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Ken Loach: a lifetime in film and politics

“Films can do anything: from the broadest comedy, to the darkest tragedy, to documenting what’s happening in a very direct way.” When asked the question “Are films the best way to put forward a political agenda?” this was how Ken Loach responded. A director whose entire career has been spent highlighting social problems and individual experiences through a realist lens, Loach rejects the boundaries that we place on films, stating that we should not ask what films should do, and instead recognise what they can do.  He looks for “stories that demand to be told, that have a significance beyond their simple narrative.”

Ken admits that one film alone cannot make a political movement. He argues that his films must be placed in their political context and that have inspired thousands of people into social action. One of his early works for the BBC, Cathy Come Home, had an enormous impact on social attitudes towards homelessness, spread awareness of the problem and encouraged support for the newly-formed charity Shelter. In making Cathy Come Home, Loach pioneered realistic documentary-style filmmaking.

Direction is like digging a trench for the water to run down into, making sure that it goes in the right place.

We move on to discuss his latest film, I, Daniel Blake, which was one of the most well-received and critically praised works of his career, receiving the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Outstanding British Film Award at the BAFTAs. Ken and I speak at length about the filming of the much-discussed foodbank scene, and again how he achieved the shocking and realistic style of the scene. Filmed in a real foodbank with real foodbank workers and users, Hayley Squires, who starred as Katie, was the only member of the cast who was aware of what she was to do in the scene. The responses from the rest of the cast are how they would respond in real life. Inspired by the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and 50s, Ken’s use of non-professional actors has been a theme throughout his career, using a blend of experienced actors and ‘real’ people in scenes in Land and Freedom and Cathy Come Home. He tells me that he always tries to use the people who will “bring the story to life in the most authentic way possible.”

As regards the scene in the foodbank, where Hayley Squires’ hunger betrays her, and only she knew what would happen, Ken tells me it was impossible to predict how the actors would respond.  He describes orchestrating the scene, by ensuring that there was an obvious place in the set for the actors to move to. Summing up his directorial philosophy he tells me that “direction is like digging a trench for the water to run down into, making sure that it goes in the right place.” Ken is keen to stress the collaborative role of the director with the rest of the crew. After asking him about his role as a “film-maker,” Ken observes that generally too much emphasis is placed on the director; he is only one cog in the machine of the overall team. Ken is keen to stress that the creative powerhouse of the film is the writer, bringing the film to life from a blank piece of paper.

Ken has worked with a huge number of people throughout his long career as a director, but none more than long-term collaborator Paul Laverty, who wrote both Palme d’Or winning films, I, Daniel Blake and The Wind that Shakes the Barley and the 2009 comedy Looking for Eric, starring footballer Eric Cantona as himself. Cantona is the spiritual guru to down-on-his-luck football fan Eric Bishop, a film of particular interest for me as a Manchester United fan, to which Ken remarked “never mind, someone has to be!” Ken tells me that during the filming, Eric was a team player who helped out with everything: “one of the gang.” Despite, like Bishop, being initially overawed by the Messianic figure of Cantona – “as a football fan, film people hold no mystery, but footballers do” – Ken and Eric struck up a great friendship during the filming which persists to this day. Deconstructing and playing on the cult of celebrity which enshrouds footballers, Looking for Eric was an exploration of football fan culture by a lifelong football fan. Marked with his usual exploration of social issues and personal difficulties, Looking for Eric is one of Loach’s most popular and well-known films.

You either support the people who are being oppressed or the people who are doing the oppressing, so that’s not much of a choice really.

From the start, politics have informed and underpinned the films he has made. Despite a chequered relationship with the Labour Party, he has returned to the fold following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. He took a role in campaigning leading up to the 2017 General Election and directed a party-political broadcast. He sees the possibility of real social change, and with the arrival of Corbyn and John McDonnell, the public is no longer faced with two parties whose politics are sometimes hard to distinguish. The public “no longer has to support the lesser of two evils.” With the support of thousands of new members, Ken argues that the party must change through the grassroots (where Corbyn’s main strengths lie), replacing many of the MPs and councillors, who remain in office today, and who failed to fight the cruel austerity measures he so vociferously rails against in I, Daniel Blake. He sees the role of the grassroots Labour party as essential in reshaping the party.

As well as his relationship with the Labour Party, Ken Loach’s career has been defined by his powerful political activism and support for the causes he champions. Unafraid to show his support for the BDS movement by withdrawing his films from festivals sponsored by the Israeli government, Ken tells me that such activism is simply following the logic of the films he has made: “You have to be prepared to defend the views that are implicit in your films.”  This applied particularly to the discussions following his 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which depicts conflict between Irish republicans and British ruling class in the Irish War of Independence. Throughout his career as both political activist and director, what he tells me next rings very true: “You either support the people who are being oppressed or the people who are doing the oppressing, so that’s not much of a choice really.”

Does he have any regrets? Although he recognises that he’s made mistakes when he was younger, and looks back at edits that he may have cut differently or scenes he may have shot differently, he sees it as a process: you learn from it the next time, and make sure the next time you get it right. Ken says to me that a lot of his career has been about luck: his first real stroke of luck was getting into St. Peter’s, Oxford (before it was granted collegiate status), and his second, starting work for the BBC, where his attentions turned away from the theatre of his student days and towards the screen, which would become such a defining part of his life. Being lucky to be in the right place at the right time, in his words, was very important in his career. He has devoted himself to championing the cause of the underdog, telling the stories of ordinary people on the silver screen, and presenting his perspective on the world around him. In his own words, Ken Loach has continually stretched the limitations of the medium – “like prose, the medium of film can be anything – consciously honest, or consciously dishonest, or doing your best to be honest.” This striving for honesty, presenting the struggles of real life and the stories of people that “demand to be told,” has defined Ken Loach’s long and illustrious career in the film industry.