A cinema of the people
It's hard to imagine a more marked contrast than that of the opulence of Cannes and I, Daniel Blake's portrayal of life on the breadline in the North East of England in 2016.
"[Film] can bring us worlds of the imagination and it can bring us the world that we live in... One tradition it has is to be a cinema of dissent and a cinema to represent the interests of the people against those who are powerful and mighty... We must say, another world is possible and necessary."
Ken Loach, May 2016, Palme d'Or acceptance speech at the Cannes Film Festival.
The irony of I, Daniel Blake winning its first major prize amidst the elitism of the French Riviera did not go unnoticed by its director Ken Loach who said it felt "very strange" to receive the Palme d'Or (his second, a first for a UK director) in such glamorous surroundings.
There's also irony in Loach's film being part-funded by the UK government, via BBC Films and the BFI, given its content – most obviously in the sequence that sees a literal man-in-the-street yelling an expletive-laden tirade against the Tories.
Watching his acceptance speech though it was pretty clear that Loach was, as ever, aiming his work at the general public rather than the assembled glitterati from the film world.
I'd recently returned from a month in Nepal with the Kids Kino Project, where the aim is to create a happy, safe, social cinema for displaced families (in this case by the 2015 Nepal earthquakes), so when Ken Loach spoke of "a cinema to represent the interests of the people against those who are powerful and mighty" it really caught my attention.
The questions that arise
Little White Lies accused I, Daniel Blake (screening from Fri 21 Oct) of being "uninterested in solutions" and others were critical of Loach's didactic approach – hardly a first for the veteran filmmaker – and whilst I wouldn't argue with either criticism, to me the film aims to provoke action rather than offer reassurance by way of solutions.
Either way, the critical consensus is that it stands alongside his best work, drawing frequent comparison with previous Cannes-winner The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and most thematically clearly with Cathy Come Home (Sun 30 Oct 15:30).
Originally broadcast on the BBC in 1966, Cathy Come Home reached an approximate audience of one quarter of the UK’s population. The resulting public outcry saw a huge swell of support for homeless charities including Shelter and led to the founding of Crisis.
In the fifty years since, TV audiences have been increasingly fragmented by the introduction of new channels and digital/streaming services. Smartphone, tablet and laptop screens compete for eyeballs, and even cinema audiences can choose between multiplexes, indies and “boutique chains”.
If the internet provides more content than a single life can consume, then social media algorithms are on hand to curate it for us, like something from a Michael Crichton nightmare. The echo chamber effect of Facebook and its ilk has been well documented in the wake of the EU Referendum and the 2015 General Election results, both of which came as quite a shock to those of us living in liberal bubbles.
Will Loach's latest polemic manage to have the reach to change attitudes, just as Cathy Come Home did half a century ago?
Government versus the individual
In Russia, things appear very different. Suppressed upon release by the Russian Ministry of Culture, Leviathan (Sat 29 Oct 14:40) played for just one week at a single cinema in St Petersburg in order to make it eligible for entry into the 2014 Oscars®.
Following a campaign of widespread online piracy (where it was downloaded illegally by 1.5 million Russians in a move supported by its director Andrey Zvyagintsev), the film was eventually released in more than 600 Russian cinemas, reportedly double the number its producers had originally targeted.
Clearly the internet can be a help or a hindrance to a message of dissent, depending on where in the world you are, but the ultimate aim of the artist is the same – to provoke debate as widely as possible and through as many different channels as are available. To get people talking.
Zvyagintsev's film tells the story of one family's disintegration against a backdrop of bureaucracy and political corruption. The battle faced by Kolya's family to hold onto their home in the face of powerful economic forces is echoed in I, Daniel Blake when Katie and her young family find themselves moved to Newcastle by a housing system that cannot find room for them in their native London (a city with currently 57,000 or so empty homes according to The Guardian), whilst Cathy's inexorable slide into homelessness in Cathy Come Home culminates in a battle with social services to retain custody of her children.
Despite the universal nature of these stories, and the positive international response to Leviathan the Russian Ministry of Culture – part-financiers of the film – took great offence to its subject matter and, along with suppressing its initial release, proposed new regulations to prevent future funds from being used to produce films that "defiled" the national culture.
Meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Bristol Cable, Ken Loach outlined the response of the UK government to a film that they likewise partially funded (via the BBC and BFI):
"the protocol [upon winning the Palme d'Or] is that you get a message of congratulations from the government or the government minister for culture... This time there’s nothing, not a thing; they’re bad losers."
I wonder how the next filmmaker to seek government funding for a similarly critical project will fare? In her talk It's Exhausting To Be Free Natalia Kaliada of the Belarus Free Theatre discusses artistic freedoms in the UK, where she now lives exiled from her native Belarus, and suggests that there are plenty of subjects that are off-limits for artists even here.
I am very much looking forward to hearing the opinion of Tony Garnett (Sun 30 Oct 14:00) on the subject. The long-time producing partner of Ken Loach and person responsible for successfully financing many seemingly unbackable projects joins us to discuss his career and the current state of affairs. What words of wisdom can he impart?
The subject of artistic freedom leads me onto the last film in the season – Jafar Panahi's Taxi Tehran (Sun 30 Oct 17:30). The Iranian government's issues with filmmaker Jafar Panahi's brand of social realism have seen him suffer censorship throughout his career, and eventually led to his arrest in 2010. He was sentenced to prison (since commuted to house arrest) and banned from filmmaking for 20 years.
Since then he has worked in protest to produce acclaimed works such as This Is Not a Film (which he smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a USB drive hidden inside a cake!) Closed Curtain, and his latest – Taxi Tehran. Made under semi-clandestine conditions, it’s another daring act of artistic dissent from one of cinemas most vital filmmakers and scooped the Golden Bear for best film at Berlin in 2015.
Despite the grim circumstances surrounding its production and its concern with ethics, aesthetics and politics, Panahi’s film also oozes disarming charm and a mischievous dissenting wit, suggesting that sometimes artistic freedom can transcend limits placed on personal freedom.
What to do?
If the aim of all of these films is to provoke a response in the audience, what can we do to take action?
Recent events on housing estates in Newham, and here in Bristol, led by community groups like Focus E15 and Acorn, show that when people come together to assist the weak against the mighty these battles can sometimes be won.
Meanwhile, grassroots media organisations such as the Bristol Cable show that there is an appetite and a future for community-owned media outside of the mainstream.
The films showing in this season will provoke laughter, tears and anger. On their own they won't provide solutions, but hopefully our experiences as audience members will provoke conversations which might lead to positive action.
David Taylor-Matthews is a University of West of England student who is splitting his time between UWE and Watershed studying for an MA in Curating, mentored by Watershed Cinema Curator Mark Cosgrove and the Watershed team.