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Loach takes well-aimed shot at establishment; It wasn't only soldiers carrying arms in Iraq. Director Ken Loach tells DAVID WHETSTONE about new film Route Irish and his disgust at the "privatisation of war".

Byline: DAVID WHETSTONE

KEN Loach is a courteous, mild-mannered man who is renowned for getting under the skin of the Establishment. He set out his stall in 1966 with Cathy Come Home, a TV drama documentary about homelessness which many credited with getting the law changed.

He, typically, has said that while it may have helped, others were better placed to take the credit.

In 1977 he turned down an OBE and in the mid-1990s he exited the Labour Party ahead of Tony Blair's new broom.

He has had films banned on television and has steadfastly opposed the State of Israel because of its policy towards the Palestinians.

Many of his feature films highlight serious political issues and Route Irish, his latest, is no exception. It takes us to Iraq and the questionable role of the private security firms who provide armed escorts for visiting VIPs.

The main character is Fergus, a Liverpudlian who was in the SAS but until recently has been working for one such firm.

We meet him bitterly mourning the death of boyhood buddy Frankie who has been killed on Route Irish, the road leading from Baghdad Airport to the fortress known as the Green Zone and reputedly the most dangerous in the world.

It was Fergus who urged Frankie to sign up, extolling the virtues of pounds 10,000 a month, tax-free, for the privilege of dodging bullets and roadside bombs. Now he's dead and Fergus isn't about to swallow the explanation of his employers: wrong place, wrong time.

Route Irish packs a real punch. Blending news footage, some which you'll recognise, with drama, it tells an unsettling tale.

In the country that the West invaded to liberate, we learn that many from the West are now on the make.

Through the Loach viewfinder, it's hard to imagine the inhabitants of Baghdad feel safer now - although this story is set in 2007, before British and American combat troops departed.

In Newcastle to introduce the film at the Tyneside Cinema, Loach, an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, agrees that he had been itching to make a film such as this.

"It was such a catastrophic and criminal act that it was beyond belief really," he says softly. "You wouldn't have thought a Labour Prime Minister could do such a thing until Blair came along.

"It seemed too obvious to make a film that just pointed out the illegality and criminality of it - but then the private contractors came in."

Citing the work of bestselling author Naomi Klein, who has written critically about Iraq, he says: "The war was fought on behalf of the big western corporations. Naomi Klein talks about re-writing the economy of Iraq and that was what they (the Americans and British) wanted to do in the interest of western capital - to protect the oil and maintain a strategic interest in that part of the world.

"They pulled the troops out, but now they're back there making money."

This could make a good documentary, but Loach says the real starting point for his film was when screenwriter Paul Laverty, a longtime collaborator, came up with the story of Fergus and Frankie, pals since childhood.

Laverty lives in Madrid, Loach in Bath. They text each other about football - Loach is a Bath City fan while Laverty supports Celtic - and occasionally, says Loach, about work.

"Paul will do a first draft and we'll talk about it. I'll make some suggestions and everything flows from that. It can go to as many as 12 or 15 drafts."

Loach has always striven for realism in his films, mixing actors with non-actors drawn from the community in which filming is taking place.

In one powerful scene in Route Irish, a character learns that he has killed the wrong man in an act of vengeance.

Loach says the actor didn't find out that this was the case until this scene was being shot, making his response truly spontaneous.

"It's almost exactly what Paul Laverty had written," says Loach. "It's uncanny, but it's often the way if the writing is good and the actors are focused on what they're doing."

Because Loach's politics are well known, you don't need to see Route Irish to know what he thinks about Iraq.

It's a film, he says, "about the privatisation of war, the privatisation of violence and the fact that this is not acceptable". He adds that "it's in line with the privatisation of everything else, from the railways to the NHS to higher education", and urges people to think about the damage it does, both to the Iraqi people and also to "the guys coming back".

One character in the film explains that for a private security guard, the safety of the person you are being paid to protect is paramount, even if you have to abandon your comrades in the process. The mindset in the Army, it seems, is different.

Loach says problems have been sown for the future because the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, seemingly tormenting Fergus, can take years to emerge.

The liberal use of shocking real-life footage doesn't necessarily mean Route Irish paints an accurate picture, but Loach says: "Paul spoke to a lot of contractors and I spoke to one or two.

"There's no doubt they've been sent into situations with shoddy material. We showed the action sequences to them and they said, 'You could have made it much worse'."

There's a key scene in which the innocent occupants of a taxi are killed.

"That's happened time and time and time again," says Loach. "But not all contractors are trigger happy. Some of them are just good professional ex-soldiers who play it by the book.

"We spoke to people about their lifestyle, about going off to spend some of their money in Thailand and places like that, and about coming back and trying to pick things up with their families."

Loach insists he strove for accuracy in everything. "You've got to have evidence for things otherwise you couldn't put it in because you'd be making something up for an argument. Paul is, we both are, absolutely rigorous in having evidence to support what we're saying."

Throughout his long career Ken Loach has adhered steadfastly to his principles. He thinks it is "disgusting" that former Cabinet ministers can hold influential positions with private security companies which benefit from Government policies and the names Bush and Blair are uttered only in a sentence which also includes the phrase "war crimes".

But nobody can be completely angry for 74 years without being consumed by it and Loach does have a lighter side.

He is happy to explain that a three-legged dog appears in Route Irish because, quite by chance, one appeared in two previous successful films. It has become "a bit like a black cat".

And he promises that his next film has "got a smile on its face", even if it is to be about a group of Glaswegians serving community service orders.

Route Irish, certificate 15, opens at the Tyneside Cinema on March 25. The screenplay, with an introduction by Paul Laverty and additional production notes, is published by Route Publishing at pounds 8.99. Visit www.route-online.com

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HARD-HITTING Director Ken Loach was in Newcastle to talk about his new film, Route Irish, which is being shown at the Tyneside Cinema
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 17, 2011
Words:1228
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