In the run-up to the Ken Loach season opening on Thursday and running through October 12 at BFI Southbank in London, two longish yet engaging profiles of the director have appeared in the last few days: David Archibald's in the Financial Times and Kira Cochrane's in the Guardian.
Both devote a few paragraphs to Thursday evening's first-time-ever screening of a documentary Loach made back in 1969, referred to now in the program simply as the Save the Children Film. Briefly, the charity put up a third of the budget, with London Weekend Television covering the other two thirds. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Save the Children, and naturally, they expected "a gauzy portrait, light on analysis, strong on praise," as Cochrane puts it. Instead, Loach turned in a work that opens with a quote from Engels and, according to Archibald, "proffers an analysis of race, class and colonialism that eschews charitable giving to alleviate poverty at home and in Africa, citing socialism as an alternative." There was a legal tussle and the film was stored away in the British Film Institute's archive. Now, four decades later, Loach and representatives from Save the Children and the BFI National Archive will be on hand after the screening to discuss the whole affair and, we can be almost sure, the film's relevancy to one or two ongoing political debates.
Cochrane gets Loach going on the London riots and other current goings on, while Archibald focuses more on the impact of the oeuvre. I wanted, though, to pull two quotes from each on Loach's directorial style, both of which illustrate his emphasis on performance. Loach tells Archibald about working with cinematographer Chris Menges on Kes (1969), a milestone Criterion released earlier this year on DVD and Blu-ray: "We thought that what happened in front of the camera was more important than the camerawork, so in order to get the best out of what was happening in front of it we had to find a very simple way of shooting. It became about observation rather than chasing. Kes was the first film we worked on in that way, and it set the pattern for later work." Archibald:
Loach is currently editing his latest film, The Angels' Share, a light comedy set in Scotland. His description of filming Kes is recognizable even today; his camera (predominantly a solitary one) is almost always positioned at eye-level and, apart for occasional close-ups, placed as far as is practical from the actors with long lenses used to capture the action. While many film sets are replete with monitors and technological paraphernalia, a Loach set is pared down. For this director, it is the performance that's crucial. Noticeably, just as filming is about to commence, Loach asks crew members to 'tuck away' — those who are not needed at that moment secrete themselves out of sight and those whose presence is essential hide their eyes from the line of the actors' vision. As one crew member suggested, every scene is shot with the level of unobtrusiveness that many directors create only when shooting a sex scene."
"[H]e works distinctively," writes Cochrane, "filming each scene in order, often using non-professional actors, encouraging improvisation." Further:
They don't tend to see a full script in advance, and move through his films as confused as the audience about what lurks around the next corner. I ask Loach which surprise was most memorable, and he laughs incongruously through a few examples. He talks about an incident when an actor walked through a door, on-set, to discover his co-star in a bath, her wrists apparently slashed. 'Surprise is the hardest thing to act,' says Loach, 'and his response was just very true.' On another occasion an actor only found out during the filming of a battle scene that her character was to be shot and killed. She was not especially pleased.
Most surprisingly of all, Crissy Rock, the lead in Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) — a brilliant, devastating gut-wrencher of a film — was convinced she was starring in a happy, upbeat, redemptive story. 'She thought it would turn out to be about a couple successfully raising children together,' says Loach, smiling. It is actually about a woman's kids being taken, one by one, by the social services. In the scene where they come for the final child, Rock 'couldn't believe it,' says Loach. 'She was just wrecked.'"
Update, 9/1: The Save the Children Film "is an exhilarating experience," reports the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "Perhaps Loach scholars will come to see it as an early, brutalist masterpiece, uncompromisingly angry and disdainful." It "is, magnificently, a world away from 'responsible' documentary filmmaking. There is no cautious balancing view, no lenient acknowledgement of the fact that the poor, chuckle-headed Save the Children types are just doing their best…. Inappropriate, I know, but I actually laughed out loud at the sheer, in-your-face provocation of this film."
Update, 9/5: Rhiannon Harries talks with Loach for the Independent.