Malala recovering in hospital in the UK with her family. Photograph: Getty Images
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Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire

The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. But politicians there are less keen to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

On Wednesday 11 October, a group of schoolgirls marched through an affluent area of Kara - chi, holding banners and placards that read: “We are all Malala.” Residents of such areas seldom walk the streets, as they fear robbery or kidnap, so it was a striking move. From Lahore to Islamabad to Peshawar, similar scenes played out all over Pakistan. Both women and men held processions, candlelit vigils and public prayer sessions for Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old schoolgirl and activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban assassin who had boarded her school bus.

Malala came to public attention at the age of 11 when she began to write a blog for BBC Urdu.

It recounted what it was like living under the Taliban in the months after they took control of her native Swat Valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, in 2009. Written under the pseudonym “Gul Makai”, the blog described the child’s terror that her education would come to a halt. “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban,” the first blog began. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat . . . I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”

Both Malala and most of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that dominates Pakistan’s north western regions and who account for more than half of the population of Afghanistan. She was given her first name, which means “grief-stricken”, after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun warrior-woman. The Yousafzai, her tribe, are prominent in Swat, where her father, Ziauddin, runs a chain of schools. It was he, an educational activist, who put Malala’s name forward for the BBC blog after a producer approached him asking for suggestions.

The former princely state of Swat is a green oasis in the north-west of Pakistan previously popular with honeymooning couples. But from 2007 it became the victim of a sustained assault by the Taliban. After crossing over the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the militant group gradually moved down from the hills towards Swat. A military operation in 2007 failed to defeat the Islamist insurgents, and by 2009 they had gained control of as much as 80 per cent of the region. Following a period of tacit acquiescence by Islamabad, a second military offensive was mounted in May 2009, after which the army declared that the Taliban had been eliminated from Swat. After this, Malala appeared on national television to discuss the subject of girls’ education. She became a potent symbol of resistance against the Taliban and last year the Pakistani government honoured her for her activism with the country’s first National Peace Award for Youth.

Even after she was put on a Taliban hit list at the start of the year she was undeterred. “Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” Malala said on television. “I take my sandal and hit them on the face and say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. Education is our right, don’t take it from us.’ There is this quality in me – I’m ready for all situations. So even if (God let this not happen) they kill me, I’ll first say to them, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’”

On Tuesday 9 October, Malala was sitting on a school bus in her home city of Mingora, waiting to return home from morning lessons. A bearded man entered the bus and shot her at close range in the head and leg. (Two of Malala’s classmates were also injured.) She was given emergency treatment and taken to a hospital intensive-care unit in Peshawar, 105 miles from Mingora.

The extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack and warned that, if the girl survived, another attempt would be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” said a TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

Fifty clerics from the Sunni Ittehad Council, one of the country’s Islamist parties, responded by issuing a fatwa that condemned the shooting as “un-Islamic”. They said that US drone attacks were no excuse for the Taliban’s action and that Islam does not prohibit the education of women.

The bullet grazed Malala’s brain and lodged in her neck. After it was removed, she was flown on 15 October to England, with her condition still critical. On arrival, she was transferred to a specialist unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her treatment is being paid for by the government of Pakistan.  She is in a stable condition, even communicating by writing notes, but doctors have warned that she is “not out of the woods yet”, due to signs of infection.

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In rural Pakistan, and especially in the areas of Taliban insurgency, a woman who defends her rights is taking a risk. On 5 July, a social worker and women’s activist, Farida Afridi, was shot dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as punishment for being an “agent of change” in the tribal areas. The incident passed without much notice.

One woman activist who agitated for change and lived to tell the tale is Mukhtar Mai, from a village in the Muzaffargarh District. In 2002 she was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council in an act of so-called honour revenge. Tradition dictates that a woman should commit suicide after a gang-rape, but Mukhtar refused and fought the case. Six of her rapists and attackers were sentenced to death for the crime but all were later acquitted by the courts. However, her struggles were reported widely in Pakistan and abroad, and she has become a prominent advocate for women’s rights.

I spoke to her on the phone from her home in Muzaffargarh, where she has opened a girls’ school and women’s crisis centre. “I feel so good about the public response to Malala,” she said, her voice firm. “She’s just a child and yet she’s fought for a nation. When they shot her, it was not just Malala who fielded the bullet; thousands of Malalas were wounded. Today it was her turn for the bullet; tomorrow it could be some other. It could be me. I pray for her.”

Mukhtar frequently receives death threats. “I get calls every couple of weeks. They ring on
three [different] telephone numbers and say obscene things and make threats,” she says. “I’ve passed the messages on to the police – not a thing is done.”

Her girls’ school was attacked by militants days before the Malala shooting. When the assailants did not find her there, they smashed the windows and beat up senior teachers. “There is always danger but the work I need to do is more important than my life. My life is in God’s hands.”

Like Malala, Mukhtar shows immense bravery, resilience and defiance. The failure of the state to provide protection for these women is symptomatic not only of a wider failure of criminal justice but of Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude to Islamic extremism.

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Malala’s shooting was condemned by politicians from various parties. Billboards have been erected around Karachi by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) displaying a photograph of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, next to an image of Malala, with the slogan “Your daughters will keep fighting”. However, many doubt that these declarations of outrage will translate into further action.

“There is no clarity from the military and security establishment on whether they wish to take on these people and ensure that they respect the rule of law, or whether they wish to use them as allies,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “Until they resolve this contradiction, the Taliban and affiliated groups will seek to expand political and social space. The attack on Malala is an example of just that.”

The rallies held across the country were a moving testament to public support for Malala and what she stood for. But they were nothing compared to the state-backed protests against the anti Islamic Innocence of Muslims film that swept Pakistan’s major cities several weeks previously. Mainstream political parties can easily mobilise people in their tens of thousands but they are choosing not to, perhaps because they rely on Islamist groups for votes and backing in parliament.

Nowhere has the Pakistani state’s inconsistent attitudes to militancy been felt more acutely than in Swat. In February 2009, after the Taliban had taken control of the valleys and cities of the region, the PPP-led government signed a peace deal with the Taliban that gave them de facto control of the Malakand Division, an administrative area that contains Swat. The deal was made in the mistaken belief that this would stop them from trying to take more ground. The brief period of Taliban rule in Swat was nightmarish. Men were required to grow beards and women forced into wearing burqas. Those who did not comply were publicly lashed or beheaded. More than 400 of the 1,576 schools in Swat were closed, 70 per cent of them girls’ schools. The Taliban did not stop there. Buoyed by their tactical victory, they ventured deeper into Pakistan, launching audacious attacks. Eventually the army was forced to take action. The subsequent military campaign, from May to July 2009, resulted in the displacement of two million people. Although the army claimed to have dismantled Taliban networks, most of the commanders were not captured, and three years later the leading players remain at large.

In April 2009, before the army moved in, a YouTube video prompted outrage comparable with that of recent weeks. It shows a 17-yearold woman, in a burqa and lying face down on the floor, in the Swat town of Kabal. One man holds her down by the arms and head, a second holds down her legs, and a third, facing the camera, grimly lashes her as she screams for mercy. A crowd of men, largely silent, looks on. Much as with the Malala attack, the video was a reminder of the brutality of the Taliban insurgents, and it energised public opinion. In May 2009, the military moved to recapture the Swat District.

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One recent afternoon, I visited a government school in central Karachi, a sprawling, rundown building that is facing demolition by the state. Young girls in uniform headscarves filled the playground, so that there was hardly any room to move. Open sewage ran through one section of the grounds and the roof of one of the buildings was open to the sky. Yet parents and residents of this low-income, largely Pashtun neighbourhood are fighting to keep the school open.

The fight to save the school is just one example of the premium placed on education across Pakistan – regardless of gender. “People will perhaps agree that the price of going to school is that their daughters cover their heads, because there is a political instinct to appease rather than to confront,” says Hasan from Human Rights Watch. “But it is another thing to say she will not go to school. That is something that urban Pakistan has no time for.”

The type of education on offer is not always ideal. Madrasas, or religious schools, are frequently incubators of militancy in the urban centres. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many preach a harsh version of Islam that is at odds with the forms that are established parts of the culture in south Asia. But the reasons for their influence are not always ideological. “If you find a poor male, who is out of a job, who is hungry, who can’t feed his family, he’s prey for being picked up and being turned into a militant,” says Najma Sadeque, a journalist and feminist activist. “Most send their children to madrasas because it’s a place where they can get free meals. It’s as basic as that. By not ensuring food security, not looking into economic and social problems, the government is just breeding more and more of this militancy.”

Although the main battleground of the Islamist insurgency is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the rest of the country is far from exempt. “Militancy and extremism run the length and breadth of Pakistan,” Hasan says. “That’s why it is so difficult to address, because it has permeated society. This is not a geographical thing. It’s a social landscape issue. That requires a series of remedial short-term, long-term and medium-term measures.”

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.

While the dominant mood remains one of disgust and outrage about what happened, several newspapers have questioned why so much attention is being given to Malala when hundreds of nameless women and children have been killed in US drone attacks. Others repeat the widespread theory that the Taliban are being funded by Washington as a ploy to keep Pakistan unstable. “It is not just a question of one little girl’s life. It is a question of the survival of the state,” Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told me. “The threat has to be addressed and names have to be named.”

Above all, the attack on Malala reiterated how much the Taliban hate educated and independent women. This virulent, visceral hatred is as much founded in tribal codes as it is the product of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, said that it was “condemnable” to justify the attack on Malala with talk of US drones and that her shooting should bring to an end all talk of negotiating with the TTP.

“The whole issue of good Taliban and bad Taliban is not valid because all Taliban are bad for women,” Haroon told me. “They have the same ideology, the same policies, the same patriarchal mindset. It doesn’t make any difference to us which type of Taliban. They are the same as far as women are concerned.”

There is fear in Pakistan. Many people do not travel without a chauffeur or an armed guard; others avoid going out on Fridays, when crowds amass around prayer time, in case of bomb attacks. But in spite of all this, women’s rights activists are refusing to be silenced. “The future is brighter,” Mukhtar Mai, the prominent advocate, says. “Women have found their voice. They use it in public to ask for their rights. You see now, even a child like Malala has the courage to speak out.

“There are dangers, but placed against the need to achieve something, to express yourself, the threat is diminished. The women here are fighting for release from their pain.”

Samira Shackle is a former NS staff writer now living and working in Karachi.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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?