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The Chinese Google

Baidu is the search engine of choice for 85 per cent of China’s net users. But what kind of window on the world is it when it claims Tiananmen Square is nothing more than a tourist attraction?

Imagine you meet some people from China and they ask your views on the 1989 demonstration in Trafalgar Square, when the British army killed thousands of people protesting against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. Then they talk about their spiritual hero, a religious cult leader in Northern Ireland, whom you vaguely recall seeing traduced in the media as a conman. Finally, they congratulate you on the Nobel Peace Prize won by a British thinker of whom you've never heard.

None of what your Chinese friends say about Britain makes sense to you. You go home a little unsettled, but your suspicion that they are deluded - or perhaps just brainwashed - is confirmed by a few Google searches. There is no mention anywhere of the massacre, the religious leader or the thinker.

Sounds implausible? That is the situation in China in relation to Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo - even among the internet-savvy youth. And some responsibility for this state of affairs must fall on the Chinese equivalent of Google, a fast-growing search engine named Baidu.
Just a few months ago, I was in a bar in a provincial Chinese city with a group of postgraduate students at a decent, if not leading, university. After a few drinks, tongues were loose. One particularly feisty MBA student, who had given herself the western name Lily, after Lily Allen, identified herself as a bit of a rebel. "Everybody with education hates the Chinese government," she said.

On my iPad I happened to have a BBC2 documentary from 2009, China's Capitalist Revolution. It was freeze-framed at the point where the lone "Tank Man" is seen in Tiananmen Square. Curious to know what these bright young Chinese knew about the events of that day, and about him, I showed them the footage. They looked confused. "Have you ever seen this?"

I asked. Lily was the first to speak. "I don't get it. What movie is this?" she asked. I explained that it was BBC news footage.

The students remained baffled. There was a wifi connection in the bar, as there is almost everywhere in China, so I logged on to Google. In spite of the "Great Firewall of China", the state apparatus designed to monitor the internet and censor material unwelcome to the authorities, Google often works as well as in the west. But the students stopped me. "No," they all said, "not Google, Baidu."

Baidu dominates the search market in China - all the more so since Google abandoned its mainland-based search operation last year. Its existence is the result of a chance comment made to its chief executive, the US-educated Robin Li. In the early 1990s, Li was working on a Master's degree in computer science at the State University of New York and was stung by a remark from a professor: "Do they have computers in China?" He became determined to change the perception that China was technologically backward.

He went on to work on Wall Street and, according to Baidu, patented an internet search method he called RankDex shortly before a certain Larry Page patented a different method that became Google. When Baidu was set up in 2000, there were fewer than a million internet users in China, but it is now the search engine of choice for some 85 per cent of China's 470 million avid web users, who spend 20 hours a week on average online. It also operates Baidu-branded social networking and other sites. If growth of internet use in China continues on its present curve - that 470 million figure is expected to be 750 million within five years - the Nasdaq-listed Baidu could soon be as big a search monopoly and revenue power plant as Google. Google's profits, at $7bn, currently dwarf Baidu's, which are roughly $0.5bn. In July, however, Baidu reported a 95 per cent increase in quarterly profits, up to $253m, and its shares have jumped 65 per cent this year after more than doubling in 2010.

Let the music play

At about 400 million, Baidu already has almost as many users just in China as the 425 million Google has worldwide. Furthermore, the Baidu-using ranks expand every day as more Chinese citizens become "netizens". So confident is the company of its potential for profits that last month it voluntarily reduced its own income by agreeing to stop linking users to western websites where you can download music illegally, which is almost a Chinese tradition. Instead, Baidu has signed a groundbreaking deal with Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music to offer copyrighted songs on a new music platform called Ting! - Mandarin for "listen".

Baidu is China's window on itself and the world, its ultimate arbiter of reality, the source of truth for a quarter of humanity. It is rapidly becoming nearly as important as the Communist Party - perhaps more so, because the broad masses trust it implicitly but grumble incessantly about the ruling elite. "Baidu" means "hundreds of times", and comes from a Song Dynasty poem about searching for a rare beauty among the teeming crowds. Its logo is a friendly-looking paw print.

However, as a de facto Chinese institution, although privately rather than state-owned (it is registered in the Cayman Islands), Baidu is obliged by Chinese law - probably against the will of its westernised principals - to work within the government's ever-stricter censorship parameters, thereby bolstering its obsession with stability and "harmoniousness". The recent celebrations of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary required executives of the country's main internet companies - Li the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur among them - to gather in Shanghai to sing revolutionary songs and wave red flags. Li reportedly declared at the event: "Socialism with Chinese characteristics drives the development of the Chinese internet." It is hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who says he would love to extend the site to China, where it is now blocked, going through the same rituals to keep the communist leadership sweet.

China's increasingly vocal consumer jour­nalists sporadically accuse Baidu not just of “collaborating" with the party, but of selling all-important top rankings to state-owned and private commercial interests, including some that sell fake pharmaceuticals. (It is only fair to add that Google's dealings with adver­tisers are similarly being investigated, in its case by the US justice department and the European Commission.)

China's super-intelligentsia see Baidu as working hand-in-glove with both the Communist Party and often disreputable businesses, but any scepticism about its integrity had not affected my group in the bar. So we switched from Google to Baidu and put in the search term "Tiananmen". The students - who were certainly sceptical about these alleged massacres - agreed we could put in the Pinyin (Roman) letters as Baidu works fine with both these and Chinese characters. What came up was hardly surprising - a list of 53 million very interesting tourist and historical references, but none, so far as we could see, related to anything untoward happening in 1989.

More interestingly, when we put in "Tian­anmen" and "1989", every one of the few hundred references was in English or another western language. The results were impressive. Surprisingly, the first one came from the state-controlled People's Daily online, where by paragraph two we were reading that the 1989 "protest by pro-democracy supporters ended when hundreds of these protesters were killed by government troops in the streets leading from the square". The students, none of whom was old enough to remember 1989, were curious, but remained unconvinced because the content we were finding was not in Chinese. When we tried again, with "Tiananmen" in Chinese, we were greeted with a warning in bold Chinese characters that read: "According to relevant laws and regulations and policies, some search results have not been shown."

The internet, and a knowledge-hunting tool such as Baidu in particular, has presented a big challenge to the power of China, even with 50,000 internet police patrolling its electronic borders. This was a country where authority spoke and the public shut up, where the dictator dictated. Not any more. In 15 years it has gone from a culture where hardly anyone had a telephone to one of the most connected societies in the world. Hundreds of millions of people chat, around the clock, with friends and family on QQ, the Chinese Windows Messenger, from their computers and mobile phones. And China has an estimated 200 million bloggers, producing trillions of words a day for public consumption.

Yet such is the high level of patriotism-cum-nationalism that, despite the background noise of complaint about the government and bureaucracy, even dissidents accept a bit of inconvenience, such as being mysteriously excluded from obscure, foreign bits of information on Baidu, as the necessary price of being part of the world's greatest nation. They can communicate and inquire day and night about millions of subjects, from love to business to celebrities to recipes. What does it matter if a few dull, worthy political topics are off-limits because they weirdly upset the powers that be?

Not only that, but even the masses, who remain hazy about recent history, are powerfully aware that the life they live thanks to China's special brand of communism is incalculably better than it would be if China had stuck to hardline Maoism - or had never become communist and remained feudal. Being a Chinese citizen is not easy, but it's fantastic for the vast majority of people compared to any time in recent Chinese history. Their trusted friend Baidu with its big, floppy paw print, plus Tencent QQ and Sina Weibo (the Chinese equi­valents of Twitter) and RenRen and Kaixin (Chinese Facebook), make it that much more fun and sociable. "I love Baidu," Lily told me in the bar, her friends nodding in agreement, "because if you want to know something about China, why would you ask a foreigner or trust what he says? In China, we say, 'If you want to know something, just Baidu.' Nobody would say, 'Just Google.'"

A Baidu TV commercial made some years ago has stayed in many young netizens' minds, even though it never made it on to TV and was shown online only. It shows a bumbling white foreigner, representing Google, trying to pick up a girl at a wedding some time in the Ming Dynasty. He speaks badly accented, ungrammatical Chinese and gets nowhere. Then a character representing Tang Yin, a painter/poet of the era, corrects his Chinese and gets the girl. The message is clear: you need a Chinese search engine for Chinese searches.

Astrid Chang, a mainlander from Beijing who is studying for an MPhil in anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has identified what she calls a "nationalist paradox" in the diaspora's dealings with the censored web on the mainland. Even among people who have long lived abroad, she has found, there is still a desire to defend China against foreign criticism, though they may also feel ashamed of their government and recent Chinese history.

At home, she says, "Freedom of speech is much more of a problem than freedom of in­formation. If you're searching for something like entertainment news, or help with a school essay or a new cover for your iPhone, Baidu is fine. And if it's not, people always find a way to discover the truth. They can access Google."

Baidu's director of international communications, the US-born Kaiser Kuo, points out that it is rare for Chinese people to want information about China from overseas sources. The US state department may have pledged $19m in May to help blocked internet content make
it through to China, Iran and other states that censor politically sensitive material, but Kuo suggests that Chinese citizens may be left nonplussed by the move.

“It's a kind of hubris, this belief that truth resides in the world outside China, that everyone must be clamouring to get out," he says. "The fact is that the vast majority of people simply don't bump up against this. They're not interested any more than you are in reading Portuguese-language sites.

“That's not to trivialise the problems of people who do want more information. As with all things, to make sense of how the internet works here you need to have a high tolerance of cognitive dissonance - to be able to keep two contradictory things in your head at the same time. But it's also true that the internet in China has become a fully fledged public sphere where people are exchanging a greater volume of increasingly critical ideas."

China is complicated and its firewall is also vastly more subtle than is often portrayed. Take the 50,000 techies, in and out of uniform, who patrol the web. In truth, this figure understates the numbers who censor content, given that the country's internet service providers are obliged to monitor output on their own networks before it reaches the internet police. RenRen, a social networking site similar to Facebook, has 500 internal monitors.

Cat and mouse

Baidu won't say how many net police it has on its campus outside Beijing, but I learn from a Canadian-Chinese former employee that it operates an automated censoring system on its sites to filter out flagged words, including close homonyms and Pinyin versions.

All posts on Baidu's social networking site go into one of three buckets - green for posts with nothing "unharmonious", red for objectionable and yellow if there is ambiguity, in which case a decision is taken by a human being. A tiny proportion of time is spent blocking problematic foreign content - the company is far more concerned with stopping internal debate online.

Yet China's internet monitors are bound to be defeated by the scale of their task. There are more censors per online head than there are food safety inspectors to protect the population from the much more urgent problem of contaminated food. But, as Kuo points out: "It's a tiny fraction of a per cent of traffic that's monitored. It's a game of cat and mouse, but played on a continent-sized field where there's a handful of cats and just gazillions of mice, most of whom are very smart mice."

Furthermore, there are battles within the bureaucracy over who censors what. At best, it is organised chaos. This year the government announced a new cyber-policing body to oversee the 14 government units that have a hand in controlling the online sphere, but its terms of reference are vague.
According to Lifen Zhang, editor of the Financial Times's Chinese site, which recently moved from London to Beijing: "Different levels and different authorities all have a hand in the fire. It isn't only the foreign media that are subject to heavy-handed censorship. I have heard many examples of government organisations and websites being subjected to the same treatment. At provincial level, people want to make their website credible, so they will try to bypass their internal firewalls."

Ftchinese.com often pushes the censorship boundaries further than other sites yet is rarely blocked - probably, it is thought, because government ministers rely on it for untainted information. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhang says, it was far more critical of official Chinese conduct than, say, the BBC - but was not blocked.

Discuss internet censorship in China for any length of time, and it becomes difficult not to conclude that the country's attempt to control the web will fail. Within minutes of last month's fatal bullet-train crash near Wenzhou in south-east China, hundreds of thousands of bloggers and micro­bloggers, some of them reporting from inside the wrecked train, drowned out the weak attempts by officials to play down the disaster and developed into a powerful chorus against the government in general. The clamour for transparency over the causes of the crash - along with the inevitable conspiracy theories - was such that, within days, Premier Wen Jia­bao was visiting the scene and explaining, most unusually for a Chinese leader, that he had not been able to make it earlier because he had been unwell.

The comment was widely interpreted as meaning there had been disagreement among the leadership over how to respond to a disaster whose causes, because of the internet revolution, and Twitter-type sites in particular, could no longer be covered up. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted in a report on new media, published just before the crash, that microblogs have become one of the main original sources of information that "arouse public opinion", and that this constitutes "a certain risk to ideological security".

But even in China, web censors are mostly young, and can only be assumed to be curious to know the truth behind such events, once routinely dismissed by official media as "one of those things". "I've met these guys from the secret police, the Public Security Bureau," a Chinese web entrepreneur told me, "and because they know the kind of information that is held back from the public, I'm sure some of them are especially curious, in private, to learn what's really happening in the world."

Those in the private sector helping the government keep a lid on the web are likely to be similarly unwilling to let outright censorship survive much longer. "These are cool guys, but they are working in one of the strictest regulatory environments in the world," the Canadian programmer said of his time at Baidu. "It's not North Korea, not even Iran. But the authorities don't care how you do it as long as it gets done, and the consequences of not getting it done can be dire indeed.

“Nobody there is so stupid as to think the users prefer a sanitised, bowdlerised internet experience. What they want is unexpurgated and Baidu wants to give them that experience in so far as is possible. If that means being liberal in their interpretation of official strictures, then they are. Absolutely nobody there wants to be some willing, eager tool of oppression."

Jonathan Margolis writes on consumer technology for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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?