Ken Loach

The Revolution Will Be Filmed

Ken Loach
(Photo: AFP)

The first scene of Ken Loach’s superb film, The Navigators, establishes the mood and it’s a distinctly Loach mood: raw, human, funny, politically sincere. The film is set in Yorkshire in 1995 and, as it opens, a clipboard-carrying middle manager is about to tell a meeting of stroppy railway workers, most of whom have been doing their jobs for years, that rail services are to be privatized. They will become competitive “business units.”  They will have “mission statements.” The news is greeted with hoots and derision, and all that privatization newspeak becomes a running joke throughout the film.

The Navigators is a good earthy illustration of what is potentially a very dry subject. “There was a conscious effort to destroy the old railway culture
handed down by generations of people whose families had always worked on the railways,” Loach says, by phone from the United Kingdom.

“Interdependence, solidarity, unionization, safe practices—all that was handed down and that was what they wanted to break. They wanted to replace that with the all-purpose worker who was supplied by an agency, went along and repaired the track or fixed the signals, and was hired when you wanted him and not hired when you didn’t want him.

“From the employers’ point of view, that rationalization of labor is very cost-effective. But it destroys everything that makes life worth living for a lot of people.”

There aren’t many movie directors prepared to offer succinct class-war summaries in an interview. Loach may be the last of Britain’s socialist filmmakers. Now in his mid-60s, he has been making politically conscious yet unsanctimonious films for more than 40 years—from the topical and realist “TV plays” of the 1960s that included “Cathy Come Home” and “Up the Junction” to the early cinematic feature Kes (1969), from trade union documentaries in the 1980s to more recent and accessible features such as Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, and Land and Freedom.  Yet, for all that, Loach balks at being labeled a political filmmaker.

“I think the danger is that it becomes too limiting, really, because people, when they go and see a film, think, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a political lecture here.’  That’s the last thing you want. You want people to go in with an open mind and just enjoy what they see. As a label, it’s a killer. It turns people off in their droves.”

According to Loach’s terms, The Navigators succeeds. Any political message is a direct and organic consequence of the action—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic—on screen. Its sense of unmediated reality is enhanced by the fact that much of Loach’s cast are Yorkshire pub comedians rather than overexposed film actors with rehearsed accents, while the movie was written by a redundant railwayman named Rob Dawber. Also a union activist—his column in a railway workers’ magazine was titled, “The Fat Controller”—he contracted lung cancer from his exposure to asbestos and died in February 2001, before the completion of The Navigators.

“It all came out of his own experience and [that of] other railway men. When we were doing it, we got a lot of people who had worked on the railways to be in it, so all the time we had people saying, ‘This is how it was, this is what we did, this is how it was put to us.’ There’s a lot of real experience within the film.”
The Navigators is two films ago for Loach—it debuted in the U.K. last November. His newest feature is Sweet Sixteen, about a teenage drug dealer in Scotland, written by his frequent collaborator Paul Laverty (he wrote My Name Is Joe, Carla’s Song, and Bread and Roses). The other film was a short about Sept. 11 that won an award at this year’s Venice film festival and also brought Loach some controversy at home from Britain’s pro-war lobby.

“It’s in the context of a French production, which was to have 11 films made, each one 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame long, which were to be reflections on Sept. 11 in New York,” Loach says. In this international collaboration, other contributing directors included Sean Penn (for the United States), Bosnia’s Danis Tanovic, and India’s Mira Nair. “I did a film about a Chilean friend of mine who was a supporter of Allende when he was a student. When the coup [that brought Pinochet to power] happened in Chile—which was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1973—he was caught, beaten, and imprisoned for five years without trial and then let out, provided that he left the country. He’s been in exile ever since.

“Sept. 11 in Chile, which was a coup to replace a democratically elected government with a murdering military dictatorship, was inspired, paid for, and promoted by the United States. In the film, there is a letter by this Chilean friend, a victim of Sept. 11, to the families of the last Sept. 11, pointing out the parallel and saying, it was your government that brought terrorism to our country.”

Inevitably, some have accused Loach of tasteless grandstanding, of using last year’s tragedy as a platform. “Yes, except the people who are complaining about terrorism this time and lost under 3,000, committed terrorism before and killed 30,000. They need to think that other people have to be mourned as well. Nobody has had any two minutes of silence for all the murdered in Chile, not to mention the other areas of terrorism that the U.S. has promoted, from Vietnam onward. ”

So, would Loach join writer Christopher Hitchens in saying that Henry Kissinger (former U.S. Secretary of State) should be tried as a war criminal? “Oh, yes. And so should many others. I think that Hitchens goes off the rails sometimes, but in that respect, I agree with him.”

Speaking of going off the rails, has Loach read Martin Amis’ book about Stalinism, Koba the Dread? “No,” he says laughing. “There are enough serious books to read without reading it. It’s received a wholly disproportionate amount of attention just because of his name. From the reviews I’ve read, it just isn’t a serious book. It ignores the tendency that fought Stalinism from day one. That’s the problem with people who have just been old communists—they never appreciate the role of the left opposition.” Which was what Land and Freedom, Loach’s George Orwell-inspired Spanish Civil War drama, was about. “Tried to be, yeah,” says Loach quietly.

He’s far too modest. Loach’s best films—a category that would include The Navigators—can stand with some of the landmark Italian neorealist and French new wave films that so influenced him in the ’50s and ’60s. In Sight and Sound magazine’s recent issue of critics’ and directors’ top 10s, Loach cited Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic The Bicycle Thief. The influence seems obvious: De Sica depicted the desperate poverty of postwar Rome through the sentimental story of an unemployed father and his son. That humanizing of social conditions is also Loach’s trick, so it’s no surprise that he has more of a following in continental Europe than in the United Kingdom.

“The thing that I do is very much out of a European tradition,” Loach agrees. “They have a different sense of cinema in Europe. We haven’t taken film seriously in the way other European countries have. We’ve never had an Ingmar Bergman or a [Robert] Bresson. Also, because my films are in English...maybe they’re a wee bit exotic. If they’d done Jean de Florette [a 1987 film by French director Claude Berri] about a farmworker in Norfolk, it wouldn’t have been so popular in England. Part of it is the fact that it’s French and you can taste the Gauloises....”

Even beyond Europe, there is widening recognition of Loach’s achievements and his dogged integrity. Things weren’t so rosy in the 1980s, when Loach eschewed features for political documentaries that British television refused to screen, but now he seems prolific—the hypocrisies of Tony Blair’s Britain have sparked something in him. Is this a good time to be Ken Loach?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I can never see it in those terms. You just stagger on from one job to the next, hoping you can keep going. The ’80s was a very thin time. Mainly, it was my own misjudgment. I tried to make documentaries at a time when it was impossible to get critical documentaries shown. I’d lost touch with the writers I should have been working with—not lost touch at a personal level, but we just weren’t kicking off the right ideas—and the political onslaught of Thatcher paralyzed the left, in a way. So my response was to start making waves as fast as I could in terms of making documentaries—you don’t need to wait 18 months for them to come out. But then I made the damn things and nobody showed them!”