The 50th edition of the International Film Festival of India that will be held in Panaji from November 20 to 28 will honor veteran British director Ken Loach with a richly deserved retrospective that spans his over 50-year career.
A lifelong crusader for the cause of marginalised Britons grappling with political, social and economic inequity, Loach remains one of only nine filmmakers (Shohei Imamura, the brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Michael Haneke are among the others) to have won the coveted Cannes Palme d’Or – the festival’s top prize – on two occasions. The Cannes winners The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and I, Daniel Blake (2016) are, unfortunately, not included in the line-up for the eight-day event in Panaji. I, Daniel Blake is being streamed on Netflix.
On the other hand, Kes, the director’s seminal sophomore feature from 1969, is being showcased at IFFI. The tale of a Yorkshire lad’s rapport with a young kestrel is acknowledged as a masterpiece of humanist cinema and as one of the finest British films of the 20th century.
Loach established a reputation as a left-leaning firebrand early in his career, and has continued to tackle hot-button issues in his subsequent fiction features.
Whether it is itinerant London construction workers exploited by an employer who shows scant regard for safety standards in Riff-Raff (1991), or the alternately bleak and humorous peek into the aspirations of an out-of-work labourer on the dole in Raining Stones, Loach’s protagonists, as he has maintained, are “resilient and do fight back”.
A provocative coming-of-age drama about a Scottish teenager determined to spring his mother from prison (Sweet Sixteen, 2002) and an acerbic perspective of an East Berlin musician’s sojourn in West Germany (Fatherland, also known as Singing the Blues in Red, 1986) confirm that Loach’s political passion has not diminished over the years.
The primary attraction of the 83-year-old auteur’s work has been his three-dimensional characters and the distillation of their everyday experiences. Loach’s unobtrusive directorial style never draws attention to itself.
With his customary flair for semi-improvisational verisimilitude, Loach has more often than not cast relatively unknown actors in lead roles. The use of Robert Carlyle the future star of the Trainspotting diptych in Riff-Raff and Carla’s Song (1996) is an exception.
Bucking conventional practice, Loach usually also shoots his films in chronological sequence, lending them an aura of authenticity.
Accused at times of preaching to the converted, the director consistently draws attention to the humiliation faced by the working-class victims of a heartless state welfare system. “If you are not angry about it, what kind of a person are you?” he once snapped at an interviewer.
As the protagonists of his two most recent films, I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019), slide into frustration and despair, Loach’s response to their plight becomes ever more impassioned.
In I, Daniel Blake, any sense of social justice seems nonexistent as the eponymous widower (Dave Johns) strives to claim his rightful disability benefits. Blake’s path runs parallel with that of a similarly disenfranchised single mother and her two little children. Despite their grim situation, the essential dignity of the downtrodden duo remains inviolable.
Loach avoids pat resolutions while illuminating the harsh realities of life in present-day England. Without a trace of sentimentality, he brings us up close and personal to the protagonists who are delineated with sensitivity by his longtime script collaborator Paul Laverty.
Sorry We Missed You, which was selected for the official competition section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is arguably Loach’s most emotionally devastating production to date.
A searing critique of hyper-capitalism, greed and profiteering, the film focuses on Ricky (Kris Hitchen) a 40-something family man struggling to make ends meet following the financial debacle of 2008.
Availing of the opportunity to become a self-employed delivery van driver (the owner of the courier franchise explains that the staff doesn’t work “for him” but “with him”), Ricky soon realises that he is trapped in a downward spiral of hefty fines, inhuman working conditions and mounting debts.
His wife (the astonishing Debbie Honeywood), who works as a care giver, is required to take public transport while making house calls to her elderly patients.
Ricky’s car has been sold and the proceeds used to acquire the delivery van. Worse, since the parents have little time to attend to the needs of their growing children – a rebellious teenage son and his overwrought younger sister – their family life is pushed to the brink.
The meticulously researched script, once again by the indefatigable Paul Laverty, is peppered with sly humour (Ricky cracks a joke about a dyslexic insomniac who stayed awake all night wondering if there was a “dog”) and moments of tenderness (the eventual reconciliation between estranged father and son).
The final act of the film pulls no punches and elicits both righteous indignation and tears.
Ken Loach remains a vital voice in contemporary cinema, and the opportunity to watch, or in some cases, re-watch his compassionate work may well be the highlight of IFFI 2019.