Making Films That Afflict the Comfortable: A Chat With Director Ken Loach, Part 1 of 2

British filmmaker Ken Loach took time out from editing his latest film, about the exploitation of immigrants in Britain, to chat with WGT. He spoke on a range of subjects, including "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (his second film set against the Irish War for Independence, now on screens in the U.S.), British policies in Ireland, his unusual casting techniques, his passion for football (soccer), his hopes for the North of Ireland, his poison-pen critics in London's conservative press, and how he found his way back to Ireland for his latest feature.

(Right: Photo by Joss Barratt - Ken Loach in action during the filming of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley.")

Making Films That Afflict the Comfortable:
A Chat With Director Ken Loach, Part 1 of 2

"To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." These words, coined by journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, are often attributed to another Irish-American, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. But they might equally well apply to the film oeuvre of British director Ken Loach.

Sixteen Films
"Hidden Agenda," Loach's first film set against the Irish "troubles," was dubbed by a Tory MP "the IRA entry at Cannes."

Again and again in Loach's dozens of films, he explores the inequities found in capitalism, in Britain and elsewhere. His work often portrays a kind of class warfare, with common folk nearly always contending with those in authority for a fair shake. In "Kes," Loach took on bullying school teachers; in "Bread and Roses" and several other films, exploitative bosses. In "Land and Freedom," Loach presented a sympathetic look at Spain's peasants, and how they were repressed by Spain's aristocracy, abetted by the Church, and ultimately even the communists during the Spanish Civil War. In "Carla's Song," Loach dramatized the atrocities perpetrated against the leftist Sandinistas by U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

"The Wind That Shakes The Barley," Ken Loach's latest film, follows in that tradition, dismantling romantic notions that "the cause" of Irish freedom ennobled those who participated. Rather, for example, we see through Loach's lens an IRA commander, shaken himself, steeling his men after a particularly bloody ambush, with not a British soldier left alive: "Today we have sent the British cabinet a message that will echo round the world ... We will match their viciousness with our own."

Loach's newest opens on U.S. screens, large and small, Friday, in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, and on cable on demand through IFC's First Take scheme. (Read WGT's review, "Film Poses Questions That Haunt Us Still".) "Barley" is Loach's latest on Ireland's "Troubles," and is the most honored. It has garnered six major awards, including the Palme D'Or, given to the film deemed best at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Loach earlier portrayed skullduggery by British authorities in 1980s Northern Ireland in "Hidden Agenda" (1990), a film Tory MP Ivor Stanbrook called "the IRA entry at Cannes."

The soft-spoken director, who has 28 films to his credit, shuns all facile descriptions of his politics, or his movies. "I try to resist labels because, if you put a label around your neck and people only see the label, they don't really see the films you're trying to make," Loach told TheWildGeese.com's Kieron C. Punch and Gerry Regan in a Feb. 14 phone interview.

Sixteen Films
Ken Loach

Loach, 70, born in Warwickshire and a veteran of the Royal Air Force, was called a "committed Marxist" and "Marxist propagandist" by reactionary Fleet Street pundits in the aftermath of last year's win for "Barley" at Cannes. The right-wing tabloid The Sun said "Barley" was "designed to drag the reputation of our nation through the mud," and called it "the most pro-IRA ever."

Seeing his films, Loach acknowledged, is not typically diverting. He described his challenge bluntly: "how you say what you want to say and not simplify it ... how you say what you want to say but still get the knife between the ribs of the audience."

Speaking from a cutting room in London's Soho district, near the offices of his production company, Sixteen Films, Loach took time out from editing his latest film, about the exploitation of immigrants in Britain (with a working title "These Times"). He spoke on a range of subjects, including British policies in Ireland, his unusual casting techiques, his passion for football (soccer), his hopes for the North of Ireland, his poison-pen critics in London's conservative press, and how he found his way back to Ireland for his latest feature.

Here's what he had to say:

Gerry Regan: Mr. Loach, welcome. I'm calling from New York, and a colleague of mine, Kieron Punch, is just around the corner from you.

Kieron Punch: Hello, Mr. Loach.

Ken Loach: Hello. Where are you phoning from?

KP: I'm actually phoning from Coventry, so I'm ...

Ken Loach:: --Oh, Coventry--.

KP: Just down the road from your old hometown.

Ken Loach:: Good. Good. How are the Sky Blues (football club) doing?

KP: Not very well this season, unfortunately, no.

Ken Loach:: Oh, yes. Well, I follow them a bit.

KP: Yes. I believe you're involved with Bath City('s club), is that right?

Ken Loach:: Indeed, yes. Yes.

KP: Oh, that's great.

Ken Loach:: We did well last night. ...

GR: So, Ken, you're a fan of football, it sounds like.

Ken Loach:: Indeed, yes, yes. Is The Pope a Catholic, I think they say?

GR: Were you a player growing up?

Ken Loach:: No, no, no, no, good God, no. No, only a fan.

GR: Okay. And you live in Bath, too, I think I read, right?

Ken Loach:: No. I live in London now for the last seven years or so. ... No, we--I used to live in Bath, but not for the moment.

I generally subscribe to the view that history is the story of struggle between the classes, and that's what propels history forward.

GR: Well, where are you speaking from? I presume you are in a conference room at Sixteen Films?

Ken Loach:: No. I'm speaking from a cutting room where we're just cutting the film we just shot.

GR: Oh, is that "These Times"?

Ken Loach:: Yes. It's probably going to have a different title, but that's the one, yeah.

GR: Are you in east London, or what particular section?

Ken Loach:: No, Soho. It's where all the film companies are and the cutting rooms. ...

GR: I just want to get a little bit of a feel about your own sensibilities. You're known as, or labeled as, a socialist, and even some critics take it a step further and scorn you as a "Marxist." How do you define your politics?

Ken Loach:: Most people that use the word Marxist don't know what it means. They use it, in their ignorance, as a term of abuse. And this word socialist has been so devalued that it doesn't really mean very much now because Social Democrats and Stalinists still refer to themselves as socialists. Or they used to.

So, I try to resist labels because, if you put a label around your neck and people only see the label, they don't really see the films you're trying to make.

GR: Well, what would you say is the rock-core belief that animates your everyday decisions, as well as your life?

Ken Loach:: I think it's too long an answer for just a phone chat, to be honest. I generally subscribe to the view that history is the story of struggle between the classes, and that's what propels history forward. And that you don't see it in that light, then it doesn't make sense.

But, there's a lot of things to add to that, but I guess if you want a one-liner, that's about it.

KP: Mr. Loach, first of all, congratulations on the Palme D'Or and the ...

Ken Loach: Thanks very much.

Sixteen Films
Rebecca O'Brien, producer for both Loach's films set in Ireland

KP: Irish academy awards you got the other day.

Ken Loach: Yes, that was very nice.

KP: I believe ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley" Producer) Rebecca O'Brien stated that she hopes that the media has become a bit more sophisticated than from the days of "Hidden Agenda," when the film was described as "The IRA entry at Cannes." But unfortunately it seems that things haven't changed particularly. You've described some of the media comments by the likes of Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Stephen Howe, Dominic Lawson in The Independent, as being very vitriolic, personal attacks. And do you find those--do they actually hurt you, or do you view them as being a badge of honor, a sign that you're hitting the right notes?

Ken Loach: No, they didn't hurt personally because you have no respect for the people who make the remarks, and they're plainly stupid. They reveal their own stupidity when they say things like--I mean, I was accused of hating my country and I was accused of being a worse propagandist than Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi propagandist. It's so stupid that it really isn't worth a moment's thought.

The ominous thing is the way editors give these writers space to propagate this hatred and bile, and it's amazing. It's like you're listening to (Unionist leader) Edward Carson's second leftenants, really, when these people pipe up. The worrying thing is the space they give them, not what they say.

KP: Have you considered refuting those claims in their newspaper columns, or don't you want to dignify their comments?

Ken Loach: I wouldn't. Why? I wouldn't want to speak to The Mail particularly, or the The Sun. ... All you do is just give them more space by allowing it all to be repeated. So, I think it's water off a duck's back.

The ominous thing is the way editors give these writers space to propagate this hatred and bile, and it's amazing. It's like you're listening to (Unionist leader) Edward Carson's second leftenants.

GR: Ken, is it OK if we refer to you as Ken rather than Mr. Loach?

Ken Loach: I'd be very hurt if you didn't, really, Gerry. ... I always think people are talking about my father the other way.

GR:: When was the first time you were in Ireland?

Ken Loach: Oh, a long time ago. … God, I can't remember the first time I went there. It must have been the early '70s, I think.

GR:: And what was the occasion, a vacation?

Ken Loach: I went with a writer called Jim Allen. He's died now, unfortunately. He wrote (the screenplay for the 1995 Loach film) "Land and Freedom," and he wrote several films we did for television back in the '60s and '70s. And he wrote (the screenplay for) "Hidden Agenda," the other film about Ireland. I went with him just exploring and seeing around (Ireland's) west coast.

GR:: What kind of vibe do you feel in Ireland? Do you feel comfortable there?

Ken Loach: Well, yes. I mean, why wouldn't anybody feel comfortable there? It's a very gregarious, friendly, funny place. … You tend to start smiling when you get in a taxi from the airport because there's always some story to be told, or some craic.

KP:: Do you feel that over the last 10-15 years, the country has lost its soul a wee bit, with the development of the "Celtic Tiger" economy and so on?

Ken Loach: Well, it's changed, hasn't it, and it's changed in the obvious ways. The strangest thing is now is the East Europeans are doing the work in the bars and the hotels and the service industries, (work) that the Irish people used to be doing in other countries, (especially) Britain. So that's very strange. But I think the people are still funny and subversive, like they always were.

GR:: And what do you think of the film "Michael Collins"? Have you seen it?

Ken Loach: I plead the Fifth Amendment here, Gerry. It's difficult enough to make a film without having other directors comment on it.

GR:: Would you say "Michael Collins" inspired you to direct "Barley"?

Sixteen Films
Paul Laverty, screenwriter for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," drew inspiration from stories passed down through his mother's family in Limerick.

Ken Loach: No. the inspiration comes from reading the stories and reading (material by 1916 Rising leader James) Connolly and reading about him and all their biographies, of him and people like--oh, God--Liam Mellows and Peadar O'Donnell and Tom Barry and all the people of that time. And that interested us far more than the details of what was going on in the hierarchy. So, of course, it was the essential story that was always an inspiration.

GR:: And how long had you been contemplating such a film?

Ken Loach: Well, since I first went with Jim Allen 30-odd years ago. ... When ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley" screenwriter) Paul (Laverty) and I started working together, the Irish story is one of the first things we mentioned to each other, because Paul's family are from Ireland. His mother is from near Limerick. So he was interested in the story anyway. It was a project of his as well as mine.

So, when we started working together, we talked about it almost from day one, and then other projects came along. But, we always intended to do this and, finally, we managed to get it made.

You still need to know what happened from 1916 to 1922 in order to understand anything in the North (of Ireland).

GR:: Did the Good Friday Agreement, which came in the middle of your deliberative process about the film, did that quicken your desire to make the film, or have no impact at all?

Ken Loach: It didn't have much effect, to be honest, because the essential story is the same. That's more about the detail of the way Sinn Fein has developed, and you still need to know what happened from 1916 to 1922 in order to understand anything in the North (of Ireland).

And unfortunately in Britain, people don't know. In Ireland, obviously people know but, in this side of the water, people don't know.

KP:: You said that you don't want your films to be just a complement to the popcorn, and also that historical films will influence people far more than books or articles.

Do you think these days it is actually possible for a film to influence people, given that many of the people you want to influence are probably watching "Celebrity Big Brother" or some ...?

Ken Loach: I should amend that quote a little because I think, in the end, probably books have a longer lasting effect than anything. When a film can get a purchase on people's minds, they can transcend their cinema release. So, if the film's any good, then it can reverberate in people's consciousness a little bit longer than the week or two it's showing in the cinemas.

Editor's Note: WGT's conversation with Ken Loach continues in Part 2

Copyright © 2012 by GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: Barley, Film, Ken, Loach, Shakes, That, The, Wind, the

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