At 73, fire still burns in the belly of maverick English director Ken Loach.
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24 Sep 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

No one who has followed Ken Loach's storied career would have been surprised when the English director pulled his film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival in protest at the fest accepting sponsorship from the Israeli government.

Loach's gesture was typical of a filmmaker who has long used his movies as vehicles to tackle political and social issues including the homeless, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, the struggles of the working class and the UK's anti-terror policies in Northern Ireland.

“Ideology — Marxist, anti-imperialist, aligned with the perceived interests of the powerless and the marginal — is the engine that drives his stories,” observed the New York Times' A.O. Scott in his review of The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Loach's violent tale set during the Anglo-Irish War, which won the top prize at the Cannes festival in 2006.

But the onetime Oxford law student and stage actor insists his films aren't overtly political. “Films are more than wanting to set out and make a political statement,” he told Bright Lights Film Journal in 2007. “I hope it's much more than that. It's much more about how people live together and what families are about, and all the things that make drama, not just something you can put on a slogan.”

Loach withdrew Looking for Eric, which was scheduled to screen in Melbourne on July 30, after the festival turned down his request to refuse money from the Israeli Embassy, which sponsored the visit of Israeli-born filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal; she directed the animated feature $9.99, an Australian-Israeli production.

Insisting he wasn't targeting Israeli films or filmmakers, Loach made it clear he was objecting to Israel's "illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods."

That was consistent with his calls to boycott the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year after it agreed to accept a piddling £300 (A$580) from the Israeli Embassy to enable Tali Shalom Ezer, a graduate of Tel Aviv University, to travel to Scotland for a screening of her film Surrogate; the fest subsequently arranged to fund the trip from other sources.

It's perhaps ironic that Looking for Eric, which opens here today, is far removed in tone and spirit from his earlier contentious works. A romantic comedy/drama/fantasy, it stars soccer legend Eric Cantona as the imaginary mentor of a Manchester postman who suffers panic attacks and can't cope with his two layabout stepsons.

It got mostly glowing reviews in the UK, hailed by Channel 4's critic as the director's “most accessible film for years and the most playful of his entire career.” Empire mag enthused, “Play It Again, Eric... Ken Loach perfectly captures the feeling of football and the need for hope. Touching and hilarious — a blinder.”

All that love, however, didn't translate to box-office success, as the film sold less than £1.3 million ($A2.5 million) worth of tickets. Still, Loach's films have rarely drawn big audiences, even in his homeland. For the 73-year-old director's biggest hit, we have to go back nearly 40 years to Kes (1970), a fable about a Yorkshire boy who escapes the confines of an unhappy home and school bullies by training a baby kestrel to fly.

Loach made a major statement with Cathy Come Home (1966), a BBC teleplay which focused on a working class couple (Carol White, Ray Brooks) whose family is torn apart by a heartless local council. His first feature film, Poor Cow (1967), starred White as a hapless woman who's married to a brutal criminal (John Bindon) and ends up living with another thief (Terence Stamp).
In the Thatcher era he struggled to get films financed and concentrated on documentaries. “I think I'd lost my way a bit - and lost touch with the kind of raw energy of the things we'd done in the mid-Sixties and with Kes,” he acknowledges. “The films I was making weren't incisive enough. I wasn't getting the right projects and I wasn't getting the right ideas.”

He made a powerful comeback with Hidden Agenda (1990), a political thriller set in Northern Ireland which slammed the British army's 'shoot-to-kill' policy. Riff-Raff (1991) was a comedy which centred on a young Glaswegian just out of stir (Robert Carlyle) and other workers on a London building site.

He travelled to Spain and Nicaragua to pursue themes of social struggles with Land And Freedom (1995):

and Carla's Song (1996):

My Name Is Joe (1998) saw Loach return to the familiar territory of working-class characters in Glasgow caught in a downward spiral.

Bread and Roses (2000) followed the plight of a Los Angeles family caught in the middle of an emotionally charged strike by Mexican-American cleaners. Ae Fond Kiss (2004) depicted a cross-cultural romance set in Glasgow.

Despite its light tone, Looking for Eric does address two issues which worry the director—guns and violence. “I think that violence is a great problem in society,” he told Indie London. “We've built a society which is built on aggression, on greed, on inquisitiveness. We've destroyed the method or the pattern for young people becoming adults.

"Centuries ago when I was young, a lad would become an apprentice and he'd be sent for a left-handed screwdriver. Things like that were a way of absorbing young people into the world of adulthood. We've destroyed all that and we're now surprised when kids who have no visible future want all the things that we're told we need and, of course, resort to violence and guns.”