House, the last tsar and his family were executed by firing squad. A church has been built on the spot and it bears the name "Church on the Blood".

Just outside Ekaterinburg, in the village of Ganina Yama, the Bolsheviks burned the remains of the royal family. Here, for the past six years, a huge monastery has been under construction. It already contains nine churches. Schoolchildren come on excursions and the monks show them the miracle-working icons - one of them belonged to the imperial family but, by some miracle, survived.

The funds to build the monastery were donated by a local metallurgy company. Ekaterinburg has dozens of industrial plants and factories. The local brewery was bought up by Heineken. At the English pub I visited in the evening, more than half the customers were British, German or American, and had nothing to do with our rally. The town is growing and is becoming more expensive.

A circus ring was to be the venue for the ceremony of handing over car keys. The teams picking them up would drive on to Almaty.

Circus elephants performed for us, along with camels, dogs and one clown. I felt strangely ill at ease. It seemed we had been cheated. Our journey had gone without a hitch: no wild bears on the city streets, no Russian bandits trying to hijack our shiny Mercedes on a quiet stretch of road. Everything had been too civilised. That is how I felt that evening, as I tried to decide whether or not to go to bed. I had to leave for the airport at four the next morning to catch the direct flight to Frankfurt. I decided not to go to bed.

But early the following morning, Ekaterinburg's newly extended airport did display a bit of the Russia we had expected. After a long wait while our e-tickets were being printed, we found ourselves in the departure lounge, where the two ladies selling duty-free goods shut up shop in front of us and went off to have coffee. My rally colleagues were outraged and proceeded to reopen the shop themselves, marching in and filling their baskets in the normal way. The shop assistants were forced to return to their posts to serve the queue of international clients who so wanted to take their bottles of Ural vodka back to far-off Europe.

"He must have been a complete idiot to imagine you could take over this country!" said Oliver, sitting back in his airplane seat at last. He was referring to Hitler. "It's totally impossible to control it."

"And nobody does control it," I replied. "It's just held together by the rouble and the dollar."

As I spoke, I remembered the billboard I had seen on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg. The text of the advert was written in Russian and Chinese. Surprised, I asked a passing woman who the Chinese script was for.

"We've got whole streets of Chinese here," she said calmly.

We were between six and seven thousand kilometres from Russia's easternmost borders and about two thousand from Moscow. Our flight was taking us west. Beyond the round windows, the night went on and on. We crossed three time zones that night and, in the morning, awoke in Germany. I understand the logic of time zones a good deal better now. Every large country, be it Russia, China or the United States, lives in its own time zone, its own epoch and according to its own rules. And none of these countries will ever set its clocks to Brussels time. Whether their wealth comes from underground or from the sweat of workers on low wages, they are all self-reliant in their political folly and their economic miracles.

Russia's wealth is underground. There is enough there to last hundreds of years. The important thing is that there should be someone to get the wealth out. There must have been something behind the government's recent call to all Russians living abroad to return to the motherland. In 30 or 40 years there will be no one left to dig, especially where the wealth is greatest, in the Urals and Siberia.

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?