Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Cannes Film Festival 2006: Ken Loach’s barley and roses

Often, Ken Loach has been labelled a Leftist. Even anti-British as he is now being lambasted for his Cannes (May 17-28 2006) winner, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, a mind-boggling work on the Irish resistance.

Loach’s cinema has always fought for the underdog. It could be an out-of-work former alcoholic in “My Name is Joe” or an illegal Latino immigrant janitor in America in “Bread and Roses” or an unemployed man deeply attached to his family and desperately trying to get a new dress for his daughter’s communion in “Raining Stones”.

Or, Loach’s hero can even be a young Communist fighting Fascism in the Spanish Civil War in “Land and Freedom” or a doctor opposing the Irish peace treaty in the 1920s in “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”.

If Loach’s concern for the underprivileged is viewed as Leftist leanings and his celluloid treatise on Ireland as treachery, so be it. But beyond such opinion lies unmistakable appreciation for an artistic body of work known for its authenticity and sobriety. Even in some of the most disturbing moments in his movies, Loach seldom allows emotion to turn turbulent and take over restrained approach. He avoids the over-dramatisation of Hollywood, as he does the drudgery of some arty directors.

Loach once remarked that “what matters is that what is actually on the screen is a valuable experience and that there is a sense of authenticity about what you have created”.

His movies have been faithful to this. In some of most heart-wrenching scenes in “Ladybird, Ladybird”, where his protagonist is forced to transfer care of her children to unfeeling British social services, Loach maintains remarkable equilibrium. Again, in one of the final sequences in “Bread and Roses”, when illegal immigrant Maya is being deported from the U.S., tearing her apart from her love and livelihood, there is poignancy, not hysterics, that leaves us with a sense of anguish for the plight of the working class. Even in his latest, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” – which recently won him Cannes’ most prestigious Palm d’Or in what was his 13th presentation at the Festival – some of the distressing moments are filmed with great sensitivity and poise. Yet there is hardly a dull minute in the film.

Loach’s greatest works have been explicitly political without being boring or intellectually pretentious. Let us take “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”. Set in Ireland during the brutal English occupation of the 1920s, the movie unravels through the eyes of a young medical doctor, who gives up what could be a flourishing practice to fight a guerrilla war. His passion for Ireland’s freedom takes a knock when a peace treaty is signed, and the country has to declare its allegiance to the British throne. Loach deftly uses this political turmoil to study disappointment, particularly in the relationship between the doctor and his brother, and guides his plot to a profound climax.

Loach never loses sight of the fact that his stories are essentially of ordinary men and women, and though socio-economic events may engulf and overtake them, it is the personal that triumphs over the political.

Loach’s characters, like the doctor here, may aspire for political freedom, but this is interspersed with the desire for personal dignity and simple pleasures of life. The doctor’s love for his sweetheart or the emotional bonding he shares with his family, particularly his brother, prove that Loach is ultimately interested not so much in the macro as he is in the micro.

Loach brings this out in a classic shot in “Bread and Roses”, where Maya, her lover, Sam, and others carry placards that read: “We want bread, but we want roses too”. While Maya and the other janitors struggle to meet their basic needs, they never loose sight of small pleasures: roses in this case, or playing football or meeting friends in a pub in other cases.

Loach had an intimate knowledge of the pain of being a worker, and of the luxury of experiencing simple joys. He was born near Coventry in Britain, and his father was an electrician in a machine tool factory, and the director knew that without food and shelter, life’s little delights could well be meaningless. Loach never forgot his working class background, and he has always remained true to this in his cinema.

He dramatizes the struggle of the labour through lengthy debates, and even wry humour. There are lengthy arguments in “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” about the usefulness of the treaty. “Land and Freedom” is marked by discussions on land reform. The janitors of “Bread and Roses” have long verbal wars over whether to join the union.

But Loach punctuates verbosity with levity. “I don't have time to fight for the working class! I AM the working class!” says the unemployed father in “Raining Stones” to his brother-in-law. Rarely, Loach’s humour is bawdy as when the father exposes his backside to a police helicopter.

Loach lightens the mood through such comedy, and the viewer finds respite from the gravity of a situation. Loach’s tongue-in-cheek methods also help make his pictures immensely believable.

Above all, Loach has an important message to convey through his humour. The man without means has the ability to joke, which enables him to bond with fellow sufferers and build a community.

Much of Loach’s cinema underlines this. Of course without sounding preachy and moralistic, a reason why his work remains eminently watchable.

(This story was posted on this website on June 18 2006)