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Breaking the chains of occupation

Review by Andrew Freund | March 23, 2007 | Page 9

The Wind That Shakes the Barley, directed by Ken Loach, starring Pádraic Delaney and Cillian Murphy.

THE STRUGGLE of the Irish people for independence from the British Empire comes to screens in the U.S. British director Ken Loach's film The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a stirring tale about resistance and political tragedy that bears haunting similarity to the civil war in Iraq.

Loach is the director of radical film favorites like Land and Freedom (1995) and Bread and Roses (2000), realistically acted dramas depicting everyday people fighting in grass-roots historical struggles. His new masterpiece follows in that vein.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley unanimously won the coveted Palm d'Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, garnering a 20-minute standing ovation. Predictably, so radical a film has found trouble getting distributed.

The film's narrative revolves around a group of young Irish men in 1920 County Cork who have joined the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA) in order to oust the British occupying force through guerrilla warfare. Central to these characters are local "flying column" leader Teddy O'Donovan and his brother Damien, a young doctor who casts aside his chance to finish residency in London to fight the British.

A few years prior to the events in the story, Irish Republicans staged the Easter Rising of 1916, an insurrection the British quickly crushed, executing its leaders. The Crown had grudgingly granted Ireland representation in the UK Parliament soon after, but also instituted conscription for the meat grinder of the First World War. This string of injustices pushed the Irish people to elect the Sinn Fein party to 70 percent of Ireland's seats.

Refusing to join the occupying government in Westminster, the Sinn Fein MPs formed a separate Irish parliament, declared independence from the United Kingdom, and called for the formation of the IRA. Thus began the Irish War for Independence.

The men who form Teddy's unit are common farmers and workers. They wear no uniforms, and don't even have weapons until they steal them from the occupying forces, yet they fight bravely and efficiently. The women of their town are the backbone of the resistance support system, providing food and shelter to those constantly on the run.

The film does not gloss over the brutality of the "Black and Tans," the vicious police and soldier mercenary units thus named for their mismatched uniforms. Early in the film, during a humiliating group arrest, a squad leader of the Black and Tans has a man killed for refusing to give his name in English instead of Gaelic.

In true Loach style, the political issues of the greater conflict are played out through the debates between characters. These scenes always feel real and improvised. Those who loved the land collectivization debate scene in Land and Freedom will be treated to several like it here.

In jail, Damien discusses with a train driver his admiration for the words of James Connelly, the Irish socialist executed after the Easter Rising. A majority during the war focused solely on national liberation, but a minority wanted a new society to arise from the independence struggle.

These divisions manifest themselves in a debate about a Republican court's decision to force a landlord to cease his economic repression of an old woman, but Teddy argues that they need the support of the local rich landlords to get guns for the resistance.

The eventual jubilation of a truce and treaty creating an Irish Free State quickly turns to anger when the industrial Northern Ireland is not included in the new nation. The characters quickly find themselves on opposing sides in the Irish Civil War.

One side thinks the weak treaty is a betrayal to Republican ideals, the other believes it's the best Ireland can get. The latter don the Free State uniform, while the former are branded criminals.

Many have pointed out the obvious parallels between this film, and the events in Iraq, where civil war rages along ethnic lines. Unlike the way the media and politicians describe Iraq, the viewer isn't left wondering why the civil war started in Ireland; the reasons are clear. The major division in any struggle for self-determination is the degree of cooperation one side offers to the occupier.

In response to a criticism that his film is "anti-British," Loach replied, "I'd encourage people to see their loyalties horizontally across national boundaries, so that this isn't a film about the Brits bashing the Irish. People have much more in common with people in the same social position in other countries than they do with, say, those at the top of their own society.

"We hope that our film represents a small step in the relationship which the British have with their imperialist past. If we dare to tell the truth about the past, perhaps we shall dare tell the truth about the present."

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is Loach's greatest film. Everyone fighting for the right of self-determination needs to see this movie.

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