Loach honoured at Cannes: a critical appreciation

May 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm (Andrew Coates, AWL, cinema, Clive Bradley, culture, film, From the archives, posted by JD, socialism, television)

Comrade Coatesy celebrates Ken Loach’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, but is not uncritical of Loach’s politics:

Ken Loach has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake.

“Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old joiner in the North-East of England who falls ill and requires state assistance for disability from the Employment and Support Allowance. While he endeavours to overcome the red tape involved in getting this assistance, he meets single mother Katie who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, must take up residence in a flat 300 miles (480 km) away.”

France 24 reports,

The 79-year-old Briton attacked the “dangerous project of austerity” as he accepted the festival’s top prize from actor Mel Gibson and Mad Max creator George Miller, who headed this year’s jury. “The world we live in is at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe,” Loach said, adding: “We must give a message of hope, we must say another world is possible.”

And, he continued, “Necessary”.

Le Monde’s review noted that ‘welfare reform’ forms the heart of the film. That in the UK there is a veritable ‘crusade’ against the disabled, to root out those feigning illness (“la chasse aux tire-au-flanc a pris les allures d’une croisade) in a “néo-victorienne” Britain.

Moi, Daniel Blake n’est pas une satire d’un système absurde. Ken Loach n’est pas un humoriste, c’est un homme en colère, et le parcours de l’ouvrier privé de travail et de ressources est filmé avec une rage d’autant plus impatiente qu’elle est impuissante.

I, Daniel Blake, is not a satire about an absurd system. Ken Loach is not a humourist, he’s full of anger, and the progress a worker without a job, and without assets, is filmed with an indignation that is as exasperated  as it is impotent.

This Blog is not an uncritical admirer of Ken Loach. He is against austerity and for social rights, the cause of the left.  But his more specific politics, which include a lengthy membership of Respect and support for the cultural Boycott of Israel, as well as no known activity against Islamist genociders, or support for the Kurdish people in their fight for dear life against ISIS,  are not always the same as ours.

Nor are all of Loach’s films, for all of their skill and intensity, always as deep as they set out to be.
(Read Coatesy’s full article here).

In the light of this well-deserved award to an avowedly Marxist film-maker, now seems a good moment to republish Clive Bradley’s insightful article. As the piece was written in 1997, it doesn’t deal with Loach’s more recent work, but nevertheless raises important issues about the difficulties of reconciling ‘art’ and ‘propaganda’, and the extent to which Loach succeeds (and fails) in doing this, by examining three of his films. The author stated at the outset: “throughout this article, I am using the word “propaganda” in its neutral  sense, to mean politically educative material”.


Art versus Propaganda: the films of Ken Loach

By Clive Bradley (Workers Liberty 39, April 1997)

What does it mean to make socialist films in contemporary Britain? What is the relationship between art and propaganda in modern cinema?

The work of Ken Loach, one of  Britain’s leading film-makers, hinges around these questions. The  tension between art and propaganda, drama and politics, runs  through his films.

Loach is unusual not so much in that he is a socialist — indeed a Marxist, indeed some kind of Trotskyist — who makes films; there have been a fair number of film-makers who are or were Marxists of some description. He is unusual because he frequently attempts, to make films about politics with a capital ‘P’, to put the class struggle on the screen. His politics inform his choice of subject matter  to a degree which is. as far as 1 am aware, unique in contemporary film.

Loach made Iris name in the 1960s with a seminal TV drama, Cathy Come Home, about homelessness. Days of Hope, a TV series written by Jim Allen, traced the British class struggle from the First World War to the General Strike. Fatherland is about an East German who moves to the West and discovers capitalism is as bad as Stalinism, Hidden Agenda about the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland, Land and Freedom the Spanish Civil War, and the recently-released Carla’s Song is about Nicaragua.

Even his films which deal with less ‘big’ political issues have political themes. Riff Raff is about a group of building workers. Raining Stones about two unemployed men in the north of England struggling to survive; one of them needs the money to buy his daughter a communion dress, and gets into trouble with a loan shark. Ladybird, Ladybird is about a woman’s fight against social services to keep custody of her children.

Added to this are a number of documentaries, for example on the often treacherous role of the trade union leadership, and the current Liverpool dockers’ strike.

There have been very few films in recent years which deal with such issues, and no film-makers who try to do so with such consistency. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Loach is a vitally important director for socialists. We should be glad someone is making such films: the world would be a poorer place without them.

The question remains whether Loach has successfully resolved the tension between art and propaganda, and what his work might tell us more generally about it. I want to argue that he has not, and that this raises an interesting question for any project of socialist film-making. Put bluntly: is such a thing possible?

This article looks at the question by focusing on just three of Loach’s films — Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song, his two most recent, which are among his most strongly political, and Kes — an early film which is probably the least political in his career. Read the rest of this entry »

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Clive on Paris: “Just some thoughts. No conclusions.”

November 17, 2015 at 8:46 am (anti-fascism, Anti-Racism, Cities, Clive Bradley, democracy, Europe, Human rights, imperialism, internationalism, iraq war, islamism, kurdistan, Middle East, misogyny, murder, secularism, solidarity, Syria, terror, turkey)

By Clive Bradley (via Facebook):

For what they’re worth, my feelings about Paris, etc. Friday was personally upsetting because Paris is a city I know quite well: I’ve never been to the Bataclan, but for sure I’ve walked past it. I have friends in Paris. Elia and I have been to Paris for our anniversary in the past. It brings it home to me in a way which – to be honest – other recent atrocities don’t.

The reason for posting now, though, is that I’m frustrated by some of what I’m seeing in social media and in the news about the politics of this. It’s horrific to see the racist, nationalistic, xenophobic nonsense spouted in some quarters. It seems to me the single most important thing we have to do to fight ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh is fight for the rights of migrants and refugees, both because what Daesh want is to stir up Islamophobia and other kinds of hate – that’s the aim of the attacks – and because genuine democracy, equality and freedom are the real weapons in any meaningful struggle against terrorism and religious fascism.

It’s true, of course, as some of my friends have pointed out, that a big factor in explaining the rise of Daesh is Western intervention in the Middle East. Indeed, French colonialism played a particularly appalling role in the Middle East and Arab world more generally (Algeria). If you had to pick a moment when the fuse was lit which led to the current crisis, I think it might have been when the French kicked Faisal out of Damascus just after World War One (the British gave him Iraq as a consolation), thus preventing the independent state the Arabs had been promised in the war against the Turks. (This is one reason among many I won’t update my status with a French flag – or indeed any national flag).

But what events like Paris, and Beirut, and Baghdad (many times) and everything that’s been happening in Syria (and Libya), and so on – and on – show is that Daesh nevertheless has to be fought. Their chilling statement about the Paris attacks – Paris as a den of perversion, and so forth – brings home that I, for instance, am a target of their hate. Everything I stand for and everything I am. How, then, to fight them?

Sadly, they won’t go away just because we don’t retaliate by bombing them. The single greatest victory against them in recent weeks was the retaking of Sinjar by the Kurds (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p037klpq).

To fight Daesh/IS, we should give the Kurds, the main military force opposing them on the ground with an agenda of democracy and human rights (ie not the murderous Assad regime), all the support we can.

But the uncomfortable fact is that the Kurds won this battle with US military air support. So maybe not all Western intervention is bad; or at least, if the Kurds want it and need it, shouldn’t we do what they want? And while Western intervention has mainly had disastrous consequences – the Iraq war being only the most obvious example – Western non-intervention in Syria has been pretty disastrous, too. We need to face the fact that this stuff is difficult. I’m not, here, advocating anything, just pointing out the complexity.

And there’s another question to do with Western ‘involvement’ which is harder to tackle. Daesh is the product of Western involvement up to a point; but it is much more directly the product of Saudi Arabia. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/isis-wahhabism-saudi-arabia…). A big thing the West could do to fight Daesh is break links with Saudi Arabia – but of course this they don’t want to do for obvious reasons, namely oil. The very least they could do is not promote Saudi Arabia as ‘moderate’ or champions of human rights. But in fact, something much more profound in the way the Western world works needs to change (and for sure this will have consequences in my own little bit of it).

Another thing we could do is challenge ‘our’ NATO ally, Turkey, who have been consistently more concerned to subvert the Kurds than to fight Daesh, and whose repression of the Kurds, which of course has long historical roots, is now deepening again. (I posted this the other day: https://www.change.org/p/david-cameron-mp-end-the-siege-of-…).
Just some thoughts. No conclusions. Might try to go back to sleep.

Kurds take Sinjar from the Islamic State group

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The banality of the blowback ‘explanation’

May 24, 2013 at 7:31 am (Afghanistan, Clive Bradley, From the archives, Galloway, Guardian, iraq war, islamism, Jim D, Lindsey German, murder, national liberation, palestine, religion, Stop The War, SWP, terror)

Above: the explanation?

All too predicatably, the usual suspects have rushed to explain the Woolwich killing by means of the so-called ‘blowback‘ argument (utilised with varying degrees of obvious gloating). Comrade Clive dealt with this back in the immediate  aftermath of the 2005 7/7 bombings. Obviously, the 7/7 attacks were somewhat different to what happened in Woolwich (though it seems likely that the Woolwich perpetrators intended to commit ‘suicide by police’), but I think Clive’s essential case remains incontrovertible  – JD:

‘Blowback’: a banal non-explanation

Just a note on the ‘blowback’ argument, which is put a bit less crudely in today’s Guardian by Gary Younge. Whereas the SWP/Galloway version of this just ritually nods at condemnation of the bombings, Younge seems more sincere, ‘to explain is not to condone’, etc. And, of course, presented with a ‘war on terror’ which is supposed to reduce terrorist attacks against us, it is not unreasonable to point out that, so far, this has not succeeded (I think, logically, this argument only runs so far, since nobody has suggested that the ‘war on terror’ will prevent terrorism until it is actually won; but there is some rhetorical force to this point).

And of course, if you think of the Beslan massacre, for example: you simply cannot account for the background to these events without explaining about Russian action in Chechnya. Clearly, Chechen Islamists did not materialise from nowhere, and there is a context to their existence. The same is true of Islamists elsewhere. Or to put this another way: of course if there were no real grievances to which Islamists could point, they would not be able to recruit anybody. Hamas would not be able to recruit young people and tell them to tie explosives to their chests and climb aboard buses, if the Palestinians were not actually oppressed and suffering grave injustices at the hands of the Israeli state.

But if this is all that is being said, surely it is banal. I suppose there may be some right wing crazies who think Hamas has grown among Palestinians purely because Arabs are bloodthirsty masochists or somesuch nonsense. But obviously, Hamas refers to real things in the real world to build its base, or it wouldn’t have one.

And the observation that there are actual grievances to which Islamists point as a way to recruit (or even, conceivably, that it is these grievances which motivate particular individuals to carry out atrocities) tells you absolutely nothing about the political character of the movement to which they are being recruited.

Of course it’s true, up to a point, that that the London bombs are connected to the British presence in Iraq. But this in itself is not an explanation for them. So if the ambition is to ‘explain but not condone’, you need to explain why people are recruited to these organisations – ones that want to blow up ordinary people on their way to work – rather than other ones. That bombs have dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan (or Jenin, or wherever) simply is not an explanation.

It would not be an explanation even if the organisations in question were identifiably nationalist, as opposed to salafi-jihadist. There have been plenty of colonial situations in the past which have produced armed struggle but not bombings of this kind.

But in any case they are not nationalist in the old sense, but something different – something whose political programme is not concerned with this or that grievance (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) but with restoring the Caliphate, instituting sharia law, punishing apostates, and so on. Moreover – and this seems to me very important indeed – as far as the most extreme of these groups go, like the one presumably responsible for 7/7 – they are what can reasonably be called death cults. If the aim is explanation, then you need to tell us why this backward-looking death cult has prevailed over the old-style nationalists (not to mention more leftist movements – just to type the words tells you the fall of Stalinism has something to do with it), and so on.

And once you have identified the political character of these movements – what do you propose to do about it? We can withdraw from Iraq. But if you think withdrawal from Iraq will mean the jihadists will disappear from the Iraqi political landscape, I think you are deceiving yourself. There are much deeper social grievances which animate the militant Islamist movements, to do with the exclusion of the middle class from economic and political power, the decline of the old social classes, etc. Those social questions need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed by radical, democratic movements in those societies.

And, of course, Islamists – of all types – are the militant enemies of democratic movements and of democracy itself. Either you recognise the need to fight alongside democratic movements against the militant Islamists, in Iraq and elsewhere (including within Muslim communities here, of course) or…what? Even the more sophisticated blowback argument of the Gary Younge variety gives no sense of identifying the militant Islamists as our enemy – the enemy of socialists, of democrats, of feminists, of women in general, of lesbians and gay men, of trade unionists, and so on, both in the ‘Muslim world’ and on our doorstep. It criticises the method of fighting terror adopted by our governments, but as though there was simply no need to fight it at all. Read the rest of this entry »

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Django Unchained: the Western reinvented?

January 21, 2013 at 10:04 pm (adventure, Anti-Racism, cinema, Civil liberties, Clive Bradley, Cross-post, Racism, United States)

By Clive Bradley (reblogged from Solidarity and the AWL website)

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Inglorious Basterds, walked a precarious line.

Set in World War Two Europe, it dealt with very serious matters — the genocide of the Jews — but in Tarantino’s inimitable way: at least as much about movies as about history, very violent, very funny.

It could have been a distasteful monstrosity. But to my mind it was a brilliant tour de force, with a delirious and unexpected climax that in fact was very thought-provoking.

Django Unchained sets out to pull off the same trick but this time about slavery in America. Does it succeed?

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave sort-of-freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr Schulz (Christopher Waltz, the marvellous villain from Inglorious Basterds). Shulz — who is essentially a decent bloke — agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the most notorious and terrifying plantation in Mississippi, owned by Calvin Candle (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Much tension, and then, inevitably, much violence and gore ensues. Along the way there’s a brilliant turn by Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candle’s apparently-sweet but actually-terrifying Uncle Tom servant.

Some — notably Spike Lee (though apparently he refuses actually to see the film) have objected to the movie, and indeed to the very idea of Tarantino addressing this subject. He trivialises slavery, they say, and the African American experience. Much of this objection seems to be against Tarantino himself — a geeky white boy who verges, sometimes, on the “wigger”, a film obsessive rather than a historian, steeped in B movies, trash culture, (horror of horrors) genre.

And indeed, as you would expect, Django Unchained is as much about Westerns as about slavery. Its colours, its soundtrack, many of its events, are comments on the genre itself – which was once immensely popular, but died out in the 1970s or before (with occasional revivals, of course, like the recent remake of True Grit).

But what a comment. Westerns, as a genre, rarely (I think it might be never, but maybe some Western fan can correct me) have slaves in them at all, never mind as central characters. (There are black characters, occasionally – comedy buffoons with wide eyes and shuffling feet — but not, I think, acknowledged to be slaves).

Westerns certainly never have slaves or ex-slaves as heroes, riding horses, shooting guns, and exacting terrible vengeance on plantation owners.

Foxx’s Django is an avenging angel. There is — not quite the climax of the movie, but towards it — the inevitable set-piece Tarantino gore fest (as you would expect, both bloody and played for jokes). And you want him to blow these evil motherfuckers away. You root for the massacre. It’s exhilarating.

I don’t think, here, it’s as successful as the massacre in Inglorious Basterds (where the Nazi leadership is taken out) —which (for me, anyway) makes you reflect on your own bloodthirsty emotions; but it’s not, either, as purely ridiculous and jokey as the bloodfest in Kill Bill I.

But I don’t see that it trivialises anything. It is extremely entertaining — but how is it a valid criticism of a film maker that his film is too enjoyable? It’s not very sophisticated — Django is the good guy, the slave owners are the bad guys… But that’s how Westerns work; it’s pretty much the point of Westerns, except in the classic Western, Good is signified by white (hats, usually), and Bad by black…

Tarantino has said, rightly, that there’s nothing in Django Unchained that’s remotely as violent as slavery was itself. And it includes some marvellous — though very bloody — dramatisations of what slavery actually meant: a runaway torn apart by dogs; slaves forced to pummel each other to death for their owners’ enjoyment.

There is, I’m sure, a great film yet to be made about the experience of slavery in the US. Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel, was leaden and dull; Spielberg’s Amistad was simply untruthful about the abolition of slavery. Django Unchained is not that film. But it’s a tall order for any film maker — to make the definitive statement about a vast historical experience.

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