Michael Winterbottom is the director of Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and The Road to Guantanamo. He spoke to the NS about his documentary adaptation of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine – and responded to criticism of his most recent fiction film, The Killer Inside Me
The Shock Doctrine argues that since the 1970s, the US and its allies have used global crises ranging from the Pinochet coup in Chile to Hurricane Katrina to impose their extreme version of free market economics. What did you hope to do with a film that couldn’t be done in the book?
I thought that it was a great book and one that covers a huge area, so it was interesting from my point of view to make an archive documentary.
Naomi’s book spreads over 30 years and across different continents, so it was a mammoth job. But one of the things that appealed about The Shock Doctrine was that there was a relatively small group of characters who you could follow over the course of those years.
One of these “characters” is the economist Milton Friedman. Early on, Klein describes his contention that free market economics go hand in hand with democracy as a “fairytale”. That suggests the film is really about competing versions of history.
Naomi’s argument is against what she perceives as the dominant narrative, the dominant idea. The events she picks out span my adult life. For me it was about making people see them in a different light — especially the war in Iraq and how it has connections to Chile in the 1970s.
Milton Friedman seemed extreme at the time of Thatcher’s election, but the last Labour government seemed to be living under the same ideology as Thatcher. It is important to show alternatives.
Do alternative narratives appeal to you as a film-maker?
People want a story. So you’re not really questioning a narrative when you make a film, you’re trying to find one.
Your other film currently on release is The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel about a murderer in small-town Texas. What do you make of the criticism that its depiction of violence, particularly when directed at the female characters, is too extreme?
Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion on a film. It’s easy to make the criticism that the film is in some way promoting or supporting violence, but it’s just wrong.
I don’t think anyone will go and see that film and think Lou Ford [the murderer] is a man to copy. It’s a film about his weakness and his violence — and these are horrible. It is a violent world, men do these things to women and I think you should be allowed to make films about that as long as they are honest.
Even if people criticise me, it would be far worse to make a film that casually shows violence or says it’s OK. I think those things are immoral. If you show violence as brutal then it’s moral.
Were you making a conscious attempt to reclaim violence from its casual portrayal in many mainstream films?
The starting point was to make a film of Jim Thompson’s book. I think it’s a great portrait of a weak, crazy, horrible killer. And to be honest, it’s not as though the violence is visually that explicit compared to a lot of films. But it’s about someone killing people who love him, so it’s the emotional content that people are reacting to.
Feminist critics such as Natasha Walter objected to what they perceived as the suggestion that women in those sort of relationships somehow like being abused.
I don’t think that is the case. In the case of Amy [Lou’s girlfriend], within the story — and we are taking a story, not making a film about domestic violence — it’s true that Amy does forgive Lou. There’s a letter where Amy says she worries about what was done but still loves him. Everyone knows that in violent relationships, people do endure it for long amounts of time.
But the story is told by Lou himself. All the other characters, men and women, are only seen from Lou’s point of view and only insofar as they affect Lou. It is a first-person film and Lou is the only person you really get inside the head of. All the other characters are one-dimensional.
What is the common thread running through your films, from fiction to the more politically engaged documentaries?
I just try and make films that I’m interested in. We have a rough idea, we develop them and make them. The only thing for me is whether the idea is interesting: am I going to spend three or four years trying to make it?
The Shock Doctrine is released on DVD on 19 July by Dogwoof. The Killer Inside Me is in cinemas now