A story of austerity, but not as we know it
Screenwriter Paul Laverty’s latest film – a tale of prosperity, austerity and olive trees – is set in a Spain that could be Ireland
A scene from The Olive Tree: Spain, before the financial crisis, was ‘not unlike Ireland, building more houses. There was a madness about it, and a radical change in society’
From left: Writer Paul Laverty, former soccer player Eric Cantona and director Ken Loach arrive for the Irish premiere of ‘Looking For Eric’ at the Light House cinema in Dublin, 2009. Photograph: Niall Carson/Riverdance/PA Wire
The Santander complex outside Madrid houses the headquarters of the eurozone’s largest bank and a landscaped garden neatly dotted by imported, thousand-year-old olive trees. This improbable trade of ancient perennials tears a Spanish family apart in The Olive Tree, the seventh feature from director Iciar Bollain, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Paul Laverty.
“I never presume Iciar is going to take on one of my scripts,” says Laverty. “I’ve been lucky to work with very talented people like Icair and you can’t expect them to spend the next two years of their life on something unless you know the nub of the story is something they’ll be passionate about.”
As with Laverty’s most recent script for Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, The Olive Tree addresses austerity, albeit with a very different arc and tone.
“Spain, before the crisis, not unlike Ireland, was building more houses every year than Germany, France and Italy put together,” says Laverty. “There was a madness about it, and incredible corruption, which produced a radical change in that society.
“Before, people would have been like my grandparents from Limerick. There was a symbiotic relationship with the land. The olive trees like the one in the film date to Roman times. They were cultivated for generations. And then they were sold off. Some went to the Middle East; some went to the Vatican; some went to China. ”
Laverty, who wrote scripts for Looking for Eric and The Angel’s Share, is a jovial sort who still finds it odd to see the word ‘didactic’ applied to his work.
“It’s an unfair criticism. Films only work if they are great stories. I don’t want to see a film that’s didactic. I don’t mind seeing one that is passionate. But it has to be complex and multidimensional. I’ve always tried to avoid writing that makes you feel like you’ve been handed a leaflet.”
Paul Laverty took a roundabout route into the film industry. Born in Calcutta to an Irish mother and Scottish father, he read philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome, then law in Glasgow before journeying to Nicaragua, where he worked for a human rights organisation for three years.
That experience inspired him to write the script for Carla’s Song, a cross-cultural romantic drama concerning a Nicaraguan exile and a Scottish bus driver. It would be his first collaboration with the veteran director Ken Loach; the pair have subsequently worked together on more than a dozen films, a creative partnership that has yielded a Jury Prize and two Palme d’Or winners at Cannes.
“The relationship I have with Ken is unique,” says Laverty. “It’s about finding material that is multi-layered and interesting, with great narrative possibilities. I’m involved throughout the process: the casting, the shoot. Not many writers are that fortunate. They’re commissioned to write something and that’s it.”
Typically, Loach and Laverty immerse themselves in the material. For last year’s I, Daniel Blake, they lived among those affected by Newcastle’s imploding welfare system. The UK government’s own statistics demonstrate that between 2010 and 2011, 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of their work capability assessment.
But such inconvenient truths did not prevent right-wing critics from questioning I, Daniel Blake’s depiction of a Geordie carpenter caught up in Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare following a heart attack.
“It never feels quite genuine,” wrote one British critic. “We have to take his word on it … personally I have my doubts”, wrote another Irish reviewer.
“We’ve seen the return of scurvy; the return of rickets,” says Laverty. “Over 16,000 people last year were admitted into hospital with malnutrition. Go to the food banks. There are always whistle-blowers in the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions).
“There are all these reports from select committees confirming what’s in the film. They know what’s going on and that it’s indefensible. But rather than debate it, they’ll just call you a liar.
“The secretary of state condemned the film in parliament, having not seen it. That made me laugh. Because when The Wind that Shakes the Barley won the Palm d’Or that idiot (Michael) Gove condemned the film without having seen it as well.”
Gove’s contribution to the anti-Barley British tabloid headlines was to question the film’s depiction of British Black and Tans as “sub-human mercenaries burning thatched cottages, torturing by using pliers to rip out toenails and committing extreme violence against women”.
“He hated the any questioning of the idea that the British Empire was this great exporter of democracy, not occupation,” says Laverty. “Sinn Féin candidates won 73 seats out of 105 in the 1918 general election. The British couldn’t accept it. Some still won’t. They say he that controls the past, controls the present.”
He laughs: “So Gove went on to be Minister for Education.”
I wonder what Laverty, having pondered that period of Irish history more deeply than most, would suggest for the upcoming centenaries of the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.
“I would love to see Donal O Drisceoil, who advised us on The Wind that Shakes the Barley, involved in that conversation. Marking the civil war – which saw brother fighting brother – and the partition of Ireland will be really tricky. It’ll be interesting to see how people grasp that nettle.”
The Olive Tree opens March 17th