Understanding the Taliban

Rethinking the war in Helmand has made the British army revise some of its basic assumptions. Workin

There is a popular slogan seen stencilled on American gun trucks: "We do bad things to bad people." Prince Harry had those words on the back of his cap. In the Afghanistan War, the difficulty is working out who those bad people are. An even tougher question is: which of them to kill, and which to put in positions of power and authority?

Winning the war here is not for the squeamish, and a long way from the "ethical foreign policy" of early new Labour. It all boils down to dealing with those bad men. Some of them are already our allies. Others, including men who are currently trying to kill our soldiers, will have a place as our future allies. As one intelligence officer said to me: "In this country, you get to power because, at one stage or another, you've done something really awful. You can't waste time looking for the good guys."

He was probably exaggerating. But you can still see the problem in Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold and opium bazaar, wrested back into coalition and government hands last December. I was present during that combat operation and watched as the Afghan flag was raised in the town centre. I have just returned from a trip back.

If you believe the chief of police of Helmand Province, Brigadier Moham mad Hussain Andiwal, the new district governor of Musa Qala is a "war cri m inal" who was invol ved in the slaughter of prisoners, and is a leading heroin dealer - although, given their past history, he may be overegging things a little. Andiwal is referring to Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Taliban com mander who switched sides and was appointed governor of the town in January by President Hamid Karzai, with British backing.

Karzai also sent back to Musa Qala its former police chief. Known to all as Commander "Coca", Andiwal is remembered by the British soldiers in the town two years ago chiefly for rumours that he and his men were kidnapping young boys from the streets.

Today - however unsavoury their pasts may be - both "Coca" and Mullah Salaam get cautious and qualified support from Britain. They get it because they are doing what the British need: establishing a presence for the Afghan government in a dangerous corner of Helmand, and helping to persuade both ordinary Afghan farmers and one-time enemy fighters that the smart move is to reject the Taliban.

Salaam, as a "reconciled" Taliban commander, has been in many ways a disappointment. When I was in Helmand last year, there was talk of his bringing over a large band of Taliban fighters to the government side. This never happened. But he has proved to be a persuader, travelling from village to village having outreach shuras (meetings) and telling people that the return of British and Afghan forces is the way ahead. He is doing so at great risk to his own life.

"I'm a marked man," he told me. "When you return to Musa Qala, I will most likely be dead."

I had tracked down Salaam while he was out of town, preparing to return to his governor's compound in liberated Musa Qala. The word was out that the Taliban were hoping to greet him or Coca with a suicide bomb.

With his great, bushy, black and silvery beard, flowing robes and curled slippers, Mullah Salaam cuts a striking figure. As his comments were being translated, he kept uttering a strange, rasping noise. He was in a gloomy mood, his head sinking steadily between his palms as he contemplated the gap between promises of redevelopment in Helmand and the grind of reality.

"I have promised the people so much," he said, "but we have delivered so little and people will turn on me. Everything comes so slowly." It wasn't foreigners such as the British he blamed, particularly. "The whole government here, they are all criminals," Mullah Salaam said. "They keep the money for themselves."

Situation report

It is very easy to be critical about British intervention in Afghanistan, particularly for the commentators who rest easy in their armchairs. If you looked at an honest situation report after two years of bloody fighting in Helmand, it would have to include some strong negatives: towns deserted due to fighting; an opium harvest so vast that some suggest only a lack of space prevents it getting any bigger; an enemy that still roams free in great swaths of the cultivated "green zone"; and an electricity supply to the towns which has got worse. Add to that an alliance with "friendly forces" which have proved to be deeply corrupt.

Where is the good news? It certainly does not come from winning the war. Soldiers will tell you that, despite some clear territorial gains, we are nowhere close to it. And yet, among the British, morale is pretty good. It comes not because there is an end in sight, but from a series of tactical successes and a sense that a strategy for a victory of sorts is at last evolving - and the resources to achieve this are gathering on the horizon. Above all, there is a feeling of relief that this is not Iraq.

As I reported in this magazine three years ago, it was hard to find a British officer in southern Iraq who believed the invasion had been a good idea. The aftermath was equally depressing: in Basra, soldiers complained of training Shia militiamen who were policemen by day and planted bombs to kill them at night; officers complained of supporting a Iraqi governor who was stealing oil revenues and in league with death squads. "In Afghanistan, the police may be just as corrupt," one senior officer told me, "but at least here they are on our side. They want to go and kill the Taliban."

For the soldiers, Afghanistan has, at least until now, provided an enemy that shows its face and which can be fought with the weapons soldiers have to hand, from SA80 rifles to artillery guns. At a higher level, however, commanders are less convinced by such logic. But they, too, learned bitter lessons in Iraq - and, after two years of sometimes pointless fighting in Helmand, there is a feeling that a road map of sorts is emerging which could ultimately lead British forces to some kind of success. Working with the likes of Mullah Salaam in Musa Qala is part of that new strategy.

Rethinking the war in Helmand has posed a challenge to some basic assumptions, among the greatest of which is our understanding of the enemy. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, when American and British forces first arrived in Afghanistan, a basic misunderstanding became the doctrine. Because the Taliban had sheltered al-Qaeda, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were wrongly labelled as a joint force.

More than six years later, the mistake is in continuing with those assumptions, imagining that the Taliban who fight British troops are merely proxies for Osama Bin Laden. Instead, as military intelligence officers will tell you, the new Taliban insurgency is a battle not for international jihad, but a struggle by tribes, factions and strongmen against an unpopular Afghan government that appeared to have abandoned the largely Pashtun south of the country.

While religious ideology, madrasas, training camps and volunteering for al-Qaeda have a role in creating the fanatics who come to Helmand to die in large numbers, Taliban commanders in the field, who send young Talibs into battle against the British, are often local men with local grievances, local pride and local ambitions, even if they take advice from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. "You can't look at him and say that religion or ideology has anything to do with why he is fighting," said one British officer, talking of a prominent Taliban commander around Musa Qala. Tribal allegiance and the Pashtun code of honour, as well as the simple provocation that foreign troops represent, all play a part in motivating such men.

What this boils down to is a classic insurgency where some of our most ferocious enemies are potential allies. Few Afghans or Britons now believe that progress can be made without some form of reconciliation process taking place - or without working with those bad men. Most importantly in such an insurgency, as Mao Zedong said, "The people are like water and the army is like fish." Without the tacit support of the population of Helmand, the Taliban would flap around on dry land.

Imposing security

A T-shirt on sale at Kandahar Airport, and worn by some soldiers in Helmand, bears the words "Taliban Hunting Club". In Helmand, there has been plenty of killing. You can measure the rise in violence by the bullets and bombs. Each successive brigade in Helmand, except the last, has expended ammunition in ever greater quantities.

However, the grim truth, as soldiers in Helmand tell you, is that much of the bloodshed has been to no effect. Although a central zone of stability in the province has been gradually expanded, whole parts of the countryside have been "cleared" time and again, only for the Taliban to return. One former British commander bluntly called it "mowing the lawn". A scorecard would read simply: "Many Taliban dead; precious little territory gained."

And yet - as some commentators seem to have missed - the lesson is being learned. Last October, when a new British brigade took command in Helmand, its then commander, Brigadier Andrew MacKay, declared "a concept of operations" where the deaths of enemy soldiers were no longer a measure of success. "The population is the prize," wrote MacKay. A campaign based on counter-insurgency principles, he said, needed operations not so much designed for "kinetic effect" (inflicting physical damage on the enemy), but calibrated to "influence" the population: decreasing support for the enemy and increasing the standing of the Afghan government.

Defeating the Taliban was not the end goal of the campaign, he explained in an interview. Even if thoroughly beaten, they might linger on as a nuisance like the Real IRA "for a hundred years". The tactic was to disrupt them just enough for the Afghan government to be able to re-establish control - and to consolidate its hold with real gains for the local people.

Of course, such "hearts and minds" thinking was always part of the theory. The original British plan for Helmand, taking lessons from counter-insurgency in Malaya, spoke of "inkspots" of security, within which the population could see tangible development gains and in which solid support for the Afghan government could be established. These inkspots would, in theory, expand and then merge.

The reality was different. An understrength British force arriving in the summer of 2006 was spread thinly across the province. With little mobility, it became beleaguered in a series of encircled platoon houses, under constant Taliban attack. Even though the army successfully fought off the attacks, the towns became battlegrounds devastated by fighting. Development went backwards and support for the Taliban grew.

Since then, British objectives have been far more cautious. While UK troop strength has more than tripled (with more than 7,000 deployed to Helmand), MacKay's aim in the past six months was to get away from "mowing the lawn" and concentrate instead on consolidation: creating a lasting presence of British and Afghan forces that not only expands the so-called inkspots of security, but has a "civil effect", making life obviously better for ordinary people.

In practical terms, this has involved a big expansion of the chain of British forts - known as FOBs, or forward operating bases - as well as similar increases in patrol bases and checkpoints for the Afghan army and police, despite ongoing shortages in their numbers.

One example can be found around the market town of Sangin in northern Helmand, which was fought over and reduced to rubble during the first year of British intervention. A ring of new patrol bases has been positioned around the town. They have not halted the fighting, but they have brought a measure of relief to the town centre. The population has returned and some reconstruction has begun. A few bazaar traders even dare fly the Afghan national flag.

MacKay's philosophy of "population is the prize" had its greatest effect during December's military operation to retake Musa Qala, a town that in effect had been handed back to the Taliban just over a year earlier.

The deployment of thousands of British, American and Afghan troops around the target area achieved such an "overmatch" of forces, that, after some initial fierce fighting, the Taliban were forced to flee, allowing the recapture of the town with minimal destruction of property.

But key to the future was the arrival of a team of military development experts - a so-called "stabilisation team" - a day after the Afghan flag was raised. I watched as they unfolded precise blueprints for the construction of a new mosque, for the rebuilding and reopening of a school, and for roads and improvements to local water and power.

Three months later, when I returned, the impact of this strategy could be seen. The mosque project was still being held up by bureaucracy, but a small road had been built, the market had reopened, a health clinic was in operation, the school was up and running, with more than 800 pupils, and a cash-for-work scheme had been set up employing more than 300 people every day.

But if Musa Qala is the success story, it is still clear that fundamental problems remain. Even here - despite the concentration of British efforts - tangible gains for the population are slow in coming.

The most glaring problem is the limits to what the British soldiers themselves can do. While the strategy places "civil effect" centre stage, any kind of reconstruction requires an input from non-military sources, whether from the Foreign Office, from Afghan officials, or from civilian contractors. With the security situation still so unstable, their involvement is proving painfully slow in getting off the ground. "We have got to learn, and learn fast, to deliver aid and reconstruction not only when it's all quiet and peaceful, but under the noses of the enemy - while the mortars are still raining in," said one senior officer.

Yet the slow delivery of aid and reconstruction projects is not just down to security. It is also because British strategy relies on delivering most of its multimillion-pound aid budget by channelling it through the Afghan government in Kabul. For the soldiers on the ground - whose security depends on rapid action to win over the population - such a strategy can be hard to fathom. "All we can do in imposing security is buy time for the Afghan government to step up and do its job," said a British officer. "The problem is that we can't and won't stay here for ever; things have to move faster."

Meanwhile, the situation is getting more dangerous for the British. A softer, more end-focused approach will in all likelihood mean more bloodshed, not less. Getting the "hearts and minds" right means leaving the base and mixing with the population - and thereby facing a daily and increasing threat from suicide bombs, mines and roadside explosive devices.

Even as Helmand moves from blunt conventional war to a smarter counter-insurgency, don't expect a quick fix.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

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?