Film Scouts Interviews

Kenneth Loach on "Tierra y libertad (Land and Freedom)"

by Henri Béhar

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In the large suite of the post hotel on Park Avenue, in New York, British director Ken Loach examines carefully Film Scouts' newest digital camera.

"Hum...", he says, letting his voice trail off before admitting in a whisper that he's sometimes wary about advanced electronics, particularly when it comes to filmmaking.

"It's a joke, really, to say that editing on tape or on computer really scrambles my brain," he says, laughing. "I do think, however, that it winds the process up too much. In the traditional way, when you put the rolls of film on, it allows you a few minutes to think, to contemplate and decide whether you're going to have a cup of coffee or not. But when the thing happens so fast, there is not time for it to sink in, those moments to reflect on what you have done. Or else my mind is slow. Old age."

In town to promote his newest film, "Land and Freedom" (released today), Loach has just landed from Nicaragua where he is already shooting his next project.

With his hair always a mess, his smile that of a teenager, and incredibly mobile eyes behind schoolboy's spectacles, Ken Loach, nearly 60, looks a good twenty years younger. The epitome of shyness, he finishes most sentences in some sort of a murmur, but the voice swells when he gets passionate, which he often does when the conversation veers to the socio-political.

The heir to the British movement of "Free cinema" led by Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, the man who directed "Kes", "Poor Cow", "Family Life" and, more recently, "Riff- Raff" and "Ladybird, Ladybird", has been one of the sharpest critics of English society. Producer David Puttnam calls him "one of the strongest influences on British cinema ever." And as "My Beautiful Laundrette" director Stephen Frears once put it: "Without Ken Loach, I wouldn't be here."

It isn't very often that Ken Loach the filmmaker deals with non-British matters. He did in "Fatherland" (Germany) and in "Hidden Agenda" (Ireland, US), he does ion "Land and Freedom", which takes place in the early days of the Spanish Civil war--Loach was born "a month before Franco raised his standard."

Covering almost the same territory as Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (but with a lot more straight-from-the-hip sense of humor), Loach tells the story on an unemployed Liverpudlian Communist who goes to Spain to fight, you got it, for land and freedom. In Barcelona, the young man does not join the legendary International Brigades, but rather a small group of strong-willed amateurs fighters called the POUM. As they fight, Dave (portrayed by "Backbeat"'s John Lennon look-alike Ian Hart) grows attracted to the beautiful and spirited Bianca, a fiery revolutionary in his brigade.

"It's a subject that [scriptwriter] Jim Allen and I wanted to work on for a long time," Loach says. "Just because it was one of the most significant moments of the 20th Century happening there: 1936-37. We'd been thinking for a long time, How could we explore it? We therefore tried to find a way into it that enabled two English people to tell the story.

"Jim and I came up with this story of a volunteer. One thing that was just interesting and exciting about it all was the idea of people from different countries going to fight for--well, initially, they were going to fight *against* something, they were going to fight against fascism."

Would such political-cum-romantic élan find resonance in today's jaded, or cynical, audiences?

"Well, it's all about solidarity, isn't it? Of whether we share common interests and need to support each other when we're struggling. It's the kind of received wisdom--as the press and television constantly tell us-- that 'Everybody is apathetic, nobody's interested in politics, the most appalling atrocities can happen and nobody will even bother to turn up.'

"All I'm trying to say is that it fits those in power now to say that, and I don't believe that's true. What happened in Spain was a good example of the opposite, of people who were saying, 'Fascism is a threat to us all. We not only need to support the Spanish people in their fight against fascism out of solidarity with them, we also need to support them because if fascism wins there, there is a danger it will win here too.'"

In describing the inner workings of his leftist group, Ken Loach neither ignores nor skirts around the confusion, messiness, clumsiness, yet passion of the movement.

"To all the people we talked to who'd been there, that was very much the case. It was sort of helter-skelter, people just grabbed what they could and went to the front... That obviously led to a certain kind of inefficiency.

"On the other hand, there was such a spirit that it carried them through. And the whole question is, Was that spirit and will to fight worth the inefficiency?"

As Ken Loach puts it, "Land and Freedom" is about betrayal, and the shock of betrayal. The POUM was eventually shot down by its own allies.

"The reason it got shot down is important," says Loach, his voice swelling. "You can't say, 'All revolutions are always betrayed, they always get corrupt, therefore what's the point? Then put your head in the sand and don't bother.' That's what people would like us to think. The exciting part is also to try and tease out the reason why it went wrong, and the politics behind it."

Therein, almost in a capsule, lies the core of the Ken Loach method, which made him one of the sharpest eyes, ears, and minds of cinema.

"If you make a film which observes, say, a waiting room, or a waiting zone, the difficulty is to show the mechanism underneath that's producing it -- and no discourse, please, that is bad filmmaking, and boring.

"But if you don't give some hint to that, you could be misinterpreted. Of course, everybody is against unemployment, against poverty, against brutality in relationships. The difficulty is to have some indication, within the infrastructure of the film, about why that happens. Otherwise anybody can claim the film as their own. And you can make any kind of political theory."

That is why, he implies, in keeping the socio-political debate "at arm's length", films critics, generally, do half the job they ought to be doing. "For I am sure, nothing was that clear cut. All the kind of muddle and confusion and second thoughts is really important to me, because I'm sure that that's the way it is, the way it was."

As he leaves the hotel suite, Ken Loach walks past a poster of "Land and Freedom" and immediately objects to the phrase: "A Ken Loach Film".

"I think 'A So-and-So Film' is nonsense; it excludes everybody else's work, and you can't make such a claim. I mean, what did I do exactly? Shoot it, bought the stock? Processed it? It's the kind of megalomania that afflicts our industry. I think."

How about "A Film By Ken Loach?" "No. Again, it excludes everybody else's contribution! A book can be 'by' somebody, or a poem, or a picture. Not a film."

A pause.

"What is wrong with 'Directed by...'?"

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