Reading Ken Loach’s comments about Zero Dark Thirty the other day – “The purpose is to keep the devil alive, to keep the devil of Bin Laden alive ... ” – got me curious about a Loach interview I did for the Listener back in 2002. Then, the following April, the 9/11 anthology film that Loach contributed to was reviewed with one about Henry Kissinger and one about Robert Evans. Again, pre-paywall.
KEN LOACH, 2002
The first scene of Ken Loach’s superb new film, The Navigators, establishes the mood and it’s a distinctly Loach mood: raw, human, funny, politically sincere. The film is set in Yorkshire in 1995 and, as it opens, a clipboard-carrying middle manager is about to tell a meeting of stroppy railway workers, most of whom have been doing their jobs for years, that rail services are to be privatised. They will become competitive “business units”. They will have “mission statements”. The news is greeted with hoots and derision, and all that privatisation newspeak becomes a running joke throughout the film.
The Navigators is a good, earthy illustration of what is potentially a very dry subject. Of course, New Zealanders are no strangers to this story either, only – with the exception of the much more earnest documentaries of Alister Barry – no one here has told it with Loach’s clarity and dramatic force. “There was a conscious attempt to destroy the old railway culture handed down by generations of people whose families had always worked on the railways,” Loach says, by phone from the UK. “Interdependence, solidarity, unionisation, safe practises – all that was handed down and that was what they wanted to break. They wanted to replace that with the all-purpose worker who was supplied by an agency, went along and repaired the track or fixed the signals, and was hired when you wanted him and not hired when you didn’t want him. From the employers’ point of view, that rationalisation of labour is very cost-effective. But it destroys everything that makes life worth living for a lot of people.”
There aren’t many movie directors prepared to offer succinct class-war summaries in an interview. Loach may be the last of Britain’s socialist film-makers. Now in his late sixties, he has been making politically-conscious yet unsanctimonious films for nearly 40 years – from the topical and realist “TV plays” of the 1960s that included Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction to the early cinematic feature Kes (1969), from trade union documentaries in the 1980s to more recent and accessible features such as Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Land and Freedom. Yet, for all that, Loach – a very humble and self-effacing man – baulks at being labelled a political film-maker.
“I think the danger is that it becomes too limiting, really, because people, when they go and see a film, think, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a political lecture here’. That’s the last thing you want. You want people to go in with an open mind and just enjoy what they see. As a label, it’s a killer. It turns people off in their droves.”
According to Loach’s terms, The Navigators succeeds. Any political message is a direct and organic consequence of the action – sometimes comic, sometimes tragic – on screen. Its sense of unmediated reality is enhanced by the fact that much of Loach’s cast are Yorkshire pub comedians rather than overexposed film actors with rehearsed accents, while the movie was written by a redundant railwayman named Rob Dawber. Also a union activist – his column in a railway workers’ magazine was titled “The Fat Controller” – he contracted lung cancer from his exposure to asbestos and died in February 2001, before the completion of The Navigators.
“It all came out of his own experience. And other railwaymen. When we were doing it, we got a lot of people who had worked on the railways to be in it, so all the time we had people saying, ‘This is how it was, this is what we did, this is how it was put to us’. There’s a lot of real experience within the film.”
Some ex-rail workers have even said that it plays just like a documentary. So, why not make a documentary and establish exactly what happened, rather than fold truth into fiction? “I think you need both,” Loach says. “Both are valid. At one point, we thought about making a documentary alongside it. There wasn’t time in the end, but it would have been an interesting venture. If you make a piece of fiction like this, though, you can trace it very graphically. You start with a depot of some 30 people and then they leave in ones and twos until you just have one man playing chess on his own.”
The Navigators is actually two films ago for Loach. It debuted in the UK last November. His newest feature is Sweet Sixteen, about a teenage drug dealer in Scotland, written by his frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty (he wrote My Name is Joe, Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses). The other film was a short about September 11 that won an award at this year’s Venice film festival and also bought Loach some controversy at home from Britain’s pro-war lobby.
“It’s in the context of a French production, which was to have 11 films made, each one 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame long, which were to be reflections on September 11 in New York,” Loach says. In this international collaboration, other contributing directors included Sean Penn (for the USA), Bosnia’s Danis Tanovic and India’s Mira Nair. “I did a film about a Chilean friend of mine who was a supporter of Allende when he was a student. When the coup [that brought Pinochet to power] happened in Chile – which was Tuesday, September 11, 1973 – he was caught, beaten and imprisoned for five years without trial and then let out, provided that he left the country. He’s been in exile ever since. September 11 in Chile, which was a coup to replace a democratically elected government with a murdering military dictatorship, was inspired, paid for and promoted by the United States. In the film, there is a letter by this Chilean friend, a victim of September 11, to the families of the last September 11, pointing out the parallel and saying, it was your government that brought terrorism to our country.”
Inevitably, some have accused Loach of tasteless grandstanding, of using last year’s tragedy as a platform. “Yes, except the people who are complaining about terrorism this time and lost under 3000, committed terrorism before and killed 30,000. They need to think that other people have to be mourned as well. Nobody has had any two minutes’ silence for all the murdered in Chile, not to mention the other areas of terrorism that the US has promoted, from Vietnam onwards.”
So, would Loach join writer Christopher Hitchens in saying that Henry Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal? “Oh, yes. And so should many others. I think that Hitchens goes off the rails sometimes, but in that respect, I agree with him.”
Speaking off going off the rails, has Loach read Martin Amis’ book about Stalinism, Koba the Dread? “No,” he laughs. “There are enough serious books to read without reading it. It’s received a wholly disproportionate amount of attention just because of his name. From the reviews I’ve read, it just isn’t a serious book. It ignores the tendency that fought Stalinism from day one. That’s the problem with people who have just been old Communists – they never appreciate the role of the left opposition.”
Which was what Land and Freedom – Loach’s George Orwell-inspired Spanish Civil War drama – was about. “Tried to be, yeah,” says Loach quietly.
He’s far too modest. Loach’s best films – a category that would include The Navigators – can stand with some of the landmark Italian neo-realist and French new wave films that so influenced him in the 50s and 60s. In Sight and Sound magazine’s recent issue of critics’ and directors’ top tens, Loach cited Vittorio De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). The influence seems obvious: De Sica depicted the desperate poverty of post-war Rome through the sentimental story of an unemployed father and his son. That humanising of social conditions is also Loach’s trick, so it’s no surprise that he has more of a following in Europe than the UK.
“The thing that I do is very much out of a European tradition,” Loach agrees. “I think there’s a recognition in European audiences that these are recognisably European films, not trans-Atlantic films. They have a different sense of cinema in Europe. We haven’t taken film seriously in the way other European countries have. We’ve never had an Ingmar Bergman or a Bresson. Also, because my films are in English, not French or Italian, maybe they’re a wee bit exotic. If they’d done Jean de Florette about a farmworker in Norfolk, it wouldn’t have been so popular in England. Part of it is the fact that it’s French and you can taste the Gauloises …”
Even beyond Europe, there is widening recognition of Loach’s achievements and his dogged integrity. Things weren’t so rosy in the 1980s, when Loach eschewed features for political documentaries that British television refused to screen, but now he seems prolific – the hypocrisies of Tony Blair’s Britain have also sparked something in him. Is this a good time to be Ken Loach?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I can never see it in those terms. You just stagger on from one job to the next, hoping you can keep going. The 80s was a very thin time. Mainly, it was my own misjudgment. I tried to make documentaries at a time when it was impossible to get critical documentaries shown. I’d lost touch with the writers I should have been working with – not lost touch at a personal level, but we just weren’t kicking off the right ideas – and the political onslaught of Thatcher paralyzed the left, in a way. So my response was to start making waves as fast as I could in terms of making documentaries – you don’t need to wait 18 months for them to come out. But then I made the damn things and nobody showed them!”
THE TRIALS OF HENRY KISSINGER, directed by Eugene Jarecki. 11’ 09” 01 – SEPTEMBER 11, various directors. THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.
How much blood is on the hands of Henry Kissinger? The former Secretary of State, ironic winner of 1973’s Nobel Peace Prize and coiner of the phrase “power is the greatest aphrodisiac” is tried for war crimes in his absence in the compelling, lively, persuasive documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger. The film was inspired by a similarly-titled book by journalist Christopher Hitchens, who haunts Kissinger like a shadow. “What I yearn for is some quality time with him,” says a smirking Hitchens. In the absence of the ageing, aloof, inscrutable subject himself, the film’s best words belong to Hitchens, and that Kissinger wouldn’t ever dare sue – who would want such a reputation examined in court? – gives Hitch a dream run. Does the journalist possess even the ability to read Kissinger’s soul? Hitchens believes that Kissinger was personally frightened by the 1998 arrest of senile Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; that insight was the launching pad for Hitchens’ campaign.
Kissinger had “real attention to the cruelties of detail,” Hitchens says. Despite its brevity, the film attempts the same. After a potted history of Kissinger’s training in the dark arts of realpolitik, the focus is on three arenas: the US secret war against Cambodia; the CIA-supported coup in Chile; Kissinger and Gerald Ford’s encouragement of Indonesian genocide in East Timor. In each instance, Kissinger’s callousness is breathtaking, as is the Pax Americana legacy that he bequeathed and we all live with – it was Kissinger who realised that “international law applies to everyone but Americans”. The Trials ends with the September 11 attacks as the bastard child of Kissinger’s politics, but it was made too soon for the idiotic and brutally ironic coda: the appointment late last year by George W Bush of Kissinger as head of a committee investigating September 11. Kissinger, at least, had the sense to quit the post after two weeks.
The best film in the anthology 11’ 09” 01 – devised by a French producer as an international response to the World Trade Centre attacks – runs like a footnote to the Kissinger story: Ken Loach’s entry details the Pinochet coup from the Chilean perspective, through the medium of exiled folksinger Vladimir Vega. That the coup occurred on September 11, 1973, is a gift, symbolically speaking. It enables Loach to appropriate a Bush speech – “On September 11, enemies of freedom committed an act of war on our country” – and reverse it, reminding Americans of the terrorisms that they have sponsored. It’s a work of patience and humanity that could have been strident and tasteless – let us compare atrocities … – in the hands of a less sensitive film-maker.
Accusations of tastelessness have been levelled at Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose film has a black screen gradually turn white as flashes reveal people jumping from the smoking towers and an Arabic text emerges, asking, “Does God’s light guide us or blind us?” As its intention is to provoke, any response is subjective, but this seems less like some callous art statement or glib aesthetic of death than a serious immersion in the immediate, startling horror. Some of the other entries – there are 11 in total – commit much worse sins: being predictable, wishy-washy or evasive.
In the Kissinger film, a brief, mocking segment deals with “Kissinger the swinger”. It’s as that international ladies’ man of mystery that he appears in the film of ageing Hollywood blowhard Robert Evans’ autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Evans got his pal Kissinger – then busy directing the bombing of Cambodia – along as the co-star at the opening of The Godfather, a film that he produced. In Evans’s memory, Evans and Evans alone was the true star. The shallow, entertaining book offered some distance from Evans’ self-aggrandising personality, but the film, narrated by Evans in his velvet-gravel purr, is like being locked in a room as a man tirelessly reads along with his home movies. The clippings and photos run like a Vanity Fair flick-book, while Evans pretends that he actually made, not only The Godfather, but Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown (the great Roman Polanski is “my Polish discovery”); no one else is interviewed to dispute him. The opening shots of the empty Evans mansion suggest every Hollywood myth from Sunset Boulevard to Gods and Monsters, but the truest summary may be an old headline amongst the clippings: “Is Bob Evans really Jay Gatsby?”