14 March, 2011Issue 15.5Film & TVInterviewsThe Arts

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An Interview with Ken Loach

Alexander Barker and Alex Niven

Route IrishKen Loach
Route Irish
Sixteen Films, 2011
109 minutes

Ken Loach has been directing films with a social mission for 50 years. In the 60s he brought the housing crisis to national attention with Cathy Come Home, in the 80s he documented the trade union response to Thatcherism, and recently he has addressed issues as diverse as the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom), Los Angeles labour rights (Bread and Roses), and the Irish War of Independence (The Wind That Shakes the Barley).

His latest project, Route Irish, combines his outrage at a war of aggression with his indignation at negligent employment practices. When Frankie, a private security contractor, is killed in Baghdad, his childhood friend Fergus decides to lead his own personal investigation into his death, and in the process brings to light the dubious record of the private security firms involved in the war.

The Oxonian Review spoke with Ken about Route Irish, the film industry, and British politics.

Throughout your career you’ve used film to explore social and political problems. Can film go beyond that and offer actual solutions?

Film is one voice among many. A film can ask questions, it can leave you with a sense that there’s more to be found out, it can leave you with a sense of solidarity with the people you see in the film. It can do all those things, but it’s not a political movement, it’s not an organisation. It’s only a film; it’s just two hours of stories and characters—or it could be a documentary—but it’s information, a perspective, and maybe an argument, maybe a point of view. What you do with what you receive from the film is up to you.

The structure of Route Irish resembles your earlier films Land and Freedom or Carla’s Song; the narrative follows your protagonist’s personal journey of self-discovery and this unravels into wider issues.

It’s not a journey of personal discovery in this case. He’s just finding stuff out, but he’s not discovering himself. His self is pretty well wrecked, really, throughout the film. The film reveals that wreckage, but he doesn’t reveal it to himself, about himself.

He’s a career soldier, who’s been through different war zones; he’s been to Ireland, probably been to Afghanistan, he’s been to Iraq. He’s come to the end of his army life, and he’s found that he can sign up as a contractor and earn money—rather more than he ever did as a soldier, so obviously that’s a good option for a few years. But the effect of being through Iraq in particular has left him, like many others, with post-traumatic stress, and that gap becomes apparent throughout most of the film. He manages to contain his problems, but every now and then the violence flares up. He’s quite obsessive, and he expresses himself through violence. This becomes apparent through his relationship with Rachel, Frankie’s girlfriend. There’s obviously a more complicated relationship between them than just platonic friends. He reveals himself that way, and reveals his despair, and his hollowness, the fact that he is destroyed.

One of the nurses who nurse people with this problem said that these men are in mourning for their former selves. They’re not the men they expected to be and intensely wanted to be. The sense of that former self is shown right at the outset with the two boys on the Mersey Ferry; they’re talking, dreaming of where they might travel when they’re older. The irony is that they do travel, and it kills one and it destroys the other.

Often at the centre of these films is a potentially redeeming romantic or sexual relationship. Is that a way of figuring solidarity?

The story before the film began, we imagined, was that Fergus—I think this is referred to briefly—had introduced [Rachel and Frankie], and he’d known her before that. There was something between them before she became Frankie’s partner. Frankie is an easier guy altogether, he’s more gregarious, he has his feet on the ground more than Fergus, who’s the edgy, driven one. So there was something between Fergus and Rachel, which certainly remains something in Fergus’s eyes. But the only way he can express that is in this violent transgressive way when Frankie’s dead. So it’s not so much a love interest. It’s part of his fractured connection to other people. The normal emotional exchange that happens between people is denied to him because of what he’s been seeing, what he’s been part of, and how it’s left him.

Route Irish is on general release on the 18th March…

It’s quite a limited release actually. One of the problems of cinema now is that you have to struggle for every cinema you can get if you’re an independent film. Films can be made and are being made all around the world that are very interesting and diverse. And that happens to a varying degree depending on the climate in individual countries. Our situation [in Britain] is that the screens are pretty well dominated by American industrial films that take a large percentage of screen time, with British films that the Americans like occasionally getting a look-in. Apart from that, cinema from the rest of the world is by and large excluded, unless you live near art-house cinemas like the Watershed in Bristol or the Phoenix Picturehouse on Walton Street in Oxford. There are a few of those cinemas around, but by and large, independent cinema, or non-American mainstream cinema, doesn’t get a look-in. That is the biggest issue facing cinema at the moment: how do you enable people to see that diverse range of films?

Sixteen Films, your production company, has published several of your earlier films on YouTube, and you’re releasing Route Irish simultaneously on Curzon Demand.

Yes. Otherwise, when there is press coverage of it, however much there is, if the film is only available in maybe 20 cinemas around the country, then although people may read about it and hear about it and want to see it, many will not be able to. So we thought we really needed an alternative approach to this.

What do you think of the Internet as a medium? Some say it has collective potential, but on the other hand, it has a tendency toward atomism…

It exists, so we can’t wish it away. It’s there and people will use it the way their inclination leads them. It does make it easier for people to be in touch with like-minded people. It makes it easier to organise at one level. On the other hand it is probably more difficult to organise at another level. I don’t know how you get democratic organisation into it. I don’t know how you get beyond the word getting out; people get together, and then what? You’ve got to embody some democratic structure or some cohesive sense.

Speaking of people getting together, you once said that Supporters Direct and the football supporters’ trusts movement was perhaps the one good, worthwhile achievement of New Labour.

It was a Labour government achievement, but probably wasn’t a New Labour initiative. They were probably biting their tongues as they did it. It’s a piddling little thing but at least it’s a move in the right direction. And the people involved are very good. I’ve got a lot of respect for Dave Boyle and the others involved there.

Do you think there might be some potential in a renewed alliance between the Labour Party and some of those sorts of movements, given it was in part a creation of a certain wing of the Labour party?

I think people would be deeply suspicious of the Labour Party for all kinds of reasons. The people in the supporters’ trusts would resent being hijacked into a party. The Labour Party itself is a pretty broken organisation now anyway. Their silence on the current situation is deafening. There’s no leadership coming from them to fight the various attacks on the different services, the destruction of so much of what remains of the good collaborative aspects of our society.

The attacks are so trenchant and the Labour Party is so weak that I can’t see that it would work at all. There’s a great possibility for organisations to build an opposition. And out of the experience of the supporters’ trusts, people could be lead to thinking: “we’re a cooperative movement, there are other cooperative movements; maybe we have something in common.” Then you start to link up, but the links have got to be based on lived experience, rather than a main political party.

So would you abandon the Labour Party now?

The Labour Party has already abandoned the Labour movement. That’s the problem. Inevitably there are, and always will be, a few good MPs—John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn—but beyond that, the Blairite cleansing has wiped most of the good people out of the party. But there is great potential on the left because the attacks from the right are so strong.

What sort of organisations do you think there is potential in?

The people who are facing problems in their own affairs. People who work in the health service, people who work in universities, people who work in schools, people who work in housing, particularly with the homeless, disabled people, librarians, people who care for the forests, the police, pensioners. Everybody who’s got a pension is being savaged. Particularly public servants; nowadays public servants are just referred to with contempt as “bureaucrats”.

[The Coalition government] have offended a huge percentage of the population. If all these people got together they could stop it. But because the organisation of places like the TUC is so weak, they’re massively handicapped. That’s the problem. And that’s what the Tories rely on; they rely on there being no coherent alternative.

*Route Irish will have a multi-platform release, opening in cinemas, on Sky Movies Box Office, and on Curzon Demand, March 18 2011.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. They are senior editors at the Oxonian Review.