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Settlers or squatters?

The politics of demolition and construction in East Jerusalem have always been fraught. Now Israeli

On a bright, sunny morning in early December, I stood on the stone ramparts of the Beit Hatzofeh lookout tower in the heart of the tourist attraction that calls itself the “City of David”, and counted off the touchstones of the three great monotheistic religions: the dome of al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, rose above the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, 100 metres to the north; the Western Wall – the holiest shrine in Judaism, “where the divine presence always rests” – lay hidden beneath it, no more than five minutes’ walk away. To the east, the Valley of Jehosophat, where, it is said, humanity will assemble on the Day of Judgement, ran past the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives towards the location of the Garden of Gethsemane and the tomb of the Virgin Mary.

Despite these overlapping spiritual topographies, no one disputes ownership of the Temple Mount – save for a small minority of Jewish fanatics who would like to demolish the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild Solomon’s Temple in their place. But what is disputed, as the Israeli flags fluttering in the breeze around Beit Hatzofeh confirm, is ownership of the Palestinian village of Silwan, which pours down the hillside below the southern walls of the Old City and rises again on the far side of the biblical Valley of Kidron.

Silwan lies in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. It is home to approximately 40,000 Palestinians, and 300 Jews, who exert a disproportionate influence on life in the village. Their activities are co-ordinated by a group called El-Ad – an acronym derived from the Hebrew phrase for “to the City of David”. Far from operating on the fringes of the law, like many of the organisations that establish outposts in the West Bank, it enjoys the backing of several institutions of the Israeli state. And since 2002, it has controlled Silwan’s most important asset: the archaeological site it calls the City of David.

Biblical chronology suggests that King David – the first ruler of the united kingdom of Israel – conquered Jerusalem in 1000BC and made it his capital. Though most reputable authorities regard David as a folkloric figure, El-Ad takes it for granted that he lived somewhere among the stone-clad walkways and winding streets of the historic city centre. “It’s the true Jerusalem: it is where David walked and Solomon walked,” says Tzi Goldwag, a settler who works as a guide on the site. Goldwag believes that the City of David must remain in Israeli hands: “It’s like the Western Wall – it’s a symbol, a part of our history, and no normal people would give up the cradle of their history.”

El-Ad also supports other settler organisations which are trying to increase the Israeli presence in Palestinian areas of inner Jerusalem, such as Sheikh Jarrah, in an attempt to encircle the Old City. Meanwhile, the Israeli ministry of housing and construction is developing three further Jewish neighbourhoods with the aim of driving a wedge between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his ultra-nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are also said to have agreed a plan for 3,000 homes in the area known as E1, the last patch of open land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the conventional formulation, the question of what will happen to Jerusalem is a “final-status issue”, to be resolved once the outline of a peace agreement has been achieved. However, groups such as El-Ad are already shaping the debate about the city’s future in decisive ways: as a member of its administration told a Haaretz journalist in 2006, El-Ad wants to “create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City”, excluding the possibility that it might one day become part of an independent Palestinian state. Already, its website claims that the area is now a “thriving Jewish community”, as if the vast majority of its population did not exist. “It’s like there’s no one living here,” observes Jawad Siyam, a local community organiser. “In Silwan, 300 settlers are more important than 40,000 Palestinians.”

The most important weapon in El-Ad’s pursuit of the “residential revitalisation” of Silwan has been a piece of legislation called the Absentee Property Act (APA). Originally passed in 1950, it states that the property of anyone who lived outside the borders of Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49 would pass to the Israeli Custodian for Absentee Property, without compensation. It was designed to allow the kibbutzim to cultivate land in Palestinian villages abandoned or destroyed in the fighting, and to prevent refugees from reclaiming land in the new state of Israel. The law was extended to East Jerusalem after the Six Day War, though it wasn’t applied until the early 1990s, when the housing department was being run by Ariel Sharon. In 1991, all the Palestinian holdings that met the provisions of the APA were transferred to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Shortly thereafter, the JNF leased all the land in its possession in Silwan to El-Ad, without offering it to tender as it normally would.

An official board of inquiry concluded that Sharon’s policies in East Jerusalem were “tainted by systematic and blatant illegality”. El-Ad insists it wasn’t criticised in the ruling, though many locals attest to the tricks the organisation has employed to acquire property.

Refusing to sell their houses is one of the few ways the local population can resist El-Ad’s influence, although not everyone observes the unofficial ban. In 2006, two brothers from the Abu al-Hawa family sold El-Ad a house in At-Tur, a village above the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount, for $925,000; one of them was later murdered in Jordan.

Jawad Siyam’s brother Nihad denies that those who choose to accept El-Ad’s money are threatened with violence, but he does admit that they are ostracised and most end up leaving the village.

Jawad and Nihad grew up under the Israeli occupation. As children, they felt they had “room to live”, but now, they say, the settlers control every aspect of life in the village. They are even changing the name of the road that runs from the walls of the Old City past the entrance to the City of David: the Palestinians call it Wadi Hilweh Street, but to the settlers it is Maalot Ir David, or King David’s Ascent. Throughout the winter, the brothers were part of a small group of Palestinian men who sat on plastic chairs halfway down Wadi Hilweh Street, beneath a banner that said, “Occupation by Construction”. They were protesting against a plan to re-pave the road, re-lay sewage and water pipes, and build parking lots, on the grounds that it was being done without their consent, and that it placed the interests of tourists above those of residents. In March, the district court upheld their request to delay the work.

The previous month, residents in Silwan had noticed that the main road had begun to subside and cracks had begun to appear in the walls of their houses. They discovered that El-Ad had subcontracted the Israeli Antiquities Association to excavate a tunnel that runs from the walls of the Old City to the Valley of Kidron. Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for a “stable and equitable” Jerusalem, believes that the settlers aim to connect it with the Hasmonean Tunnel beneath the Temple Mount, and another section of tunnel in the north of the Old City: “They want to be able to enter the Old City near Damascus Gate, traverse it without encountering a single Palestinian, emerge at the Western Wall, saunter across the plaza, re-enter the burrow and exit at Silwan.”

El-Ad’s interest in archaeology began by accident in 1995, when it was planning to build a new visitor centre above the Gihon Spring. A “salvage excavation” was required, to establish the site’s archaeological potential. It was expected to last a couple of weeks, but archaeologists discovered the remains of a Bronze Age compound; the work is still going on today. Since then, El-Ad has spent millions of dollars on archaeology, and the excavations it has funded have added to knowledge of the area. Yet there remains great unease about its pedigree as a curator of antiquities. In 1994, for example, a writ was issued against it for “knowingly damaging antiquities”.

For the past two years, El-Ad has been funding a major excavation in the Givati parking lot, opposite the gates of the City of David. In November 2008, Peace Now and the residents of Silwan claimed that the work was being done without proper permits, and accused El-Ad of sinking foundations for a building housing an events hall, commercial centre, motel and parking lot. Raphael Greenberg, an academic who runs a group called Alternative Archaeology, says El-Ad has a “vested interest in the site – they live here, and they combine archaeology and construction”. Architecture, he argues, has become just another way of dispossessing the marginalised inhabitants of Silwan. Jawad Siyam agrees: “We know that this area is full of history. We’re supposed to be proud of it, but, we’re afraid of it, because it’s used against us. The stones are more important than human beings.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the suburb of Bustan – a densely packed collection of favela-style buildings clustering in the bottom of the Valley of Kidron. Black water towers stand sentry on every roof and spidery power lines run through the pageantry of laundry hung out to dry in the sunshine. Spots of bright purple bougainvillea are interspersed among the satellite dishes. There are no pavements on the narrow streets, and children play on the rubble-strewn patches of empty land between houses. Greenberg says the area is of no interest to archaeologists, yet the municipality wants to clear the houses to make way for an “archaeological park” called the Valley of the Garden of the Kings. “They say King David had a park here 3,000 years ago,” says Fakhri Abu Diab, chair of the local residents’ association. “But if he was here then, what about us now?”

Abu Diab says the residents of Bustan have nowhere else to go, and if his story is typical, it is hardly surprising that their houses have spread to fill the bottom of the valley. He was born in 1964, one of nine children, each of whom had at least five children of his or her own, and by the time he decided to build his own house, his extended family numbered 65 people. He is an accountant, and he took an evening job at a restaurant and worked for six years to save the money for his house. It cost $350,000, and it stands on the edge of a patch of wasteland.

Two years ago, the municipality threatened to demolish all the houses, and Abu Diab’s committee led a campaign to save them. “We went to the court and the diplomats, we wrote to the UN, and we told the municipality that we won’t leave our houses – I said, ‘I’m not going to make my wife and children sleep in the street: if you want to demolish it, you’ll demolish it with us inside it.’” International pressure delayed clearance of the suburb, but on 5 November last year, the municipality demolished two houses, provoking protests that the police and army quelled with tear gas and live ammunition.

One of those two houses used to stand on the corner of the empty plot in front of Abu Diab’s house, and as we surveyed the wreckage late one Sunday evening, we heard one of his friends calling us from the houses that rise up the hillside on the far side of the valley. We went to meet him, almost getting lost in a dense network of alleys along the way.

Taweel Walid – a small man with neatly brushed dark hair, dressed in a dark blue coat – was sitting on the sofa, hands folded in his lap. For 27 years he had lived in Bustan in a house he had helped his father build. Three weeks earlier, he had hired a bulldozer and a sledgehammer and reduced it to rubble – if he hadn’t, the municipality would have done it for him and charged him 60,000 shekels (£9,500) for the privilege.

The physical and mental consequences have been severe. Walid produced a doctor’s report detailing a range of post-traumatic symptoms, as well as a long list of pills prescribed to address them. “He doesn’t feel good,” Abu Diab said, unnecessarily. “He has problems with his heart.”

“Self-demolition”, as it is known, saves the municipality time and money and allows it to omit a house from the list of properties it has demolished. The subterfuge is only partly successful; when Walid’s six-year-old son appeared from the family’s private room, Abu Diab asked him who had demolished his home. His answer did not need translating: “Yehudi.”

In March this year, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, visited Israel, and criticised Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in Silwan: “Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful,” she said. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, responded by saying that the houses had been built illegally. Barkat was elected mayor last November, succeeding the Ultra-Orthodox Uli Lupolianski, who had been in office for the previous

five years. None of Israel’s major political parties put up a candidate – Jerusalem is increasingly poor, and the city’s large Ultra-Orthodox population, many of whom do not work, is an unattractive proposition for most politicians. Barkat, who is a millionaire businessmen and secular, won’t pander to Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Lupolianski did, but his policies will appeal to the religious right in at least one respect: like Bibi Netan­yahu, who was meeting President Barack Obama in Jerusalem this past week, he opposes dividing the city as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians, and has promised to build extensively in occupied East Jerusalem.

Most Palestinians boycotted the election, because they believe that voting would constitute de facto recognition of Israel’s sovereignity over the whole city, and on the day Barkat assumed office, Abu Diab organised a protest outside City Hall. The intention was to start at 11am, but when I arrived there was no one there – the municipality was demolishing another house in Silwan and the local community leaders had gathered at the site, on a road parallel to Wadi Hilweh. The police and army had sealed all approaches to the house, but Jawad Siyam and some of the family members were watching the demolition from the far side of the valley on a side road that led to the gates of an Orthodox monastery.

The head of the family, Uraby Ismail Shqer, aged 64, had lived in the house for 55 years. He shared the top floor with his wife, two of his children, and his 84-year-old mother, who had been taken to hospital when the police arrived at 8.30 in the morning. Another 17 members of the family lived on the floors below. His father had built the house, and he said they would not leave. If the house was destroyed, they would put up a tent and live on the land outside.

According to Jimmy Johnson of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, who was also in the small crowd, most of the houses built in East Jerusalem in the past 42 years are likely to be in contravention of planning and zoning laws, and approximately 10,000 of them have been issued with demolition orders. The municipality demolishes 150 a year, and there is no way of knowing when a crew might arrive. The police had looked at the house the previous night, but they hadn’t warned the family that they planned to return. Johnson called it a “half-assed operation”, designed to derail the demonstration and remind the citizens of Silwan where power lies. It certainly didn’t seem very well planned. A red truck with a cherry-picker platform was parked on the narrow road beneath a house built into the steep face of the hill, and a group of men was at work on the top floor, demolishing its concrete walls with hammers and hand tools. Showers of rubble poured off the roof, clattered on the red hood of the truck and tumbled down the hillside, joining the screes of stones and litter running between the olive trees.

Later, I walked back to the Old City. Looking up at Silwan from the bottom of Wadi Hilweh Street, I could see the satellite dishes and black water towers on the roofs of Palestinian houses, and the Israeli flags flying above the newly refurbished settlements. As I climbed the cobbled street towards the Meyuhas house where Tzi Goldwag lives, the whine of a reversing car rose from the floor of the valley. A Palestinian labourer was working on the semi-circular patio in the newly planted garden at the back of another renovated house, and there were signs pointing to the Pool of Shiloach, and CCTV cameras monitoring the street. The armed guard sitting on the roof of Tzi Goldwag’s house was further proof that I had entered settler territory.

The contrast with the dirt and congestion in the valley below was marked, but the residents of Bustan remain surprisingly resilient. On my first evening there, I had met another of Abu Diab’s homeless neighbours. Abu Samed Said was a straight-backed great-grandfather, dressed in a green jacket and grey trousers. His dress and bearing were those of a retired British colonel, and his attitude emulated the mythical forbearance of his country’s colonial governors. He had built a house on land fifty yards away from Abu Diab’s, and the municipality had demolished it in 1994. He rebuilt it, and the municipality demolished it again in 2003. A month ago, it had been demolished a third time, but Abu Samed was planning to build again as soon as he could raise the money.

Rebuilding the house was not just a practical necessity, but also a kind of spiritual observance from which he drew a paradoxical affirmation: “When they destroy your house one time and you sleep, God will send you to the fire. But build one time, and another time, and he will always help you.” l

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. Two of his pieces for the NS on the Israel-Palestine conflict are in the shortlist for this year’s Amnesty International Media Awards. For an archive go to: www.newstatesman.com

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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?