This 79-year-old English director from the small town of Nuneaton is the most recognisable face of British political cinema worldwide, in all of its working-class realism. The controversial filmmaker has a career spanning more than five decades, with more than 60 films for both cinema and television. He also counts two Palm d’Or awards in Cannes under his belt: The Wind that Shakes the Barley in 2006 and I, Daniel Blake this year.
The documentary Versus – the Life and Films of Ken Loach is an opportunity to experience the power of the director’s work in just 93 minutes, even in the unlikely event that someone has never heard of him. The movie is fun, engaging and informative. It presents stunning clips from throughout his 50-year career combined with statements from the director, his associates and even his family. The result is a very colourful and vivid picture of a very left-wing man full of contrasts, who consistently challenged the media and government apparatus in his country and beyond.
The film examines Ken Loach’s realistic approach to cinema, and his constant attempt to depict the profound social wounds of his country – such as poor working-class conditions, housing problems, homelessness, poverty and a social care system which often abuses its users. Loach says to his actors: “being realistic is right, everything else is wrong”; he always films chronologically and never reveals the script to actors, thereby capturing their honest reaction as events unfold.
Two realistic moments are remarkable: when boys have their hands caned for real (without their prior knowledge and consent) in a school scene in one of his early films, and when the Blanca (Icíar Bollaín) is unexpectedly shot and killed in Land and Freedom (1995). Bollaín at the time expressed her indignation to the director: “I wanted to live longer”.
Ken Loach struggled to get funding for his films, despite their critical and commercial acclaim, particularly in the first decades of his career. The British right-wing media and government detest him, conflating realism with lack of patriotism. Daily Telegraph film critic Simon Heffer summed it up when “reviewing” The Wind that Shakes the Barley: “He hates this country, yet leeches off it, using public funds to make his repulsive films. And no, I haven’t seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.”
Ken Loach is left-wing and yet very “conservative”, the film claims. This is because Loach is very “well-mannered”, dislikes phones, loves cricket and 18th century architecture. Despite its celebratory tone, the film seems to endorse a prejudiced and flawed dichotomy: the “polite right” versus the “boisterous left”. Loud and rude right-wing leaders such Donald Trump and Winston Churchill are a testament that this contrast is wrong. And nowhere does Marxism mandate rudeness.
The film, however, succeeds to reveal that a quiet and soft-spoken man, with an apparently conciliatory demeanour, that uses his art to very confrontational purposes (therefore the “versus” in the film title) to very effective results.
This intimate and riveting movie about Loach does not document the filmmaker’s latest achievement in Cannes and its implications for his career because the Festival took place just two weeks ago – after this documentary had already been finished. The award-winning film tells the story of Daniel Blake. The fictional 59-year-old artisan in the North-East of England falls ill with heart disease and so applies for the out-of-work sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance. DMovies would hazard a guess that I, Daniel Blake will shake England to its core, and that Ken Loach has far more to offer even past his 80th birthday (in just a few weeks on June 17th).
Versus – The Life and Films of Ken Loach is out in cinemas on Friday, and tickets are available on a pay-what-you-can basis. Just click here for more information.
Watch the film trailer below: