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  Franny Armstrong  printable version

DIRECTOR INTERVIEW

FRANNY ARMSTRONG

Thursday 7 April 2005

 
 

The original version of McLibel (1997) was Franny Armstrong's first film. Since then she has made Drowned Out (2002), about the controversial Narmada Dam in India.

BBC Four: You weren't a filmmaker before McLibel. How did you start the project?
Franny Armstrong: I was a drummer in 1995. My dad told me that there was a trial starting in London that he thought was right up my street. It had all the issues I was interested in: healthy foods, advertising to kids, environmental destruction and so on. Plus, this brilliant human story of David and Goliath. My dad was a filmmaker and had all the equipment and said, "Why don't you borrow my camera and make a film?" I only made a film because those were the resources I had access to. If my dad had owned a printing press I would have been making posters. The story was inspiring and I thought everybody ought to hear about it.

BBC Four: You made contact with Helen and David pretty early on then?
FA: Yes. When I first called them they said I was too late because eight other production companies had already got in touch. David then phoned me up some time later and said none of those companies could get a commission and had all dropped out. He said, famously, "Why does having no money stop you making a film?" There was this climate of fear and no one would touch the story. That's the reason why I, a first-time filmmaker, was able to get such a great story.

BBC Four: How much time did you spend with Helen and David?
FA: When I started they told me that there was six months of the trial to go. That of course became two-and-a-half years - the longest trial in English history. I was with them, not day-in, day-out, but certainly often, so they started to trust me. Having said that, they had been infiltrated by McDonald's spies, so were understandably nervous about letting anybody in too close.

BBC Four: I hadn't been aware of the spies before seeing the film. How did you manage to interview one of them?
FA: It was bizarre. My sister was studying nutrition at the time. She was at the pub one night and another student on the course said to her, "I've never told anyone this before. But guess what? I used to be a spy for McDonald's!" She turned out to be one of the McLibel spies. Helen and David then got in touch her and she gave evidence for them rather than for McDonald's. There were seven spies that they knew of, who infiltrated the London Greenpeace groups for 18 months - one of them even had an affair with another activist.

BBC Four: Another major subject in the film is the inherent problems with the English libel laws.
FA: Absolutely. People had been protesting about McDonald's all around the world, but they always chose to bring libel action in England because of our libel laws. During the 1980s McDonald's were threatening to sue everybody from huge organisations like the BBC and the Sunday Times right down to children's theatre groups and a tea shop. It doesn't cost them anything to send out a legal letter and then everyone backs down. It was really only a matter of time before they came across a Helen and Dave. Obviously, they had no way of knowing that this tactic which had been previously successful would so spectacularly backfire. It's been called the biggest corporate PR disaster in history.

BBC Four: How did you get Ken Loach on board to film the courtroom reconstructions?
FA: That was our first big coup. We initially went to McDonald's to ask for interviews with their key witnesses. They gave us a blanket no. We wanted to get their point of view across so we decided on the courtroom reconstructions but felt completely out of our depth doing drama. We wrote a list of who we wanted to direct the drama, with Ken Loach's name at the top and mine at the bottom. We wrote him a letter, he agreed and the next thing we knew we were filming with Ken Loach. That was the first moment that I realised just how important this story was - that people like Ken were willing to come and work on it for free.

BBC Four: As Eric Schlosser [Fast Food Nation] says in the film, McLibel was a major turning point. What do you think the trial's biggest impact has been?
FA: You've only got to look at Jamie's School Dinners and you can see the progression from 15 years ago when no one was talking about these issues, partly because they were scared of being sued by McDonald's, to now when these are huge public interest issues. The EU is talking about banning advertising to kids in this next coming year. That is the greatest success of McLibel. It doesn't really matter to me what McDonald's are doing now. What really matters is the public awareness and the desire for change coming from the public.

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BBC Links

On This Day: 1997
Watch original BBC reports on the McLibel verdict

McLibel Pair Win Legal Aid Case
BBC News story from February 2005

External Links

Live Webchat
Talk to the McLibel team on Sunday at 11.55pm

McLibel: The Film
Official site has a lot of information on the film

McSpotlight
Anti-McDonald's site that spun-off from the McLibel trial

The McLibel Trial
Potted history of the case

McDonald's
The company's UK website

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