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Berlin Interview: Ken Loach Says Critics Missed "Bias" Of 'Zero Dark Thirty,' Talks 'Spirit Of 45,' Sexiness Of Socialism & More

Festivals
by Jessica Kiang
February 22, 2013 9:56 AM
8 Comments
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One of the quieter debuts at the Berlin International Film Festival last week was of a small talking-heads-and-archive-footage documentary about postwar Britain’s socialist reconstruction called “The Spirit of ‘45” (you can read our review here). But while it feels destined for a life on the small screen, the name above the title alone meant a festival bow was appropriate; it's the latest from British director Ken Loach, recipient of the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2006 for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” and one of the most well-respected and consistent proponents of the school of social realist filmmaking.

After perhaps a slightly faltering start with the Terence Stamp-starring “Poor Cow” in 1967 (footage from which is used in Soderbergh’s “The Limey,” trivia fans), Loach’s breakthrough came in ‘69 with the peerless and beloved “Kes.” Since then, working in both TV and cinema, and across fiction and documentary formats, Loach’s instincts have always been left-leaning, championing the poor, the disenfranchised, the socially sidelined, but undercutting any grimness with real warmth and humanity. All of these impulses come overtly to the fore in “The Spirit of ‘45,” so it’s no wonder when we got to meet Loach in Berlin in a small group of international press, the talk quickly turned political. And while we respectfully disagree with his assessment of, among other things “Zero Dark Thirty,” it was certainly refreshing to talk to a filmmaker so absolutely unafraid to speak his mind and give voice to potentially divisive opinions.

The radical social changes that came about after the Second World War in Britain are not something widely acknowledged. Was that why you felt the need to make this film?
What happened after ‘45 in Britain has been written out of history. The reversal under Thatcher and afterwards was so strong and so vicious that they changed the ideology, they changed people’s consciousness -- we just don’t know about it. And it was very simple, it wasn’t a matter of great ideology, it was the fact that fighting the war was a collective experience, and they had to take over the railways to function, because they didn’t function under private enterprise. They had to take over the coalmines, they needed the energy, the coal. And then we had such huge problems after the war that the common sense thing to do was just to carry on working together. It wasn’t a great ideological experiment it was the common sense of the time.

But it did mean that there were these huge advances in the health service and house building… and there were also great flaws, but as a project it did succeed. But when the neo-liberals came in with Thatcher and Reagan and the popular press, that was the new sexy thing in the '80s, so what had gone before had to be forgotten.

So do you hope to make socialism sexy?
[Laughs] Not me personally… I think socialism is very sexy, as a project it is. But [it’s all reinvention,] remember the neo-liberal project goes back to the 19th century, it wasn’t something new, it was raw capitalism, from the early industrialists and they took it back. So what we have to do is to remember what was good about what was done in ‘45 and remember what we got wrong, and reinvent that for now.

Is now the time for that?
Well, the two things now that neo-liberalism has plainly failed -- I mean what more evidence do you want of its failing than mass unemployment throughout Europe and economies collapsing, as in Greece? And the more neo-liberalism collapses, the more the EU leaders force it down our throats -- they force Greece to sell even what they’ve got left. It’s like an addict -- the more it’s addicted, the more it looks for the fix.

There’s that and there’s the fact that the planet can’t sustain this continual growth. You’ve got to have an economic model that doesn’t depend on growth, growth, growth…

And do you feel that film can change attitudes in this regard?
Oh, I don’t know about that. You add your small voice to what’s going on, and if people find it useful that’s good.

Also, the old have a lot to teach us and people’s memories will be lost because the people who were active in the ‘45 period are now [in their] mid-80s, they’re the Pope’s age basically (the ex-Pope!) and they will be lost soon. And remembering that hope and the vision they had…the details of the politics are something else, but the vision of the world that wasn’t based on greed, as one of the women says, but that was based on us helping each other and taking care of each other -- we’ve lost that.

It’s of course not your first documentary. How does this process compare to fiction filmmaking?
It's a lot easier. The alarm doesn’t have to go at 6 in the morning. And archive documentaries are also good because mainly you work in the cutting room so it means you don’t have to go into till 9 am and you leave at 6 and you get a coffee mid-morning. Doing an archive documentary is very civilized.

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8 Comments

  • Haji | February 28, 2013 6:32 PMReply

    Ken Loach is the worst kind of racist, in the past he has tried to get filmmakers from Israel banned from film festivals just because of their country of origin. That's rights, he wanted to exclude them not because of who they were or their political beliefs but only because they were Israeli. I know you socialists love him but he is an awful human being, go ahead and fawn over his film celebrating the creation of the current welfare state in the UK. How is the NHS treating the elderly in England? Do a little research and find out.

  • Dee | April 9, 2013 6:30 AM

    He wanted to exclude them for the same reasons artists boycotted South Africa for so long. Its not personal, its political. The legitimacy of the Israeli state is questionable and its current functioning depends on its citizens (all of whom are ex soldiers, soldiers or soldiers to be) accepting consciously or otherwise a state of gross inequality. By the way, my girlfriend is South African and my daughter is half Israeli so please don't go down the road of telling me I don't know what I'm talking about. I have also worked with older adults in an NHS setting and I worked hard for them.

  • Nick | February 26, 2013 5:00 AMReply

    Ken Loach is spot on indeed. The coterie of American film critics who's favorite movies last year were features like Django Unchained (a childish and moronic gore-fest), Argo (a liberal self serving fantasy) and ZDT (a childish but fancy videogame rip-off selling D.C. torture policies) are mostly clueless and unaware. And yes you can make a generalization and talk about critics as a group in this case, just look at the overwhelming positive consensus these movies achieved, at least according to Metacritic and Rottentomatoes.

    But I don't think it's an issue of stupidity. American film critics are not only a "symptom", but also enablers of a culture that seems obsessed with violence, war, religious superstition, video games and comic books. The narrow political discussion doesn't allow diverse opinions and everything gets reduced to simplistic black or white terms like us vs. them, good vs. evil, Democrat vs. Republican, Fox News vs. The Daily Show, Truthers vs. Birthers etc. Even the left that tries to release itself from the fruitless Democratic Party straightjacket marginalizes itself by letting in pot cultist, low rent postmodern feminists and worthless Alex Jones-type conspiracy theorist into the mix. Ken Loach comes from a different political culture that might be in a defensive path but is still engaged in the world and in the global struggle for justice and equality. It is easy for him to observe the lack of political and global awareness among all these film critics who fawned over the overrated Argo and ZDT.

    Thank God for the Ken Loach'es of the world I say without believing in God.

  • RNL | February 23, 2013 2:42 PMReply

    There's no dichotomy or contradiction between the 'instinct' for collectivism and the 'instinct' of self-interest. It is in the self-interest of working people to have a higher standard of living, to work fewer hours, to receive higher wages, to have more control over the content of their work. The only way for working people to achieve these goals is collective action, to organise collectively and demand these things from their bosses. The realisation of workers' self-interests lies in the strategy of collective organisation.

  • Alan B | February 22, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    Yeah, I am sorry, but there has been plenty of criticism of 'ZDT' ... and for the exact reasons that Loach has stated. It's like he read two reviews and then decided to call critics everywhere "stupid". They ARE stupid, but not for the inane, nonsense reason that Loach suggests.

  • RNL | February 23, 2013 2:44 PM

    There's been a lot of criticism of the portrayal of torture in the film, but I haven't seen any of the general righteousness of the war, of the CIA, of American foreign policy, or even of the hunt for Bin Laden.

  • Sarah | February 22, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    He crushed it on ZDT.

  • Eric | February 22, 2013 11:10 AMReply

    His points on ZD30 are actually spot on.

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