Director Ken Loach and Actor Mark Womack Discuss Iraq War Film “Route Irish”
As British troops left the country, the military situation in Iraq over recent years has become marked by what Loach calls a “reduced army and private military contractors becom[ing] more prominent.” He and writer Paul Laverty wanted to make a film about Iraq and felt this was the timely Iraq war story to tell. They used the story of friends Fergus and Frankie, who had maintained an enduring friendship from childhood to adulthood, as the vehicle to drive the film.
‘Route Irish’ takes its name from the notoriously perilous Baghdad airport road, and presents the audience with a film that, as Loach describes, is not “difficult to understand [or] …to follow.” Of the cinema industry’s approach to his work in general, Loach finds “quite depressing” the feeling he has that “they think they know the films before they’ve seen them.”
Considered a political filmmaker, Loach hopes for little political impact of films as vehicles for social change. “Commercial cinema is pretty right-wing, supports the status quo, [and] presents America as the defender of freedom and democracy,” he says. “So the political input from the commercial cinema is very right-wing, but they’re never seen as political films.” “People mostly see American films,” so if films effect real social change, “we’d all be riding around with guns in our belt trying to solve the world’s problems,” he adds with a laugh.
What is characteristic of Loach’s films is also evident in his latest. ‘Route Irish’ offers a story which uncovers challenging political issues, but has at its heart a human story and the humanity of its characters. For Loach, it is not simply a story about the devastation of the Iraq war.
As the central character, Fergus, investigates the death of his closest friend Frankie, devastating corruptions which shield private military contractors and guarantee their impunity are gradually revealed. ‘Route Irish’ charts Fergus’ struggle to uncover secrets around Frankie’s death, a dramatic investigation which highlights and heralds tragic consequences for unnamed Iraqis and international military contractors alike.
Lead actor Mark Womack, who plays Fergus, describes his character’s choice to become a soldier as one borne out of his background, and the need to find a “surrogate family.” As an ex-soldier, becoming a military contractor also becomes an “obvious choice” for Fergus. Working as a private military contractor can guarantee elevated salaries for those who can take advantage; for men like Fergus, Womack says, “why wouldn’t they?”
In terms of the wider political issues of government spending, regulations and associations with military contractors, the US government has spent billions and the UK government around $300 million on private military contractors in Iraq in recent years. “If you’ve been a soldier, you shouldn’t have to go and become a mercenary to top up your pay” by “protect[ing] private capital,” argues Loach.
In addition, these companies, he adds, have shocking connections to government, and act with complete impunity. Only in 2009 was Order 17 revoked to theoretically allow prosecutions against military contractors under Iraqi law. Loach describes the increasing use of private military contractors as a situation which “suits governments, because they can hide the war [and there is] less political pressure to end the military presence.”
Loach and Laverty use ‘Route Irish’ to bring the Iraq war back to the UK, and the film has the city of Liverpool as its UK destination. “Everything seemed to point to Liverpool,” says Loach; setting the film in Liverpool was confirmed after casting Mark Womack in the lead role. “We didn’t finalise the location until we’d found Mark. We found Mark, and then that confirmed it for us. I don’t think he knows that!”
As is characteristic of Loach’s work, the humanity of the characters portrayed is central. In ‘Route Irish,’ central also are the vulnerabilities, inevitabilities and tragedies of working as a military contractor in Iraq. ‘Route Irish’ received advisory support from charities War on Want (which campaigns for the British government to regulate private military contractors) and Stop the War Coalition. In this fictional tale, drawn from many real-life experiences, ‘Route Irish’ does not shy from exposing the real, sustained and tragic human costs of the Iraq war.
The film’s release coincides with the 8th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war; ‘Route Irish’ is on release this week in the UK, France and other European countries. The film does not yet have a US release date.
Watch the ‘Route Irish’ trailer:
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