By Ray Bennett
British independent filmmaker Ken Loach says that independent film is under attack. The director, whose 2006 film “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” won the Palme d’Or at the Festival de Cannes, was presented on Thursday with the London Critics’ Circle Award 2010 for distinguished service to the arts.
The 75-year-old director, who is editing his latest film, “The Angels’ Share”, said he was grateful that critics had always been friendly even when they didn’t like one of his pictures. “Not everybody will like everything we do, and that’s fine,” he said.
In his acceptance speech, Loach deplored the neglect of independent film and the arts in general in the UK. “The philistinism that allows us to shut down and close off these experiences for those not as fortunate as some of us have been, who have access to theater or music or film, is a tragedy. We really need to fight it,” he said.
He said that things were bad for independent film in the UK. “There never has been a time when things were good but I think things are closing down even more. The space for films like the ones we do – and others like us – is just shrinking. There are now huge swathes of the country where you just can’t see independent films or anything that isn’t mainstream American.”
He said the pervasive view was summed up by something said by financier Guy Hands when his Terra Firma company bought Odeon Cinemas: “He said, ‘When we bought it,’ – he talks about ‘it’, the cinema chain – ‘the management team really believed they were part of the film business. I had the difficult job of explaining to them that they were in the popcorn selling business.’ That is how they see film. So when you see outside the Odeon cinemas, Love Film, or whatever the slogan is (it’s actually Fanatical About Film), that is a lie. What they love is popcorn.”
The veteran director said that one of the problems is that the UK has politicians who see film and other art forms as simply commodities, and if the commodity doesn’t make a profit then forget it.
Opera critic Tom Sutcliffe, Critics’ Circle President, introduced Loach to the gathering at the Piccadilly Italian Restaurant in London’s Soho. He lauded the director for his fierce independence as a social realist and cited “Kes” (1969) as a perfect example. Sutcliffe said that unlike the late Lindsay Anderson, a similar filmmaker, Loach had never become a hate figure.
Film critic Jason Solomons, Film Section Chairman, presented Loach with his award, a crystal bowl, and listed the actors and filmmakers who had told him how much they had been influenced by the director, including Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney.
Loach, whose genial mood in the middle of editing his current film belied his reputation for being dour, said, “I feel like a poacher trapped by gamekeepers.”
He said that “Kes” would not have succeeded without the help of film critics such as Derek Malcolm, then of The Guardian. “Generally, the reviews were very helpful and without that, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The Americans said they understood Hungarian better than South Yorkshire.”
Sometimes, critics gave him more credit than he was due, he said. On the last day of shooting “Family Life” (1971), “We had one exterior scene to do but it snowed. We didn’t have any money so we had to do it. In the reviews, there were one or two who spoke at great length of the significance of the snow.”
Loach referred to Sutcliffe’s comment that he had not become a hate figure. “If only that were true,” he said, “but the hateful things have not been said by critics.” He cited a Daily Mail writer who asked, “Why does this man hate his country?” and one in The Daily Telegraph “who slagged off the Irish film (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) although he had no intention of seeing it because he didn’t need to read ‘Mein Kampf’ to know what a louse Hitler was’.”
The best bit of ignorance displayed, he said, was by Michael Gove, minister of education in the current government. “He said the Irish film was dishonest because the Irish could always have taken the democratic route. In fact, the only time the Irish voted across the country, they voted 75% for a united independent Ireland, and the British sent in the troops. Michael Gove, the education secretary, forgot to read this bit of history, or chose not to,” Loach said.
He told the critics: “It is really important that we keep reminding ourselves that there is an attack on film, and you all carry the torch for good work and its availability. Thank you, I’m hugely touched. It’s really generous of you.”
The award was first presented in 1988 to theater director Peter Hall and other recipients have included Peter Ustinov, Judi Dench, Harold Pinter, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. Loach is the third film director to be honored, following David Lean in 1991 and Mike Leigh in 2004.