Looking for Ken

Post date: 15/07/2016

Ed Ayres, of the IBMT Oxfordshire memorial committee, reports on Ken Loach’s participation at a screening of ‘Land and Freedom’ hosted by the IBMT and Oxford University students last month. His report was compiled with the help of Dr Connal Parr, Colin Carritt and Ann Domoney.


Directed by Ken Loach and released in 1995, ‘Land and Freedom’ transported audiences to Spain in the midst of its devastating civil war (1936-39). From an original screenplay by Manchester-born Jim Allen, it is the story of David Carr (Ian Hart), an unemployed worker who volunteers for the International Brigades to fight the rebels of fascist General Francisco Franco, who sought to overthrow the democratically-elected Spanish Republican government.


Told in flashback, Carr’s Spanish voyage and the political debates which charged and drove the conflict are illuminated. Despite the infighting, division, and tragedy, Carr’s vision continues through his granddaughter, whose adolescent perspective bookends the film, and in whose eyes the fight in Spain lives on.


I was inspired to try and get Ken Loach to attend a screening of ‘Land and Freedom’ after seeing Jim Jump’s report of an interview Ken gave last year for BBC4. Ken was interviewed by one of his most recent leading actors, Cillian Murphy, who took the lead role in ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’, Loach’s previous Palme d’Or winning film.


Through a wonderful set of circumstances the director’s public profile was raised dramatically prior to the screening we arranged in Oxford on 10 June. Two weeks beforehand, Ken’s latest film opened at Cannes, where ‘I, Daniel Blake’ went on to take the highest prize for filmmaking, the Palme d’Or. In the week prior, the documentary ‘Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach’, concentrating on his career and works over the last 50 years, was also released.


‘Land and Freedom’ was the second collaboration between the screenwriter Jim Allen and Loach. The latter’s film work almost completely dried up in the 1980s, as his social commentary appeared very much out of tune with the period, while ‘Land and Freedom’ was also the project that began the association between Ken and his present screenwriting partner, Paul Laverty. 


Paul had been a human rights lawyer in Central America throughout the 1980s and wanted to express his experiences though film. Unable to find a writing role for Laverty, he was cast very much in character as the politicised Scot in the POUM militia.


The screening in Oxford was proceeded by a 40-minute Q&A session directed by the panel, including IBMT Oxfordshire chair Colin Carritt, myself and student members of the Magdalen Film Society (the film was screened at Magdalen College). 


Loach confirmed that Manchester-born Allen was very much at the heart of the film as its writer, a man steeped in mining culture and ‘political down to his fingertips’. At the beginning of the film, the young granddaughter of the recently deceased Brigader is seen examining her grandfather’s belongings and sorting through some 1930s magazines. Amongst these archive journals we see the title of a mining journal that Jim worked on. 


Loach’s reflections on Allen were both funny and endearing. Ken recounted his writer’s appearance at Cannes for the premier of ‘Land and Freedom’ in 1995. Unable to secure a black tie and suit for the opening ceremony, Allen enlisted the services of a local Manchester villain to provide the necessary black tie gear. Unfortunately the recently acquired trousers were ludicrously short. Ken recalled the sight of Jim on the red carpet with black tie but with trousers so short they were well up above his shins!


The film is not without controversy. At the time of its release, the similarity with George Orwell’s novel ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938) was noted. Orwell had served as a volunteer in the British Independent Labour Party Contingent, which had fought alongside the Partido Obrero de Unificacíon Marxista (POUM) in Spain, and his legendary account had also attacked Stalinist coercion, which dealt fatally with Republicans on their same side. This naturally caused some dispute in left circles, as the ultimate responsibility for the defeat of Republican forces, it was suggested, lay within (what some disparaged as ‘a Trotskyist approach’!). 


Whatever the minor furore, Loach’s film won many critical plaudits and aroused interest in the civil war, and Spain itself, as it continues to labour under its bloody past.  


Colin Carritt stated in a press release that ‘it was incredibly generous of Ken to take time out to come to Oxford. It is a tremendous boost to our campaign to have someone of his stature endorse our plans for a memorial in the city. From 1936 to 1939, 31 Oxfordshire volunteers left these shores for Spain in the cause of anti-fascism. Six of our local volunteers died in the fighting there. Many more were wounded or suffered the terror of imprisonment.’


Loach was presented with a copy of the Oxfordshire IBMT’s book ‘No Other Way’, written in collaboration with IBMT committee member Chris Farman and others. 


He additionally wished the committee well in developing a new memorial site for the Oxfordshire volunteers after a recent set-back in terms of a previous planning application. 


A number of well-known public figures were unable to attend the screening but offered their support for the memorial fund-raising aims. These included Alexi Sayle, Billy Bragg and Luke Harding (Guardian journalist who broke the  Snowden affair), the latter forwarding a signed copy of his latest book as a present for Loach.


As Loach passes his 80th year, he continues to make films of genuine social and political relevance, offering inspiration to new generations. He talked adamantly during the Q&A of how the issues raised in ‘Land and Freedom’ are still relevant today with the rise of the far right in Europe, passionately expressing the belief that the fight against fascism continues.


The organisers would like to thank James Riding, President of the Magdalen Film Society, and his colleagues who stood in at very late notice to ensure a memorable evening went ahead as planned.



The panel from right to left are: Colin Carritt, Ed Ayers, James Riding, Mischa  Andreski, Katie Carson, Mattis Clement and Jem Bartholomew. Photo: Francesca Ghillani.


Posted 14 July 2016

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