In the large suite of the post hotel on Park Avenue, in New York, British
director Ken Loach examines carefully Film Scouts' newest digital camera.
"Hum...", he says, letting his voice trail off before admitting
in a whisper that he's sometimes wary about advanced electronics, particularly
when it comes to filmmaking.
"It's a joke, really, to say that editing on tape or on computer really
scrambles my brain," he says, laughing. "I do think, however,
that it winds the process up too much. In the traditional way, when you
put the rolls of film on, it allows you a few minutes to think, to contemplate
and decide whether you're going to have a cup of coffee or not. But when
the thing happens so fast, there is not time for it to sink in, those moments
to reflect on what you have done. Or else my mind is slow. Old age."
In town to promote his newest film, "Land and Freedom" (released
today), Loach has just landed from Nicaragua where he is already shooting
his next project.
With his hair always a mess, his smile that of a teenager, and incredibly
mobile eyes behind schoolboy's spectacles, Ken Loach, nearly 60, looks a
good twenty years younger. The epitome of shyness, he finishes most sentences
in some sort of a murmur, but the voice swells when he gets passionate,
which he often does when the conversation veers to the socio-political.
The heir to the British movement of "Free cinema" led by Lindsay
Anderson and Karel Reisz, the man who directed "Kes", "Poor
Cow", "Family Life" and, more recently, "Riff- Raff"
and "Ladybird, Ladybird", has been one of the sharpest critics
of English society. Producer David Puttnam calls him "one of the strongest
influences on British cinema ever." And as "My Beautiful Laundrette"
director Stephen Frears once put it: "Without Ken Loach, I wouldn't
It isn't very often that Ken Loach the filmmaker deals with non-British
matters. He did in "Fatherland" (Germany) and in "Hidden
Agenda" (Ireland, US), he does ion "Land and Freedom", which
takes place in the early days of the Spanish Civil war--Loach was born "a
month before Franco raised his standard."
Covering almost the same territory as Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom
the Bell Tolls" (but with a lot more straight-from-the-hip sense of
humor), Loach tells the story on an unemployed Liverpudlian Communist who
goes to Spain to fight, you got it, for land and freedom. In Barcelona,
the young man does not join the legendary International Brigades, but rather
a small group of strong-willed amateurs fighters called the POUM. As they
fight, Dave (portrayed by "Backbeat"'s John Lennon look-alike
Ian Hart) grows attracted to the beautiful and spirited Bianca, a fiery
revolutionary in his brigade.
"It's a subject that [scriptwriter] Jim Allen and I wanted to work
on for a long time," Loach says. "Just because it was one of the
most significant moments of the 20th Century happening there: 1936-37. We'd
been thinking for a long time, How could we explore it? We therefore tried
to find a way into it that enabled two English people to tell the story.
"Jim and I came up with this story of a volunteer. One thing that was
just interesting and exciting about it all was the idea of people from different
countries going to fight for--well, initially, they were going to fight
*against* something, they were going to fight against fascism."
Would such political-cum-romantic élan find resonance in today's
jaded, or cynical, audiences?
"Well, it's all about solidarity, isn't it? Of whether we share common
interests and need to support each other when we're struggling. It's the
kind of received wisdom--as the press and television constantly tell us--
that 'Everybody is apathetic, nobody's interested in politics, the most
appalling atrocities can happen and nobody will even bother to turn up.'
"All I'm trying to say is that it fits those in power now to say that,
and I don't believe that's true. What happened in Spain was a good example
of the opposite, of people who were saying, 'Fascism is a threat to us all.
We not only need to support the Spanish people in their fight against fascism
out of solidarity with them, we also need to support them because if fascism
wins there, there is a danger it will win here too.'"
In describing the inner workings of his leftist group, Ken Loach neither
ignores nor skirts around the confusion, messiness, clumsiness, yet passion
of the movement.
"To all the people we talked to who'd been there, that was very much
the case. It was sort of helter-skelter, people just grabbed what they could
and went to the front... That obviously led to a certain kind of inefficiency.
"On the other hand, there was such a spirit that it carried them through.
And the whole question is, Was that spirit and will to fight worth the inefficiency?"
As Ken Loach puts it, "Land and Freedom" is about betrayal, and
the shock of betrayal. The POUM was eventually shot down by its own allies.
"The reason it got shot down is important," says Loach, his voice
swelling. "You can't say, 'All revolutions are always betrayed, they
always get corrupt, therefore what's the point? Then put your head in the
sand and don't bother.' That's what people would like us to think. The exciting
part is also to try and tease out the reason why it went wrong, and the
politics behind it."
Therein, almost in a capsule, lies the core of the Ken Loach method, which
made him one of the sharpest eyes, ears, and minds of cinema.
"If you make a film which observes, say, a waiting room, or a waiting
zone, the difficulty is to show the mechanism underneath that's producing
it -- and no discourse, please, that is bad filmmaking, and boring.
"But if you don't give some hint to that, you could be misinterpreted.
Of course, everybody is against unemployment, against poverty, against brutality
in relationships. The difficulty is to have some indication, within the
infrastructure of the film, about why that happens. Otherwise anybody can
claim the film as their own. And you can make any kind of political theory."
That is why, he implies, in keeping the socio-political debate "at
arm's length", films critics, generally, do half the job they ought
to be doing. "For I am sure, nothing was that clear cut. All the kind
of muddle and confusion and second thoughts is really important to me, because
I'm sure that that's the way it is, the way it was."
As he leaves the hotel suite, Ken Loach walks past a poster of "Land
and Freedom" and immediately objects to the phrase: "A Ken Loach
"I think 'A So-and-So Film' is nonsense; it excludes everybody else's
work, and you can't make such a claim. I mean, what did I do exactly? Shoot
it, bought the stock? Processed it? It's the kind of megalomania that afflicts
our industry. I think."
How about "A Film By Ken Loach?" "No. Again, it excludes
everybody else's contribution! A book can be 'by' somebody, or a poem, or
a picture. Not a film."