Highly respected for his outstanding work by the British and international arts community, director Ken Loach returns this year with his latest film Jimmy’s Hall.
Ken Loach and his regular collaborator, writer Paul Laverty (The Angel’s Share, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) return to Ireland to feature the story of a dynamic and charismatic character, Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), and the political situation during the extreme catholic days of 1930s, which left little space for freedom of expression. Ten years after the Irish Civil War, state and church had combined to make a very authoritarian society. Jimmy Gralton and his friends hoped for a middle space where people could come and dance, enjoy themselves, study and discuss freedom.
Thus they created and organised a hall which for them meant a physical manifestation of their shared creative ideas, Jimmy’s Hall. Soon the hall became an iconic and symbolic thing for the community. The interference of the local priest, performed by Jim Norton, forced Jimmy and his friends into a cruel struggle to save their space and sees Jimmy Gralton deported from his homeland.
A similar situation is not far from today’s reality. The rich are still in control, the violence against the poor continues to be systematic and the struggle of space is still very important. Yet it’s hard to imagine how Ken Loach can be described as someone who has no respect for his country as he’s often been portrayed. This is quite a blind statement of journalism that seems to ignore reality and history. What about Martin Luther King who taught us how unsophisticated nationalism and racism are and that there’s no reason for them to exist in a society aiming at progress? Jimmy’s Hall is a film about class issue and freedom of expression, not a matter of nationality, communism and “never helping mum with housework shock” as Ryan Gilbey mentions in his review for the New Statesman.
Ken Loach’s latest picture was a delight to see on the big screen when it premiered at a full house at London’s BFI Southbank shortly after the 2014 European Parliament election that coincided with the local elections in England and saw the devastating turnout of 34.17% of the country’s total population. Its Tarkovsky-like photographic excellence by the skillful hands of Robbie Ryan (Philomena, Ginger & Rosa, Wuthering Heights) has hues interchanging from the warm and bright colours of swing dancers on the Irish field passageways to cold blue and green tones cutting at the priest’s speech in the church while reading the names of people who went to the hall for a dance, as if it’s a crime.
The outstanding performances especially by Simone Kirby, Aisling Franciosi and newcomer Aileen Henry are arresting at the heart of serious feminist theory and feminist existentialism. But I had to meet with director Ken Loach to hear his thoughts around humanity and how it has established itself quite apart from the natural world as well as how his picture relates to the persisting phenomenon of xenophobia.
Jimmy’s Hall is influenced by a play written by Irish writer and actor Donal O’Kelly, the book My Cousin Jimmy written by Margaret Gralton, newspaper reports and known public events and adapted for the screen by Paul Laverty. But there is nothing to be found in the National Archive Office in Dublin: all paper reports of Gralton’s deportation are missing so it’s all written in the memory of people and some of it Loach and his production crew had to imagine.
Why did you decide to return to Ireland for your new film?
The relationship between Ireland and Britain is obviously critical. It illuminates Britain’s imperialist past, it reveals the consciousness that the British ruling class had perpetuated above what they did in Ireland, which was their colony for 800 years. The Irish were struggling for independence for 200 years and more then when they finally voted democratically to be independent, the British closed the parliament, sent in the troops, closed down the newspapers, brutalised them as they had done for centuries.
Yet the myth that is perpetuated in the discourse about Ireland is that the Irish can’t stop fighting each other and the British intervened out of the kindness of their hearts and it’s completely false: the violence was done to the Irish by the British. Also the way the British tried to stay in control of Ireland even when they were forced to relinquish part of their territory. It was again absolutely illustrative of how they tried to keep control of their empire even when they had to give independence to the country. And Ireland is a very rich culture, it’s rich in comedies and stories and characters so it’s a very rich country to work in. But principally it’s to set the record straight about what the British did in Ireland.
How does the story of Jimmy Gralton relate to the current political landscape?
Jimmy Gralton and his friends tried to set up a free space for learning, for dance, for entertainment, for music, for sports, lessons in boxing, woodwork classes, something where they were in control of what they did, where the community was in control. It was done democratically and it was autonomous. That desire for people to be in control of their own future is very powerful and it’s still an issue now. We don’t have the orthodox of the church now, we have the orthodox of the IMF or the World Bank or the European Union bureaucrats saying this is the only way we can live and we have to be subservient to it, we have to put up with mass unemployment and the dominance of big corporations. There’s an orthodoxy there that you can’t challenge and in the same way we had the church which had the orthodoxy saying this is how you must live your life. How dissidents and people with an alternative perspective find space is still an issue.
What kind of views are you hoping your audience to have after seeing your film?
I hope they enjoy meeting Jimmy and the others, that they’d share and understand their dilemmas, because the same dilemmas occur time and time again when people try to do anything radical. How far do you pursue your principles even if it’s going to risk what you’ve already achieved and that’s the dilemma that Jimmy Gralton and co. face when they consider whether to actively get involved in reinstating a tenant who is being evicted. If they do that they make themselves vulnerable and if they don’t do it then they betray their principles. So it’s a dilemma and I think that’s a dilemma that people in radical organisations have all the time.
I hope they’d understand that and I hope that they’d see Jimmy Gralton in all the local campaigns that everybody can take a part in order to save a hospital, protect the NHS, to support the disabled or support the homeless, trade unionists trying to claim better wages or conditions. There are campaigns for better transport and old people, hundreds of campaigns over and over again, most of them are run by people like Jimmy Gralton who nourish the community.
In hearing about Jimmy’s story I hope that they’ll find a kinship with people who are doing equivalent work right now. Also relate to the times: we had a financial collapse in 1929 and we have one now, we’ve had a recession and mass unemployment then we’ve got one now. The popular left hasn’t got itself organized the way it should and then we’ve had a decade of unemployment. The far right was on the march then and we’ve seen were that led in the 1930s and the far right is on the march now. So there’s lots of parallels and we need to look back and think what did they do wrong, how can we get it better. The good news now is that there are popular left movements. Syriza in Greece has done well and the parties in Spain have done well but we have been there before so I hope audiences could reflect on that.
However people in Greece and perhaps other countries in the world still don’t trust the popular left. In what ways could someone approach far right voters and actually make them understand what they’re doing is wrong reflecting on recent history lessons?
That’s the good thing about Jimmy Gralton: they achieve something. I think people voting for the far right, they’re voting with despair and when they’re voting for the left, they’re voting with hope because they think they can achieve something. We need to stress the positive things that people can do it and achieve together. It is to get rid of that fear, the fear of the immigrant, the fear of the foreigner, the fear of financial meltdown, the fear that everything is going to be chaotic if the European Union pulls out its subsidy. We have all the labour power, we have all the resources, we can achieve everything. And there’s this kind of myth that you need these people to exploit you in order to achieve anything. And of course it’s nonsense. It’s a fear that perpetuates and that’s how they stay in control, through fear and the way to come back to the far right is with hope and to show what is possible.
I wonder if you had any thoughts on Patricio Guzman’s terrific Battle of Chile and the sad ending of his trilogy that sees a failure for the left.
I think he’s a terrific filmmaker, Patricio Guzman. I have a huge respect for him. He’s a very thoughtful and serious man and a good filmmaker.It’s a huge issue to untangle and I don’t know enough about Chile to be pontificating about it. I think it’s an international failure: when a country like Chile takes a stand and Allende takes a stand the left internationally should have offered more support, because we know it will be attacked and it will be attacked again. It’s happened in Nicaragua and it’s happened all over. If a country does begin to establish the basis for a socialist society, the Americans and Europeans will attack it and they will only survive by international support. It’s a challenge for the international left to support it. That’s when you see the socialist democrats are really right wing because given the choice between a socialist state and a capitalist state they will always back the capitalists, like our Labour party or the French Socialist party, as they did in Spain. They were more prepared for Franco to win than to support the Spanish Republic. And these are the Social Democrats, these are the ones who call themselves left. So it’s got to be the serious left that will defend a country like Chile that begins to establish the basis for a socialist society.
There are talks in Greece that suggest Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras and his representatives should practice their English to avoid embarrassment outside of Greece. Do you think this is a concern at all?
Absolutely not! Why should he speak the language of imperialism. He’s Greek so he should speak Greek and there are good translators. I don’t think everybody should speak English, that’s bowing down before the imperialists. Language is about power. The powerful always take their language with them and make everyone else speak it. So I think it’s a sign of independence to speak your own language. He should stick to Greek.
In Jimmy’s Hall, Marie is probably the most powerful character from whom we could perhaps earn inspiration for strength in achieving our human rights.
Yes. I think you’re right. Marie leads the resistance of the kids. She suffers a beating and she still resists. She’s a great character, a great girl and beautifully played by Aisling [Franciosi] who’s a lovely actress. We were very determined it should be a girl who does it so it isn’t too stereotypical. There was foul piece in The Spectator this week by a woman columnist [Julie Bindel] who accused us of kind of extreme male dominated characters. And there was a piece in the same magazine the previous week by their male political correspondent, a vicious personal attack, and one again this week. This is allegedly like a serious magazine and it’s absolutely foul, it uses foul language.
I’m glad you picked up on Marie because we thought there were strong women in the film. There’s Marie, there’s Alice who runs the local circulating library, there’s Oonagh who makes strong points and she suggests going to the priest. We thought there were strong women but she [Bindel] chooses to attack it viciously. It’s really extraordinary, and I think there is a concerted political attack to takes us down as a group, as people making films. It’s too coincidental. You can have one ugly attack but then to have two in the same paper in consecutive weeks is very bizarre and it’s like they are out to destroy us. It’s very strange.
Did you have a similar response to your previous films?
Yes with the Irish films. With The Wind That Shakes the Barley I was compared to Leni Riefenstahl and a right-wing correspondent in the Telegraph said he hadn’t seen the film and he didn’t want to see the film because he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler is. It goes beyond criticism it goes beyond anything, it’s a kind of rage or hysteria from the right. I think they know exactly what they are doing they are trying to destroy it. We did another film in Ireland called Hidden Agenda, over 20 years ago, and when it went to Cannes a right-wing MP said that it was the IRA entry at Cannes. You know they try to destroy it, to destroy you.
What did you think about the Dardenne brothers’ entry to this year’s Cannes film festival, Two Days, One Night?
They are very good filmmakers and very good friends. It’s very interesting and it’s a very valid film and makes some good points. Marion Cotillard is very good in the film and gives a lovely performance. I think there is an interesting discussion to have politically because I don’t know how it leaves working people, when they have the question of organization in it, because they are potentially stronger than they appear in the film. If they were to get together they could stop production, they have the power to be strong. It’s a question of whether you have to indicate that in a film or whether you should, or whether you just let it be of face value where everybody is entirely individual and separate. But they are good friends and I always enjoy their work.
In Jimmy’s Hall, is the erotic element between Oonagh and Jimmy true? Is there evidence about it?
Not as far as we know. Oonagh is an imaginary character. But at the end of his life Jimmy got married in New York to an Irish woman who was from just a few miles away from where he lived in Ireland. So that’s really unusual.
With regards to archive and its memory, how important is it for the society?
It’s central. It’s like the famous quote by Milan Kundera, “the struggle of memory against forgetting”: the struggle of the people against those in power. It’s about who writes the history and those in power write the history. So when you challenge their version of history, like we did in Ireland, they become apoplectic, they have a rage and a dedication to undermine anything that challenges their version of what happened. So keeping the record is absolutely central.
Jimmy’s Hall was shot on film, physically worked on a Steenbeck flatbed film editing suite and is now out in UK cinemas.
Georgia Korossi is editor of 11polaroids, writer and producer of film based in London and Athens.