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The facts of killing: how do we write about the Rwandan Genocide?

Twenty years on, we still struggle to comprehend the trauma.

Spéciose Mukakibibi, photographed in 1995, aged 37. Interahamwe militiamen
attacked her with machetes and killed three of her five children.
Photograph: Jenny Matthews/Panos

When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal
Story of Rwanda and Genocide

David Belton
Doubleday, 333pp, £16.99

Everything reminds me of the past. I go to Kibuye, I drive past men and I think, did you kill my mum and my brothers? Did you? And you? I go to a wedding and I have to make the speech as the head of the family and I know it should be my dad speaking. The killers killed one million people. This is not a joke. This is not an idea.

Jean-Pierre

In the 20 years since the genocide, Rwanda has become a much-studied topic, in writing that has proliferated across genres. There have been official reports by the United Nations and by human rights charities; significant studies such as Gérard Prunier’s The Rwanda Crisis (1995); literary accounts such as Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998); novels such as A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2000) by Gil Courtemanche; and a host of witness testimonies, by victims and killers and others, either made to journalists such as Linda Melvern, whose A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (2000) is another important book, or formally under the auspices of the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies.

These testimonies, in particular, enter into the burgeoning field of trauma studies, an area of academic inquiry that contends with the legal, ethical and psychological effects of wars, political and sexual violence, torture and genocide. Trauma studies is a discipline that is complicated by the shifting structures of empathy and history, by having to confront the complexity of a situation in which “its subject, the massacre, is living”: a phrase from Muriel Spark’s account of the Eichmann trial.

The dynamics of mass trauma are always subject to revision according to new information received, and that is the category in which the fine book under review falls. In When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal Story of Rwanda and Genocide, David Belton, a Newsnight journalist who covered the Rwandan Genocide (and also co-wrote and produced the acclaimed film Shooting Dogs), has written a complex, compassionate and scathing account of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath.

He is not looking for solutions, and he examines the present Rwandan government’s apparent elision of ethnic differences, and other processes undertaken in the name of justice and reconciliation, with some scepticism. Employees of Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative in Rwanda, a group of young white men and women dressed in suits, whom Belton finds in the compound of the current president, Paul Kagame, sipping Cokes and howling with laughter, some time in 2012 or 2013, are not the heroes of this book.

It is primarily structured as a series of testimonies by survivors relating their experiences, from the night of 6 April 1994, when the Falcon 50 private jet of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down over Kigali, crashing in the grounds of the presidential residence, to mid-July that year, by which time the former Hutu government and most associated militia had fled over the border to Zaire. It also describes: Belton’s own encounter with the genocide as a journalist in 1994; a trip into Zaire in the same year (it would revert to its old name, Congo, three years later) to see the effects of a million Hutu refugees, many of them killers, entering the country; a return to Rwanda in 2004; and a second return in 2012-2013, during which he picks up the story with some of his main interlocutors.

Belton covers a lot of ground, and with Rwanda that is a challenge, as everything comes with history that is still partly occulted. In 1990, Kagame’s predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda, beginning the war that would culminate in the genocide. By chance, that year, I happened to be living on the Ugandan border, and from the veranda of my parents’ house I watched lorries flooding up and down the red laterite road to Rwanda, either taking troops to the border or returning with refugees. During the same period, France, Egypt and South Africa were supplying arms to the Hutu government in Rwanda itself. France, committed to keeping Rwanda within a bloc of francophone African nations, co-operated directly with those parts of the Rwandan army most responsible for the genocide. The United States was also supplying the Rwandan government with a limited quantity of equipment and assistance, in the mistaken belief that “there is no evidence of any systematic human rights abuses by the military or any other element of the government of Rwanda” (1992 report to Congress).

The genocide against Tutsis was committed mostly by Hutu civilians, by Hutu militias of varying levels of organisation, and also by Rwandan government troops. It took place primarily according to an orchestrated programme, but it was also ad hoc: a bloody turmoil. Moderate Hutus and many people of mixed ethnicity were also killed. Most of the murder was done with machetes (in 1993 Rwanda imported three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of machetes from China), but automatic weapons and hand grenades were also used. The machetes from 1993 were intended to be killing tools, but for years machetes and hoes had been how Rwandans tilled their twenty-yard strips of maize and beans, curling up terraced hills. Land, being in short supply, had been a factor in previous conflicts, as the book’s proverbial title suggests.

The Hutu death programme was provoked by the immediate threat of defeat by the Tutsis in 1993-94, but it built on the legacy of a popular revolution in 1959 by Hutus against their Tutsi feudal overlords. Between 20,000 and 100,000 Tutsis were killed in that revolution, and thousands fled to Uganda, Congo and Tanganyika. Within Rwanda, periodic massacres of Tutsis followed throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These caused further flows of refugees.

In Uganda, the exiled Tutsis became instrumental in the overthrow of Idi Amin and the subsequent conflicts that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. The many Tutsis in Museveni’s army acquired military skills that would help them in their fight with the Hutus. For Kagame, this was supplemented by US army training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in his role as a senior intelligence officer in Museveni’s forces.

Discipline, commitment and a sense of manifest destiny contributed to an RPF, Tutsi victory. By mid-to-late 1993, Hutu leaders probably knew it was coming, despite the greater numbers of Hutus and a misplaced conviction in their own superiority over the inyenzi (“cockroaches”). When his plane was shot down, most likely by the RPF but possibly by extremist Hutus, Habyarimana was returning from negotiating a ceasefire.

Child of the backlash: Rwandan Hutus in the
Goma refugee camp, eastern Zaire (now Congo), 1994.
Photograph: Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos

For Tutsis and Hutus alike, ethnicity was always a fluid concept (intermarriage was fairly common), but not so fluid as some will tell you. The process of colonial reinforcement and exploitation of ethnic divisions began with the Germans (Ruanda-Urundi was part of German East Africa from 1885 until the middle of the First World War) and continued under the Belgians after the war, with the introduction in 1933 of identity cards classifying the carrier as Hutu (85 per cent of the population), Tutsi (14 per cent) or Twa (1 per cent).

Some sixty years later, on 7 April 1994, the genocide began. In the two decades since, the period of the slaughter, often said to be a hundred days, has shrunk to something closer to fifty, at least according to Belton, while the death toll was (probably) closer to a million than previous estimates of 800,000. Rightly, Belton does not want to become suffocated in the “exhausting airless argument” of numbers.

The principal figures in Belton’s narrative are Jean-Pierre, who spent over two months living underground in a hole under the winding roads of Kigali; his wife, Odette, who with her two young daughters walked 60 miles from Kigali to Kibuye, the home of Jean-Pierre’s parents on the shores of Lake Kivu, having torn up her Tutsi ID card; and Aimable Gatete, a Tutsi builder who escaped from Rwanda hidden on planks under the flatbed of a truck.

A fourth story is constructed around the quasi-fictional narrative of a man who survived the genocide but not its aftermath, the Catholic priest Vjeko Curic. A Bosnian Croat, he was, in the eyes of many Rwandans, a saintly figure who, staying throughout the genocide and defying extremist militias, helped many Tutsis escape. Gatete was among those he escorted on dangerous trips through roadblocks to Burundi, returning with convoys of food aid.

Much of the writing in all these accounts has a literary power that lifts it above normal journalistic or non-fictional practice: Jean-Pierre’s confinement in his mud-walled hole has shades of Beckett, and both Odette and Curic seem like Brechtian heroes. Or perhaps the right way of saying this is: these real people remind us that the specific historical experience of human beings in wartime or as refugees lay behind the oeuvre of those two playwrights, whose work is so often taken as describing or deconstructing the human condition as a universal, however sceptically or ironically.

The distinction between specifics and universals is one of the rifts between the non-fictional and fictional modes of trauma study. In non-fictional treatments, any observation of mass trauma must always return to the historical specifics of the particular crisis, eventually scaling down to the authentic individual testimonies that constitute the mass. A shadow of this requirement still hangs over fictional treatments but it seems to lessen over time, as the success of recent novels and films about the Holocaust demonstrates – though feelings still run high about such books as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful.

Comparison of the Rwandan crisis to genocides in other parts of the world, or other periods of history, is similarly circumscribed despite the appearance of patterns, resemblances and commonalities. The same goes for current African conflicts, as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which have the potential for mass killing. The best we can hope for is that the international community, including African countries, becomes better at recognising (and acting on) genocide than it was in the Rwandan case.

The challenge to improve involves looking not just at the causes of genocide but at its aftermath. One aim of Belton’s book is to understand why Curic was assassinated on a Kigali street in January 1998. In part it was because, fluent in Kinyarwanda, Curic knew too much, in a country full of secrets. In part it was because he changed, becoming a more political person after 1994: there are the elements of a tragedy here.

The reason may also have to do with the complex role of the Catholic Church in implementing but also trying to prevent the genocide. An earlier section of the book introduces us to the bishop of Kabgayi, Thaddée Nsengiyumva, in effect Curic’s boss, who emerges (at least from this account) as a good Hutu, one who tried to balance politics with mercy. In 1991, Nsengiyumva issued a pastoral letter saying killing was now commonplace and that the Church was complicit in the Hutu regime’s anti-Tutsi system. Partly he was talking about his own boss, with whom he confusingly shared a surname: Vincent Nsengiyumva was archbishop of Kigali and a Habyarimana crony.

Hated by Tutsis and directly implicated in genocide, Vincent Nsengiyumva was someone whom I happened to meet on a trip to Rwanda in 1990, following the dust cloud of those lorries and trying, in a rather jejune way, to be a foreign correspondent. Back then I knew almost nothing about him, or what was happening in Rwanda, but I remember a deep sense of unease when, in the semi-darkness of his rooms, he held out his episcopal ring for me to kiss instead of shaking hands in greeting. It felt like an expression of malign power, this impasse that ended with me shaking a clenched fist. In 1994, both Nsengiyumvas were killed by the RPF, together with a third bishop and ten priests.

What can we hope to know about these situations without falling into error? It is a measure of their complexity that the French historian Gérard Prunier, probably the person with the greatest academic knowledge of Rwanda, gives three separate possible accounts of the killing of those clerics, each with different reasons and sources.

In 2004, when Belton is in Kigali with Jean-Pierre trying to find the site of Curic’s murder, a man approaches them and starts asking insistent questions. Eventually Jean-Pierre loses his temper, telling the man to go away and jabbing his finger at him:

“Don’t talk to me. Get away. Who are you to ask me these questions? I can go anywhere I like. Go. You.”

Jean-Pierre’s voice got bigger, challenging not just the man but all the silent stares of those who had stopped to gawp.

“Who are you? Where were you? I was here.”

All writing by those who weren’t there, even that as good as Belton’s or Prunier’s, remains subject to this judgement. The right to forgive is also subject to it, and the best Jean-Pierre can do, meeting the son of his own father’s killer in Kibuye, is to let out a long, weary sigh and say: “It’s OK to love your father. I loved my father, too.”

Giles Foden is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the author of “The Last King of Scotland” (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

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?