Category Archives: Ken Loach

The Navigators (2001)

 “Unfortunately, the days of a job for life are gone.”

In The Navigators, director Ken Loach explores the collapse and privatization of British Rail through the personal lives of a handful of workers.It’s Britain in 1995, and the workers at a British Rail station in South Yorkshire are informed that British Rail is dead and gone, and that they now work for East Midlands Infrastructure. A manager tells the men that work is no longer guaranteed, but instead the company must compete to “win contracts.” Apparently, “just doing the job is not good enough.” Some of the workers decide to take a lump sum severance pay and retire. Other workers decide to stay on imagining that sticking with the new company will guarantee security. Most of the men have spent their entire working lives employed by British Rail, and they can’t imagine doing anything else. Plus the fact that there’s a different name on the sign doesn’t really mean that much to them. As far as they are concerned, life goes on as usual.

navigators1Unfortunately over time, the men who remain with the new company learn that things have indeed changed, and the good old days are long gone. Some of the men, fed up with the new management changes at East Midland (which is promptly bought out heralding yet another change of ownership) work as independent contractors for the new rail system companies. At first, the wages sound good, but the men learn that they no longer have 40 hours a week guaranteed. Instead they are called in for piecework when and if they are needed. There’s no more pension, no more holiday pay, no more sick pay. Those lucrative-sounding wages shrink quickly when measured against the steady employment of the past.

 

The workers learn that shrinking wages are not the only thing they face. Competing for contracts whittles manpower down to hazardous work conditions, and woe betide the worker who tries to speak out. Ken Loach’s characters just aren’t types here. We see how the privatization of British Rail alters the lives of the families who depended on those jobs. Comfortable lives shrink down to hand-to-mouth existences as families struggle to make their bills. And ultimately workers are reduced to the lowest common denominator–demeaning work where they are underpaid units of production. One of the best scenes in the film takes place when former British Rail employees share a job site with a couple of inexperienced men who’ve driven all the way from London to make a day’s wage. This is a sobering reality for the former British Rail workers as they are brought face-to-face with the shrinkage of their value as experienced workers.
 

 

 

 The British railway system was nationalized in 1948, but privatized in stages during the years 1994-1997. This privatization occurred during the conservative government of John Majors, and it was just a continuation of Thatcher’s privatization of publicly owned utilities. And lest you imagine that privatization of the rail system stopped government subsidies (i.e. the privatized system is more efficient, blah blah) think again. Before privatization, subsidies to British Rail were around 1 billion pounds a year. After privatization, it was thought that 1.8 billion pounds a year would cover it (with this amount to decline 2-3 million pounds a year). In 2006, the total subsidy to the private companies that now run the former British Rail reached 6.3 BILLION POUNDS. Will the Royal Mail be next?

 
 
 

 

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Land and Freedom (1995)

 “Revolutions are contagious.”

In 1936, unemployed working class labourer, Dave Carr (Ian Hart) attends a Communist meeting in Liverpool and is recruited to fight the Fascists in Spain. He heads out with little idea where he is going, but with his Communist party card in hand, he soon meets up with a loosely banded detachment of the POUM militia group. The POUM organisation was a Marxist Communist union that formed an alliance with FAI/CNT Spanish Anarchists with the common goal of defeating renegade fascist general Franco.

landThe militia live in rough camps, lack weapons, and engage in a type of trench warfare with the fascists. Dave’s adventures include the liberation of a fascist-held village, and a slow tender romance that simmers with fellow militia member, Blanca (Rosana Pastor). At first Dave is quite enthusiastic about his involvement in the war. To him, this is “socialism in action.”

Dave’s disillusionment sets in when the POUM militias come under Stalinist control. With Stalin supporting the Communist Party of Spain, the militias are ordered to accept new rules. The women–who’ve fought alongside the men–are ordered to become either nurses or cooks. In spite of the fact that new weapons are promised, nothing appears. The militia members are divided by conflicting opinions–some seeing that the militia is now effectively de-fanged, join the Stalinist International Brigade, but other members stay faithful to the militia alliance. Land and Freedom documents Stalin’s betrayal of the POUM organization and their allies the Anarchists–soon POUM and the Anarchists (who’ve made some significant military advances) are under attack by the Stalinists and the Republican army. The Stalinists shut down the POUM newspapers and arrest some of their leaders. Instead of fighting the fascists, the parties who are supposed to be allied against Franco, are fighting each other. It’s the old divide and conquer strategy–but this time the Stalinists effectively divide the Anarchists and the Marxists and squash them–betraying the revolution, and betraying Spain. The film makes it quite clear that Marxism is not the same thing as Stalinism, and that the Spanish Civil War was a war within a war. There’s one great scene when Dave–fighting with the International Brigade-is holed up on one side of the street shooting at a group of Anarchists barricaded on the other side of the street. Insults are shouted from each side and then Dave exchanges comments with a British fighter from Manchester. They ask each other what they are doing there, and each man answers “dunno.” It is this event that causes Dave to cease fighting with the International Brigade and return to the militia.

Land and Freedom is first and foremost a political film–the romance between Dave and Blanca is never forced or even central to the plot. The era portrayed by the film is a complicated subject, and this Ken Loach film does an incredible job of putting large political ideas into an understandable format for the average viewer. One scene, for example, portrays the arguments that take place between villagers following the village’s liberation from the fascists. Some of the villagers wish to divide up the land immediately and begin collectivism (one of the goals of the newly elected democratic government that Franco intended to squash). The argument whether or not to begin collectivism illustrates the different arguments that the villagers have on the subject, and this scene also includes information regarding England and France’s refusal to sell weapons to the Spanish republic–even though it was a well-known fact that Franco was receiving support from Germany and Italy.

Dave is a marvelous character–an everyman who “leaves Liverpool with a daft romantic idea” that’s trammeled by political realities. Ian Hart’s low-key acting style is perfect for this role. We know that Dave’s disillusionment is complete when he rips up his Communist party card. Ultimately–the film is an avowal of the ongoing struggles of the working classes. Land and Freedom is an important political film, and anyone even remotely interested should dig out a copy of this buried film. It’s informative, but it’s also an excellent, excellent film. Well done, Ken Loach.

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The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2007)

 “If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own.”

A war of occupation is a peculiar thing. It’s a war that has no defined battle lines, and there’s a good chance that most of the native combatants will be civilians. This inevitably brings reprisals down upon the heads of the noncombatant civilian population. Also since there’s nowhere safe to escape to (you can’t really go behind battle lines since there aren’t any), it’s virtually impossible to stay neutral or uninvolved. In a war of occupation, sooner or later you are going to lose someone you care about, and then you’re sucked into the vortex of violence whether you like it or not.

wind-that-shakes-the-barleyDirector Ken Loach’s film The Wind that Shakes the Barley does a marvelous job of showing the devastating fallout of the British occupation of Ireland through the story of two brothers. The film is set during one of the two periods in Irish history known as the so-called ‘Troubles’ (1919-1921). ”Troubles’ seems like a fairly innocuous label to stick on these turbulent, bloody times, but perhaps that was the point. In 1912, Britain promised Home Rule to Ireland, but this was delayed with the advent of WWI. The failed Easter Rebellion of 1916 helped create support for Sinn Fein, and resistance to the British occupation was growing.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) sees the occupation as something that has little to do with him or his intention to become a doctor. Damien’s brother, Teddy (Padriac Delaney), on the other hand, is passionately devoted to ending the British occupation of Ireland. The two brothers don’t see eye-to-eye on the subject, and while Teddy thinks that Damian should stay and fight, Damian sees medicine as a priority.

Damian’s stance of non-involvement comes to a crushing halt one afternoon. He plays a game of curling with some friends. A group of British soldiers arrive, and using the excuse that the game constitutes an illegal gathering, the soldiers proceed to brutalize the locals and murder of one of Damien’s friends. This incident causes a moral shift in Damian, and fueled by a desire for justice and freedom from the yoke of the British, Damian joins the IRA. The film follows the situations Damien is forced to confront–betrayal by comrades, the difficulty of sustaining a relationship, the abandonment of comrades, and finally a split with his brother over the issue of the 1921 Truce ordered by the First Dail (the Irish parliament established in 1919 and dissolved in 1921 during the truce). Damian rejects the order to give up arms and refuses the truce as a betrayal, telling his brother “This treaty makes you a servant of the British Empire.”

The film’s portrayal of the British soldiers is not flattering, and director Ken Loach (who also made the marvelous mostly-forgotten film about the Spanish Revolution Land and Freedom) came under a great deal of fire for making this film. The film’s commentary (an extra feature on the DVD) includes an explanation that the British Black and Tans were hardened soldiers who’d served in WWI (whereas the Irish were not subject to conscription for WWI). This intense story carries a sense of dreadful sense of fatalism that grows as the film continues, and this makes for a grueling experience at times. Based on real events, some brutal scenes include beatings, torture and executions. And in a history-repeats-itself way, it’s impossible to watch this film and not draw comparisons to the current debacle in Iraq.

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Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Good solid Loach film

Sweet Sixteen is set in Scotland, and the accents are strong enough that the film is subtitled. The story concerns a 15-year-old boy named Liam whose mother is serving jail time for illegal substances. Liam lives with his violent stepfather (who sells those illegal substances) and his unpleasant grandfather. The home situation is tenuous at best, but when Liam disobeys his stepfather’s attempt to smuggle drugs to his mother during a prison visit, he is beaten and tossed out on the streets.

Liam moves in with his sister, Chantelle–a single mother–who lays down some rules in an attempt to protect her child. Liam and best friend, Pinball, dream of buying a caravan for 6,000 pounds, and the plan becomes to get this caravan in time for Liam’s mother’s release from jail.

Sweet Sixteen–although a tale of hopelessness, was not overwhelmingly depressing, and this is thanks to the likeablity of Liam’s character. Liam has no future, and no means of getting a quick 6,000 pounds, so he turns to Heroin sales as a way to meet his humble goal. There is something fundamentally good in Liam’s soul, but unfortunately he is corrupted thanks to his environment. He doesn’t stop and question the morality of selling Heroin–after all, it’s a family tradition. During some scenes, I was touched by Liam’s childlike qualities, and yet at other times, I was horrified by his behaviour (when he goes joyriding with his infant nephew for example). These sorts of scenes underscore the moral vacuity of Liam’s upbringing. What chance does Liam have? What chance did he ever have?

Director Ken Loach tends to concentrate on the working classes, and this film is not an exception to this. The picture Loach paints is bleak indeed, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much Liam could have achieved in life if given better circumstances. Martin Comstock plays Liam, and this is his first acting role. He really does an incredible job and is a natural. The film is gritty, dark, and full of hopeless characters who cannot escape from their environment, and yet some optimism remains. Sweet Sixteen was not a pretty film, and it certainly is a sad commentary on our times that a kid as resourceful, clever, and funny as Liam remains trapped in a world without opportunities–other than criminal.

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Ken Loach’s Top Ten Films

The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)

Breathless (Godard)

The Bicycle Thief (De Sica)

Closely Watched Trains (Menzel)

Fireman’s Ball (Forman)

Jules and Jim (Truffaut)

Love of a Blonde (Forman)

The Rules of the Game (Renoir)

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Olmi)

Wild Strawberries (Bergman)

This list appeared in Facets Movie Lovers DVD Guide 9/07 p.  21

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Tickets (2005)

“Do you think they have tellies in the police station?”

Tickets is a film compromised of three stories that all take place aboard a train traveling from Central Europe to Rome. The first segment from Italian director, Ermanno Olmi focuses on an elderly professor (Carlo Delle Paine) who can’t really concentrate on the way home due to distracting thoughts about his seductive personal assistant (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The Professor replays instances of their encounters in his mind and interprets kindness and attention as much more than they actually are. The second film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami concerns the relationship between a cantankerous widow (Silvana De Santis) and Filippo (Filippo Trojano), her young male traveling companion. While the woman is clearly obnoxious, several incidents of forced contact with other passengers reveal evidence of her underlying nature.

The gem of the three films (a 5 star segment), however, is Scottish director Ken Loach’s story. Three raucous Celtic fans are on the train to Rome to see a soccer match. Attending this match is a goal of a lifetime, but their goal is threatened when one of the young men loses his train ticket. The question is soon raised whether the ticket was lost or stolen. The dilemma of the missing ticket brings the three Scots in contact with a desperate family of Albanian refugees and causes the young soccer fans to make a moral choice. The three lads are working class supermarket employees from Glasgow, and while it’s obvious that these lads don’t have much, even they recognise that they have a great deal more than the Albanians who sit just a few seats away. This superior examination of class and moral choices presents Loach at his best–he’s a phenomenal–and terribly underrated director who consistently produces excellent films.

All three stories are weaved together very cleverly. The Professor sits in the first class section of the train but catches glimpses of the disenfranchised refugees. The widow has a second-class ticket but shoves her way into the first class section. The stories–and their diverse subjects–represent the changing face of Europe, and a subtle threat–embodied by the soldiers who board the train–runs through the film. This is a post 9-11 world–with terrorist threats haunting the travelers as they near their destination. In English (Scottish dialect), Albanian, and Italian with English subtitles.

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A Fond Kiss (2004)

 “We’re not from Pakistan.”

Any film from director Ken Loach film deserves a look, and A Fond Kiss, although lighter fare than this director’s usual films, is not an exception. Based on the rocky romance between an Irish Catholic music teacher and a Scottish-Pakistani man, the film takes a good hard look at the difficulties faced when contemplating a relationship that crosses cultures and ethnicity.

Casim Khan (Atta Yaqub) is a young, modern Glaswegian. A DJ by night, he hopes to open his own club. He’s also a good loyal son, and lives at home with his parents and two sisters. His father emigrated from Pakistan decades early under conditions of extreme hardship, and now the family owns a small corner shop. An arranged marriage is planned for Casim and he’s due to be married in a matter of weeks to his cousin, Jasmine, when he meets and falls for Roisin Hanlon (Eva Birthistle), a teacher at his younger sister’s school.

The film does an excellent job of showing the clash between Casim and Roisin’s cultural expectations, and their failure to understand the pressures each bears when societal forces align against them. Casim straddles both Scottish and Pakistani cultures, and he successfully manages to negotiate each by leading a double life. The duality of Casim’s existence is depicted particularly well in a scene at a club. Casim’s western self is enjoying the evening at the club when he sees his sister trying to enjoy herself there too. Casim’s muslim standards kick into high gear and he orders his sister home. In one of the best scenes on the film, Casim and Roisin discuss religion. There are so many points of agreement, and yet they are also theologically poles apart. Each finds some aspects of the other’s religion absurd, and somehow this scene captures the difficulties this couple will face if they should decide to make the relationship more permanent.

In the hands of many directors A Fond Kiss would be standard predictable boy-meets-girl fare. But under Loach’s direction, the plot is elevated and thought provoking. As a result, this is a blisteringly honest film, and while Yaqub’s performance is a little weak, Eva Birthistle is wonderful. Flashes of humour soften the possibly harsh interpretation of Casim’s parents’ expectations adding a lighter element in what could so easily been an impossibly depressing film. Ken Loach is one of the most interesting directors working today, and if you enjoy this I also recommend Bread and Roses. In English and Punjabi with subtitles.

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