SB: And I want to bring on Ken Loach. Ken, welcome very much to Radio Free Éireann.
KL: Hello! Thanks for calling. Nice to hear you.
SB: Yeah, and this is your third major film about Ireland. There was Hidden Agenda, about the shoot-to-kill policy, there was The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the civil war and now we have Jimmy's Hall, which is set in 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression just as de Valera was coming to power. Why do you keep coming back to Ireland for these major political films?
KL: Well, because the stories are just so extraordinary and so important. The people are brilliant. The language is fantastic. But it's the stories. And it's the relationship between Britain and Ireland and we get told things that just aren't true about what happened and so the need for us to tell the truth about the relationship between the British ruling class and the Irish is really important. So that's why we keep going back.
SB: Well, we don't always get told the truth here, either. And one of the things I enjoy about your films is they've protagonists that are Irish Republicans who aren't sociopaths, who aren't Hollywood monsters, they're ordinary human beings.
KL: Yes, yes. Yes, well I mean the British don't acknowledge that they colonised Ireland for centuries and that the struggle for independence is really a colonial struggle against imperialism. And the British don't like to be cast as imperialists so they reject that story. But of course that's the reality of it as we know.
SB: But that's Hollywood as well. When Hollywood makes a film about Irish Republicans they're demons – they're murdering avengers.
KL: Yes well, I mean of course it's absolutely the other way ~ of course ~ as we know. The British first colonised Ireland what ~ eight hundred years ago? They encouraged people to go over in the sixteenth century-seventeenth century to rule the Irish on behalf of the British landlords. And then of course the long struggle for independence ~ which was finally won ~ but then the British did their best to destroy it by partitioning the country. So the British have a lot to answer for.
It was very interesting, when we were making Jimmy's Hall ~ no ~ it was when we were making The Wind That Shakes the Barley and there was a ~ I met an old Irishman and he said: 'Why are you, an Englishman, coming to Ireland to tell this story of Irish independence,' he said: 'when the British turn out to be the bad guys?' And I said: 'Well, the same people that were kicking sh...' I used a naughty word ~ I said: 'well, the same people who were kicking shit out of the Irish were the same people who were doing the same to my forebears who were coal miners and farm laborers ~ and it's a class question ~ it's not a nationalist question ~ it's a class question.'
SB: Let's talk a little bit about Jimmy's Hall which, as I've said, is opening on Friday at The Angelika at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. [Editor's Note: The film ends its New York run Thursday. For information and to buy tickets directly from the two New York theaters screening "Jimmy's Hall," use this link.] I hope it's going to go to a much wider distribution ~ and I'm told it will also open in theatres around the country later this summer. But of course, James ~ Jimmy Gralton was a real person. He fought on the Republican side in the Civil War. He was a socialist. When he came to America he founded The Irish Workers' Club where many of the founders of the Transport Workers' Union, including Mike Quill, were members of it. And you set this film as he returns to Ireland in 1932. But what was it about Gralton that made you want to make a film about him?
KL: Well, what affected Paul Laverty, who wrote the script, and me was the fact that he liked fun! He liked dancing. He liked music. And the people on the left are often portrayed as narrow-minded, as too serious, as rather dour, but Jimmy was a man who ~ his great delight was to have a dance or to play music and to have classes for literature and for sports and I mean he brought life and energy and good times to people. And of course at the same time he was on the side of the landless peasants against the landlords and so on. So I mean he was political but he had a great sense of fun, a great sense of enjoyment and makes him a very attractive character.
SB: And of course ~ well, not of course, it seems to me of course as I saw the film, to my great delight ~ he re-opens the Pearse-Connolly Hall where people (in the film) are doing everything from studying Yeats, learning to box, singing and then doing the latest jazz dances from America. And of course ~ I don't want to give the plot away but ~ the Catholic Church objects shall we say rather strongly to that.
KL: Yes, yes. There was an anti-jazz movement at the time, of course, and the jazz was seen as “the devil's music.” It encouraged “licentious movement” and the rest so the Church was very hostile to the music. But of course the liaison between the Church and the people of property ~ the men of property ~ that was the alliance that kept a stranglehold on power.
SB: But also, in the film again, and we have to go back to County [Leitrim] in 1932, which isn't Ireland today, the Church says very strongly: You can't have education that's not controlled by the Church. It's the exclusive prerogative of the Church to educate people.
KL: Yes, well again, it was the link that the Church supported the powerful and the rich so of course if you opposed the rich and made demands on the powerful people you were really working against God, you were speaking against God or acting against God, so that was how they controlled consciousness, I think. The Irish had the phrase for it, didn't they? The masters and the pastors.
SB: Yes. In fact, one of your characters says that in the very beginning of the film: Our problem is the masters and the pastors.
KL: Yes, absolutely.
SB: I beg your pardon ~ go ahead.
KL: No, I was going to say obviously the Church has lost a lot of power now, a lot of authority because of what has happened. But there's a new kind of orthodoxy now to control us and that is: the market ~ the market in the new God, isn't it? The market is always right and you can't challenge the laws of the market and that's the new orthodoxy that keeps us in our place.
SB: Very much so here. You know, one of the things I enjoy about your films, which is almost unique, is that you portray ordinary people involved in very difficult struggles and nobody has the answers. Like for instance, in Jimmy's Hall, the Church is a deadly enemy trying to shut the hall down and they're trying to figure out: What do we do about this? And it's not that Jimmy Gralton gets up and says: Well, this is what we're going to do and everybody stands up and says: Oh, good idea, Jimmy! They actually sit around and talk about it and try to figure it out ~ whether it works or not. And not only in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (below) but also in your film about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom, and I value that but it seems to me that that doesn't happen in other films.
KL: Well, I mean I think what we try and do, and it's in everything, you always fail in the attempt ~ I mean the film you make is never quite as good as the ideas that you first start out with because of course it's a long, frail process. But it's just to go back to what really happened and how people really are and to find people to bring the characters to life that the audience will believe in. So the window, when it's a working man or working woman, you find somebody who really is that because the camera sees that ~ you know, when you film somebody you see the texture of their skin, you see their hands, you hear how they use language and I think that's really important. And also finding people who know those ideas, who have lived through those ideas to some extent and because it's in, it's in ~ as you say, it's when people are struggling ~ to find their way through, to understand what's happening, that's what, in a way, gives you strength but it also is very moving - the struggle to articulate, the struggle to understand, the struggle to stand on principle ~ and that's what happens in every struggle ~ isn't it? ~ whether it's political, or trade union battle or whatever. It's that struggle that I think that we try and capture the best we can ~ obviously sometimes you fall on your backside.
SB: But also in The Wind That Shakes the Barley there's a very dramatic scene ~ there's a confrontation between the leader of the IRA and a woman who's the head of a Republican Court who says to a landlord: 'You cannot evict this man' and the IRA Commander says 'He's funding me. If you impose this on him he won't fund me anymore and I won't have any bullets.' And what's terrific, I thought, was you can see both sides of the argument.
KL: Yes, yes. Well, that's the irony, isn't it? That was the irony. And that in a way was the absolute, the central, the contradiction they were in. Because on the one hand there were some people, like the followers of James Connolly, trying to build a society which was independent of the big ~ the people with big money ~ and was based on the power of the working class. And there were others who were saying: Well, in order to win this victory we've got to use the money of some of the people that you may not like and that contradiction was very real but it's the kind of contradiction you get in so many struggles on the left ~ isn't it?
SB: It certainly is. I've never been involved in anything as life-compelling and dramatic as you portray but I've been involved in committees for Irish political prisoners, for example, and that process of sitting around the table, trying to come up with an answer is very familiar to me. It seems to me that's what actually happens in real life.
KL: Yes, yes, yes, yes, absolutely! But I think what is never acknowledged, certainly on our side of The Atlantic, is that you cannot equate the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed. And when people have been oppressed for generations ~ for centuries ~ when they fight back ~ you can't equate that violence with the violence of those who have oppressed them and continue to oppress them. I know here in Britain the propaganda is so intense that violence is only ~ it's only the IRA who are seen to be violent ~ the British army, the Loyalists ~ are not spoken of in the same way ~ they're not spoken of as terrorists in the same way and it's a huge battle isn't it? ~ to re-frame the debate.
SB: Well, that's happening right here in the United States right now when people riot ~ become violent ~ after a black person is killed by the police that's equated often ~ I shouldn't say equated ~ it's worse ~ it's much worse! I mean, some people say: if this man who was strangled to death by the police just did what he was told he would still be alive ~ so all you have to do is obey the police. So yes, we have that right here. It's not so much being equated ~ it's being said it's much worse!
KL: Yes, yes, yes. Well, I'm sure that's true, I'm sure that's true, Sandy.
SB: And I want to come back to County Leitrim because you were talking a minute ago about having real people in the film and of course you went to County Leitrim where Gralton was from and that's where you made the movie and you had many of the local people acting in it.
KL: Yes, yes, yes. We were in Leitrim, where we did most of the filming and we were based in Sligo, which was the nearest big town so all the people are from the west ~ most of them are from Sligo and Leitrim and it's terrific really I mean, they bring such warmth and energy and commitment and sense of fun. All films are hard work but they were really brilliant to meet and to work with. I hope their characters shine through in the film because that was the intention.
SB: How many professional actors did you use?
KL: Um, oh ~ I don't know ~ couldn't put a number on it...
SB: ...Well, what was the balance, roughly ~ because I mean, I couldn't tell - to tell you the truth. The two protagonists...
KL: ...Well obviously, yes ~ Simone Kirby ~ and she's a professional and Barry Ward and Jim Norton of course ~ Jim is probably the best known of the actors in it – he played the priest. And most of the people who were in the gang ~ you know like Jimmy's gang ~ they were mainly professionals but the mother ~ Jimmy's mother, Eileen, was a lovely woman who's from Leitrim and now living in Sligo, lived on a farm all her life but who'd also worked for a trade union and is very articulate and very sharp and very clear in her ideas but has a great warmth about her but she hadn't acted before. And obviously all the young ones, almost all the young ones, are not actors.
SB: And we're talking to Ken Loach about his new film, Jimmy's Hall, which [opened July 3] at The Angelika and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Before I let you go ~ and thank you very much for doing this - have you shown the film back in Sligo and Leitrim?
KL: Yes, yes, yes! We had some great nights there and drank a glass or two to celebrate getting to the end of it and it was ~ we had some good nights and they were very warm about the film. But they're not our most critical audience, of course, but it felt like a celebration really when we showed it with them. And yeah it went very well but you would hope so ~ you would hope so there. And it went well in Dublin of course and the rest of Ireland so we just hope the Irish people in The States enjoy it as well.
SB: Well I think they well. As I said I've seen it – in two screenings - it's a marvellous, enjoyable, moving motion picture and I congratulate you on it and I really hope that everybody will try to get out ... to The Angelika and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and I...
KL: ...Thanks a lot, Sandy, I mean the musicians did play some great jazz so at least it's something to tap your toes to as well.
SB: They do indeed and the traditional music is very good as well.
KL: Yes, yes, absolutely, absolutely! Great talking to you, Sandy. All the best!
SB: Thank you very much. And we've been talking to Ken Loach.