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.
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.
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.