theartsdesk Q&A: Director Peter Kosminsky, Part 2 | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Director Peter Kosminsky, Part 2
theartsdesk Q&A: Director Peter Kosminsky, Part 2
On the films which defined the creation and moral degradation of New Labour
It was only at the dawn of the Blair age that Peter Kosminsky truly emerged as a basilisk-eyed observer of the nation’s moral health. By the time New Labour came to power in 1997, Kosminsky had been working for several years on a film which was eventually broadcast in 1999. Warriors, an award-winning account of the traumatic fallout of peacekeeping in Bosnia, served as a prequel to a trilogy of films in which he tracked the ethical degradation of the Blair decade.
In The Project (2002) he dramatised the curdling of idealism occasioned by Millbank’s win-at-all-costs skullduggery. The Government Inspector (2005) anatomised Blair’s era-defining decision to go to war on the evidence of the dodgy dossier which cost David Kelly his life. Finally there was Britz (2007), a considered attempt in the aftermath of July 2005 to fathom why young Muslims might seek to take up suicidal jihad against the country of their birth.
On the occasion of a BFI retrospective of his work for television, this Q&A conflates a set of conversations which took place over several years, from 1999 to November 2011. In the first part, Kosminsky talks about his career in documentary. Here, he moves onto his dramas about the creation of Warriors and the New Labour trilogy.
JASPER REES: How long did you work on Warriors? (Pictured right, Cal Macaninch, Damian Lewis, Sheyla Shehovich and Ioan Gruffudd)
PETER KOSMINSKY: I started work on this in July ‘93. Like lots of people I saw pictures of the soldiers coming back from that first deployment in Bosnia. I’d made a number of documentaries about war in various parts of the world and something made me want to look at that. I began asking the Army if I could use their Warriors [armoured vehicles]. Initially it was a flat refusal for the best part of two years. I didn’t see any way that you could mock up eight or 10 Warriors. The main reason for their defensiveness was that the UNPROFOR [United Nations Protection Force] mandate - which was the reason in my view why things went so horribly wrong - was still current. It was very difficult to see the film that I was proposing as anything other than a criticism. Once Dayton [the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, signed in December 1995] occurred and NATO became directly involved, that at least initially was perceived as a tremendous success, then the MoD started to feel more comfortable about looking back on the earlier, less happy period. That’s when I was invited in and at least allowed to discuss it.
I think the reason [the Army said yes] was that any criticism of UNPROFOR would not be seen as reflecting badly on the Army. I wanted to get a debate going about the nature of peacekeeping, and I wanted to encourage people to think a little bit more deeply about the effect on individuals. I also made it clear that I was going to focus entirely at platoon commander level and below. I wasn’t interested in negotiations of ceasefires or bonking Bob Stewart. In general I think they just didn’t feel threatened by it.
They were the British Army and they had failed. It was like losing a war. Nobody helped them with this
Once the Army said yes what happened next?
I took the idea to the BBC. We then began our research, partly with the help of the MoD. We never had Army minders, which is the first time that has happened for me. So people were able to speak very freely. I met a particular warrant officer and we talked about one of the incidents that’s depicted in the film. He became extremely upset, and I said to him, “I’m really sorry.” You don’t know whether you’re helping them by letting them unload or whether you’re just making them more miserable. He said, “It’s all right, it’s the first time I’ve ever talked about it.” That was the most extraordinary thing to me. He was discussing an event which, if it had happened to me, would be the single most disturbing thing that had ever happened to me in my life, and he had never talked to anybody about it, and here he was talking to a perfect stranger in a military museum canteen.
Was part of their trauma centred on the sheer sense of being utterly castrated by the UN mandate?
The one word that came up again and again was powerlessness, and this thing about leaving people in the shit. The British Army is known internationally as a very aggressive army. They like to take the initiative. Their attitude is, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job”. They were neither given a clear job nor given the tools. They were sent as people trained to fight and trained to win, into the middle of a particularly bloody civil war. They stood and watched neighbour butcher neighbour. They were neither allowed to intervene nor were they actually militarily equipped to intervene, though they said again and again, “We could have just sorted that out if we hadn’t had our hands tied behind our backs.” (Pictured below, Damian Lewis and Matthew Macfadyen)
The two things that surprised them most, in talking to them, was one, the one that they did articulate – that these people were like them. They went into their houses and there were videos. They thought it was going to be all curly-toed sandals. It wasn’t. It was poor, it was just like Liverpool. You heard that again and again.
The other thing that I’m sure they felt, but they didn’t articulate it to me, was that they didn’t expect to be touched, they didn’t expect to become emotionally involved. When you go out on what they call “hearts and minds” and visit a family, and then literally a matter of days or weeks later you go into that village, which is two kilometres from your base, and that family has been killed and the whole village has been laid bare except for certain specific houses, you feel so angry and such a profound sense of guilt and of failure. It was this powerless feeling of failure, that they had let these people down. They were the British Army and they had failed. It was like losing a war.
Nobody helped them with this. It was just, things aren’t clear-cut, we sort of try. And this is peacekeeping. It’s a much more fudged, unclear, ill-determined kind of operation. The British Army was not then and I sense probably is still not now trained for that. It’s trained to win. And these people felt utterly powerless, humiliated, ashamed, and then they were pulled out when they just were beginning to feel they might be getting a grip on it, and they felt they had left those people to die. They were literally forbidden from loading people into vehicles who were in the path of a house-clearing operation. They were allowed to go back and clear the bodies up once they’d been killed. But they were literally forced to unload people from the vehicle that they’d loaded up, who they then believe were subsequently killed. And that has a very traumatic effect.
It’s an insoluble paradox.
Precisely. And this was the thing that psychologically and in human terms the individual soldiers found it so difficult to deal with. It seemed to me that when I heard about this incident of them being forced to take the people out of the Warrior (see video below) that that absolutely summed up the dilemma and the pain that these guys now feel.
Did you feel you had to observe your own kind of neutrality as a storyteller?
The point I wanted to try to get across, and this is why we got it onto BBC One, is that this is not a film about Bosnia. This is a film about what it’s like to be stuck in the middle of someone else’s war. There is no doubt that if you talk to the soldiers involved in Grapple One [the codename given to the deployment of British forces in Bosnia from 1992], they loathed the Bosnian Croats with a passion that is quite scary, in much the same way that if you talk to British Army officers of a certain generation they have a huge problem with Irish Catholics. That is because, I imagine, the British soldiers who were in that central Bosnian area in that period saw terrible things done by Bosnian Croats to women and children. But there’s no doubt that if you had been peacekeeping in a different area at a different time, your view might have been different. It was important just to show what they felt and what they saw, rather than try to be objective, because they weren’t objective. All I could really do was try to depict it as they saw it.
How much of a frisson did it lend to the project that during filming NATO started to bomb Kosovo?
Real life intervened on a number of levels for us. We had a number of Serbs on our unit. I didn’t try to ignore the issue. I said, do you feel happy to continue? They all did. We tried to be as supportive as we could. We tried to be as supportive as we could. I think we all felt quite equivocal about what was going on anyway. For me personally that was difficult, and I felt personally very sad for Branka Katić, who was trying to play a Muslim in this film trying to show that these divisions could be overcome, while her own family were on the end of British bombs.
The overlapping parallels of real life and drama here were intense
But I was equally taken with the dilemma of the Greenjackets. Here was a group of 40 or so soldiers that had just come back from Bosnia as part of S-FOR, prior to assisting us on this project. And those very soldiers that were helping us had, just before they left Bosnia, been involved in uncovering the mass grave that we show. They were supposed to be extras on the recreation of the scene of the digging of that mass grave. So I was asking them to play soldiers burying those bodies when they themselves in real life had just returned from Bosnia where they had been involved in digging up that grave and cataloguing the bodies.
They absented themselves from that scene. We only discovered this when we said, “Well, where are they?” They were incredibly helpful but suddenly we were alone. The overlapping parallels of real life and drama here were intense. I felt awful for having even asked them to go through that. It was bad enough for the actors. You had the actress playing Minka [an interpreter] breaking down in tears both as the character and also as herself. She reckoned she had an uncle and aunt who are in a mass grave like that somewhere in central Bosnia. You are dealing with these parallels the whole time. Real life and real events crowded in on us.
Then after Innocents came your trilogy of films about the morality of New Labour. How did it develop?
I hadn’t thought of that way but obviously The Project was about the beginnings of New Labour, The Government Inspector was the thing that will undoubtedly go down as the defining event of the New Labour era which was the decision to go to war with Iraq and the way that was sold to the British people, and the third film [Britz] is really about the consequences of that decision domestically. They are linked.
What was the impact of The Project inside New Labour? (Pictured right, Naomie Harris and Matthew Macfadyen)
The Labour Party detested The Project, no question. It didn’t paint a particularly edifying picture of New Labour. It showed that their declared ambition in Opposition was very much at odds with their actions when they got into to power. In Leigh Jackson’s world of the young activists, these passionate supporters were eventually completely disillusioned and alienated by the behaviour of their own government. I know because the years have passed now and a number have wasted no opportunity to tell me so. We showed the Macfadyen character going through litter bins and involving himself in black propaganda against political opponents. I have spoken to the person who did that. I knew we were rock solid on that. But having it shown on BBC One at 9 o’clock was not popular. With The Government Inspector it’s harder to say.
How much of a feather in your cap was The Government Inspector in terms of having an impact on public policy?
This is very immodest to say all this. Andrew McKinley was a Labour MP on the Foreign Affairs select committee, the committee that examined David Kelly. An actor plays him in The Government Inspector. He said on a BBC radio programme called Dramatising New Labour that if it had not been for The Government Inspector there wouldn’t have been the Chilcot Inquiry. Now I don’t know if it’s true but if it is true that would certainly be the most direct... In terms of people I meet who are in that sort of world, they do say privately, “You’ve no idea what an impact The Government Inspector had. We all watched it. Everyone watched it.” And it was an unusual film because normally my stuff waits for time to pass a bit, like Warriors. That one was done very quickly after the event and I think that probably had more impact in its way.
I was secretly delighted because I’d been wanting to write for years
How was it you were able to get The Government Inspector out so quickly? You are known for intense research which takes time.
That was because it’s the only film I’ve ever made for television drama that wasn’t my idea. After The Project I had three things at the BBC which all fell down and almost always because they couldn’t raise the production finance. The one that collapsed was a two-parter on asylum-seekers that I’d recced in South Africa, cast, and the BBC pulled out of it. And my father died in the same week so I went to stay in the house of a friend in France. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, to be honest. And I’d got a phone call while I was there from David Aukin, who was someone I knew vaguely from his time at Channel 4. And he said, “Would you be interested in doing a film about David Kelly?” I do get a lot of those kinds of calls and I always say no because I’ve always got a stack of things I’m working on in my own pipeline. But he called me at a moment when I was free to start immediately. Added to which, I had watched David Kelly being interrogated by the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was around the time my father had died, David Kelly was a man of a certain age, and I was very moved by his plight because my dad was on my mind. So I said yes.
We sent a researcher to listen to every day of the Hutton inquiry. We did all our own research. We had a team of about four researchers. So the material came in very fast. And we had a wonderful writer, Troy Kennedy Martin, somebody I had wanted to work with since Edge of Darkness which I think is the best TV drama ever made. A few days before he was contractually obliged to submit his draft he rang me and said, “I can’t do it. It’s just too much material. I can’t be creative. I feel like I’m trying to write in a straitjacket.” So what do we do? If we get somebody to replace him they’ve got all this material. There were thousands of pages of it.
And David Aukin said, “Why don't you write it?” Because I’d read every word. And of course I was secretly delighted because I’d been wanting to write for years. I still thought of myself as this slightly geeky scientist, I didn't think for a minute that I would be but they asked me and because they were in a hole I could gracefully accept. And I turned it round fast and we got this film round quickly.
So far as you know, did anyone in Tony Blair’s sofa cabinet watch, and did their views percolate back to you?
I was quite surprised by how maladroit the Labour Party response to The Project was, which was that they just got all the usual suspects to jump up and down and appear on TV programmes and write columns and slag us for getting things wrong where research proved palpably that we had not. I always thought it would be far smarter to keep quiet. TV by its nature is pretty disposable and if you just keep your head down these very very self-inflated controversies that TV generates usually dissipate fairly fast.
They all watched it. They absolutely hated it, as you would expect. And they all said it was incredibly biased and pro-BBC. But I would point out to them that the cornerstone of their case was that Andrew Gilligan’s original report was unreliable. And with the greatest respect, I exposed what nobody had ever exposed, including the Hutton inquiry, and we included in the film, which is that Andrew Gilligan altered his notes in that crucial conversation. Which if it was going to be a total BBC puff piece, if I’d found that out I would have quietly ignored it. As an indication that although I’m a filmmaker whose political position is reasonably well known, when a piece of information came out that didn't fit my personal analysis, I included it because you couldn’t not include it. I don’t think New Labour have ever sufficiently acknowledged the fact that we did show that Gilligan falsified his notes, which made it a much more ambiguous piece in many ways.
How did Gilligan react?
He fulminated in his column. We kept waiting for the writ but it never arrived.
Britz (see trailer below) looks like a companion piece to The Government Inspector. Is that how it was conceived?
We were sitting around trying to decide what to do next and it was July 2005 and bombs were going off in London. It became apparent that these bombers were not mercenaries in Somalia or Algeria or Morocco but were second-generation Brits, born here, educated here, and yet they were sufficiently pissed off and alienated to strap explosives to themselves, blow themselves to bits and try to take as many of their fellow citizens with them as they could. And they killed 52 people and injured hundreds.
It became pretty obvious to me that the only film to be making was a drama that tries to understand how that could have happened. You immediately ask yourself the question, rightly so, is that a legitimate thing to do? Does it show any kind of consideration for the relatives and friends of people who died on 7 July 2005? We thought about it a lot and discussed it amongst the team and I ended up thinking, Well, yes actually, we don’t do them a service by portraying these people as insane. Clearly it’s more complicated than that. That would be as silly as saying the entire German nation was in the grip of a mass psychosis during the latter half of the Thirties. It’s clear good people were misdirected by the Nazis and in the same way there second-generation Muslims who are contemplating very extreme action who are not monsters. I think the way to do a service to the relatives and friends of those who died on 7/7 is to try and stop it happening again. The first step to stopping it happening again is to try to understand how it could have happened in the first place.
We were asking these questions in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings
In terms of research you set yourself another mountainous task. How did you tackle it?
Since I knew I was going to write this and I’m not a Muslim and not 20 and don’t live in the north of England, there was a massive amount of basic character stuff that I needed to know. This film is not aimed at the British Muslim community. It’s trying to tell non-Muslims what it might feel like to be a second-generation Muslim in Britain today. I was concerned notwithstanding that when people of the kind that I was writing about watched it or acted in it, that they felt it was fair and accurate and multi-dimensional.
I’m second-generation, my mother was born overseas, and I have felt all my life a battle within me. On the one hand I went to public school and Oxford. It was very easy to hide away my non-British antecedents and pretend it didn’t exist and try to be as British as I could possibly be. On the other hand, equally strong, although the battle ebbs and flows at various stages of one’s life, the desire to be proud of my antecedents and to overturn the apple cart. I wanted to dramatise this debate which is internal within me by making it two people rather than one. I wanted to have a brother and a sister, one of whom was the wanting-to-be-British side of me and the other, the sister, was proud not to be British, the asking-all-the-difficult-questions side of me.
The next priority was to mine those two areas. My very first idea was that the brother was a professional cricketer but it didn’t go anywhere. I eventually discovered that MI5 were recruiting young British Muslims (pictured left, Riz Ahmed as Sohail). Also it became apparent, because this information was squeezed out of the police and MI5 with various Freedom of Information requests, that the vast majority of the people that the international counterterrorism department of MI5 was watching were Muslims.
I thought, well, that’s an interesting conflict for a young British Muslim who joins MI5, because he wants to do something that’s really digging into the institutions of British culture and life, in much the same way that I was eager to join the BBC when I left university, and immediately finds himself cast in the role - if I don’t mix my religions - of a kind of Judas, or maybe a collaborator: somebody who is spying effectively on their own community. What a tricky position that must be. Our task was to find out as much as we could about the admissions process for somebody like that getting into MI5.
If I was going to posit the idea of a young woman - and this was again touching base with things in my own past – whom political fury was going to drive towards a position of extremism rather than a messianic religious starting point, I needed to understand what would be the issues that would concern her in British society. So that meant researching the Terrorism Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, control order legislation, anti-social behaviour legislation. And then of course, most difficult of all, to find out what happens to somebody if and when they decide they want to go overseas and train. That needed to be researched as well.
How far into the Muslim radical world did you get?
In all honesty no distance at all. It’s very tough world to penetrate and you’ve got to bear in mind that we were asking these questions in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings and 21/7 attempted bombings, and people, particularly up in Beeston, closed ranks and shut down. We interviewed some people and got some very helpful background but most of what we discovered is actually open-source material. You just have to sit down and plough through it. Researchers did it and then subsequently I did it. There was a whole report written which we were given about the radicalisation of Islamic youth on the campuses. We just drew very heavily from those kinds of sources. There were no assurances we could give people that would get them to open up.
How much greater a task was it to think your way into the head of a female terrorist?
I have a cheat which I’m going to have to own up to. When I was a little boy I invented a sister called Tilly who was four years younger than me. She was my imaginary sister. She fulfilled some kind of need for me. She was a kind of imaginary companion in my childhood. I have a brother but no sister. I imagined a sister. And I think in part it was the desire to have somebody younger and adoring who I could patronise and guide. None of it was particularly honourable.
Perhaps because I’m a writer, and deep down thought I probably would be one one day. I characterised quite strongly in my head. She was like me in lots of ways but didn’t suffer from a lot of my failings. She had the courage of her convictions in a way that I often didn’t, but she reached her big moment when my children were quite little because they were clamouring for a bedtime story, so I would tell them stories about my imaginary sister, and I would do it in such a way that they didn’t really know if she was real or not. They knew I didn’t have a sister but I always told it in such a way that she was. I spent quite a lot of those evenings sitting there when I should have been doing some work trying to figure out what story to tell them that night. And I often used my own experiences but turned them into an experience of this imaginary sister, just because of a failure of imagination really. So she was like me but unlike me and when I came to have to invent Nasima I used Tilly, and she was like ready-made as a character. So I invested a lot of myself in Sohail and a lot of Tilly in Nasima.
You can never in your wildest dreams have assumed that your imaginary sister was going to turn into a terrorist? (Pictured right, Manjinder Virk as Nasima)
No, and I would have been horrified because I wouldn’t have wanted her to have that fate. Part of the reason why the origin of Nasima’s journey is political rather than religious is because my youth was very political, and I never thought of going into the shadows and joining the Red Brigades but I was to be found on demonstrations fairly regularly and I was quite a political youngster. I suppose I was trying to think, well, if I’d been that person today and Muslim, there would have been a step offered to me far more obviously than it was ever offered to the real me, and what if I, as represented by Nasima, took that step because of something awful that happened to her in her personal life (which of course didn’t happen to me)?
Did you come across instances of a highly politicised young Muslim woman?
The researchers interviewed a number of people and I think it’s fair to say that the struggle we had actually was with the Sohail character, because all the people I think without exception that we interviewed were as angry as Nasima. The struggle was to find somebody who wasn’t influenced by all of that and was very very proud to be British. The gaps between the dots that I had to fill in were far greater for the Sohail character. It wasn’t at all difficult to find characters male and female who were politically furious about what is going on on Britain today. In terms of intellectual position almost identical to Nasima’s. Just that like me they would never have taken that additional step.
What became very clear is that a lot of second-generation Muslims are living a double life and they are, to put it really crudely, lying to their parents. When they’re at home they’re behaving quite traditionally and when they’re away from home they’re in relationships which their parents and extended family know little or nothing about. You take that at face value and it seems to be a rather deceitful thing to do, but these are not lying deceitful people. Quite the reverse. So there is something about being a second-generation Muslim that forces people - and the motive is the desire to avoid hurting their parents’ generation, causing them pain - who we would otherwise think of as strikingly honest to lie. So I wanted to try to represent that. In the two films the brother and sister actually have very similar experiences. They are both living a secret life. They are both arrested and detained. They are both having trans-racial relationships of which their family know nothing. They both travel to Pakistan at some point in the story. My idea was that they should have similar experiences but very different paths.
What was the impact of Britz? (Pictured left, Kosminsky on set with Riz Ahmed)
The interesting thing about Britz was the impact of the last minute. For me as a filmmaker it was almost amusing. There were clearly a lot of people critical of the New Labour government, critical of its foreign policy and domestic policy in relation to Muslims and to civil rights, human rights, who loved 99.9 per cent of Britz - and then came Nasima’s video at the very end delivered directly to camera and very closely modelled on suicide videos of jihadists who have blown themselves up in various places. And that video, or that coda to the films, accused the British public of being complicit in the crimes of the Blair administration, and a number of people who you might think of as natural allies of the film were outraged, because they personally felt attacked. And I was accused of editorialising.
I think a director’s job is inherently lonely. I’d be nervous if I were clubbable
People have written to me and said, “Fantastic, but the last minute must count as one of the great misjudgements of modern TV drama” and things like that. It’s interesting the amount of vitriol it generated. It made something that had felt quite comfy for a lot of left-of-centre people suddenly rather uncomfortable.
My approach to it was different. Nasima was an intelligent woman. She was studying to be a doctor. She was very politically active; she wasn’t coming from a position of devout religious faith. And for a variety of reasons she had come to a decision that political activity was getting her nowhere. And so very reluctantly and going against her previous prejudice against it, she decided to train as a jihadist. And I thought, what would an intelligent and political woman like that say in her video?
It was hard to write because it had to be believable and it had to be uncomfortable because what she said would be uncomfortable for us. And I just didn't realise how uncomfortable people would find it as the very last remarks in the film. It was supposed to make people uncomfortable in a way that anything she said, had she been a real character, would have made people uncomfortable. So I rejoice in their annoyance, because people need shaking up; even people I might think of as natural allies need shaking up. My job is to be the grit in the oyster. It doesn’t always make me popular.
While you continue to be able to make these films, is there any point in saying things ain’t what they used to be in British television?
No. The idea that there was some universal golden age is rubbish. There wasn’t. But what has changed is that the BBC in particular and television in general were prepared to rock the boat. And with the honourable exception of Channel 4 I don’t see that now. There is a comfiness and a smugness. If you ask the BBC where their boat-rocking dramas are now they’ll point you at a gritty crime drama. That’s not what I‘m talking about. I’m talking about things that give people in power uncomfortable nights. And I want to know where those dramas are.
Is it lonely being a filmmaker in British television now?
I think a director’s job is inherently lonely. I’d be nervous if I were clubbable. It’s like whether you’d ever accept an honour. Well, no, of course you wouldn’t. It’s my job to stand somewhere adjacent to the touchline and hurl missiles in from the edge. It would be deeply dodgy if I was in there hugging and kissing all the great and the good. It would mean that what I was doing was a game. It’s not a game. I’ve devoted my life to it. I’ve spent month after month after month sitting in a small room trying to achieve this. I don’t expect to be loved or admired or patted on the back, or become a cuddly figure of dissent who’s been in some neutered by being absorbed into the body politic. I don’t want that. I want to be on the outside shouting, sometimes rather shrilly, about things that upset me and annoy. That was my upbringing, that was my training, and that’s what I’ll do till I drop.
- Peter Kosminsky: Making Mischief at the BFI Southbank 8-22 December
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