Local: Humanising complex stories

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Loach has chosen to base his last two films, which explore poverty and society, in the North East. He and screenplay writer Paul Laverty visited Newcastle’s Lit & Phil on December 4, where Sammy Sadler found out the reasons why…

With a career spanning almost six decades, Ken Loach is a leading British filmmaker best known for his provocative portrayals of social realism. Tackling homelessness, benefits, poverty and unemployment, Loach’s critical directorial style has both wowed audiences and attracted a plethora of awards including Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or.

Ken’s latest two films, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, are both set in the North East and vividly explore stories relating to monetary issues, the benefits system and food banks. On December 4, Loach and screenplay writer Paul Laverty took centre stage for an exclusive In Conversation With event at Newcastle’s Lit & Phil to discuss the creative thought processes behind their filmmaking, politics and the current economic climate in the UK.

The largest independent library outside of London, The Lit & Phil is home to over 170,000 books and has become a cultural hub due to its busy events programme and performance space. During filming for both I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, Ken and Paul used the building for auditions and important production decisions were made among the historic bookshelves.

Paul reflected at the event: “There are times when it’s impossible to work here because it’s so full of life. “You could create a whole film around the buzz of activity in the building. It’s a real jewel and an absolute pleasure to be back.”

Addressing a packed room, Ken and Paul delved into the reasoning behind their film creations and their profound connections to the North East.

Ken explained: “We began creating I, Daniel Blake when Paul and I were discussing the poor and cruelty poverty that individuals have experienced as a result of social security in the UK. And because of what we discovered, we began to think about Sorry We Missed You as we were filming.

“What struck us was the number of people who needed food and charity to eat,” the filmmaker continued. “We felt that they were stories that needed to be told. The central idea from Sorry We Missed You is that the issues faced aren’t seen at work or out in public, they’re seen at home. When you’re exhausted, tensions arise and so it became a story of a family.”

Ken Loach’s films often prompt feelings of overwhelming sadness and anger from audiences, by exposing intense social injustices.

The director of Cathy Come Home and Kes, however, hopes his work has a purpose beyond art alone, believing it can help stimulate real-world improvements.

“There’s a differentiation between public anger and social outrage, which we have to channel into politics,” he told The Lit & Phil audience. “There are people out there who are under stress but they don’t necessarily have the public platform like we do.

“You can’t work when you’re angry and in that state of mind. There has to be a sense of ease.”

As the setting of his latest two films, the North East has been in the limelight and awareness has been raised around the local landscape and charities such as the Newcastle West End Food Bank. When asked by an audience member why he made the decision to come back to the region a second time for Sorry We Missed You, Ken simply claimed: “it’s a joy to work here.”

He continued: “The culture [in the North East] is very rich and as such, it becomes part of the film. The language here is very special and the strength of that language is visually stunning.”

Alongside his stark storytelling, Ken has also been famed for his use of lesser-known actors, something he and Paul were especially keen to implement in portraying life in the North East. Specifically referencing I, Daniel Blake & Sorry We Missed You, Ken claims the actors and actresses featured could shape a narrative even further through their ability to take a fictional situation and make it credible.

“With film acting you need that moment of truth in the eyes,” the filmmaker says. “It’s a different technique and it has to be palpable – it’s very exciting when it happens. That’s when you get that genuine interaction and reaction between people.”

It’s evident that Ken and Paul’s films have been and will likely continue to be more than just art. The messages shared and the topics raised are intended to spark those wider conversations to promote change.

Paul concluded the event by saying: “One thing that attracted us to I, Daniel Blake was a figure that 32 per cent of benefits were fraudulently claimed, which is untrue. The film helped us to humanise a story of a very complex system. We need to challenge and take control of a narrative to create an economy around social need.”