Has film fulfilled its potential?

Between commodity and communication

The following is a transcript of filmmaker Ken Loach's keynote speech at the London Film Festival on October 14, 2010.

THANK YOU for asking me to come. I wasn’t sure where to begin, really. As you said, I’ve been around a long time. It’s 49 years ago that I first got into the business, and 47 years since I joined the BBC. So an awful lot has changed over that time.

But one thing has stayed the same, and that is that film is an extraordinary medium. It’s just a brilliant medium; like theater, it has all the elements of drama. It has character, plot, conflict, resolution. You can compare it to the visual arts, to painting, to drawing; it can document reality, like still photographs. It can explain and record like journalism, and it can be a polemic, like a pamphlet. It can be prosaic and poetic, it can be tragic and comic, it can be escapist and committed, surreal and realist. It’s just an extraordinary medium that can do all these things.

And the question that I thought we should try and answer is how have we protected and nurtured and developed this medium, with this range of possibilities, this great, exciting, complex medium, that has all these elements in it. How have we looked after it; does it fulfill what it could really be? So that’s the question, and I’ll struggle with a few answers.

I want to make three initial points: first of all, film, unlike the other arts, unlike writing a novel, is at once a commodity and a communication. It’s a big investment—people invest money, they want a return; and on the other hand, it’s something that someone has written that means a lot to them—the directors, the actors, everybody involved puts a lot in, makes a big commitment. So, on the one hand it’s a commodity, on the other hand it’s a communication. And there’s always a tension between those two characteristics. And that lies at the heart of what I think we’ll probably talk about.

The second thing I want to say at the start is that we are essentially one medium, whether we work in television mainly, whether we work in feature films, or in advertising, or films for other purposes. It is essentially one group of people; it’s a bunch of directors, camera people, sound people, art department people. We’re one group and we swash about between the different outlets, sometimes in the theater as well. But we are one group, and I make that point because a lot of what I want to say will refer to television, because for me, as Sandra said, television was where I began, it was the springboard. One cannot imagine now cinema without television film; most films are shown on television anyway, whether through DVD, or down some other cable or on the main television channels. So you can’t separate the two.

And the third point; it’s not really a point, it’s a confession really: I’m hopeless with the new technology. And when I’m trying to struggle towards a point, somebody will know in their heads that I should be referring to the net or the web or the digital camera. And actually I can’t because I’m too old. So that’s just a plain fact I have to live with, and I ask for your forbearance in that.

Anyway, I’ve thought how to answer this question of how have we enabled film to be the extraordinary medium that it could be, have we enabled this? And I thought, because it’s such a privilege to work in this industry at all, I would try and divide it into four responsibilities. Because I think with the privilege comes responsibilities.

So the first one, the first responsibility we have I think is to the cinema audience. I don’t mean by that, to make the film of the lowest common denominator. I mean are we making the best films, the spread of cinema, available to the majority of people who want to see it. Is it around, can you go and see it? If you’re living in, say, Darlington can you go and see the latest French film; I guess we know the answer.

I want to quote some statistics and a quotation, and I want you to try and imagine the date of each. So it’s a little audience participation here. For over seven years, the U.S. market share in cinemas was between 63 and 80 percent; it varied between those figures. The UK share, which was mainly U.S. co-productions, so of course we know where the power lies in that, was between 15 and 30 percent; Europe and the rest of the world was between 2 and 3 percent. So for most people it’s almost impossible to have a choice of films; you get what you’re given.

Films broadcast on television, European and world cinema as a percentage of films shown on [U.K.] television channels: 3.3 percent. The best one was Channel Four, and they presented over 7 percent—still not great. But that’s 3 percent of all the films from the rest of Europe and the whole of the world, the whole of the world! Okay, those are the statistics, now here’s the quote:

The history of the British film industry is the history of the growth of domestic monopoly and American control. It is an industry which is owned and controlled by vast financial empires whose sole concern is the corporate balance sheet and the dividend. Successive governments, commissions and committees have uttered pious hopes about the industry’s future and its potential. The dangers of American control and domestic monopoly have been pointed out time and again, as have the special problems of production financing in the existing system. In spite of this only minor readjustments have ever been enacted and the very timidity of these measures have made them futile.

Well, the statistics were the last seven years and the quotation was from 1971, from a union pamphlet. Now, what a disaster we are collectively responsible for. What a disaster. And the Film Council was set up, as I understand it, to establish a viable industry. Well if you don’t confront this basic fact that we don’t have access to our screens how can we be viable? How can we be viable? If you’re producing anything in your own country and you’ve only got a tiny proportion of the home market, you don’t stand a chance. And of course we don’t stand a chance, and of course it won’t be viable unless we challenge this colonizing of our cinema. And it’s an old chestnut, but it’s only an old chestnut because we haven’t dealt with it.

And I think we have that choice, we either accept continued colonization or we start to consider the alternatives. And here I have to come clean and produce another quotation from this pamphlet—which is a very good pamphlet, I urge you to read it, and it reads as follows: “This union calls for the nationalization of film production, distribution, and exhibition without compensation and under the control of elected representatives of the workers in them, with a view to serving society properly in its cultural and entertainment needs.” Okay, a bit of escapism there—we can’t imagine that we can achieve that in this present circumstance.

But nevertheless we have the choice, we either just carry on and we say okay, it’s a fact of nature, it’s an act of God, we can’t do anything about it. Or we start to think, well now, how could we challenge it? And I think that (i.e. nationalization) is top of the list. But I think there are other possibilities: we could start to treat cinemas like we treat theaters. They could be owned, as they are in many cases, by the municipalities; they could be owned by boroughs, towns; programmed by people who care about films—and London Film Festival is full of people who care about films, with a wide knowledge, who could program the cinemas, if they were publicly owned. Not people who care about fast food, which I guess is most of our cinema managers.

And I think that’s something we should really consider. I mean, just imagine, if you went in the library and the bookshelves were stacked with 63 to 80 percent American fiction, 15 to 30 percent half-American, half-British fiction, and then all the other writers in the whole world just 3 percent. Imagine that in the art galleries, in terms of pictures; imagine it in the theaters. You can’t, it is inconceivable; and yet the cinema, which we think is a most beautiful art, we kill it. So I think that’s a challenge to all of us, we’ve actually got to grasp it; we’ve got to grasp it. It’s a man-made system; man can change it.

Okay, second responsibility, and this is tricky. This is the responsibility we have to the creativity of filmmakers, people who make programs, who make films, who make documentaries—the lifeblood of filmmaking. And, as I say, I came from television and I think television produces more than anything else, and it has a particular responsibility in this account. Because just think of all the fiction that is produced night after night, hour upon hour, which are effectively small films.

Documentaries, current affairs, it all involves cameramen, it all involves sound—but that’s the joke, of course, it doesn’t; but we’ll come to that later. And I think we can say that television has now become the enemy of creativity. Television kills creativity; work is produced beneath a pyramid of producers, executive producers, commissioning editors, heads of department, assistant heads of department, and so on, that sit on top of the group of people doing the work, and stifle the life out of them.

My old sparring partner, Tony Garnett, wrote a piece about this and I asked him if I could quote it. He wrote this: “If you want to make a piece of dramatic fiction for the television screen, you must first strangle your creative impulse. The alternative is even more painful: it is to put your creativity in the service of the formula and take instructions from the executive apparatchiks. They need to feed off your creativity because they have none and to control it because they are told to.”

Now I’ve spoken to many people who work in TV drama. They can’t speak out because if you speak out against the system that’s employing you, you’re not going to work. We all know that’s a reality. So I think someone has to say it on their behalf. The creative process starts with the writer, and then it’s the link between the writer and the director that pushes the actual idea of the film forward. Directors say they’re not allowed to work, to speak to writers too much; the script arrives or doesn’t arrive. But connection with the writer and the director is not approved of.

Scripts are approved just before shooting, even after shooting has started. Discussions at the commissioning stage are always other television programs. Not the primary source, not what are we making the film about; it’s other programs—can we get it a bit like this, a bit like that, with more laughs. Tony put this really well and I thought I should share this little bit with you. He says:

A pitch is worked up and taken to the BBC executive. There’ll be some discussion: can the characters be skewed young? Well, considering they’re senior hospital consultants it might be a bit difficult to go very young, but we’ll try. I don’t mind where it’s set, but maybe not Birmingham... and eventually a pilot script may be commissioned; the writer has a few weeks of bliss, the only time alone with his characters. Then the producer gives notes on the first draft and another is written; it goes to the BBC.

Long delay, maybe months, then notes from the commissioning editor. A new draft, long delay, more notes, possibly the same editor, maybe a higher executive, finally another meeting. Not with the writer, because they want to move it on a bit quicker.

More notes, contradicting the previous ones; then the commissioning editor backs down and backs his boss, and the higher you go of course the more valuable your ideas are, of course, because you’re getting paid more. Another draft, and so it goes on...

Now this is no way to cherish originality, this is no way to find those special voices that we need, that are our creative energy. Of course, when you get into the cutting room the same thing happens only more so. Now, I believe, rushes are sent to executives to chew over. First assemblies, when the shots are put together, go out to executives who then send notes, before the director’s even begun to sit down to get his head round it. There’s a director’s version, immediately sacrificed when the producer comes in; then the producer’s version is discussed with the executive producer. And then that is changed, and then the commissioning editor comes in, and so on and so on.

It’s crazy. DVDs get sent to other offices. One editor told me that it was not the commissioning editor he had to bother about, but the commissioning editor’s husband who was a medical man and knew quite a lot about these things. The best story was an editor who said they’d cut a scene of two people walking across a field. And a problem was left in the scene that hadn’t been resolved in the script. The commissioning editor asked the film editor to re-cut the scene so that all the dialogue was taken out—you just had this series of reaction shots—and then they ADRed the dialogue to change it. I mean can you believe the lunacy that goes on!

Finally, the thing is just get it finished, you know. “I don’t care, we don’t care what it’s like, just get it finished, just let them sort it out. Get it finished, get out of the cutting room.” This relates to the powers that be dictating when a film is or isn’t finished. And you can understand it, because it’s madness. I’m pleased to see, I guess we all are, that one or two top-ranking BBC people are going to lose their jobs. About time. It takes £1 million to get them out of the door and a handshake, but nevertheless they’re on their way. Maybe a few more will join them. But let’s start cutting further down.

I want to tell you about the guy who was Head of Drama when I was there with Tony and some of the others. A man called Sydney Newman; and Sydney, if he was still working after four o’clock, he’d probably reckoned he wasn’t doing his job properly. And he just had a few producers, and they were good and they were complementary, they had different tastes, and covered different areas. And Sydney would sometimes come and see the film before it went out, or the play, and sometimes not. And he was very encouraging and he was always a joy to meet, and he always made you smile and you went away feeling ten feet tall. And that’s really what you want, isn’t it? It’s somebody who gives you the confidence to be as good as you can be. But if you’ve got ten people sitting on your shoulder you can’t be good, you can’t be creative. All you can do is to work out which note is the more powerful, or whose job you need to placate.

And the other people that always gets left out of the equation, of course, are the actors. How can the actors perform in these circumstances? Do they know what they’re saying; do they know why they’re saying it? Of course not. And to think that our television is in the hands of these timeservers is nothing less than a tragedy. Because television began with such high hopes. It was going to be the National Theatre of the air. It was going to really be a place where society could have a national discourse and they’ve reduced it to a grotesque reality game. And I think we have to fight that with all the strength we have.

Of course, there are independent companies, and some of these companies do very good work, but some of them live very comfortably with this crass system. Some of them, I understand, naming no names, take about 20 percent off the budget straightaway, top slice it. So it’s no wonder there’s a few millionaires been made. Fortunes have been made by people complying with prescriptive, rigid schedules and prescriptive, rigid formulas. And they are as guilty, I think, as the men and women who have set them the task.

One thing that makes me smile ironically is when these executives get up in Edinburgh, and give the MacTaggart Lecture. Now I’m tempted to remind you of the real Jimmy MacTaggart—he was a producer that we worked with. I’m tempted to revive the quotation from the American Republican senator in a conversation with a Democrat. And the Republican senator, in the election for President, claimed that he was carrying the mantle of Kennedy. And the Democrat senator said I knew Jack Kennedy; I have to tell you, senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Well, I knew Jimmy MacTaggart, and I have to tell you, Mr. Senior Executive, Mr. Junior Murdoch, Mr. Big Head of whatever you are, you are no Jimmy MacTaggart. Because Jimmy was an iconoclast; Jimmy would have been horrified to think that his name was taken to justify the overblown self-importance of these people. And Jimmy’s strength was in recognizing that he couldn’t work alone; Jimmy’s strength was in getting story editors, like Tony Garnett and Roger Smith and Ken Trodd, to work with him. And they found writers, they found new writers. And that was what gave the lifeblood to Jimmy MacTaggart’s work. But next time you hear one of these grandees giving the MacTaggart Lecture, think of the way Jimmy MacTaggart would be blowing a raspberry behind their back. And we should all maybe join in.

Okay, so what’s the conclusion? Some good work gets through, of course. Of course some good work gets through. There are always good people; I mean there’s never a shortage of talent. And despite everything that’s done, there’s some good work done. For me it’s too often based on factual events, you know, recreating politicians’ supposed meetings because I have a real problem with that form. Because is it false or is it true? They didn’t say those words. That isn’t the guy. And yet is it true or isn’t it? We don’t know. It’s neither. So I have a problem with that form.

And what we look for and what writers need to write are original stories, original characters, plot, conflict, things that dig into our current experience. Things that really show us how we’re living, give us a perspective on what is happening. We don’t see it, and that’s what television could do, that’s what they have betrayed. It’s the same with documentaries. It’s like fiction, some good ones get through, but the perception is that original ideas have to fit boxes that the commissioning editors have lined up.

Ratings are the prime consideration. Investigative journalism, where is it? Where’s the new John Pilger? Where’s World in Action? One director told me that he was asked to make a film about debt; they were going to do a series about debt and getting into debt. But the requirement was there were to be no poor people, they had to be aspirational, because obviously poor people are a bit depressing and they don’t sell the adverts.

There is the question of bias, and bias, you know, is a great subject. And I’d love to spend the next hour talking about it but we won’t because there isn’t time. But the bias of the current affairs and documentaries output is something else. Because most of them are Thatcher’s children, ideologically Thatcher’s children.

Right, I seem to have got my script mixed up here, yes. Either that or I’ve dropped some pages. I think I have. Now there’s a tragedy. You’re actually spared half an hour’s railing at the world. No, there we are. Yes, one thing in this, and this is not generally remarked but I think it’s significant. (And reminding you, television is the springboard for the film industry. That’s where we should test out our ideas, that’s where we learn our technique, that’s where we, if you’re a director, you learn about actors, that’s where you can learn everything. So it’s not irrelevant).

Part of the problem is the malign effect of print journalists. The print journalists are the ones who get into the high posts; they’re the ones that climb the greasy career pole, the print journalists. They have no conception, it’s not in their heads to imagine a film sequence, they can’t do that. They know they don’t understand it. So in current affairs programs you’ll get these bizarre charts and graphics and things that don’t explain anything. You sit there, you know, puzzling at the screen.

But it’s visual, so because it’s visual, great, it must be doing the job. I’m told that print journalists, when they’re making a film, they don’t look at the screen. They look at what they’ve written and they say “cut” regardless of the picture. They cut according to the script. Print journalists should be barred from television in my view. Stick to radio, or the print.

You think of the great British documentary tradition we had. You think of the great documentary filmmakers; you think of the films they left us and then look at what’s on offer. There is the destruction of the craft, but we’ll come on to that. This is the third responsibility that I think we have as filmmakers.

So the first one is to spread access to films; the second one was to originality and creativity. The third is to filmmakers and their craft. Now documentaries used to be made with a cameraman or woman with a sound recordist, maybe a spark, the director, there was an interviewer if it was that type of program. Now of course new technology has been used as an excuse to wipe out the crews. Every time you see a documentary that says, filmed, edited, directed by, you’re watching a home movie, you’re not watching a documentary, you’re watching a home movie because one person can’t actually do it. You can’t frame and light and adjust the camera and ask the questions and listen to the sound, you can’t do it and what they’ve done by cutting the crews in documentaries particularly, they have destroyed that craft.

I’ve worked with a lot of documentary cameramen in features, people like Chris Menges, Barry Ackroyd, Charles Stewart; there are others, but these are the three I happened to have worked with, great cameramen, and they learned through doing documentaries. There was a cameraman, Brian Probyn I worked with and I remember him saying to me his choice was to photograph and record life, the everyday life, that’s what he wanted to do, and he talked about Cartier-Bresson and he talked about the great still photographers, and that’s what he had in his mind, those frames, that lighting, that texture. You can’t do that in documentaries now.

Directors will say they have a certain number of days, if they’re lucky, to get a cameraman but they might need more so they fill in with the assistant producer or they fill in themselves and the film is wrecked. And what the people have who are doing this is a complete contempt for film—they have a contempt for film. They don’t understand it, they think it is something airy fairy, they live in the real world of hard news, they have a contempt for film and I think we have to challenge them and we have to fight them.

Second, as regards our responsibilities to the filmmakers, is wages and conditions and crewing. Now as crews have been reduced, it’s a constant battle to sustain wages and conditions. I just want to take one issue, working for free. Now if anyone here is ever asked to work for free, don’t do it, or rather start and then tell the Union, because it’s illegal. It’s illegal and they can be shopped. If you’re doing a job you are legally entitled to at least the minimum wage and everything that goes with it and yet there are employers who will take you on. “Well we’ll see how it goes, you know we’ll take you on, we’ll take you on if you’re good” —so you work for free. We get letters offering to work for free but if there’s work to do it should be properly paid, unless you’re doing amateur work. Well that’s fine, but that’s not professional. So if there’s work to do it should be properly paid, because if you do it for free, you’re doing someone out of a job, and that person may well have responsibilities. They’re unemployed and the employer gets you for free.

The union took up a case of an art department assistant who signed up to work without pay. The union took her case to an Industrial Tribunal; the union and the art department assistant won and she was entitled to full pay. So remember that: don’t work for free—its illegal.

The other thing I think we should draw from that is if you’re not in the union, join it, because that’s our only defense. If you go as an individual you’re nobody, if you go with the union with all of us who work in the business together then we have real strength. But we only have strength if you all join, because if some of you don’t, then they’ll employ you through the back door. They only managed to win that case because the union showed some strength. So join the union, and if you’re a student, join the union. I think there’s somebody from the union here; he won’t let you out until you show the card, okay. We don’t care about Thatcher’s law, you don’t get out unless you’ve got a union card!

Also, we often hear of filmmakers who need our support. This is directors, maybe writers, maybe actors who need our support, and again a strong union can give that. As an individual we can’t do much, but I’ll just mention three. There is an Iranian director called Jafa Panahi who was jailed and prevented from working because the film he was working on didn’t suit the regime in Iran. Chinese director Lou Ye, who was banned for five years from making films, and Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian director barred from her own country and obstructed at every point in her work. Now that’s three; there are many others, people who have suffered worse than the three I’ve mentioned. We need to recognize that we owe a duty of solidarity to filmmakers across the world. We’re not an island—no man is an island as John Donne said—and we have to recognize our solidarity for other filmmakers who need our support and that’s really important. So that’s the third.

And the fourth and the last is responsibility to and for our own work—and I have to be a little personal here and describe the project that I and the people I’ve worked with have had over the years—I guess our project from our time at the BBC till now has been to record and celebrate and describe and show solidarity with the lives of ordinary people. The day-to-day lives of ordinary people, what I will not apologize for calling the working class, because contrary to Mr. Miliband’s new interest in the middle class, the working class is still with us. Nothing is made without workers making it. Nothing moves without workers move it, nothing appears in shops without workers sell it. Everything. Some of the working class that we rely on, maybe now in other countries, like a lot of them are on starvation wages. So I don’t apologize for saying that that’s what we explore, the working class is still with us.

Society is still based on class conflict. The interests of the employers in the big corporations are opposed to the interests of what we used to call the people, and if you doubt that, just look at the planned privatization and dismantling of the NHS, which is going to happen before your very eyes. There’ll barely be anybody left working for the NHS quite soon. Why? Because it suits the interests of the big corporations that they should get the work, that it should go through private companies. The NHS hospitals will for example now have no limit on the amount of bed space and facilities they can sell to private companies. So if you’re an NHS patient you go further and further down the list. Doctors are going to become buyers of services, they’ll have to employ management consultants, management consultants will usher forward the private companies, and before you know where you are, it’ll be a private company that’s sorting out wherever that unpleasant boil is.

So the class conflict is alive and well. We’ve been asked before, why choose this project, why choose this, isn’t it a bit miserable? I guess there are three reasons. The first reason is these are stories that by and large are not told. Yes you will see a lot of working class people on television—not so many in films—a lot on the telly, but they’re either victims, or they’re predators, or they’re outrageous in some way. You never get a sense of their collective strength, never or very rarely. You never get a sense of their community of interests. You never get a sense of their history of struggle, and that’s probably the most important thing to say about class politics. So their stories aren’t told.

Secondly, if there is to be a change then it will come from people who have less, it will come from people with not much to lose. I don’t believe in change from the top. If you’re well off, you’re not so compelled to change things, you’re not that well motivated. If you’ve got not much you are motivated. That’s why they are important, if there is to be change it will come from the working class. Also, they have the best jokes.

A responsibility we have, and we try (and of course we often fail), is to be rigorous in what you research, is to be true to your characters. There are many different kinds of films and the last thing I would want, or think anybody would want, is that all films work in the same style or the same pattern or the same idiom. You want diversity, you want every different kind of film made, but within the styles you want people to stay true to that original idea—don’t compromise I guess is the responsibility. Don’t be talked into having this person or that person in the cast because “oh, they’ll get more money,” or whatever the line is. Don’t compromise, be true to your idea whatever it is. And if you do something that is research-based, be rigorous in the research. All should follow their own path.

We started by talking about diversity and the need for diversity and that’s absolutely what we need. It’s what we don’t get but it’s what we need, we need diversity. The other thing I want to say about this is that those who do have access to the medium, whether it’s in cinema, whether it’s television, or whatever it is we do, have a duty “to speak, as they say, truth to power.” We do have a responsibility to say this is how it is or this is how it seems to me because your truth will be different to mine and so will yours and so will yours. And what is actually happening will emerge from all our perceptions. But we can’t just walk away. It’s such a privilege to be able to make a film, you can’t just say, okay I’ll just do what pleases me and bugger it. We do have a responsibility to in some way, in whatever form, to be tied in, in some way, to what is happening.

The great theatre critic, Ken Tynan said, there should be an umbilical connection between what happens on stage and what happens in the street outside the theater, and I think in general that’s true of cinema. It’s a very public art form, if we can call it an art form, it’s very public and there should be over a mass of material and films and everything there should be a connection. So we should speak truth to power. But actually I prefer another quotation which is from.… sorry sir, are we keeping you up? Nearly finished. Don’t worry, you’ll be let out soon, if you are a union member that is…. The other quotation I prefer is, “Power concedes nothing without demand, it never did and it never will.” That was written by Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave. “Power concedes nothing without demand.”

As culture becomes more and more the same and we see it across television channels, you see it in the cinema, it becomes more the same and television channels copy each other. We do have a role, we have a role to be critical, to be challenging, to be rude, to be disturbing, not to be part of the Establishment. And I would like to ask those colleagues, good people who have knelt before the Queen at some point in their lives, really what are you doing? Because we don’t want to be caught in that sticky embrace. Think who else is in the club! You wouldn’t want to be in there with the fraudsters and tricksters and knaves and thieves that are there. Anyway, the woman you’re kneeling before represents all that is wrong with this country—inherited wealth, inherited privilege, the apex of the class system. Let’s have a bit more dignity than to crawl before that woman, please.

I think we need to keep our independence. We need to be mischievous. We need to be challenging. We shouldn’t take no for an answer. If we aren’t there as the court jester, or as the people with the questions they don’t want asked, who will be? Nobody will be there. So it’s down to us, it’s down to you, it’s down to all of us to be irreverent, demanding, challenging, critical. Ask the questions they don’t want asked. Join the union because that’s the only way we’ve got strength. And let’s start, finally start to realize the potential of this extraordinary medium that we’re privileged to work in which we call film. Thanks very much.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

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Critical Thinking


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