Ken Loach has been a force in British filmmaking for over 50 years: exposing injustice and fighting the powers that be. Now he's made his angriest film yet.
Ken Loach has been a singular force in British filmmaking for over 50 years: exposing injustice, standing up for the marginalised and fighting the powers that be. Now he's made his angriest film yet.
It’s the night of the Baftas and Ken Loach is ready to speak his mind. After winning Outstanding British Film for I, Daniel Blake, the director saunters up to the stage in a tuxedo, accepts the award from Nicole Kidman and grips the podium with both hands.
What comes next is classic Loach: in the span of just 110 seconds, he segues gracefully between expressing gratitude, condemning the government and warning of a dark, divisive future.
But in-between the comments that draw applause, in-between the lines that will make headlines, he emphasises the simple power of film.
“They can entertain, they can terrify, they can take us to worlds of imagination, they can make us laugh and they can tell us something about the real world we live in.”
Loach, who grew up in Nuneaton, England, has spent half a century focused primarily on the latter. His style of social realism tackles radical subjects (abortion, workers’ rights, the death penalty) and historical struggles (the Spanish Civil War, Irish independence, upheaval in Nicaragua) by way of gritty, naturalistic performances.
But it has seen his work muzzled too, with three productions in the 1980s either shelved or banned outright. I, Daniel Blake – which has also won the director his second Palme d’Or at Cannes – is Loach’s most fiery film to date.
It’s about a British man pushed to the edge by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of State welfare. The word ‘angry’ has pervaded coverage of Loach recently but, in conversation, you can tell it would take a lot to rattle him.
It’s the morning after that rousing Bafta speech and although the 80-year-old sounds just as passionate, he is considered, firm and precise – the kind of voice that has made itself a persistent problem for the establishment.
You’ve been described as an impact filmmaker. What tangible impacts do you feel you’ve made?
[Laughs] Films just float off into the ether, don’t they? It’s very difficult to judge that because you don’t quite know what effect they have on people, what they do locally or who they speak to. But in 1966, we did this film called Cathy Come Home that had an impact on housing policy by helping to establish homeless shelters and crisis centres. They would have been established anyway but it did give them a boost. The prime effect that films have is just a voice in public discourse. You send it off on the sea and never quite know where it’s going to land. [Laughs]
At this point in your career, do you have any insecurities?
I had a whole decade [the 1980s] where it was difficult to get anything made at all and the stuff that was made got banned. So that was a very insecure period. I almost left the business. But I managed to get back in, we made a couple of films quite quickly and suddenly we were on the road again.
My great fortune has been working with some terrific writers and loyal producers who have managed to find the money, sometimes against the odds – which is a real skill. If someone doesn’t say, ‘Here’s some money to get you started on the development of a script,’ well… you’re stuck! But with those two allies, you can keep going.
What advice would you have for young filmmakers who want to speak up against social injustice?
I think it’s really difficult for them. There’s a huge number of people who are committed and will make terrific films. I’m sure they’re far more tuned into the contemporary generation than I am. But the problem is getting commissions.
The people with money are either scared, don’t have the vision or they accept the current consciousness too easily. But that’s not a reason to give up on the mainstream. We can’t leave it without a fight.
So keep plugging away and when you do get a platform, use it. Get into social movements. Make films for campaign groups. Study the political situation as best you can, so it isn’t just grassroots activism.
We have to make sense of what’s happening; we need to understand the mechanisms at work in the world, why people react the way they do and what their conflicting interests are. Understanding must precede the films we make and the activism that follows it.
A friend told me that, after a film, you divide up any remaining money among the crew. Is that true?
Yes. It’s not a case of divvying up what’s left over, because that goes back to the financiers. It’s a financial enterprise and we’re bound by the same rules as everyone else. But if the film ever comes into profit, the people who have worked with us for a long time – it’s not as formalised as this – get a small percentage. People who have just started get a tiny percent. It’s more of a gesture because we’re not in the multiplexes. We’re in art houses. If we do make money, everybody gets a few bob.
When you didn’t pursue law after graduating from Oxford, do you think your parents saw it as a rebellion?
Oh, they were distraught! My father was a foreman in a [tool] factory. He’d passed up a scholarship to attend grammar school because his mother couldn’t afford the uniform, so he was passionate that any child of his should have the chance that he didn’t have. He was delighted when I made law and totally dismayed when I gave it up. When I got a job at the BBC he was a little mollified because that seemed respectable. It worked out in the end and he was okay with it before he died.
Do you think your father’s craftsmanship rubbed off on you?
I should hope so but whether or not it did, someone else would have to judge. He was very meticulous in his work and if you grow up with that, you at least recognise it.
Apparently there was no sign of your political leanings during your time at university. So what was the trigger?
After I left in 1960, I began meeting different people [like socialist writers Roger Smith, Nell Dunn and Barry Hines] and hearing things that made sense of my own upbringing and experience. At university there was a group of young men who felt they had inherited the world and would govern it. Sure enough, they did.
So it was a case of understanding class politics, both in theory and practice. The sixties were also a very political time when the anti-establishment Left came to prominence. That made sense [to me] and I was lucky enough to take part in it. That’s when you get politicised.
Unlike many of your peers, you weren’t interested in pursuing a career in America. Why?
For a number of reasons. First of all, the fact that America colonises our film industry is very apparent. In the multiplexes, most of the films you see will be American. Even if the films are made here, they’ll be what America wants to see. They fit the touristic image of Great Britain. I didn’t want to be part of that.
Also, when you see European directors who have gone to America, they invariably make much worse films. It’s a very uncongenial place to work, aesthetically, culturally, politically and socially. We had a young family too. My wife and I thought, ‘We just don’t want them to grow up there. We’d rather be somewhere where we know what’s going on.’
You suspected that people would not be outraged by I, Daniel Blake and just see it as a normal depiction of life on benefits. Why? And if so, why make the film at all?
It’s full of contradictions. One reason was just to express what’s happened, first of all, and reawaken feelings of solidarity among people who’ll recognise that it’s not right. It’s also about trying to support those who are already committed while trying to connect with the doubters, the people who shrug their shoulders and walk away. Primarily it’s just to tell a story that isn’t being recognised.
Are you optimistic about the direction the world is going in?
Well, I don’t know. You’ve got to be realistic. At the moment the fight back is nowhere near strong enough. If the left doesn’t articulate an alternative idea for the future then it won’t succeed. The Right will have even more extreme policies because that’s what capital will demand and the planet will get even more destroyed. It’s difficult to be optimistic. That’s why the struggle to get an articulate, convincing mass that can persuade people [of an alternative] is very important.
There’s an energy of resistance that’s mobilising people at the moment and many don’t know where to direct that energy. How do you think it can be turned into something significant and bring about change?
I think it’s very simple. The Labour party’s leadership, for the first time in its history, identifies with the people’s interests. Under [Jeremy] Corbyn, there is a real possibility of channelling energy to build a big social movement that will lead to political change.
But if people accept the attacks of the right wing, then of course [resistance] will dissipate until it loses power. The reason the press and all the broadcasters oppose Corbyn is because he would make serious inroads into corporate power. That’s why he’s under attack.
It’s not about competence, it’s about politics. It’s a struggle because Labour has always been a social-democrat party with socialists in it, but there’s a great possibility that if everyone chips in and takes part, we can get a big social movement that will keep Corbyn in power and push his ideas further.
The other key thing is that if there’s ever a movement or a group that a serious political agenda, they will get the same attacks that Corbyn is getting. When you look back at the miners’ strike, the vilification of their leadership was exactly the same.
It’s because they’re a threat. As quietly dignified as the man is, his policies would cut back our capital and that’s why he’s under such massive attack. You’ve got to recognise that anyone who would really make changes will be under that same level of attack. That’s precisely why we’ve got to support him.
Do you believe in the power of protest?
Protests have their place but it’s got to be through campaigns that connect with people. The problem with a demonstration or march is that when the majority of people sit at home, it’ll be badly represented in images and others will just think, ‘Well, it’s got nothing to do with me.’
A campaign has to be sharper than that. You’ve got to find ways of reaching the people who don’t come out. Is there anything you would still like to achieve with your career? The next film is always the most important. There’s so much work to do, especially at this moment when the far-right is on the march and there’s such a need to be part of public discourse, either through films or however else.
What’s going on, how people are responding, where the hope is, where the danger is, and what the reality of people’s lives are – that’s hugely important now. There’s a lot to do but whether I’ve got the legs to do it, I don’t know. [Laughs]