European Film Award of the Critics 2002
by Ronald Bergan
"A prophet is not without honour, but in his
own country" - so says the New Testament, and Ken Loach spent many
years being shunned by British producers, while being respected abroad.
After having made a name for himself with social realist television dramas,
particularly Cathy Come Home (1966), about a homeless family, which led
to questions of law reform in Parliament, and the relative commercial
success of Kes (1969), Loach found it more and more difficult to get financing
and an audience. During the Thatcher years of the 1980s, it seemed he
was on a black list, and was only able to make two feature films in that
decade. However, Loach persevered and came back triumphantly in the 1990s
with Raining Stones, Ladybird Ladybird, Land and Freedom, Carla's Song
and My Name is Joe, all of them winning prizes at leading film festivals.
Now having established himself as one of the foremost international
film directors, Loach has gained in confidence and maturity over the years,
but he has never compromised his socialist or aesthetic principles. In
these days, when filmmakers are desperate to break into the American market,
Loach, almost on principle, makes films that might be unpopular or unreleased
in the United States. Witness his two last films, which for different
reasons, will have a hard time in the States. In his episode in the omnibus
film, 11' 09" 01 - September 11, which won the FIPRESCI prize in
Venice for Best Short Film, Loach decided to remind the world and especially
Americans, in the form of a letter written by a Chilean to an American
friend, that there was another September 11, the day in 1973 when the
CIA helped to overthrow the democratically elected Salvador Allende.
Sweet Sixteen, which FIPRESCI has decided to give the European
Film Academy Award, is played in such a broad Scots dialect by the inhabitants
of the town of Greenock on the Clyde, that it necessitated English subtitles
in England. Loach could easily have decided to tone it down for Anglophone
audiences, but he considered that it would be artificial if the cast did
not speak in their own accents. As Loach has said about his films: "I
think it's a very important function to let people speak who are usually
disqualified from speaking or who've become non-persons" In Sweet
Sixteen, Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty - in their fourth collaboration
- have chosen to give voice to a 15-year-old boy of a dysfunctional family
on the eve of his birthday. Liam (brilliantly portrayed by Martin Compston),
who has a mother in prison, survives by selling drugs, which leads him
into a great many difficulties. The film ends (in an oblique homage to
Truffaut's 400 Blows) on Liam's sixteenth birthday, with nothing much
to look forward to. As his sister says, "What a waste! What a waste!."
In Sweet Sixteen, there is a contrast between the beauty
of the landscape and the reality of the deprived lives the people lead.
Socially as opposed to politically conscious, the powerful film has a
swiftly moving narrative, with splendid characterisations, which ring
truer than they would with so-called professional actors. Although the
story of Liam is bleak, Loach always allows a glimmer of hope, in this
case in Liam's sister and her small child.
Loach has always had a deep respect for and understanding
of his struggling working class characters though he never sentimentalises
or beautifies, nor is he afraid in Sweet Sixteen to present a brutal macho
society. Typically, Loach remarked: "Filmmakers have a very soft
life in comparison to people who have to work for a living. And so it's
easy to be a radical filmmaker. I'm in a very privileged position, if
I can keep working." Those who believes that film should not be detached
from a social and political context, especially in these perilous times,
can only hope that Loach does keep on working.