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The Politics of Everyday Life: An Interview
with Ken Loach
Although Ken Loach is loath to pigeonhole himself as a 'social realist,' his work - from the celebrated BBC films of the Sixties to the present - has been consistently imbued with a tangible respect for the contours of daily life. Cathy Come Home (1966), one of the most controversial films ever produced by the BBC, was an especially noteworthy career milestone. This skillful meld of documentary and fictional techniques, an impassioned expose of the problem of urban homelessness in Britain, culminated in a parliamentary inquiry.
With its echt-Sixties blend of kitchen-sink realism and New Wavish stylization, Loach's feature film debut, Poor Cow (1967), was something of an esthetic detour. His subsequent films can be divided, however roughly, into two broad categories - intimate family dramas which illuminate the politics of everyday life and more militant films determined to skewer both the forces of reaction and the reformist wing of the labor movement. The first category is best personified by the now classic Kes (1969), a moving account of how a young boy's alienation from the rigors of school and the demands of a dysfunctional family is temporarily assuaged by his devotion to a pet kestrel. The Big Flame (1969), a stirring chronicle of a group of dockers whose experiment in workers' self-management is eventually sabotaged by the union bosses, typifies the more didactic strand in Loach's work, which is often labelled Trotskyist, but is equally amenable to positions espoused by anti-Leninist Marxists and anarcho- syndicalists. Historically-based films such as The Big Flame, Days of Hope (1975), and Hidden Agenda (1990) were condemned as subversive by conservatives and chided for supposed 'ultraleftism' by orthodox radicals, but they remain some of the few cinematic examples of bona fide anti- Stalinist leftism to reach mainstream audiences.
Ironically enough, the Thatcher-Major era, usually considered the most dismal epoch of the twentieth century by British radicals, engendered Loach's most productive and artistically satisfying period. RiffRaff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993) integrated humor and pathos with great finesse; the complexity of Loach's flawed working-class heroes allowed the films to avoid the pitfalls of sterile agitprop. Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) revisited the domestic realism of Kes and Family Life (1971), but the political and moral ambiguities pinpointed in this tale of a mother's desperate attempt to retain custody of her children resulted in the most emotionally devastating Loach film to date
Loach's more recent output has proved more uneven, even though Land and Freedom (1995), Carla's Song (1996), and My Name Is Joe (1998) are all peppered with vibrant, privileged moments. Land and Freedom is probably the closest approximation of the revolutionary fervor of the Spanish Revolution of the Thirties that will ever be committed to film. Before Carla's Song becomes bogged down by an unwieldy romance set against the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution, it is enlivened by a spirited romp through the streets of Glasgow in which Robert Carlyle shines in the role of an antiauthoritarian bus conductor. My Name Is Joe's focus on drugs and crime frequently recalls genre films which have mined similar material with more panache, but the plucky hero's humor and perseverance nearly makes us forget the convoluted, overly schematic plot.
Cineaste spoke to Loach in Spring 1998 during his publicity tour for Carla's Song. My Name Is Joe had its American premiere at the 1998 New York Film Festival and will be commercially released by Artisan Entertainment in February 1999.
- Richard Porton
Cineaste: When working on My Name Is Joe, did you attempt to avoid the cliches usually associated with films on drugs and alcoholism? The subject of addiction seems primarily a departure point for other themes you want to explore.
Ken Loach: Yes. You can't do a film about British cities now without dealing with drugs; it's a major feature of people's lives. But it's not basically a film about drugs at all. One of the peripheral characters has a drug problem, which becomes a mechanism in the plot. We were very anxious not to fall into the standard cliches. We just went back to primary sources, really. There were no film references for us, we just did basic research on how people support their habits, its effects on families, and so forth.
Cineaste: It's well-known that drugs are a big problem in the big Scottish cities - Glasgow and Edinburgh. What kind of research did you conduct?
Loach: We talked to people who were running drug rehabilitation projects. Some of the guys on the football team in the film are on a methadone program. The girl who played Sabine, a character who's an addict in the film, spent time with an ex-addict, a guy who showed her everything about the experience. Although this actress isn't an addict herself, she lives in a neighborhood where people are. We shot a scene with her, which we didn't use, that involved Sabine being on the street with a girl who was an addict and a prostitute. We stayed as close to the bone as we could.
Everybody in the film is from Glasgow. People don't always recognize this when a film goes to another country, but everyone is from a few streets or certainly a few districts away. We by and large discounted people from other Scottish cities. It may not be apparent to people from the States, but it's certainly apparent to people in Scotland and it's apparent to the other actors. People tend to have a shorthand when they're with people they know. That's part of the process of establishing absolute authenticity.
Cineaste: How did you go about casting the nonprofessionals in the film?
Loach: It was very easy. We went to various drug projects and unemployed football teams. There was one project where we got four or five lads. I just auditioned them as if they were actors. There were three or four basic support organizations for ex-addicts or centers for the unemployed that I visited, as well as an art center on one of the housing schemes. I must have seen three or four hundred people.
What strikes you is just the amount of energy, talent, and imagination which is around and is completely unused. Almost all these people have no work whatsoever. The unemployment rate is very high, particularly among young people. They have no prospects of any work. Then when you get to talk to them, you find they're full of ideas, full of spirit. The tragedy of the situation strikes you in a very concrete way, just in the process of trying to cast a film.
Cineaste: This is what you've referred to as the "downward spiral" endemic to many cities. Drugs offer one of the few economic options.
Loach: Oh, yeah. If you want to make money, there's only one realistic way of doing it and that's through entering the local industry which happens to be drugs. It keeps people quiet; nobody's going to get very political or organized if they're stoned out of their head most of the time.
Cineaste: Was the football team that Joe coaches based on an actual Loach: No, there are lots and lots of those. There's actually a football league for the unemployed. We just imagined the team, and the teams they play are made up of unemployed young men.
Cineaste: Since you usually like to receive input from the actors you cast, what was Peter Mullan's contribution in shaping his role as Joe?
Loach: Obviously, Paul [Laverty] wrote the script and it was finished when Peter was cast. But in the way that we approached it, there was plenty of space for Peter to bring his whole personality to the role of Joe. It's not a conscious process of asking him what he can contribute, it's just a matter of allowing him to reveal who he is in some respects and then molding Joe around him. It was a question of drawing Peter into the process and finding parts of him that responded to Joe. He absolutely has has Glasgow in his bones, he's a lad from a local working-class family. Everybody from that area knows all about alcoholism, everybody has tales of people who have been through it.
Cineaste: Since drinking is such a large part of the fabric of daily life in Britain, alcoholism becomes an especially difficult problem to overcome.
Loach: Yes, absolutely. Scotland is a very hard-drinking country and Glasgow is a very hard-drinking city. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous are very effective, though. AA was the model for the opening scene in the film. Peter, Paul, and I went along to their meetings. But, of course, they are Alcoholics Anonymous, so they couldn't supply alcoholics for the film [laughs]. But you don't have too much of a problem finding people who have had problems with drink in Glasgow
Cineaste: While the initial emphasis is on Joe's recovery from alcoholism, the scene in which he attacks the car of the bureaucrat from the unemployment office who discovers his unauthorized job is pivotal. Before this, we have the feeling that he's an extremely mild-mannered man.
Loach: Yeah, everyone in that situation has to find people to be angry at. This was a policy encouraged by the last government. They ran advertisements with telephone numbers suggesting that people spy on their neighbors. The idea of spying on the poorest people of all is just horrible. And to think that it's encouraged by the State! These are people with nothing, they don't have a pot to piss in. When someone is actually spying on you, it just makes you furious. Fortunately, he has a paint pot with him, so he can go wreak some havoc on this car.
Cineaste: Since the film was designed as a love story, scenes like this inject some political reality into the plot.
Loach: To call it a love story would be a cliche, it's about relationships really - how people feel about each other to begin with, how they're brought together, how it develops, and how all the social and economic pressures affect them. It also deals ultimately with what drives them apart and the logic of the choice that each of them has to make, as well as one's predisposition to choose a certain course of action. The code of conduct each lives by partly brings them together and partly drives them apart.
Cineaste: Yet we found the decision of Joe's health-worker girlfriend, Sarah, to leave him, rather abrupt. Up to this point, she gave the impression of being quite patient and compassionate.
Loach: She's got a lot to lose, Joe's got nothing to lose. She's a single woman in her mid- to late-thirties. She's been in the shadow of her father all her life, she has a steady job and nice home. Then, suddenly, she discovers that she's pregnant. Is she going to keep the child and stay with the father in his world? Does she want to bring a kid up in a situation where drugs are not merely a job, but something he's drawn into? I can certainly sympathize with her, what with friends saying, 'Look what you're getting into.' People are very vulnerable when they're in that state of turmoil. It's just like a quagmire, when you feel your feet start to sink, you think that you'll never get out. She's a cautious, sensible woman.
We shot a lot more scenes detailing her back story, but didn't put them in the film, because we felt that it made it a bit trite. There's a hint of it when they're looking at family photographs and she remarks that her mother died when she was young and we learn that her father was obviously a strong character. We shot a scene where she was talking about how she looked after him at home for a long time and finally had to put him in a home, which made her feel a bit guilty.
Cineaste: The flashback illustrating Joe's confession to Sarah of one incidence of domestic violence - striking his ex-wife in a moment of rage when drunk - is also a crucial moment in their relationship.
Loach: Absolutely. In the end, when he's made himself so vulnerable by telling her all this, she gets him between the ribs by saying, "Joe, are you going to hit me, too?"
Cineaste: Do you think the downbeat ending works because it reflects the characters' social reality?
Loach: It reflects their emotional reality. Joe's feeling very guilty, because he's actually caused Liam's death by getting drunk. It's hard for them to get a sense of what the other person is feeling. To have a pat ending would be very crude, it would undermine all the complexity that we've tried to put into it. There's a possibility that the couple would be together, that they'll make a go of it. But there's also a possibility that they can't. Whatever they do, their objective circumstances don't change. He's still in that shitty place, and he's off the drink now. But he may go back under some other pressure; all the tensions are still there, no matter what they do in that time and place.
Cineaste: It's interesting that although you often feature complex characters whose lives are colored by pessimism, your political creed is much more optimistic.
Loach: Political optimism comes from the long term, the hope that class forces will change and that there will be a dynamic situation. In personal terms, the characters are in the here and now, which is very shitty and very dark. There's a great capacity to cope, as well as humor, which exists between people, but the objective circumstances are pretty shitty.
Cineaste: How do you feel when you're called a 'realist' director? Do you feel comfortable with that term?
Loach: I don't know. I don't think about it, and it doesn't enter into my process of working. You just start with trying to find a good story and how you're going to tell it. I suppose I'm not an 'unrealist.'
Cineaste: But were you impressed by the Italian neorealist films when you saw them?
Loach: Oh, yes. They were very important for me. Not so much at the time, but thinking back, I realize that they made an impression on me.
There were also other important influences. When I was at the BBC and we started to do 16mm hand-held stuff in the streets, what we had in mind were documentaries. There's also a very famous theater director in Britain, not so well-known now I guess, called Joan Littlewood. She had a whole tradition of working-class theater and her work was a big influence. Not directly, because it's not cinema, but the idea that drama didn't have to be about middle-class people suffering among each other. She had the idea that drama could stem from the lives of ordinary working people. There's also a long literary tradition, including Dickens and Zola - you could even go back to Shakespeare for some of this inspiration.
Cineaste: What emphasis do you put on improvisation? You're known for no? giving actors the entire script.
Loach: I do think it's important that people play things for the moment. You should play a scene so you don't anticipate what's going to happen. I quite like the actors just getting though the experience of the film. So you perhaps give them the script in sections, just what they need to know at that particular time.
Cineaste: In several of your Nineties films, such as Raining Stones and RiffRaff, you have moved into comedy. What prompted this shift?
Loach: I've always done bits of comedy, it's very false to remove it. You can't be in this hotel and not have a sense of comedy, you'd put your head in the gas oven otherwise. Comedy is everywhere. I feel it's always been there, although sometimes you work with writers who have a stronger sense of comedy than others. The guy who wrote Riff-aff, Bill Jesse, was a very funny man. As is Barry Hines, who wrote a film we did ages ago, Kes.
Cineaste: Nonetheless, Kes seems quite sober in comparison with Riff- Raff. There seem to be links between the early films - in Kes, the boy's fate is completely determined by the school and family, while a film like Family Life unquestionably presents the family as an entirely malevolent force.
Loach: Different families, of course. In Kes, there was also an older brother with his own problems, whereas in Family Life there's this whole oppressive set of relationships. The parents have such a clear idea of what the daughter's going to be, so, in the final analysis, she doesn't have a chance [laughs].
Cineaste: Why are families so important in your films?
Loach: Because it's where most drama happens in our lives, isn't it? That's where we learn everything. All of the tension, drama, and comedy that is contained in those relationships is incredible. A lot of classic dramas center on families. It's the raw material for drama quite often, isn't it? Even though families are the springboard for everything we do, we could be glib and say that families are political entities with a small p. Of course, they're not exact mirrors of the world outside, but they launch you into the world and form you, so you can't imagine a character without a family. Before we start filming, we work out a little family plan for everybody, because then you know what's projected you into a particular situation.
In Raining Stones, for example, to make the family function we did little improvisations. The family went to church together or they went on an outing to a McDonald's together. They just got to relate to each other and it was better than an actor going cold into the first day of filming, thinking, "Christ, you're supposed to my wife. How do I talk to you?" That sort of thing should be in place before you start on the first day.
Cineaste: Were you personally impressed with R.D. Laing's work, whose influence is evident in Family Life, or is that attributable to the writer, David Mercer?
Loach: It was from David and also from the producer, Tony Garnett, who was very up on all that. I had read it, of course, and it just seemed to make sense in terms of what you know of your own family and other people's families and what you experience with your parents. Not to say that they were necessarily like the families in Laing's case studies. But there's always an element you can relate to, where you can say that one thing writ large would have produced another thing.
Cineaste: It's interesting that, despite your left-wing leanings, the Church actually comes off fairly well in Raining Stones, despite the fact that the protagonist goes into debt buying a communion dress
Loach: Yes, but it's related more to the Church as a social organization than religion per so. On the one hand, it's an expression of the main character's backwardness that he thinks that the most important thing for the family to spend their money on is this bloody communion dress, which it plainly isn't. It's backward in the sense that he wants to spend money on it, but it's very much about his dignity and that he wants to be seen to be able to do this for his child. The priest responds in the end just as a good friend, urging him to do what's in his own best interest and his child's. But two films later - in Land and Freedom - we shot a priest, so I guess that evened the score out [laughs].
Cineaste: Like Raining Stones, many of your films take place in the north of England - a region that can be considered somewhat marginalized, the periphery as opposed to the center.
Loach: Yeah. I'm from the Midlands, which is closer to the North than it is to the metropolis. We always used to go to seaside places in the North and we were familiar with Northern comedy. There's a humor there, but there's also a humor in working-class London. I think it's a class thing, not a regional thing. But it's particularly strong in the North and there's a whole tradition of stand-up comedy there which I enjoy.
Cineaste: In this regard, you don't iron out regional accents, which tend to be obliterated in mainstream British and American films. RiffRaff was even subtitled in this country.
Loach: Yeah. If you ask people to speak differently, you lose more than the voice. Everything about them changes. If I asked you not to speak with an American accent, your whole personality would change. That's how you are. My hunch is that it's better to use subtitles than not, even if that limits the films to an art-house circuit.
Cineaste: It's possible to notice a very consistent set of concerns in
your work. Just as alcoholism is not really the subject of My Name Is
Joe, domestic violence is not really the subject of Ladybird, Ladybird.
It's merely part of the female protagonist's background.
Cineaste: The film is interesting in that you're both ambivalent about the protagonist and ambivalent concerning the social services bureaucracy.
Loach: Yes, but it's a very difficult situation. It was a great film to work on, because the actress, Crissy Rock, would just take your breath away during the filming.
Cineaste: What do you take into consideration when casting nonprofessionals such as David Bradley, the young boy in Kes, or Crissy Rock, who had worked as a stand-up comedian but not as an actress?
Loach: First, you don't want to treat them any differently than professionals. In casting, it's best to try little things out, do little improvisations, see who you think is going to touch an audience. A kind of natural eloquence is quite important. Some people will speak and the words don't take off, they've become very pedestrian. Again, it's a class thing. Working-class men and women will often speak with a remarkable eloquence and rhythm and Crissy absolutely has that. She can just turn a phrase brilliantly, and in a way that she's totally unaware of.
Cineaste: You don't necessarily portray the working class as heroic, but, above all, you seem interested in exploring the complexity of their dilemmas.
Loach: There's a kind of fun about working-class characters and their stories work on a very primal level. I also work with memories of still photographs and documentaries, which convinced me that working-class experience was where drama, the raw material of drama, was.
But there's also a political reason - if change is to come, that's the progressive element. That's where the engine for change will be. It won't be brought to us as a gift from above, but by the work of people from below. But, in a sense, that's just a rationalization for the kind of subjects that I find enjoyable.
Cineaste: Do you find any direct relationship, then, between making films and the capacity for political change? You seemed discouraged, for example, by the response to Cathy Come Home, since it promoted piecemeal reform rather than radical transformation.
Loach: That was a rather one-off mechanical relationship. That film portrayed an injustice but, of course, homelessness is worse now then when that film was made. With Cathy Come Home, we were adopted by people we really didn't feel we had much in common with. I think that was influential in pushing our little group to the left. We were social democrats when we made that film and would-be Marxists when we finished it. We realized the inability of social democrats to do anything constructive.
Just to judge in more general terms, if the cinema is any kind of force for social change, then it's a force for the bad, because most films are about one guy with a gun solving a problem. The ideology of the cinema, of mainstream films, is a very right-wing ideology. One hopes to God that the cinema can have no effect whatsoever, because, if it does, we're all screwed! [laughs]. Of course, maybe my films can have a small sort of impact with one or two people, now and then.
Cineaste: The rapport with your screenwriters seems crucial, whether with Jim Allen on The Big Flame or Hines on Kes?
Loach: It's really central.
Cineaste: The ending of Riff-Raff is very striking, since it seems to sum up your feelings about the Thatcher years. In a way, it's a utopian ending, since it's difficult to believe that this group of guys would actually have rebelled against the boss in quite so blatant a fashion.
Loach: There were some cases of sabotage about that time, which is why we chose to include it in the script. I don't quite know what the motivations were, though. This sort of thing had happened, so we felt we could use it, without it seeming too fantastic. It was just a cry of rage really, nothing else. It expressed the overall rage of being ripped off, spurred on by the one guy being killed because of the building site being so badly managed. These guys weren't political in any way, so what else could they do but burn the place down?
Cineaste: After recently seeing your documentary on the Liverpool dock workers' strike, The Flickering Flame, it seemed that the film has an obvious relationship to your earlier TV fiction film about the dock workers' militancy during the Sixties, The Big Flame. Were you, to a certain extent, picking up where you had left off in the earlier film?
Loach: Yes. The original film was written by Jim Allen at a time when the dock workers were immensely powerful - hence the title. The documentary was about how the last real dock workers were sacked and how their tasks were now being taken by agency workers, without skills, without the tradition and long history of the dockers. The recent film is addressed to what we are reduced to. It was a small film shot in 16mm. It may not be a good film, but the people are so amazing and heroic.
Cineaste: The film is not only an indictment of Thatcherism, but also of Blair. There's a Blairite assumption that the British working class has almost ceased to exist or is at least not a viable force anymore.
Loach: Yes. Of course, that views is totally false. What's happened now is that there is a working class, but it's much more disorganized and exploited than it has been in years. For example, striking dock workers would traditionally get security of employment. Unless you did something bad, you'd get holiday pay and sick pay, insurance, and proper pensions without being sacked. Now people are doing the same work, but they're working for agencies. So it means that they sit at home and the agency rings up and says, "OK, you've got twelve hours work today, be at such and such a place. But tomorrow there's no work." They don't get paid for the second day, so some weeks they make absolutely no money. the rate of exploitation has just gone through the roof and the Blair government absolutely needs that rate of exploitation to continue. That's how he achieved power, he was big business's candidate. That's why he's there - to perpetuate this kind of situation. The dispute was very significant very graphic. You couldn't have been in an industry which showed the problem more starkly than this. Cineaste: Were you intent on trying to avoid some of the censorship problems you encountered making the previous television films about the miners?
Loach: Yes. We might not have had quite the same problem anyway, because they feel that this is not a hot issue anymore. In the mid-1980s, the unions were much stronger and there was a possibility that the workers Wouldn't be defeated. They felt that it was a more volatile situation. Now they feel that organized labor is so completely defeated that you could afford to be liberal in what you show.
Cineaste: In other words, there are no Arthur Scargills(*) for the news media to demonize?
Loach: Well, they feel under no threat, so they can be much more tolerant. You're free to speak so long as you're not a serious threat. I think that the labor movement has to be reinvented; they have to start at the bottom again with the grass roots. It's a mark of how much the right wing has triumphed that people just associate strikes with inconvenience. For example, the French lorry drivers went on strike recently and the issues were connected to what affects all lorry drivers - how long you've got to be in the cab, safety issues, and so on. In all the coverage in Britain on the main radio program, the inconvenience was the only thing stressed - the stuff that would go rotting in the lorries, the roads blockaded, and how will people get home, and so forth. There was nothing about how long other people have to stay in a cab to earn a living and the safety checks in all of our vehicles. The whole question of feeling solidarity with workers is dealt with by pushing it completely off the agenda.
I've been obsessed with this for years, and it's interesting how broadcasters manipulate the agenda - they do it not with the questions they ask, but what is implicit in the question. Then, as an audience member, you share the assumption of the interviewer, without questioning it. In Britain, you can have quite a hostile interview with a right-wing politician and you can think that television is being quite tough, but in fact the basis of the questions are also quite right-wing. Chomsky describes it attitudes of a social worker in Ken Loach as "manufacturing consent," that's how we're all brought to the point of agreement without realizing it.
Cineaste: Do you see a natural affinity between Carla's Song and Land and Freedom, since they both deal, from different vantage points, with failed revolutions?
Loach: In both contexts, there was a possibility of revolution and its beginnings - revolutions that were stillborn. The trouble with the term 'failed revolution' is the implication that there was something within these events that doomed them to failure and I don't think that was the case. The reasons were different in each case. In Nicaragua it was very much the case of outside intervention. Things were gathering momentum, people's lives were improving, and they were becoming a participatory democracy. They seemed to be avoiding the worst pitfalls of Stalinism. With hindsight, one can make lots of criticisms, but, nevertheless, it was progressing and it was a people's movement. The Sandinistas won open elections. There wasn't something within that revolution that signaled it would fail; it failed because the U.S. decided it would fail.
Cineaste: Of course, one crucial difference between the two films is that Land and Freedom concentrates on internal dissent within the Spanish left during the Thirties and Carla's Song focuses on a united Nicaraguan left.
Loach: Yes. Also, given what has happened in Nicaragua now, to make a film which was a catalogue of caviling criticisms about the Sandinistas would not be right when the overarching responsibility, it seemed to us, was elsewhere.
Cineaste: There has certainly been a lot written recently about internal divisions within the ranks of the Sandinistas, which were present from the beginning - there were three different tendencies. But it's also understandable that you would want to focus on the U.S.'s illegal and immoral support of the Contras.
Loach: Yes, and also to differentiate between Americans as a varied, broad society and the actions of the U.S. state. To make it against all Americans would be sort of crude. Some of the bravest people there were Americans.
Cineaste: Is that why you included the scenes with the Witness for Peace delegation?
Loach: Yes, we had very good experiences with them, and the people in the film are real people we encountered in Managua.
Cineaste: Was the Scott Glenn character - the ex C.I.A. agent who becomes pro-Sandinista - based on an actual figure?
Loach: There have been numerous examples of people who had worked for the CIA and who changed their minds. We met John Stockwell, the author of In Search of Enemies, and Scott's character was influenced by our discussions with him. Scott also met him; he wasn't the model for the character, but his experiences were relevant. We thought it was important to have some way of dealing with the 'enemy,' although that's a rather crude way of putting it. We've all had second thoughts about the structure of the film. Scott is a very nice guy; he was very committed and really put himself on the line as an actor. He was very touched by what he saw in Nicaragua.
Cineaste: What did you see as either the benefits or drawbacks of filming in Nicaragua?
Loach: On a personal level, the people were generous and welcoming, as well as open - far more open than I thought they would be or that we had any right to expect them to be. Obviously, the infrastructure is not advanced as you would find in Europe or North America, so just logistically getting around - transport and getting people to the set on time - was difficult. Due to the pressure of getting the film done in time, we all felt a bit unwell near the end of the trim, but the people were just a knockout. They had simplicity in the nicest sense, it just took your breath away.
Cineaste: Did you, as in Land and Freedom, cast many of the local residents as extras in Carla's Song?
Loach: Oh, yes. Among the Nicaraguans, there's only one actor. The rest are just people, extraordinary people. The woman who plays Carla's mother, for example, had been in the Sandinista army and was then working on community projects. Almost all the people we met had relatives killed during the war. There was a feeling of being very close to the carnage. For example, the scene on top of the bus was not even like a reenactment. People were just talking about the revolution; the only sense in which it was a reenactment was that people were talking about the present, whereas these events had occurred in the past. The boundaries of what was real and what was invented for the film were very loose. In a way, this made it difficult to keep a tight rein on the film's structure. It was nice to be open to whatever came our way, but the problem with that approach is that you're liable to lose the shape of the film.
Cineaste: Did you consider altering the film in any way after starting shooting in Nicaragua?
Loach: Yes, it has to do with how your perception of the film's balance changes when you start to shoot. There was one case, with the hospital after the village has been ambushed, that came about after we viewed a desperately primitive hospital. The location was so indicative of the country's problems - you could almost smell the rooms. We thought then that we can't just have references to the horror of the war, we have to see some sign of it. That was a place that was crying out to be shown and it inspired a scene that occurred to us as we were setting the film up.
Cineaste: What were the logistics of dealing with the post-Sandinista government? According to what we've read, you held a screening of Land and Freedom upon your arrival in Nicaragua.
Loach: Yes, we had a screening of Land and Freedom when we were in preproduction, before we actually began to shoot. Their reaction to Carla's Song - this was the Chamorro government, of course - was that they didn't have a public stance about the content of the film. We were merely seen as people who could bring some money to the country. The Ministry of Education was the most hostile of any of the government agencies. They refused to let us use any schools or educational facilities for the film. They were the most right-wing part of the coalition. The army was very helpful, because they were still largely a Sandinista army - a lot of them had fought against Somoza. Obviously, it was also a commercial matter. We paid them for their participation. A lot of the details involving scenes which involved ambushes, and where the Contras would have come from and what weapons they would have used, came from the army.
Cineaste: The army had their own video production unit and made videos about their skirmishes with the Contras.
Loach: Yes. Paul was there for two and a half years and when Ortega came to Britain, he supervised the tour for the press. They were quite radical in their approach to the media. But the irony was that the propaganda battle was entirely won by the U.S., because they had the power.
Cineaste: So the spirit of internationalism links Land and Freedom and Carla's Song?
Loach: Yes, internationalism at the rank and file level. But, of course, this didn't work as well in Nicaragua as it did in the Spanish Civil War. It's interesting that people say that there are no great causes left. Why be an idealist now? And then something like Nicaragua comes along. It is bizarre when people make these statements about the dearth of great causes, because it means that they're blind to the past. Cineaste: After making many films in Britain, did films like Land and Freedom and Carla's Song come about because you wanted a change of pace and geography?
Loach: No, not really. These were just scripts that came through the post. It was coincidental. I think, though, that it refreshes you to come back to your home territory after you've been abroad. The film we just did in Glasgow, which Paul also wrote, My Name is Joe, was probably easier to do to some extent because he had worked outside the country. He came back with renewed energy to look at the British scene.
Cineaste: Since so many of your films have dealt with the British working class, do you see connections between their struggles and the situation in the Third World chronicled in Carla's Song?
Loach: Well, it's all part of the same context; they're all pieces in the same jigsaw. It certainly relates. We've become more and more of a global economy with one superpower putting its finger in every pie. The plight of the working class in Britain relates to what American capital is doing, and furthermore has a relationship with what's going on in Nicaragua. You can trace a cause and effect, even if it does seem rather random and arbitrary at times.
Cineaste: Robert Carlyle was reportedly surprised that you cast him, because he assumed that you usually didn't cast actors in more than one of your films.
Loach: Well, we saw a number of people who could play George. Despite the fact that we auditioned a lot of people, no one seemed to fit the role quite as well as Bobby. But I felt that I couldn't audition him, because he's a friend. So I rang him up and said that we've got this Nicaraguan girl to play a part and we don't quite know how good her English will be. We need someone just to play a scene with her, just to see how she'll cope. Do you mind doing this for us? Of course, he came and was terrific and she responded to him. When I phoned him and asked if he wanted to play the part, his response was - "You bugger, you were auditioning me all along and you didn't say."
Cineaste: The actress, Oyanka Cabezas, was quite effective in conveying a remarkable transformation from her depression in Scotland to the great self-confidence she exudes after arriving in Nicaragua.
Loach: It was very difficult for her. It worked well in that she was quite closed at first, but once she got back to Nicaragua and could use her own language, then it comes out. When you can't use your own language, it reduces your whole means of expression.
Cineaste: Has the film been screened publicly in Nicaragua?
Loach: Yes, although there aren't many cinemas there and they're programmed from Miami. We showed it in the village we filmed in during the rainy season; the projector was wired up in the back of the van, and sparks were flying up. We thought that people would go when it rained, but everyone stayed. It was very moving. During the English bits, there was a commentary so people could understand what was going on. It was amazing, because during the open-air screening, there was the village up there on the screen and you were surrounded by the village.
For the people watching it, the story of the film wasn't important. It was the fact of the film that was important. The fact that Nicaraguans were speaking their language in their own country convinced them that films could be made about their own problems. They don't have to be about aliens from another world, they can be about us. Films should be about us; they shouldn't just be a commodity, which comes in and exploits us. Aside from whether Carla's Song is any good or not, it was such a graphic illustration of how the invention of cinema has been taken away from us and how we've all become mere consumers.