In this article, I am going to talk about Ken Loach’s cinema in terms of its common themes and techniques. Then I will briefly explain how he adopts that kind of understanding of filmmaking through explaining his influences and how he reflected them in his cinema. I will give some specific examples from the themes he choose and try to show why he chose these themes considering his personal life and world view. I will also focus on some of his constant usage of elements in terms of mise-en-scene and cinematography.
First of all, I want to give a brief summary of his life and early career since these are the main elements on which his understanding of cinema and filmmaking depends. He was born in England in 1936. He made two years national service in the Royal Air Force. This is actually very important for his later career since at very early age, he got accustomed to the ideology of the military. Then, he read law at St. Peter’s Hall, Oxford. At there, he worked as an actor in repertory theatre. So, we can say that his first career started as an actor and then turned into being a director.
Loach is popular known by being a cinema director but actually his early career started working on TV. Moreover, his TV career shapes his understanding of cinema. In his TV career, we can see two kinds of programs: TV series and Teleplays. The most important works are Diary of a Young Man (1964, TV series) and Cathy Come Home (1966, Teleplay). What is important in his teleplays is that they are not studio made reality shows or soap operas. They are like mini-documentaries for TV. He uses statistics and interviews often. So, the studio does not limit him. We can say that these programs are in cinema-verite style documentary fictions. The mise-en-scene elements (setting, light, and acting) are very much in the same way with cinema-verite filmmaking. This kind of program making will be a base for his filmmaking later.
Another important work of Loach on TV is a 4-part TV series, Days of Hope made in 1975. The subject of it is the British Labor movement between 1916 and 1926. Apparently, Loach’s interest on social problems and their political origins started from his early TV career. This program is criticized harshly by critiques of that time as being apparently partisan. Actually, these kinds of criticisms are inevitably if someone is interested on reflecting social problems on main-stream media channels. Most of the works Loach did on TV are considered as documentary-dramas. This can actually be considered as a subgenre of documentary filmmaking. Docudramas take real historical events as their subject matter but differently from documentaries these are re-enactments of these events. So, in a sense, they are fictionalization of the real historical events. This, I think, clearly explains why this genre is criticized so harshly. It brings back the problems and events which are most of the time about the people who are treated badly, who are suppressed and frustrated. Bringing them back at least remembering them can make people angry or vengeful or most of the time demanding back what they lost which is not good for the people in charge of course.
Understanding Loach’s political side and how it is shaped will also be helpful to understand his both TV program and film making. Loach apparently has socialist beliefs. We can see this on almost every piece of work he made. In 1980’s Conservative Party was elected in England. The ideology of Conservative Party was the very antithesis of what Loach believed at that time. In addition to this difference of opinion, there were huge social problems like unemployment, minor’s union strike and cuts in arts subsidies. Most of the community theater groups, avant-garde film directors, some poets and musicians become enemy to the party in charge. All of these developments affected Loach’s beliefs deeply and his opposition to the party and the system strengthened. As a way to protest these developments, Loach prepares a series of documentaries for TV named as A Question of Leadership. Obviously, these documentaries were all criticize the party in charge and its applications. Because of this reason, all of them are rejected and could not be exhibited to the people through main stream media.
As I said before, Loach’s career divided into two not chronologically but through the medium he use. The second part of his career, which will be my main focus, is cinema. It will be a good idea to examine his understanding of cinema in two parts: his main themes and his filmic style. Let me start with the themes he uses most in his films since it will be helpful to understand his filmic style.
There is an obvious thematic consistency in Loach’s cinema. In general terms this consistency may be stated in two concepts: broad political situations and smaller intimate dramas. Most of the films Loach made include both of these concepts like The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006, Loach). Integrating these two concepts in one film apparently makes Loach’s cinema different from other political cinema examples. Most of the political films are criticized about their lack of showing the effects of the big political issues on the ordinary people. Loach successfully gets out of these criticisms.
Both these concepts need to be examined more deeply to understand Loach’s cinema. What do we mean by broad political situations and why he chooses these situations as subject matter of his films? As I mentioned above, Loach deeply affected from the real political situation he lived in Britain at that time. The Conservative Party was in charge and there are a lot of social problems like unemployment, oppression of minors, cuts in art subsidies. These all reflected to the cinema by Loach. The main issue he focused on most of his political films is the struggle of working class community, homelessness, oppression of the minority, labor rights and intolerance towards the people who live in extremes. That is why his cinema is considered as social-conscience cinema. He was aware of the social problems and felt responsibility towards them. According to Loach, all of his 6 successful films deal with a ‘social evil’. ‘Social evil’ can sometimes be taken as the party in charge, an invader country or army, a boss at work or sometimes just the majority of the public itself. In his film Bread and Roses (2000, Loach) he focused on the struggle of immigrant cleaning workers for social security and fair wages. The company which obviously exploited the labor of those workers is the ‘social evil’ in that film. On the other hand, in The Wind that Shakes the Barley; ‘social evil’ is both the British invaders and the capitalist system itself. Differently from these movies, Kes (1969) and My Name is Joe (1998) deal with the life of ordinary people without focusing on a specific political issue. Still, both films consider the ‘social evil’ as the society by choosing the main characters from the minority of the society or from the part which is seen as abnormal to majority.
Especially in 2000’s, Loach mostly focused on political dramas. The distinguishing thing about these films is that besides their focus on historical or political facts, they include love, family and friendship issues too. This is very visible in both Bread and Roses and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In both films, we are presented how the political facts affect the family, friend and love relationships deeply. These are not two separate events occurred in life but rather they are very integrated that the life going on during these political issues is shaped deeply by them.
His filmic style is deeply shaped by his main themes. On the other hand, we can say that his TV career also leads to the style he adopts on cinema. In TV, as I mentioned above, Loach is mostly interested in cinema-verite style documentary fictions. They are like reenactments of the real events not in studio settings but in real places. Cinema-verite is a French movement shaped in 1960’s and basically focused on the ordinary people and their natural, real life including their problems, lifestyle… So, it is obvious that both thematically and cinematographically Loach influenced from this movement since he mostly uses natural acting, natural light and real places in his films and TV programs. In cinema, Loach is considered as naturalist and realist because of the very same reasons. Interestingly, Loach uses strict scripts in his films. This is weird because all the cinema-verite and Italian neo-realist filmmakers use mostly improvisations to keep the natural mood of characters (to catch their mimics and reactions naturally). That is why Loach has close relationships with scriptwriters like Paul Laverty who is the scriptwriter of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I think this provides him to control the flow of the script. He has full control over the acting. He makes his actors try their roles again and again to catch the mood of the role they are playing and to get the most appropriate acting. Most of the time he either chooses real-life people to plays the roles or actors who have same kind of experiences with the role they are playing. For example, in Bread and Roses real Latino immigrants play the roles and in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, most of the actors came from an Irish root.
He is deeply influenced by the Italian director Vittorio De Sica who proposes that cinema could be about ordinary people. This is exactly what Loach does in his films. He shows the big political or historical events through the eyes of ordinary people. That is why his films are so effective- moreover, they can be considered as emotional. His social-realist directing style is very reminiscent of the style used by Italian Neo-realist filmmakers. Opposed to high-key, big budgeted Hollywood films, he chooses to make low-key independent films. This is very important in his understanding of cinema since sponsorships and producers, most of the time, become the leading actors of the films they are supporting. They do not only provide financial help to the films but they also provide thematic instructions to them.
The film The Wind That Shakes the Barley is made in 2006 and won Palma D’Or in Cannes Film Festival at the same year. The film is about the Irish War of Independence against the British invaders and the civil war following it. On the other hand, the film also includes the questions concerning ordinary life like friendship, brotherhood, family, love and lifestyle. We see these concepts through a war point of view which means how these relationships are affected by the war. In this sense, it is a typical Loach cinema example in terms of its theme that it is a war-drama. Then, what is so distinct about this film that it won the prize. I think what makes this film different from others is that it questions the very nature of rebellion itself. Its main concern is not just how a revolution can be done but it also stresses that what may happen after the revolution. The film also touches on some important distinction like what is the difference between a social revolution and nationalistic revolution or what is the difference between being anti imperialist and anti capitalist.
To sum up, Loach’s both TV career and cinema career shaped by a social-realist understanding. The main themes are also common in his both careers. Especially in cinema, Loach deep down focused on one issue: uprising against oppression. This is in one way or another apparent in his most of the films. In the Bread and Roses, we see it as the labor movement against company owners; in The Wind that Shakes the Barley we see it as the struggle for collective autonomy against the British forces and in Land and Freedom (1995) we see it as the fight for freedom. All films try to find a collective solution. Loach seems to not interest in individual reactions against these issues.