CITY LIFE 25 SEPT, 2002
“If cinemas were like art galleries…” Ken Loach on Sweet Sixteen
He’s a bona fide British cinema icon who has stuck steadfastly to making films about ordinary people. From Cathy Come Home to Kes; Riff Raff to Raining Stones, Ken Loach has produced a body of work to rival any British filmmaker over the past four decades. His latest film, Sweet Sixteen, came within a whisker of scooping the Palm D’or at Cannes, bagging instead the Best Screenplay award for collaborator Paul Laverty. Set in the Scots West coast district of Greenock, the film sports a cast led by non-actors, throwing light on a place where forty-thousand children are excluded from school each year, 11 000 are in care, and 100 000 live with domestic violence – the statistical sewer of a United Kingdom which has the highest rate of child poverty in the European Union.
Sweet Sixteen stars Martin Compston, a seventeen-year-old professional footballer with Scottish second division side Morton, whom the director found after scouring local schools, youth groups and boxing clubs for talent. Forced to fend for himself while his mother takes the rap in prison for her violent boyfriend’s crimes Liam (Compston) blags a loan to buy her a caravan overlooking the coast in time for her release. His attempts to secure the repayments bring him into contact with local drug dealers among whom the big fish begin to take notice of a fearlessly enterprising young upstart.
You’ve said that the film is a kind of second in a trilogy which began with My Name is Joe. Beyond the Scottish setting what is the connection, though?
I think what we wanted to do was look at an aspect of life in that part of Scotland, the West Coast. I think the way they’ve developed is quite organic, in that we didn’t set out with three stories that made a totality. Paul wrote Joe, and then in the course of that there were a number of characters who we ‘met’ and we thought that they’d be interesting to follow up, and make a film about one of them. And that led to Liam and Sweet Sixteen.
It’s seems more character-driven than your previous films. Is it a conscious shift in the way you’re working?
Well, I think we got more interested in trying to tease out the contradictions in the way people are with each other, and what happens in families, and relationships and the double binds people put on each other. I mean, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, from way back.
The central character Liam is arguably a more capable, less unfortunate protagonist for a Ken Loach film – in fact, his friend Pinball might seem the more typical ‘Loach lead’. From early on there’s a sense that Liam might just win through in the end.
I don’t know. I think Liam has a lot in common with the girl in Bread and Roses, for example. She’s a bright spark. In Land and Freedom, the main lad there, he’s the one who leaves home to go to fight. He’s full of drive.
Nevertheless, the result seems to be a tonal shift away from the Black Hats / White Hats charge which is sometimes leveled against you.
I don’t think that’s ever been true really. It’s something I’d really argue over. We did a film called Ladybird Ladybird where people have a preconception about this woman, which means they take away the children – they think for their own protection. Now there were people who were playing the social workers, and we found the nicest people we could find for that. People mistook what the characters were doing for the characters doing it, but if you look at it scene by scene the people doing it are suffering nearly as much as the woman because of what they’re having to do.
Do you engage with this film as much on a political level?
I think it’s very political. As proof of that, the local Labour MP – without having seen the film – attacked it. He said, ‘What private investors are going to want to come to Greenock?’ – completely oblivious to the fact the area has voted Labour for as long as there’s been a Labour party and the Labour party has let them down, generation after generation. They closed the shipyard, they didn’t believe in the industry in the place. And now they’ve got call centres and the kids are on three, four week contracts with no possiblity of planning in their lives, no possibility of a settled future.
You said some time ago that the state of the British film industry will remain what it is ‘as long as we remain a colony of the US as regards cinema’. Do you think it’s becoming harder for filmmakers of your type to get films distributed?
Well, yes. Certainly in this country. I mean, in other European countries it’s easier they’ve got a broader idea of what cinema is, and they’re more open-minded. I think in the short term our best hope is to join with the French, particularly, and the other European countries, to demand a cultural exception. I mean, it’s not a long term solution but in the short term at least the French have stood up and said ‘Come on we don’t accept the terms of trade you’re trying to impose on us.’ We should be fighting alongside them…it’s tied to the ownership of the cinemas, and the programming of the cinemas is in very few hands. Those people are tied to Hollywood and the American film industry. If cinemas were, say, like art galleries, owned by people who loved films, like are galleries are generally run by people who love art – if they were run by people who loved films then you’d see everything.
You directed a segment in the forthcoming portmanteau film 11’09’01 which, from reading the synopsis, would appear to be a bold attack on the inward-ness of America’s grief after the events of last September [Loach’s segment draws attention to the US-instigated murder of Chilean leader Salvador Allende on September 11 1973, in the coup which brought to power the corporation-friendly General Pinochet. Thirty-thousand people died as a result.
It’s staring you in the face, really. On the 11th September 1973 the Americans, who’d paid for terrorists, and trained them, gave them their plan to bring down a democratic government and installed a dictator who went in for torture and murder and annihilation and false imprisonment and all the rest. Their actions were terrorist actions. They did the same in Nicaragua. They did the same in Guatamala. They did the same in El Salvador. They were the only country who have so far set off these weapons of mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You know, they’ve unbalanced the Middle East through supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and Sharon and his war crimes. They’ll bomb anybody for anything. They are the terrorists. What everyone is saying in all these hours and hours of comment is ‘How?’ Nobody’s asking ‘Why?’
Are we still beguiled by cinema in this day and age?
I think cinema has a fairly peripheral effect now, because it’s seen simply as an accompaniment to the popcorn – apart from cinemas like the Cornerhouse and others. Most of the mainstream films have set themselves up to be just like a sideshow. I think television has much more of a numbing effect, but I’ve got a feeling that younger people see television as something their parents watch. I can only watch the news and the football now.