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Film and Freedom

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Ken Loach has made many memorable films, most recently My Name is Joe. An earlier Loach film, Land and Freedom, dealt with the Spanish Civil war of the late 1930s. As in all his films Loach's loyalty to the working class and its struggles is evident. The interview, by Alejandra Rîos, was for Estrategia Internacional No. 10, the journal of the Argentinian group, the PTS. This version has been abridged for reasons of space. Thanks are due to all concerned in the interview and its translation.

What motivated you to make the film Land and Freedom?

Well, I guess Jim Allen, the writer, and I had the idea to make the film for a long time, because the question of the Spanish War, as you know, is a big subject for people on the left and in some ways it is one of the most critical events of the century - the first war against fascism and a great international effort by working people, and the possibility of a revolution in Spain.

To tell that story is very important, because it was a moment when everybody's position was revealed. The western powers were very happy to see fascism win because of their investments in Spain, so all their kind of anti-fascist rhetoric in the second world war is seen actually as very hollow because they gave tacit support to Franco.

And you can see that there was a very clear revolutionary movement to expropriate the owners of the land and of the factories - it was very clear that the working class was a revolutionary class. The position of the church was very clear, they stood four-square with the owners, with the bourgeoisie. And also the position of the Soviet Communist Party was very clear in that they were looking to do a deal with the western countries and they were not going to risk that by supporting a workers' revolution.

So, for a few months it was very clear, there was no hiding place, it was like a shaft of light shining on all the political parties and powers. We just wanted to find a way of telling that story, through people, real people.

We have heard that you sometimes use non-professional actors in your films. Could you explain why you do this?

It is a question of who is going to make the movie live, really. So, it is not a fixed thing, I will work with non-professionals or not. You try and put a group of people together who really have the experience and the ability to make the event live. So some of the people in, for instance, the militia [in Land and Freedom], some of them are actors, some are not: there is a carpenter, there is an electrician, there is a guy who repairs motorbikes, all mixed in with the actors.

What they had to have in common was that they were political, so they had to understand the politics. We tried to find the sort of people who, if it were to happen again, would go and fight. So it is a mixture really, some are actors and some are not.

And the villagers, in the long discussion about the land, mainly they are people who live nearby - some were active in the CNT union in a nearby town, so they were quite political. There are a couple of actors in among them, because the actors are sometimes useful to get it started, they facilitate it.

I mean, the guy who objects is an actor because I had to work with him on what his line of argument would be. He was terrific, actually, in working in with the non-actors because most of them were just saying what they believed, what they passionately believed. And he had to be very clever to make certain that he provoked them, but in a way that was also believable.

The guy who played the leader of the village, he is an actor, a very political guy. The old man is an anarchist who fought in the war, and he had had to live in France, but he was a friend of the people from the CNT so they brought him along. He was very good. He didn't quite understand that it was a film, actually.

At the beginning, when we started the film, Jordi Dauder, who played the main man from the village, started to speak and the old guy said "Wait a minute, wait a minute, who elected you?", and Jordi answered "I am sorry, I am an actor. We are doing the film". And the old man replied "Yes, but we don't do things like that. We have to elect you first". So we had to stop the filming while we elected him to do this part that we had cast him in! So, it was very good like that. The gap between fact and fiction was very narrow sometimes.

In Britain, a Labour government is now in office. You were one of the most important critics of the Thatcher period and its social consequences for the working class, which you portrayed in films like Riff-Raff and Raining Stones. What is your opinion of the Blair government, which is keeping the anti-union laws from that period?

They are a party and a government which are acting for capital in a very naked way and they were put into power by the big capitalists. It's very graphic that Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, keep going to speak to Rupert Murdoch, so it's very clear who the paymasters are.

Blair was put in power by the City and big business to do their work. They have clearly acted in a very anti-working class way. All the schemes apparently to make unemployment better, to soften the impact, like Welfare to Work, plainly cannot be successful because at the same time as those schemes are in place, they allow the Bank of England to set the interest rates, the effect of which is to steer economic policy.

The Deputy Governor of the Bank of England said something very revealing, he said that unemployment was below its natural level. So whatever government schemes you have, they won't be allowed to work because the Bank of England will make certain that industry is sufficiently depressed to create unemployment so that workers will have to work for low wages, because if they don't want to work for low wages there are ten people who will.

So there is a very naked hypocrisy about it all. A whole day on the radio and television was given over to talking about social exclusion. But nobody mentioned unemployment, and if you don't have a job you are excluded. That's the defining thing. It isn't a case of slightly better housing or slightly better welfare provisions. You are excluded, you are alienated, if you have no work. This clearly has to continue until the Bank of England achieves what it calls the natural rate of unemployment.

It's as though it's part of the natural world - you know, nature and the seasons - it's as though there's something entirely natural about it, which is a big fallacy. That's part of the consciousness that they have established, that capitalism is the natural way to live. It's as though we forget that it's only a couple of centuries old. In no way is it natural. It's certainly not natural for some people to be very, very wealthy and other people to be desperately poor. It's very interesting how they use language to justify their interests.

We are publishing a series of articles about the meetings between Breton and Trotsky and their manifesto "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art". Would you like to express your view on this issue?

A line which has always stayed with me [from Trotsky's writings on art an literature], which I think is very important, is that the party should have no line about art, that it's not in the business of developing a cultural taste or anything like that. It must be absolutely separate, independent. Stalinism used art only for propaganda and in a very mechanical way. This dreadful phrase "socialist realism" - if anything was ever dead, it is that.

What role do you think artists should play in our society?

I think the word "art" is very dangerous, really. I think you just have to communicate what you want to communicate in the way that seems best to you. Perhaps we should say "communicator" rather than "artist" because it's less pretentious. Anybody who has the possibility of communicating, I think you just have a responsibility as a human being to try to make sense of the world you are in, and to express that and to share it. I find it quite difficult to be entirely inward-looking.

On the other hand, you have to do what you have to do, and if people have an idea they have to pursue it so I think it's very difficult to generalise. The danger is that if you generalise too much, you end up doing the opposite of what Trotsky says in the pamphlet. I think particularly in the more public communications, if you work in television, or you make films for the cinema, or you write books that are quite popular, you can't abdicate your social situation entirely. Particularly for films and theatre, that is a very public art, it's not like you are writing poetry that you keep and very few people see it. If it's a public communication and it's widely seen I think you do have a responsibility to try to understand the way the world is and share it.

The trouble is the cinema is basically a commodity. It's not a communication, it's a commodity. It's an investment in which people look to recoup their investment and make profits. Most people who go into it, most directors see it as: they are given a script, they will do it to the best of their ability, they will make good wages, and that's it.

And a lot of people are in love with the idea of cinema rather than the idea of what cinema can be, and I think that's very reactionary really - to worship the form above everything. I think that happens a lot. It happens a lot particularly with people who come from film schools who talk about nothing but "genres", which is a word I hate, and have no conception of content but they have a great knowledge and understanding of genres, so they can do you a pastiche of a western or a pastiche of a horror film or a pastiche of a thriller or a pastiche of something else. But what the content is, what is actually the heart of the story, is something that they don't have a view about, something they are not interested in.

I think that has been an unfortunate consequence of the development of film schools over the last 20 years - that the style is everything, the surface is everything, but that the actual heart, the content, tends to be forgotten. Because they have to teach something in the film schools, and if you're going to spend all your time looking at films you're going to be obsessed with films. Whereas making films is very simple. You just arrange for things to happen in front of a camera, film it, and then join the bits together. I mean, that's it, you can describe it in a day, it's not difficult. But if you're doing a course that lasts three years, then you have to fill it or you are out of a job, so you spend a lot of time talking about things that are not necessary, and do a lot of damage, I think!