June 2014        


Humanity and humour

The film-maker Ken Loach won the Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. In his acceptance speech he stated that “while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” His films have illustrated this for nearly fifty years.
      Which Side Are You On? is a documentary Loach made about the British miners’ strike of 1984–85. The film was shown in February 1985, before the strike ended, which had lasted almost a year. There could be no doubt about which side Loach had taken in the militant rise of neo-liberalism. At the heart of the film is the support of the strikers by their wives. Loach’s partisanship for the ordinary people, those at the lower end of class hierarchies, has always been a hallmark of his work.
      He became known overnight in 1966 with his film Cathy, Come Home. The film is about the destruction of a homeless family that has fallen into the poverty trap, and follows their frustrating struggles with bureaucracy. One of the lasting outcomes of the film was the setting up of Shelter, the charity for the homeless.
      The impact of Cathy, Come Home was accentuated by the film’s cinematography, which became representative of Loach’s work. He combines a fictional plot with a distinctive documentary technique. He gives his actors only very limited access to the screenplay, to enable them to engage spontaneously with specific situations.
      He hates studio sets and usually shoots in real locations. His approach is to shoot the scenes in the sequence in which they appear in the finished film, to allow the actors to relate to events, as if it were part of their daily lives. This method gives his productions an authenticity that is rarely found in realistic fiction films.
      Loach is particularly well known here for his films about Ireland. Hidden Agenda, for which he received a prize in Cannes in 1990, is about the British establishment’s collusion with the unionist death squads. In 2006 he received a further prize for a film set in 1920s Ireland, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In this film too Loach sides firmly with the victims of British colonialism, while showing how violence pervades more than just the relations between Britain and Ireland but also among the Irish people themselves. It is a film that raises questions without always offering answers.
      Loach’s newest film, Jimmy’s Hall, has just come into the cinemas. It is set once more in Ireland, in 1932, and has at its centre events in the life of the communist Jim Gralton. It is not often that the lives and visions of communists are explored on screen in today’s cinema. There can be no better reason—along with the fact that this is a film by the now 77-year-old Ken Loach—to go and see it.
When Tom O’Flaherty launched his radical paper, the Irish People, in America, the following piece was printed in one of the first issues: James Gralton and Patrick Rowley, recently returned from Ireland, where they took part in the fighting during the latter part of the Black and Tan regime, write a joint letter from New York: “The first number of ‘The Irish People’ meets with our hearty approval. It contains the kind of material that the Irish workers in America need, to get them out of the grip of the politicians.
      “Send along one hundred copies, and enclosed find money order for $10 in payment thereof. We intend to send several of them to Ireland to the boys who have done the fighting, but only received imprisonment for their trouble.”

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