Ken Loach on Right-Wing Attacks: ‘If They Don’t Go After You, You’re Not Hurting Them’

‘I, Daniel Blake’ director accepts the Raindance festival’s Auteur Award

Ken Loach: ‘If They Don’t Go
Courtesy of Raindance

LONDON — Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach took to the stage at the Vue movie theater near London’s Piccadilly Circus on Tuesday to accept the Raindance Film Festival’s inaugural Auteur Award, dedicating it to “scruffy film festivals and creative energy.”

Speaking to a packed crowd, the “I, Daniel Blake” director recalled his first visit to the event, now in its 24th year. “The first time I came to Raindance, it was really scruffy,” he said. “I’ve just been at the [left-wing group] Momentum events [at the Labour Party conference] in Liverpool. They’re scruffy [too], but my God, they’re so full of energy, and ideas, and commitment to change. And if there’s one thing we as filmmakers need to do it’s to be involved in the dynamism in society, to really take part in that — as filmmakers just as citizens.”

Speaking to moderator Jason Solomons, Loach gave a thoughtful interview that was full of reflection and insight, often delivered with surprisingly self-deprecating wit. As he settled into his seat, Loach admitted he was a little uneasy about the concept of the director as “auteur”. “I’ve always been embarrassed by that idea,” he said. “I understand why it came up, because it was a stand against studio pictures that were like factory products — every good professional had their input, but the result was kind of anonymous.”

Loach said he agreed with the idea that film should have a “single vision,” but warned that the French word “auteur” should not be mistaken for its English equivalent. “There are two problems with that,” he said. “One is that film is, by its nature, collective, but it also suggests that the director is the writer, and I think that’s one of the heresies of modern filmmaking, because a writer is a different talent… What I think is a pity is when young directors, particularly at film school, [are led to believe] that they are not a proper director unless they write [their film] themselves. I think that’s really wrong — I think writing is one thing, directing is another. They need to be complementary, but they’re certainly not the same.”

Casting his mind back to his early days, Loach didn’t waste much time on his debut, “Poor Cow,” noting, from a directing point of view, that it was “not a great film — but don’t tell anybody.” Instead, the story began with 1969’s “Kes,” on which he, inspired by contemporary Czech cinema and in collaboration with DoP Chris Menges, began to hone his now familiar realist style. “When we did ‘Kes,’” he said, “we worked out a way of working that actually liberated the people in front of the camera but had a unified style that the camera adopted. I guess the key to this was that the camera was like the human eye, in the corner of the room, as if you were there and just watching [each scene unfold].”

Surprisingly, Loach breezed through the ‘70s — which he later dismissed as a boom time for tawdry British sex comedies — in a sentence. “We couldn’t do cinema films in the ‘70s, so [Kes producer] Tony [Garnett] and I did TV films, for the BBC. Then the ‘80s were a disaster, because I tried to do documentaries. The critical event was Thatcher coming in in 1979, [causing] havoc and mayhem and catastrophe for large areas of the country. I tried to do documentaries to capture that, because it was like a whirlwind. Things were happening that would have taken too long for a feature. So I tried to do documentaries, and they all got banned.”

The thorny issue of censorship proved to be a subject close to Loach’s heart: “In television they can censor you outright,” he said. “In the cinema, they have to do it by innuendo.” This led into a discussion of the director’s frequent battles with the media, mostly over two films he made — 1990’s “Hidden Agenda” and 2006’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” — dealing with the British government’s activities in Northern Ireland. Such artistic statements, he said, were “the political enemy — they’re not to be negotiated with, they’re to be beaten. So you have to expect that. If they don’t go after you, you’re not hurting them.”

Warming to his theme, the director, who recently made a short film for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, explained his view of how the process works. “You see it now with Corbyn,” he said. “They see him as a threat, and the attacks are insidious, frontal, dirty, manipulative. Every organ of political discourse has its style. We found this from our own experience — there is a dance between all the different elements. So you’ll get a rabid piece in the Daily Mail or the Express. That’ll be echoed in a kind of moderate piece in one of the broadsheets. Then the television will take it up, or the radio, and they pass the ball between them. But it’s all [taking place] on enemy territory.”

Despite many digressions into current issues such as housing, poverty and the democratization of public broadcasting, Loach insisted that he was a director first and foremost, not a politician. “There’s got to be a love affair with the medium,” he said. “If you see the medium as a mechanism simply to express a political idea, forget it, it doesn’t work. You’ve got to love the medium.”

Finally, Loach called for British directors not to be seduced by the siren call of Hollywood. “Cinema can show us the world, can’t it?” he mused, “and often cinema shows us a world that’s very different, very exotic, but it doesn’t always show us the world around us. Cinema as a business doesn’t see [my kind of filmmaking] as profitable. Our directors are encouraged to look across the Atlantic, and I think that’s the problem. We should look within our own culture; we should be able to sustain films made to represent our imagination, our jokes, our stories. But let it come from our culture — it’s rich enough.”