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When the enemy is at the door

Will Atkinson talked to Ken Loach

March 6, 2008
7 min read

Film as commodity

I suppose the first thing to say is that there’s a contradiction at the heart of film making, which is that films are first and foremost commodities. There’s still some idea that a film can be a communication, but it also has to be a commodity – you can’t endlessly make self-indulgent communication, one way communications, which bear no relationship to people’s willingness to pay to see or hear them.

True to the subject

On the one hand you want to reach as many people as possible, because there’s not much point in talking to the converted. On the other hand, you have to respect the material you’re working with and be true to what it is. Usually the corollary of ‘Do you want to reach a wider audience?’ is to have a big name in the film, or have a happy ending, or put some music in to soup it up. But if you do that you’re then subverting your own material. If you put in a film star, the film becomes a film about a film star, not about the people you really want to make it about. So in the end I think the first obligation is to be true to the subject, and the characters, and the material, and the story and secondly, when you’ve made the truest film you can, then you think about trying to get an audience. I think if you do it the other way around you always diminish your own work.  

Steps into political filmmaking

I began in the theatre. With one or two friends we tried to start an idea that’s quite current now but was not so fashionable then, the idea of a community theatre, influenced by Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood, who was a great pioneer and a great director and a great woman of the theatre. We were innocents, very young. We had the idea of trying to start a small community theatre: the idea of theatre being connected to people’s experience, rather than just being a showcase for west end plays. And then I got into television and began working with writers, producer Tony Garnett and storywriter Roger Smith, and largely through talking to them and working with them we began to be more absorbed in political ideas. 

The lesson that generation learned in the mid-1960s was that when push came to shove the Labour leadership would always support the employers. So when Blair came along we knew exactly who he was, where he came from and what he would do. It wasn’t a surprise because we’d been through it with Harold Wilson. That was important, and then as the sixties developed the anti-Stalinist left grew and a lot of us got involved with groups that were to the left of the Communist Party.

That’s when I started to see why society developed the way it had: the long history of working class struggle and the labour movement, particularly with writers like Jim Allen, who was a very important person for me. We did a series with Tony Garnett and Jim called Days of Hope, which was the story of the labour movement from 1916 to 1926, the time of the general strike, in the early 1970s. So I guess that ten years from the early 1960s to the early 1970s was really the decade that defined where I stood politically.

Television in the 1960s

I think we felt television was an area we could work in and certainly at that time we had amazing access to BBC1. We were a large group of writers and directors and two or three producers with access to a prime slot on BBC. It was straight after the news at 9.15 on a Wednesday, for week after week after week, for an hour and a half. Of course there were always battles with the BBC hierarchy. Tony Garnett, in particular, was very skilful at negotiating these. It was an amazing privilege to have that access and I think because we had that we therefore thought we could make some kind of intervention.

Television in the 1980s

There wasn’t much doing in British films and there was a lot doing in Britain politically [in the 1980s], so I tried to make documentaries. That was a disaster because they all got banned – well, I think four got banned outright, two got taken out of the schedules and delayed. It was a very hard time. The documentaries that got banned were about how the trade union rank and file were prepared to fight the Thatcher onslaught and how the leaders led them into disarray, refused to organise, refused to bring unions out together, really had an agenda that was not to challenge the government, except to make windy speeches. I think they said things that they didn’t want to hear at that time.

Film and social change

Films in general can leave you with a different perception and a question or a sense of anger, which can be productive. The Lives of Others, a German film I thought was very revealing about East German society, is just one example. I hoped the films we did would similarly engage people to question preconceptions and see the world from a different perspective.

The old slogan of the American trade unionists of ‘agitate, educate, organise,’ is a good programme for militants. First of all you’ve got to agitate, you’ve got to stir people up to not accept the unacceptable and films can be a tool in agitation. Then educate to a new socialist perspective; a film is too brief to do much education, it can plant an idea or two that you can then explore. It can’t do anything for organisation, which is probably the most important, because unless you organise once you’ve agitated then you’ve got no weapons, you’ve got nothing in your armoury, you all go home at the end of the meeting and nothing happens, so organisation is the biggest thing. So films can agitate a little, educate not much, and organise not at all.

If you’re realistic about what films can do then you don’t get frustrated. But I think if you make a film it doesn’t remove your obligation to be political in other ways. If the enemy’s at your door you don’t just make a film about it, you’ve got to barricade the house as well, haven’t you? So I think it’s absolutely an obligation to be politically active.  

Filmmaking and politics

The actual craft of filmmaking is very engrossing. Looking at lives, finding people to present, finding stories to tell, framing images and constructing sequences is very absorbing. When you’re making a film, you spend 90 per cent of your time doing that. But when you decide what stories to tell you find your political voice.

It’s also partly what you feel you can make work because I can imagine all kinds of politically necessary stories that I wouldn’t be very good at telling because they involve people who I don’t know, they involve a language I can’t speak, they involve a class that I have no sympathy with, so I couldn’t really engage creatively with them. There are all kinds of stories that I would like to see on the screen that I can’t personally do.

So as well as a political point of view there’s got to be just the people who you enjoy being with and the milieu you relish, rather than the milieu you don’t. I mean I can’t imagine setting a film in Knightsbridge. It would just fill me with depression, I don’t know how to treat the people. Whereas it’s very necessary that people do films about the rich because there’s a lot of stories there that explain what’s happening in the world, but I’d find it quite difficult.

 

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