Ken Loach was invited to the Festival Lumière in Lyon to present his new film, Sorry We Missed You, about a family struggling in the wake of the 2008 financial crash
His masterclass at the Comédie Odéon was moderated by Thierry Frémaux, director of the Festival, and Clémentine Autin, a French politician. This resource is an edited transcript of the discussion about the film.
Thierry Frémaux : Is it because of the state of the world that you feel more than ever before the need to talk more about the world than cinema ?
Ken Loach : […] I think the world is very dangerous now. We see the economic system collaps[ing], as we did many decades ago, we see the rise of the far right and people are afraid for their jobs […], they are afraid for their safety and they are afraid they see the old patterns of society crumbling. From that fear, they take simple solutions, and that is the far right. I think it is a dangerous time. I think we have to combat that in every way we can, and that is politically, it is through organisation, it is through understanding the causes of what is going wrong. And that is maybe the biggest task of all, because the false solutions are put about all the time, but the real solution [are not]. [We live] in this competitive free-market economy, which drives down wages, which sees closures of the big companies with unemployment, which sees insecurity in working conditions and growing poverty in many areas : we really need to understand where that comes from and organise for our unions, politically and maybe through cinema, if we can. Really, the need to fight back has never been stronger. We should gather strength from the fact that we are many and they are few.
Thierry Frémaux : […] I think Ken Loach is one of the most important directors in the history of cinema. His films talk about activism, but through daily actions. We should also keep in mind that he made more romantic films.
Ken Loach : Films have to respect complexity ; a film that is simply propaganda is not a good film ; a fiction film is not a good film. We have to celebrate life as well, and celebrate our relationships, our comedy, our enjoyment of life and love and tenderness and grief and all those things. The complexity of our relationships is absolutely essential to any artistic endeavour. But all our lives exist in a context […] which is the social situation we are in. It is the choices we have that determine many things in our lives. There is an umbilical connection between the joys and sadness and difficulties of our private lives and the social and economic situation we are in. It is an umbilical connection : we can’t cut the cord. It has to be there, it is always there.
Clémentine Autin : I was overwhelmed by Sorry We Missed You, I could not speak for ten minutes after the film ended because I was crying so much. I think Sorry We Missed You is a companion piece to I, Daniel Blake on a political level : I, Daniel Blake talked about the bureaucratisation of our society’s relation with those who are suffering. In Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach shows us the very concrete ways in which the uberisation of society has affected us : it promised us a better life, thanks to the status of independent worker, but it was a lie. This dream of independence is turning into a nightmare, and the film shows how precariousness and piecework affect all aspects of our lives : it affects their family life, and we see the children starting to fall behind at school because they never see their parents, who work terribly long hours, it affects the couple’s relationship, and more importantly, it affects the main character’s ability to take care of himself. And if you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of others ? The film talks about this vicious cycle. It sparks sadness and anger and calls for mobilisation against a state of affairs that is both intolerable and unbearable.
Thierry Frémaux : I, Daniel Blake was supposed to be your last film. Did you decide to do one more because of the state of the world ?
Ken Loach : I think I made one more film because it was possible. When you get past a certain age, you have to treat each film like footballers do : take each game as it comes.
Thierry Frémaux : How did this project with Paul Laverty come about ?
Ken Loach : There were scenes in I, Daniel Blake that took place in a food bank where […] a charity gives food to people who would not eat otherwise. We were struck by the fact that the people who were there were working. […] They weren’t just people who were out of work, they weren’t just people from the streets : these were working families who were not earning enough money to buy food or if they did, they bought food for their kids but they wouldn’t eat themselves. We looked into this and we found that two-thirds, two-thirds, of new jobs [created] in the last ten years are precarious jobs. Over 60% of new jobs are precarious. There is no guarantee of earning [enough] money ; you can work today but not tomorrow ; you can work next week but not the week after. Many of these people go hungry. We thought we should tell this story ; and once you start, of course, the whole situation unravels. This is a process that began under Margaret Thatcher when she destroyed the trade unions and whole communities and she left old industries to rot, and out of that defeat, employers and big business can now say “We can turn your labour on and off like a tap […].” And when they turn it off, you get no wages. That is the story we wanted to tell and that is why it was so necessary.
Clémentine Autin : One of the difficulties that the film explains well is the atomisation of the workforce. Before, factories were a place where you could socialise, the workers had a sense of unity of place. The film shows that today, workers are forced to compete with each other : if someone does not want to work, another will take their place or will be forced to take their place. […] The atomisation of the workforce calls for the creation new spaces of socialisation and new forms of solidarity.
Thierry Frémaux : Are Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to blame for the current state of the United Kingdom, or has the Labour party also played a part in that they failed to come up with an alternative ?
Ken Loach : That is a very important point you make. Margaret Thatcher said that her great creation, her greatest triumph, was Tony Blair. Essentially, she didn’t need to create him ; he would have done that anyway, that is continue the policies of making the working-class solve the problems of capital. There is someone else we should quote, who is rather more astute than Margaret Thatcher, Vladimir Lenin. He said : “The ruling class can survive any crisis, as long as the working-class pays the price.” That is what Thatcher and Blair had in common. Blair added an illegal war, which killed probably a million people and destabilised the whole region. Blair and his whole cabinet should have been in the Hague answering as war criminals, because that was a war crime. To the shame of our country, he is still asked on television for his opinion and still admired by the right-wing press. But this man and his government are actually war criminals. They not only waged a war against Iraq, but also a class war : this war was embodied in privatisation, in leaving trade unions weak and in allowing capital to continue to exploit. […] The defeat of the social democrats […] is not a defeat for the Left because the Left has to occupy a different territory : it has to reorder the economy so that it is not based on a continuing attack on labour, but based on a common ownership which would produce what we need, what will sustain the planet and give us all a good life. Our system should not be based on conflict between employers and workers.
Thierry Frémaux : Is Brexit a form of hope ?
Ken Loach : Brexit is a distraction. It is a distraction because the big problems we experience while being inside the European Union will still be there when we leave the EU ; and if Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister, the problems will be bigger. Talking about hope, […] on Tuesday night, we had a screening of Sorry We Missed You, which is about precarious workers, in a big cinema in Paris [with] nearly a thousand people, and they were all activists engaged in political struggle to end precarious work. Group after group came on stage and told us about their activities : some were on strike, some were organising and fighting back. We also have strikes against precarious workers by couriers : there is one strike at the minute in London that I am supporting and communicating to and they are fighting back too. The hope is when people fight back. But the media do everything to destroy that : you never hear about these strikes, it is not on the news. I did not know about the French strikes, they did not know about ours. As long as they keep us divided, they stay strong. We have to be much better at communicating because it helps us to know that you are fighting back. It helps the workers on strike here to know that there is a similar struggle in Britain. As long as we stay divided, we stay weak. They want to keep us weak : this is not neutral, this is not an accident. We have to wake up to the extent of the opposition we face.
Thierry Frémaux : Your films focus on changes in everyday lives : the big ideological and theoretical debates are behind us, the fight now must be based on daily actions. Isn’t there a political solution in everyday actions, like choosing not to go to McDonald’s ?
Ken Loach : It is a good thing to do, but it can’t be the complete answer, it can’t be enough. When people are poor, they will buy the cheapest food because they have to. We have to change structurally : if we want a democratic press and democratic broadcasting, we have to change the nature of the state, because these are in effect arms of the state. The BBC is controlled by government appointment ; the press is owned by great international corporations and they control the public debate. If we have to change that, we have to change the whole structure of our society. They are not going to give up their power : there are battles we have to win. We have to do it democratically, of course, and we have now a big party of the Left and we have a big election coming up. But the smear campaign against the Left has already started. Only this morning, on television, the leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn was attacked as a racist : he is a man of absolute integrity and principle. The accusation is a lie but it is made without a reply, nobody is allowed to reply. This is serious ; this is the extent of the campaign that will be against a Left victory. This is the heart of the problem : what is at stake is that if the Left were to win in the British election in the next few months, every worker would get trade union rights, from day 1 of their employment and all privatisation and subcontracting to big private companies for all of our public services would end. Everyone would be directly employed, as in the health service, from cleaners, from caterers to consultants. Everyone would be directly employed, no big private health companies would be involved […]. Public ownership of transport, of railways, public ownership of energy, electricity, gas, public ownership of water, of the post office : all these private companies would be back in public ownership, without top-down authoritarian management but [managed] from local democratic structures. This would be a massive change and one of the massive changes would be public investment : our money would be invested in green technology, green energies, in the areas, just like in the film we have made, where there is no work. We would have green industries with apprenticeships, with permanent jobs, regenerating the area but also protecting the environment. It is absolutely fundamental. As these policies were being developed, the Labour party went from being a small party to being now the biggest political party in Europe with over half a million members. It is massively popular at the grassroots, because it responds to what people need : they need healthcare, they need secure jobs and they need to know they can plan a life with dignity. That is why the attacks are so massive, so vicious and violent. It is extraordinary and people in France don’t know about it.
Thierry Frémaux : Brexit may be a good thing then : if the Labour party wins the elections, these policies could not be implemented with the United Kingdom is still in the European Union.
Ken Loach : Exactly. That is why there is a Labour case for leaving. There is a Left precisely as you say, because the European Union is based on the free market, and it has rules against state support for industries. That case was not heard for three and half years, not a word, even though many people were saying it. There was also a Left case to remain, which is to stay in solidarity with the working class in other European countries and try to reform it, and that is the Yánis Varoufákis position. It was an interesting choice, but not a word was heard about it [in the media].
""60% of new jobs are precarious jobs" : A conversation with Ken Loach", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2019. Consulté le 20/11/2019. URL : http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/cinema/a-conversation-with-ken-loach