I got quite depressed when Ken Loach's latest and perhaps final feature, I, DANIEL BLAKE, won the Palme D'Or a few weeks ago. Not because it's a bad film - I haven't seen it yet and it sounds amazing - but because it felt like he was the only film director daring to tackle the big social issues of our time. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Ever since the Global Financial Crisis, and more specifically the Tory response to it, the UK has been living through a period of deep fiscal austerity. But the artistic response seems to have been rather meagre. I contrast that to the angry, loud and multifarious response to the social upheavals wrought by Thatcher in the early 80s. Where's the protest music? Where are the angry plays like GBH and Boys From The Blackstuff? Where are the new Ken Loaches, Alexei Sayles, Billy Braggs, Communards? Don't get me wrong. I'm happy that Loach is still working and able to tackle the issue of people struggling to survive in poverty and Britain - the sheer human tragedy and inexcusable horror of men and women in a developed nation going to food banks. But shouldn't there be young angry film-makers tackling this stuff too? The other thing that depresses me about this sort of film-making (or the lack thereof) is its efficacy. I'd almost class some Ken Loach films in that category of agitprop documentary that preaches to the converted. In other words, the majority of political film-making attracts an audience that already thinks the issues are important. How many right-wing Fox-news watching people actually pay to watch a film like AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, for instance.
All of which preamble brings us to Louise Osmond's new documentary about Loach's work (ignore the title - the life's only in there insofar as it sets up the work). It's a nicely constructed retrospective with interviews from key collaborators. We get the social context of Loach's iconic works, such as KES, CATHY COME HOME and LADYBIRD, and something of the public conversation they caused. I think CATHY COME HOME may the one of the few examples of a feature that does what I claimed most agit-prop doesn't - it broke out of the arthouse and into national conversation, changing attitudes. One certainly hopes the same will be true of I, DANIEL BLAKE. But what could have easily turned into a piece of hagiography dares to make some bold statements. Several people refer to Loach's ruthlessness in getting the shot or telling the story he wants to. (The famous scene where little boys are caned in KES is case in point). Another interview refers to his child-like narcissism which is certainly enabled by being a director. However, I feel the doc. could have explored key controversial incidents more. In particular, Loach was involved in a production of a play that was pulled because it was deemed anti-semitic. The way it's told here (and I'm not unsympathetic with that view) is that this was a mistake and that Loach was righteously angry. But given his record of boycotting festivals and films with Israeli funding one might have wanted to interrogate those highly controversial and potentially offensive views further.
VERSUS: THE LIFE AND WORK OF KEN LOACH has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated 12A. It is currently on limited release (schedule here) and is available on several streaming services.
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