It’s been a big year for the frustrations of the working class. From Brexit to Donald Trump, massive events with global impact have emerged from voters frustrated by the political establishment and eager for massive change, even if it has cataclysmic potential. While these pockets of society are only recently dominating the news cycle, British director Ken Loach has been scrutinizing them for decades.
Since the late sixties, Loach has played a critical role in the kitchen sink realism that became a pivotal force in British culture with films such as “Kes” and “Family Life.” At 80, Loach shows no sign of slowing: “I, Daniel Blake,” which stars Dave Johns as an out-of-work carpenter battling the healthcare system that denies him proper care. The film won Loach his second Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, 10 years after his first win with “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”
While the film opens theatrically in the U.S. on December 23, Loach’s voice is a vital one at the present moment, as Americans reel from an election that many have been comparing to the outcome of the Brexit vote. In a phone call from Britain, Loach addressed the parallels and offered some advice for ways in which filmmakers can deal with the new political climate.
Is there a Ken Loach Brexit movie in the works? Everyone must be clamoring for one now, right?
One thing we’ve learned over the years is that you don’t follow the headlines. You’ve got to try and find stories that just are more long-lasting. Otherwise, you’ll be out of date by the time the film is made. We might go to a meeting about Brexit and talk about, but as an issue it’s not something we should make a film about. There are underlying ways in which we live together that we should make films about. The different tactical decisions are current affairs. It’s something to write a pamphlet about, not a piece of fiction.
Nevertheless, the Brexit vote exposed fissures in British society you’ve been exploring for decades.
What happened was that you heard the right wing arguments, not the left wing arguments. The right wing argument was that the European Union is a club for big business, an economic organization that prioritizes the interests of big corporations. It’s organizing the economy to big businesses can make a lot of money. The interests of workers is not at the front. They’re always at the end. So on the left, the argument is, “How do we change this?” Some people thought it was better to change this on the outside; some people thought it was better to change it on the inside. It’s more complicated than it looks from outside.
A lot of people are saying that the outcome of the American elections is our Brexit. Do you think that parallel is accurate?
I think it’s misleading. The European Union is an institution that is in the interest of big business, not the European people. So it’s understandable that some people thought we should leave. There’s also a version of that argument — the one you heard — that’s anti-immigrant, insular and inward-looking. So there were two different reasons for leaving and you only heard one.
And in the U.S.?
From outside, on the left, it looks to us like this is the consequence of the neo-liberal project that began with economists, pursued by Reagan and Thatcher, to de-regulate business and corporations so that people can be exploited more easily, industries closed down and work taken overseas where the labor was cheap. Thatcher has left generations of people feeling excluded, feeling alienated. But the cause was that economic plan that we called neo-liberalism. That has produced the poverty and alienation that has made people turn to the right, as they did in the twenties and thirties in Europe, because they were ignored politically.
What’s the reaction to the election been like in the U.K.?
People have different views about it. The more political people would put it as I have. Others would say how depressed they are that such an appalling man has come to power, how shocked they are to see Neo Nazis saluting each other. People are very upset. For some of us on the left, the question is, “How do people respond?” Will they organize? Will they develop a politics of opposition that gets to grips with the economic circumstances that brought Trump to power? It’s a big challenge for the left.
Let’s hope that they get rid of that Democratic hierarchy and have a mass party that really represents the interests of working people. Most of the hierarchy in the Labor Party in Britain are against this, but the leadership itself — that’s Jeremy Corbyn and others — they are more equivalent to Bernie Sanders with a more radical politics. There’s an old guard in the Labor Party, just like there was old guard in the Democrat party, that they’re trying to destroy. That’s the struggle we’ve got, and I think it’s the struggle you’ll have in the states: Can the Democratic party line up behind Bernie Sanders and really be challenge, or will it fall back on the old ways of the Clintons and the rest of them? It’s an interesting moment, really.
Trump’s new senior advisor has a background making right-wing propaganda films. Can left-wing filmmakers somehow fight back with filmmaking?
Film can play a big part. You just have to show what’s happening. The truth can be subversive, can’t it? Those in power always try to distort reality, to suit their needs and keep things safe. So just to show us what’s happening — people are dying because they’ve got no healthcare, for example — is subversive. Film can do lots of things: It can produce alternative ideas, ask questions, just record the reality of what’s happening, it can analyze what’s happening. Of course, most commercial films are controlled by big corporations who have an interest in not doing those films.
It’s like the press — journalism has a role to play, but the bigger papers are controlled by multinational corporations who don’t want their journalists to ask questions. I think it’s very comparable. As a medium, film has great potential, but its use is dominated by big capital.