From Socialist Voice, August 2006

A film that shakes the establishment

The latest film from the radical British film-maker Ken Loach has certainly stirred up a hornets’ nest among the chattering classes, both here in Ireland and, particularly, in Britain. (The title comes from the nineteenth-century patriotic ballad by Robert Dwyer Joyce.) Normally the British winner of a tiddlywinks tournament would warrant tabloid headlines and six pages in the “quality” press, and the BBC would be in melt-down in its coverage.
    The Wind That Shakes the Barley won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year yet received scant coverage in the British media. Instead it was the signal for a barrage of attacks from both the British and the Irish media, with the director himself coming under severe criticism from the usual suspects and the familiar rubbish about “aiding terrorism” and “digging up old history,” and that he should “leave well enough alone.” Such a reaction by the establishment to a film is a good indication that it has struck a raw nerve.
    The film deals with a central period of twentieth-century Irish history: the War of Independence against British imperialism and the Civil War fought between those who were for and against the 1921 Treaty with the British.
    The film opens with local men playing a hurling match in west Cork. When the game is over some of the young men go back to a house, when the Black and Tans make a raid on the house. In the ensuing harassment of the men and the local family the Black and Tans murder one of them. The death of their young friend propels them to join the local unit of the IRA.
    The torture scene is very realistic and has provoked emotions of anger at what the British have done in this country, and has triggered thoughts of what the torture camps in Iraq at the present time must be like and the lives of the victims who have passed through the hands of the torturers.
    The film captures well the violence, repression and summary executions carried out by the British occupation forces right across Ireland. It accurately reflects the fact that the majority of the IRA volunteers—those who did the fighting and suffered most—came from the small farming communities and workers.
    One moving scene captures well the struggle of the time, both personal and social, when the flying column takes a local English landlord captive and holds him hostage in an effort to force the British to end their policy of summary executions. At the same time the column take prisoner a young farm labourer who himself was a member of the column but had been forced to give information to the Black and Tans and betray his comrades.
    Orders reach the column in the mountains that a member has been executed by the British. They take the landlord out and shoot him, as ordered, which the volunteers have no problem with. When it comes to executing one of their own, the young informer, the compassion and the confusion at having to shoot one of their former comrades is handled with sensitivity and shows that the volunteers were not “mindless thugs.”
    Another scene that is well done is that of the republican courts, when the national independence forces set up a state within a state and organised their own administration, parallel to that of the British. Republican courts were potentially democratic forums for solving local disputes.
    The scene of the Kilmichael ambush, when the flying column wiped out a complete convoy of British occupation forces, is dealt with honestly and is accurate in its account of that famous confrontation with British forces.
    Where the film runs into some trouble is in relation to the split in the national independence forces, for and against the Treaty. This is presented in a somewhat black-and-white way, as if it was a left-right split, which it was not. What comes across clearly is the role of the British and their efforts (successful, as it turned out) to apply divide-and-rule tactics and their threat to unleash a bloody war against the Irish people if they did not take what was on the table.
    The character of the Dublin worker, a train driver and former member of the Citizen Army, is something of a cardboard character and a stereotype of what workers might or should say. The debate in the room over whether to support the Treaty or not is a bit too staid; it is doubtful whether people walked around with a copy of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil in their back pocket.
    Here, of course, we have to allow artistic licence and allow dramatic impact to get across what they feel they need to say. But it felt like a continuation of the dialogue in a Seán O’Casey play in relation to the question of “What are workers doing in a nationalist struggle?”—a bit preachy, like 1970s agitprop. It was more like a debate about the nature of any new Ireland, and in whose interests was the fight—a debate that should have taken place but did not, and has not.
    These are small criticisms of what is overall a very moving and educational film. It will open the eyes of many Irish people, who have been fed a diet of anti-republican and pro-British propaganda for nearly four decades.


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