02 March, 2010

Interview: Ken Loach

European Film Awards Reviews had the opportunity for a brief chat with director Ken Loach when he visited Brussels not so long ago - the recipient of EFA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, nominated for European Director for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and Sweet Sixteen (2002) and winner of the FIPRESCI Prize in 2002 (while his lead actor Steve Evets was also nominated for European Actor in Looking For Eric (2009)), Ken is no stranger to recognition for his work in the European sphere nor, for that matter, to controversy.

As far as getting off on the right foot was concerned, I couldn't have been happier: "So, Ken, given that your film The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) took a decidedly anti-British tone when it came to the depiction of the Black and Tans in early 20th-century, and It's A Free World... (2007) does not exactly represent the situation of immigrant workers' in the UK in line with opinions expressed by certain sections of the Fourth Estate, is your new-found aim as auteur to piss off the Daily Mail?"

"Well, considering that the Daily Mail supported Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, a fact that seems conveniently to have been forgotten, and today stands for most of what is absolutely the worst about Britain, I feel that I really must have achieved something if that paper disagrees with my work."

Once the rosy glow of contentment that suffused my body upon hearing these words had faded, I decided it might be an idea to talk to Ken Loach, 73, about something other than our mutual hatred of the Mail, no matter how tempting the idea might be. His film It's A Free World..., perhaps?

Good idea. After all, Loach was only in town for a short time - following his Palme D'Or win at Cannes for ...Barley, he was very much the man of the moment, and his film had already caused no small measure of controversy with its unapologetic depiction of Britain as a country only too willing to exploit the masses of workers arriving on its shores, desperate for a chance to work for themselves and their families. Angie, the central character played with vim and verve by Kierston Wareing, is a working-class single mother whom Loach uses to represent both sides of the issue - a recruitment specialist who branches out on her own, believing at first that she's genuinely offering foreign workers a chance, even if it is at sub minimum-wage levels, but who becomes ever more ambitious, ruthless even, as the film progresses and she realises how much money there is to be made from the misfortune of others.

Ken is strident in his defence of the film's perspective: "As far as large sections of the media is concerned, the Mail, Express, Sun et al, the UK is 'a soft touch' when it comes to immigrants. Well, I'm sorry, but this perception is about as far removed as it's possible to be when it comes to the day-to-day existence of these workers in our country. I'm interested in 'the norm' - and I could have painted a far worse picture! Paul Laverty [the writer] travelled extensively from Scotland through the Midlands to London, and the situation he found was pretty much the same all over."

And a solution? Loach is unapologetically retro in his stance: "The only answer is a genuinely socially democratic system of government in the UK. I'm not suggesting that everyone who employs these people is evil but, without strong trade unions that genuinely support the rights of workers and a decent minimum wage that is constitutionally enshrined for everyone, British born and immigrant alike, employers will always be tempted to hire workers who can be exploited."

Spoken like the social commentator that he still so clearly is.


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