“Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we can tell the truth about the present” – Ken Loach
Pioneer of British social realism, Ken Loach is a director known for his provocative filmmaking methods and stark attitude towards contemporary issues. Starting off as a director for BBC television in the 1960s, the director’s 10 contributions to the BBC’s Wednesday Play anthology series would quickly establish his name in the industry. With docudramas including Up the Junction, In Two Minds, and famously Cathy Come Home, which sparked public outrage and played a part in homeless charities ‘Crisis’ and ‘Shelter’ being set up.
Portraying downtrodden working-class people, Loach continues to be a social campaigner and has been for much of his career, believing that the current benefits system, explored in the Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake is, “a Kafka-esque, Catch-22 situation designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out of the system and stop pursuing their right to ask for support if necessary”.
Often casting unknown actors from the exact social demographic he’s trying to portray, Loach strives for realism in all ways, incorporating local dialects into his films despite the pronunciation barrier across the world. Loach supported this in an interview, commenting: “If you ask people to speak differently, you lose more than the voice. Everything about them changes.
“If I asked you not to speak with an American accent, your whole personality would change. That’s how you are. My hunch is that it’s better to use subtitles than not, even if that limits the films to an art-house circuit.”
With his films acting as the inspiration for filmmakers across the world, from Shane Meadows to Sean Baker, let’s take a look at Ken Loach’s top 10 favourite films…
Ken Loach’s top 10 favourite films of all time:
A Bout de Souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
In A Bout de Souffle (or Breathless) two titans of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, collided, with the latter providing the original story for Godard’s classic New Wave feature.
Concerning a small-time thief who tries to convince a young American journalism student to run away with him after he steals a car and murders a policeman, Breathless is a sleek, stylish piece of cinema that would inspire multiple filmmakers following its release. When it came to Ken Loach, it is likely the film’s revolutionary attitude that rewrote the rulebook of cinema that attracted the director to Godard’s classic.
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965)
A classic film of wartime drama, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers follows the people of Algiers in their fight for independence from the French government, causing fear and violence as the issue escalates.
Using non-professional actors and a low-key central story, The Battle of Algiers was the perfect film for Ken Loach to embrace, commenting that: “It was an anti-imperialist film. It told the story from the point of view of ordinary people.
“It used non-professional actors. It was not over-dramatic. It was low key. It showed the impact of colonialism on daily lives. These techniques had an important influence on my filmmaking… I saw the film when it came out in 1966. It was one of a number of films that influenced me.”
Loves of a Blonde (Miloš Forman, 1965)
As is the trend with Ken Loach’s top 10 favourite films, European directors are favoured above and beyond anyone else, perhaps for their dedication to realism and revolutionary techniques. Loach’s third choice is Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, a film following a young woman from a small town who sleeps with a band member from Prague and goes to his house to cause upheaval after he fails to contact her.
Ken Loach notes that If he ‘had to choose one film’, “I’d choose Blonde in Love by Miloš Forman. Continuing, Loach noted that: “It’s a Czech film made in Prague in the 60s, about the romance between a pianist and a small-town factory girl. Because of the shooting, the lighting, the performances, the pacing of it, the concern with ordinary lives, the respect and the lack of melodrama… the humanity of it, really. Forman’s approach makes it far more touching than something souped-up, over-lit and over-acted with too much music.”
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Often cited as one of cinema’s greatest ever films, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is an Italian neorealist drama set in post-war Italy, in which a working-class man’s bike is stolen, so he and his son set out to find it.
De Sica’s film is a pretty ordinary one, centred around an easily comprehensible story about the theft of a man’s bike, though it is the realism that the director manages to elicit from the film that really grabbed Loach’s attention. As the British director comments, “It made me realise that cinema could be about ordinary people and their dilemmas. It wasn’t a film about stars, or riches or absurd adventures.”
Closely Watched Trains (Jirí Menzel, 1966)
Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, who also pens the film’s screenplay, Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains follows the life of an apprentice train dispatcher at a village station who is seeking his first sexual encounter.
This Czech comedy has a wild side that is typical of the country’s roots, presenting a charming, beautiful film that works on multiple levels. As Loach notes, “I think it’s a splendid little film…It’s wise and funny and humane and delighting and beautiful in black and white and there’s a kind of gentleness but also blithe humour which I think is beautiful but absolutely typical, I think, of Czech culture”.
The Fireman’s Ball (Miloš Forman, 1967)
This Czech-American filmmaker was perhaps more famous for his films across the pond than the ones he made in his own country, responsible for 1975s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Amadeus nine years later.
The director’s third film, however, a comedy titled The Fireman’s Ball, was the last he would make in Czechoslovakia before moving to America and would follow a volunteer fire department throwing a party for their town and former boss. A satirical metaphor for communism at its core, The Fireman’s Ball is also, at its simplest, a simple comedy about inept firemen trying to perform beyond their means.
Fascinatingly the events in the film were inspired by a real-life party, attended by Forman and his screenwriters.
Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
From new wave master François Truffaut, Ken Loach picks out Jules et Jim for one very specific moment, picking the cycling scene in the film as one of “The greatest film scenes ever shot”.
Accompanied by the stunning music of Georges Delerue, Jules, Jim and Catherine cycle together with unabashed freedom, with a bitter love triangle operating between the three of them. Speaking about the impact of the scene, Loach notes, “The sense of enjoyment with this trio on their bicycles is perennial. It’s completely evocative of that carefree young moment, the age when people are carefree. And then of course, for these three, it will all be ruined by the war”.
La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
In a film laden with class divisions, Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu presents the void between the working and upper class with artistic elegance, a likely reason Ken Loach became so absorbed by the film.
Renoir’s film follows Andre, an airman, who is heartbroken upon his discovery that his love Christine is married to an aristocrat, only for Robert, the aristocrat himself, to discover his wife’s affair. By highlighting the issues of an unjust society, Renoir would inspire Loach’s Kes, Sweet Sixteen, and I, Daniel Blake, among others, that dealt with the oppressive behaviour of class systems on the working class.
The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi, 1978)
Ermanno Olmi’s slow-burning historical drama regarding peasant life in a feudal farm in rural Italy at the end of the 19th century is a plodding classic that used real peasants from the Bergamo province, each of whom had no acting experience at all.
Ken Loach’s love of non-actors likely explains his fondness for Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, which manages to create a highly realistic tone thanks to the everyday individuals of the cast. As well as Loach being inspired by the piece, the director himself would also have a hand in the morale behind the scenes, with the cast fondly recalling the family atmosphere on set. Lead actor Luigi Ornaghi even remembers creating snow for the film’s winter scenes by cutting pieces of white paper into shreds, an idea given to Olmi by Ken Loach.
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
One of cinema’s most influential directors, Ingmar Bergman has inspired an array of filmmakers from Woody Allen, to Satyajit Ray with films such as The Seventh Seal, Persona, and of course Wild Strawberries.
Bergman was inspired to make the film when he was driving by his grandmother’s house and imagined what it would be like to open the door and find everything as it was from childhood. The director comments:
“So it struck me — what if you could make a film about this; that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door, and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives. That was actually the idea behind Wild Strawberries.”
Though magical realism isn’t a mainstay across Ken Loach’s filmography, the charm, beauty and surrealism of Wild Strawberries can certainly be seen in 2009s Looking for Eric.