In Defence of Ken Loach

In 2018 I posted defending Ken Loach from the slander of being a ‘holocaust denier’. The campaign against him bore all the signs of supporters of Zionism and the Israeli state. Now unfortunately we have another instance of this.

Jewish Voice for Labour finds it deeply regrettable that the Board of Deputies of British Jews is seeking to disrupt the work of a leading anti-racism football charity by demanding the removal of an internationally respected cultural figure as a judge for its children’s design competition.

Show Racism the Red Card (Strict) is under attack by the Board for choosing campaigning filmmaker Ken Loach to help judge the charity’s 2020 Schools Competition. Thousands of young people in hundreds of schools across the UK take part in the project, designed to stimulate discussion and understanding about issues around racism. Winners are invited to an awards ceremony with special guests, including current and former professional footballers.

SRtRC Chief Executive Ged Grebby announced on Tuesday Feb 4 that Loach and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen were to be this year’s judges. Grebby commended both men as valued supporters of the charity, saying they were “ideally qualified” to help choose the most inspiring and original creative designs produced by young people on anti-racist themes.

However the Board of Deputies has challenged this appointment saying that Loach “is a poor choice to judge a competition on anti-racism”. The grounds for this extraordinary allegation against an anti-racist with Loach’s record have not been made public. We note however that the flurry of online abuse targeting Loach and Show Racism the Red Card since the Board’s intervention, has consisted mainly of unfounded (and potentially libellous) allegations of antisemitism or Holocaust denial. A scurrilous report in the Jewish Chronicle suggested that Michael Rosen too is an unsuitable competition judge, because he has rejected charges of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn. (Article].

In fact a statement by the Board of Deputies does specifically mention ‘holocaust denial’; a hoary old charge that was featured in the pages of The Guardian newspaper. The dubious nature of this attack was revealed when the same newspaper refused to print Loach’s response. Unfortunately that newspaper, along with nearly all the other mainstream press, television and radio, treat fraudulent claims against supporters of the Palestinian Struggle completely uncritically. If you want some critical reporting than I commend The Jewish Voice for Labour Web pages, Al Jazeera, R.T. and Media North.

Ken Loach, apart from his politics, has also frequently treated football in his films. There is the now famous football sequence in Kes (1969). More recently his film Looking for Eric (2009) presented football as sport and as culture rather than a capitalist commodity. Presumable this is what made him such a suitable figure for the Show Racism the Red Card competition.

Attacks on Ken Loach in the media are nothing new. They commenced back in 1966 when he, together with his colleague and mentor Tony Garnett, produced and delivered the now classic Cathy Come Home. It continued over a number of programmes and films scripted by the late Jim Allen and directed by Loach. A particular germane example was the play ‘Perdition’ by Allen and Loach which was forced from the stage of the Royal Court in 1987. And it has continued with the script-writing work of Paul Laverty for Loach’s films. An example of this can be found on the post on The Wind that Shakes the Barley [‘shakes the critics’].

The early television work of Loach, Allen and Garnett dramatised the class struggle in Britain; a Britain that still occupies lands belonging to other peoples. In the 1980s all three found that they could no longer work on British television because of the official and unofficial censorship. The axe fell on Loach’s fine and poetic film supporting the miner’s strike, Which Side Are You On (1985). Something that also befell the black workshop Ceddo’s The People’s Account (1985) and the Derry Film and Video Workshop’s Mother Ireland (1988), both banned from Channel 4 .

The more recent films for cinema by Ken Loach which have not only addressed the struggle in Britain, but the struggles elsewhere in Ireland, in Central America (Carla’s Song, 1996) and in the United States (Bread and Roses, 2000), have been honoured by Europeans but often slated in Britain.

It is a real irony in this case that the campaign around what is falsely called ‘anti-semitism’ relies mainly on rhetoric, misquotations and unsubstantiated allegations. Loach’s films rely on detailed research and an understanding of the actual social relations and conditions in Britain today and over the recent decades. So we have a dominant media where the real world is constantly misrepresented by officials purveyors of news; whilst what are fictional representations of our world are much closer to reality and the underlying social forces.

One of the aphorisms of Mao Zedong was,

To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing.

His rationale was the enemy was forced to take action by the strength of opposition. As other writers have pointed out, the recent campaigns orchestrated by Israel [see Al Al-Jazeera ‘The Lobby’] follow on from the successes of the Boycott and Divestment Movement, in which Ken Loach has played a vigorous role. However, the weakness of some responses to the Zionist campaign have only fuelled it. So it is important that all people with progressive views defend artists and activists like Ken Loach. From early dramas like The Big Flame (1969), through excellent films like Riff-Raff’ (1991) and Jimmy’s Hall (2014), Loach and his collaborators have celebrated people who resist and struggle.

Jessica Forever (France 2018)

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Where’s Jessica?

Logo MYFFF Noir - Anglais Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.

Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.

It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.

Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997)

I’m not sure why this 1997 film features in the 2020 My French Film Festival. It’s directed and part written by Jean-François Richet, a singular figure with an unusual career trajectory. The strange title makes use of the extended verlan (slang) spoken in les banlieues – the high-rise blocks built on the outskirts of Paris which by the late 1990s mainly housed the families of Maghrebis, Caribbeans and West Africans alongside white working-class families. ‘6T’ refers to the cités, the individual groups of high rises separated by open spaces. The overall title then refers to ‘my neighbourhood is cracking up’. The use of ‘crack’ may refer to the drug cultute as well as the sense of conflict. The film must in France have been compared with La haine (1995) which had caused such a stir a couple of years earlier. I’ll try to make some comments on the comparison later on.

Richet made an earlier film Inner City (1995) with a similar setting. It received praise as a first feature and seems to have been part self-financed. Ma 6T va crack-er by contrast had some major backing by French producers and funders such as Canal+ and was theatrically distributed by BAC. Richet later directed American films starting with a re-make of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) before the major France-Canada production of the two Mesrine films in 2008, featuring Vincent Cassel and an all-star cast. I can’t find much about Richet online but his is an intriguing story in outline.

Virginie Ledoyen

Ma 6T va crack-er was co-written with Richet’s younger cousin, Arco Descat C. who had also appeared in Inner City. The film focuses on the youth of a particular cité, both those still at school and the unemployed older youths in their early 20s. It begins with an incident in the local high school followed by various clashes with the police and and other groups of youths. For various reasons, these scenes are both similar to and very different from those in La haine. Firstly where Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine focuses on three young men in their early 20s, Richet offers a much larger group of characters (and it becomes quite difficult to disentangle the relationships between them). Kassovitz decided to present his film in black and white (though it was shot in colour) and to use a highly stylised approach to cinematography and mise en scène. Richet’s film uses a more direct approach often with a hand-held camera and scenes seem much looser, leading some commentators to refer to an almost documentary style. There are also major differences in ideas about representations. Kassovitz creates a male narrative in which female characters are marginal at best. Richet doesn’t necessarily have more female characters but they ‘speak’ more assertively. The film opens with a credit sequence featuring Virginie Ledoyen (then something of a young star in French film and TV) dancing and posing with pistols against a backdrop of TV images of protest in les cités. She again appears later, non-diegetically ‘imposed’ over scenes of gang violence and protest. Later in the film one of the older youths approaches a young woman who he remembers from school. He asks her for a date  and she gives him a lecture about the fact that she is tired after a hard days work whereas he does nothing all day. The message is clear. On the other hand, Richet’s male youths are more misogynistic in the ways in which they describe young women than the three young men in La haine.

Arco Descat C. is in the centre of the foreground in this group of youths

The main ‘message’ of Richet’s film that has been picked out by the limited number of commentators online is its seeming sense of a political consciousness. During their long discussions, some gang members stress the need to work collectively and to align themselves with workers who have the strike as a weapon and therefore to have an impact on the ruling class. More of this kind of rhetoric is used in the raps delivered by musicians at an organised hip-hop event in the later stages of the film before a full-scale riot breaks out. There are suggestions (backed up by the end credits) that the film is presenting some kind of Marxist analysis of the state of unrest in les cités. This is slightly problematic for me because I’m relying on the subtitles which, as in the cinema version of La haine are mainly translated using American terms. For instance, ‘Cité’ in the dialogue is subtitled as ‘city’ rather than estate, neighbourhood etc.

Music, hip-hop/rap, is an important element of the film and Richet has said it informed the structure and the presentation of the film. ‘White & Spirit’ are credited with the film’s score which includes tracks from other performers some of whom I thought I recognised from La haine. Overall, I’m not sure what I make of this film. I’d like to know more about the production. It seems like Richet was able to mobilise a large number of local residents to play the youths. He also appears in the film himself. Valérie Le Gurun, the film’s DoP also worked on Inner City but in her later career she appears to have worked in TV or part of a camera team. Was she from the same background as Richet? Some of the roles, especially the school teachers, are played by experienced actors, but sometimes the film feels like a community-based production with full industry support. The budget was around £700,000. There is a sense of realism about many of the scenes, oddly heightened by the effect of a grainier image – shot on film, the footage is available online in SD (standard definition) rather than HD. But other aspects of the film seem more fantastical. At one point one of the youths fires a pistol at members of an opposing gang, but they are not ‘live’ bullets. Later on there is a pitched gun battle between two gangs but only one person is hit by what appear to be live bullets and he is carefully shot in the leg. Were the other shots simply a form of bravado? I’m no expert but cars are quickly destroyed and set on fire with their windows smashed by a few kicks.

The police in the film are equally as violent as the youths but because the film is almost plotless apart from the feud between the gangs there is no conventional narrative, no cause and effect for any actions. It may well be that the loosely shot scenes are closer to the reality of conflicts between police and youths in the cités than in more conventional narratives. Apart from La haine and episodes of the TV crime serial Engrenages, we don’t see many of the banlieue films, especially those by directors who are themselves from the banlieues, so it is difficult to judge. I did find the film interesting but I’d like to read more about the film if anyone has references for English language coverage. These kinds of conflict between youths and police flared up again in France in 2005 and the potential for such confrontation appears to still be present.

Here is a trailer. The film is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

The Lighthouse (Canada-US 2019)

Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe when they first arrive on the island

The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.

The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.

The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.

The narrow frame emphasises the confines of the lighthouse and its staff quarters

All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available  at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Defoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?

The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”

Dafoe lit as the gnarled Wake

If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.

Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.