JIM ROSS speaks to legendary director Ken Loach about his new feature and the politics of film.
Ken Loach is legend of modern British film making; a former Palmes D’Or winner still going strong in his seventies.
Famous as much for his left-wing politics as his bleak, but often uplifting and poignant, films, Loach has made more than his share of great ones since 1969’s Kes. For a man with such forthright views and a big name in British film, it is surprising he slips into the foyer of the Arts Picturehouse almost unnoticed. Shuffling around with a laptop case, it is only after staff track him down he is ushered to the mezzanine to speak to me.
He’s here to present a Q&A for his latest feature, The Angels’ Share – a tale of young Scottish down-and-outs, who plan a whisky heist to set them up for a better future. It seems a timely story in the age of austerity: showing young people have some value in society, despite trying situations. This is clearly important to Loach:
“There’s a million unemployed young people now, probably over that, and that’s not in education, not in training – just unemployed. And that means we are effectively writing them off. What work they will get is casual work, agency work, like we just with these kids at the Jubilee. Now they’re being told they have to work for no money.”
Loach is referring to the story of dozens of jobseekers and apprentices being bussed in to steward the Jubilee flotilla. Without pay and having to sleep under bridges, he describes this as, “extraordinary, I don’t think they even had that in the 1930s. They’re not political in the sense that they are members of organisations but they know that they’re being ripped off.”
Trailer for The Angels’ Share
The Angels’ Share is a rather uplifting film by the time the end credits roll, and undoubtedly one of Loach’s lighter films in its second half. However, this is not a key part of the message. He and screewriter Paul Laverty simply wished to convey it was “unpredictable, really. The obvious thing to do is take characters like this and make a tragedy of it. We just thought you can tell the story about their situation and still make people smile.”
Now relaxed, and no longer perched uncomfortably on a sofa arm, Loach inquires about my own accent – spotting a different Scottish accent to those portrayed in his film. Showing a genuine interest in my own background, it is easy to see how he manages to put the many first time actors he has worked with, like Paul Brannigan (the lead in The Angels’ Share), at ease. However, once the conversation moves into the realm of the politics of film making, Loach becomes more forthright – albeit maintaining his quiet and unassuming demeanour.
Throughout his career Loach’s work has been described, lazily in my view, as ‘political’ and that of a ‘social realist’ – the latter being a tag he predictably rejects. “I’d like to annihilate that term, along with ‘gritty’. I’d happily never see them again. I think it just becomes a substitute for thinking – a pigeonhole.”
Although he doesn’t deny his work is political, what gets Loach talking passionately is the way other films are considered apolitical when he views them as anything but: “[‘Political’] is a lazy euphemism for left wing because all the films about posh people with no visible means of support are apparently not. Like The King’s Speech, which I think is a pretty right-wing film – it endorses the idea of monarchy and gives itself a cheer when he manages to string two words together.”
Loach emphasises that “to have a healthy cinema is to have a challenging cinema”, before making note also of 2010 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. “I mean, the Oscar was dedicated to the American military. Never mind all the illegal wars, the million people illegally killed in Iraq – let’s dedicate it to the American military. That identifies the starting point for the film.”
A meticulous director, Loach leaves briefly to scurry around the projection rooms and lurk at the back of the screening – worried that the sounds levels for his film are set too low, and The Angels’ Share will have “no presence”. This stems from comparison to American films such as Prometheus, showing in another screen, which are “terribly loud”.
Loach may be a political animal, but first and foremost he is a film maker, and a damn fine one at that.