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In Conversation with Ken Loach

Raphael Zyss talks to Ken Loach about sympathetic cinematography, Oxford, and antisemitism in the Labour Party.

CW: Racism, antisemitism

Kes (1968) – Miner’s Working Men’s Club. Rhythmic close shots of faces, the pub is filled with big smiles and small chat. The protagonist is absent from the scene. Energy is captured by the alternating long and short shots of faces: smiling, singing and slurring. For Billy Casper, the Bildungsroman hero, there is not much hope in life until he decides to raise a kestrel. Throughout the movie, we see Billy, his family and classmates, but never the mining. The pit becomes for us what it is for him; a source of underlying tension, an existential threat.

“Cinema,” says Ken Loach over the phone, “is predictably pretty right wing”. His voice softens, betraying a smirk he’s reserved for the ‘established’ film industry for decades. Loach, the loose cannon of English cinema, creates based on what he deems to be just. He has been a leading figure in socially committed cinema since his early movies, creating personal and intricate dramas which often shed lights on abusive systems. He is concerned with shaping reality and evoking empathy by use of his craft.

In times of pandemic, telephone is the only option. I’m slightly intimidated at first, but he talks slowly, with kindness, like we had all the time in the world. “We’ve got twenty-five minutes”, he tells me. His latest movie, Sorry We Missed You, depicts the heart-breaking ordeal of a family who have fallen victim to the 2008 financial crisis, barely surviving in an “uberised” society. The movie was released in the US recently, and Loach remarks that “not a word has been said about Paul in the latest review”. Paul is Paul Laverty, the screenwriter of his movies. As he is keen to remind me, his work is ultimately collaborative and thus individual recognition is not quite fair. A Loach film relies on casting, writing, and setting just as much as it relies on directing. Nevertheless, the film’s success in ‘the land of the free’, where Kes was once dismissed on the grounds that the Barnsley dialect was “less understandable than Hungarian”, is a testament to the power of his work.

Loach studied law at St. Peters College, Oxford, graduating in the late 1950s, not long after the war. “It was like being a kid in a sweetshop, we had such a beautiful city. For me, a kid from an industrial town in the midlands, it was another world.” Another world with another set of issues. “I first became aware of class in Oxford,” says Loach, remembering his posh classmates as “quite a comic spectacle”. Loach put on so many plays that he “almost got sent down for not attending a single lecture in four terms”. After Oxford he went into acting, then into directing.

Three decades later, Loach’s film Riff-Raff (1991) offered an eloquent display of class-solidarity by depicting a charismatic group of construction workers. Tragedies set in motion by a ruthless system are soon to destroy the love and comradeship built by the protagonists. In one scene, as some workers are chatting, a piece of scaffolding falls, almost killing one of them. The scene is short, but crucial. The audio builds up tension. First, comrades teasing each other, a concert of accents; they talk about dreams and travelling. Then a sharp sound of metal creasing, loud footsteps and deep breaths, he’s saved. But the boss comes in, “Give him a cuppa tea” before ordering everyone back to work. Characters are confronted by a wall: a system they are meant to serve but which values nothing. A drop of sweat is a drop of sweat no matter who sweats it.

There is no doubt about where Ken Loach stands politically. He is on the side of those who sit in the corners of society: the marginalized, the exploited, the forgotten. Loach portrays the tortured, widespread realities that still remain hidden in society through a natural and spontaneous lens. But reality is complex; films can only ever be condensed representations of people’s lives.

Movies are never free from the danger of romanticising social issues, something Loach acknowledges but doesn’t fear. “It begins first with the writing, that’s the bedrock of everything and then with the casting. You have to go back to real life and really experience being with people, listen to them and be part of their world. Then when looking for people to inhabit the films, you think, is there somebody I recognise from all the people I’ve met.”

His cinematographic technique seeks to be sympathetic but not intrusive, “as if you were an observer in the corner of the room, you should imagine the lens represents the eyes of an observer, so that you never get too close”. He remembers the Czech new-wave director Miloš Forman as an important source of inspiration when he started in the sixties, emphasising his “humour and simplicity”. 

The tone of his voice is full of wisdom and confidence. The political ideas he engages with at Labour Conferences are not far removed from the themes he dissects in his films. “The film should be as if you were a sympathetic observer,” he tells me, “you might be there and your heart might really break for someone, but you should allow the audience to feel that, but don’t push them into it with violence.”

When Loach talks about Forman, Kes, and Oxford, the sixties don’t seem so long ago. In his movies, though, the contrast is striking. Society, according to Loach, has become “much harsher”. His films have come to constitute a vibrant record of English social history: the struggles, the failures, and the hopes for change. The optimism of early Loach has almost completely disappeared from his later works: “we didn’t have food banks then, we didn’t have this really harsh way of judging people, poverty was not so much of a crime. The state has a harshness now that was unthinkable when I began.”

He sees in the current Coronavirus crisis an unexpected path to community building but warns that “the ways and expression of our solidarity with one another, that we are noticing now while we are in danger need to be transformed into political change, otherwise it will be back to normal.”

For Loach, the pandemic is a time to prepare for change because injustices are exacerbated now more than ever. “There are lots of analogies with war, we are fighting this and that, and the Dunkirk spirit, but to me it’s like the first world war, when young soldiers were sent over the top of trenches to face certain death from enemy, German bullets, knowing that they would be killed. The phrase at the time was ‘lions led by donkeys’, and I think that’s a good phrase for people working in the NHS now. They are lions led by donkeys, people like Johnson and co.”

In I, Daniel Blake, an old man is doomed when he sees his employment and support allowance denied, unable to face the administrative nightmare ahead of him. In one of the earlier scenes, Daniel is sat carving wood: he used to be a carpenter. On the phone no one is responding, he is calling administrative services, Spring by Vivaldi crackles through the phone line. Someone picks up the phone. It’s a human voice, but no face, no smell, no feelings either. The voice can’t do anything. Sorry. Daniel is powerless.

For Loach, cinema has the power to change reality. “It can leave you with a question,” he explains, “it can leave you with an insight of life that you might not otherwise know. It can describe conflicts and encourage solidarity with the characters. That’s what we try to do in our films.”

At this point, the conversation turned to the Labour Party. Ken Loach was a proud supporter of Jeremy Corbyn during the general election. He believes in political action, and his films are political in nature. Loach is outspoken in his views, showing little support for the current Labour leadership: “I hope to be proven wrong, but the big changes that Corbyn and McDonnell have introduced, and all the changes in the programme and all the ideas I have been mentioning, I don’t see endorsement of that from people like Keir Starmer.”

Loach has previously been criticised for comments he has made about anti-Semitism within the Labour party. Whilst he has acknowledged to the Morning Star that where there is evidence of anti-Semitism in the Labour party those responsible should face “appropriate sanctions”, he has also been critical and sceptical of the allegations the party has faced. In an interview with The Guardian, he described a BBC Panorama investigation into anti-Semitism in the party as “disgusting, because it raised the horror of racism against Jews in the most atrocious propagandistic way, with crude journalism”. In an interview with the BBC at the 2017 Labour Party Conference he was asked “There was a fringe meeting yesterday, which we talked about at the beginning of the show, where there was a discussion about the Holocaust: did it happen or didn’t it… Would you say that is unacceptable?” He responded, “All history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse. The founding of the state of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing is there for us all to discuss”. He has strenuously denied allegations of anti-Semitism and later denounced Holocaust denial in letters to The New York Times and The Guardian. He recently stepped down as a major school competition judge for the anti-racism charity, “Show Racism the Red Card”, following criticism. However, the charity has maintained links with Loach, and he continues to be a member of their “Hall of Fame”.

I asked him what he would tell an admirer who has been saddened by his words. Instead he responded that, “This is the far-right trying to attack me because I supported Palestine and Palestinian rights and I stood against the Israeli attacks on Palestinians”. Loach also said he has been the victim of far-right violent actions as a result of claims that he was anti-Semitic.

However, controversy arose, not only due to the problem of anti-Semitism, but how it was dealt with. Loach says that allegations were overblown and public perception of the issue had been distorted by the media. “I think anti-Semitism should be investigated everywhere, racism should be investigated everywhere, but don’t exaggerate it, that’s all. There was an investigation by academics led by the Glasgow Media Group, and they found that last year, the public perceived 34% of Labour members to have been implicated in anti-Semitism, that’s what people thought.” In contrast, Loach maintains that, “The reality is 0.05. It’s infinitesimal. Why is this not in the public domain?”

When asked whether the party should investigate anti-Semitism, he again challenged the question: “First of all why do you investigate the Labour Party rather than the other parties?” He perceives the scandal as being “politically motivated”, insisting that: “Yes, every allegation of racism, whoever it is against, whether it’s against Muslims, whether it’s against Black people, whether it’s against Jews, every allegation should be taken seriously. Where there is evidence, and it is properly investigated and interrogated, then yes, that person should be sanctioned. No question.”

For him, the root of allegations lies elsewhere: “If you support both Jeremy Corbyn and you are vocal in the support of Palestinians, you will be targeted. That’s what will happen.” When asked whether the Israel-Palestine conflict had fuelled anti-Semitism he replied, “I can’t say that, I haven’t investigated enough”.

When asked whether in some cases anti-Zionism had simply become a more acceptable form of anti-Semitism, he replied, “I think that is a tendency, and I think that’s true”, yet continued that, “I think it would help if Israel obeyed international law. Do you not think?”

He later added: “I think that if you look at the fact, in the Labour Party that I know, the meetings I have been to, the discussions, the many discussions about Palestine, most of which are led by Jewish members and Jewish organisations which are the most vocal in support of Palestinian organisation. In those meetings that I go to, they are not about Jews, because Jews are leading the support of Palestinians, and leading the support against Israel’s politics. I don’t do social media; I am too old for that. You may well see stuff that I don’t see.” I was deeply surprised by his answer. Israeli policy should never serve to justify anti-Semitism or any form of discrimination.

Ken Loach is an immensely socially committed artist. When I hung up the phone, I was shaken by the last segment of our conversation. When thinking about a movie, there is something so far removed and mystical about a director. He is the unspoken, unseen creator. Yet, like any person, his opinions, like his films, are open for us to contest.

Photo credit: Paul Crowther

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