Loach films rewiewed: the personal is political (still)* FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 23 Feb 1999 23:06:05 -0800 (PST)

FWD  San Francisco Examiner - Saturday, February 13, 1999


     But Ken Loach is wary of labels
     that close viewer to film

     By Judy Stone - Special to the Examiner

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Ken Loach may look like a bantam-weight Mr.
Milquetoast, but he's still got the pugnacious spirit of the '60s. His
voice is low, gentle and even, but he minces no words attacking society's
hypocrisy about drugs, totalitarian systems and what is "jokingly referred
to as the "free market.'" Behind the spectacles, there's a gleam of
amusement when he calls Tony Blair "Mrs. Thatcher in trousers." And,
attentive to the final tiny clicks on the table in front of him, says
almost sotto voce in an almost private joke, "They must be Stalinist tape

       The British director who has always evoked the complex,
unsentimentalized humanity of his working-class characters is being honored
at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival with a complete
retrospective of his 13 feature films, including "Land and Freedom" (1995),
set during the Spanish Civil War, and "Carlo's Song" (1996), partially set
in embattled Nicaragua. In addition, the program contains seven television
productions. It is accompanied by a mammoth 200-plus page catalog, which
analyzes the social conscience that illuminates his films.

       After the foreign forays, in his latest production, "My Name Is Joe"
(which is playing at the Embarcadero Cinema), Loach returns to Great
Britain with an ill-fated love affair in a poverty-stricken Glasgow
community. A recovering alcoholic, the irrepressible Joe is played by Peter
Mullan, who won the best actor award at the Cannes festival last May.

       "Joe is quite precise about his own situation," Loach told reporters
at a press conference. "He hasn't got a job. He doesn't own anything. He
doesn't even have much of a reputation. Against that, he's got a lot of
talent. He's full of energy and enthusiasm, and he cares about the soccer
team of delinquents he coaches. The fact that they're hopeless is beside
the point. In a way that makes him a tragic figure. He's brought down by a
fatal weakness, but in material terms, his name is all he's got."

       Joe's loyalty to Liam, a former junkie on the team, brings him into
contact with Sarah, a social worker who is trying to help Liam's son,
Scott, and the child's heroin-addicted mother. Despite reservations about
their different backgrounds, Joe and Sarah fall in love, but they are
trapped by circumstances in their drug-ridden community.

       Loach, who was also critical of the way drugs destroyed
relationships in "Riff-Raff" (1991), pointed out that drug cultures do not
exist in a vacuum but flourish in areas where there is poverty,
unemployment and violence. "A key element in that violence is unemployment,
because it makes people think they have no possibility of contributing to
their society. They're left feeling isolated, depressed and out of touch."

       Loach believes the problem of drugs won't be solved until "we deal
with the economic question of making those communities thrive. But
unfortunately, we're in the grip of an economic system which demands
unemployment. There's also the question of removing criminality from drugs.
As long as drugs are illegal, crimes increase because that's how the drug
barons operate."

       Did he think British Prime Minister Tony Blair would do anything to
help solve the problem?

       "Not a chance in hell," Loach said. "Not a chance in hell."

       The director believes one in his position has to be true to the
people being filmed and to respect them. "If you respect them, it comes out
of a common humanity. But that common humanity has a political dimension,
because if you respect their rights, you don't want to see them ripped off.
If you respect the rights of working people, you don't want to see them
exploited -- then you have to challenge the system that does it, and that's
political. You can't make a film about ordinary people and not have a
political point of view. The perception that makes you want to challenge
their exploitation is the same perception that makes you want to film them
with respect, that makes you want to show them in all their rounded
imperfections, bigotry, love, affection, warmth, selfishness. If you
respect them, you want to make a complete picture. But you can't respect
them and endorse a system that keeps them down."

       When Loach is challenged by a journalist from a former communist
country for always seeing things in economic terms, he agrees that there
are designer drugs and drugs at all economic levels.

       "Nevertheless," he insists placidly, "what determines our daily
lives are economic circumstances. It's what circumscribes our lives. I
really hate it in films that are about beautiful people, dressed in
beautiful clothes, with no visual means of support. How do they make their
money? You can't understand people without knowing what they do. It's
absolutely fundamental, and that's not to reduce people, it's to understand
them. We want you to feel a sense of solidarity with the men and women in
the film, and the moment you feel that, you have a responsibility, and you
can't just walk away from it. If people leave the film feeling that
friendship and feeing that anger on Joe's behalf, that's a starting point."

       Nevertheless, he doesn't like being labeled a "political filmmaker."
"People read that and think, "Well, that's fine. I'll go watch something
else because I don't feel like being lectured.' I guess I feel that way as
well. The idea that you have to have a Ph.D. in politics before you can
enjoy a film is really boring. When you talk about politics, people hang a
label around your neck as if you're a mouthpiece of a particular ideology,
and that stops the way of seeing a film. All you want of an audience is
that they come with an open mind and engage with whatever is there."

       Once upon a time, in the '60s, Loach, a former law student, actor
and theater director, worked with a group of writers, producers and
directors who were making films in a very political atmosphere.

       It was an era when Loach's TV docu-drama "Cathy Come Home" (1966)
changed the way many in the British public viewed the homeless. In "Poor
Cow" (1967), he examined the plight of an 18-year-old single mother and her
relationships with two men who wind up in prison. "Kes" (1969) is something
of a departure for Loach. It's the tender and bitter story of a young
teenager who escapes from his authoritarian school and broken home by
training a young kestrel he steals from its nest.

       At that time, Loach said, "It was much sexier to talk about politics
than it is now. The group I worked with came from a very specific
tradition: left oppositionists who argue against and were annihilated by
the Stalinist distortions in Russia. In a very tortuous way, the inheritors
of that struggle have surfaced in all European countries in small groups,
and I guess they were the ones who made the most sense to us. Our way of
seeing has been determined by that. Obviously, it changes and adapts and
develops, but it comes out of the feeling that there is another way, not
the United States' nor Soviet communism."

       The best artistic work is done, according to Loach, when ideas
inform one's creation, as long as the ideas do not become dogmatic. "You
have to be open to humanity through the lens of a particular analysis,
otherwise it doesn't make sense. If you don't have a map or compass, what
stories do you tell? You have no way of distinguishing between what is
important and what's not important."


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