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Last night I went to The Showroom cinema in Sheffield to see Ken Loach’s 1984 documentary on the miner’s strike Which Side Are You On? The screening was followed by a Q and A with the director, as The Showroom kicked off a season of films reflecting the strike on its 25th anniversary.

Upon entering the cinema I was interested to see that the vast majority of the attendees looked to be well over 40. It was clear then that this audience didn’t come here to learn about the strike in any more detail, or to get a new perspective on it: they were there to remember. I arrived into the world in the summer of 1984, slap bang in the middle of the conflict. My memory is non-existent. I’ve had to fill in gaps through books, documentaries and dramas, though I do have an acute sense of the ramifications of the collapse of mass industry in Britain. I grew up in West Yorkshire, and went to school in Hemsworth, a town at the heart of an area stripped of its working-class heritage. As a pupil in the late 90s I observed, on a daily basis, the seemingly indelible scars of Thatcherism. So it’s important for me to understand more thoroughly the events that shaped my own environment. I’m interested in visualizing the strike; in seeing its many protagonists vocalized and understanding how an artist like Loach shaped his own response to such a profound national moment.

At the film’s conclusion most of the ‘questions’ to Loach were statements. Not about the film either, but about the strike. There were a couple of mini-arguments about the roles of trade-unions and some half-baked prescriptions for the future of the left, along with the customarily simplistic dismissals of the Labour party and its protagonists. It seemed that for many, Which Side Are You On? had simply catalysed the old arguments and stirred some long-held passions. In short, people engaged with Loach’s messages rather than his method.

This is a genuine issue in all of Loach’s work. While I respect him and celebrate him as a true maverick and a passionate and prolific voice at the heart of quality British cinema, I feel the didacticism of his later work is heavy-handed in the extreme, and why? Why so transparent? Am I alone in thinking that his films preach to the converted? So why not challenge us a little? Loach is at his best when he interrogates the formal and the thematic parameters of cinema, as he did in his 60s TV work such as Cathy Come Home, In Two Minds, and Up the Junction. In these works, Loach avoids the entrapment of the melodrama, or the extended lecture, they liberate the viewer and enable a more vibrant engagement with their content by locating it in multiple sources.

Which Side Are You On? is formally diverse and refreshingly thought-provoking in its stylistic facilitation of theme. So it was interesting that rather than choosing to talk about the film and its genuine richness, the audience instead focused on its context and the climate of its broadcast. This makes sense of course. When you have lived through such a profoundly powerful phase of history the last thing on your mind would be the stylistic qualities of documentary film! So if Loach’s work is intended to spark discussion about politics and society then he is a successful filmmaker.

However, Loach is an artist. He might reject such a label as bourgeois, but here is a man who has grasped and deployed some of the key formal and aesthetic motifs of realist expression in world cinema. From Neo-Realism to the New Wave and beyond, Loach’s films can exist in a global space which invites an understanding of realism as a true artistic mode, comparable to developments and cycles in contemporary literature, painting, or sculpture.

In Which Side Are You On? the subject is culture. Miners, and miners’ families articulate their feelings on the strike in poetry and music, performances which are interspersed with the voices of those involved with the struggle, reflecting on their own experiences in plainer terms, all of which is underpinned by still photography and documentary footage. Before the screening Loach made the point that one of his aims was to show that culture existed and was encouraged in working-class communities and that films like Billy Elliot that have since suggested otherwise, were plainly inaccurate. For me this was one of the most convincing and revelatory aspects of the work. In this country it seems that if an individual is to form an artistic voice, they immediately graduate into the middle-classes, but here we see rich and diverse attempts to vocalise the working-class cultural experience from the ground up. Equally compelling is the manner in which Loach frames the exhibition of his subjects, allowing their words to sit alongside, or comment upon a series of powerful and emotive images from the strike. Just as Humphrey Jennings conjoined an apparently disparate nation through music and image in Listen to Britain, so too Loach allows poetry and music to emphasise the image, and by extension, the power of the film’s commentary.  In this sense I was moved to compare the film to Terrence Davies’ Of Time and City, its self a Jenningsian treatment of working-class experience, but one which is firmly rooted in the embittered subjective perspective of the artist looking back on his wholly extinct working-class life. In all three films though, a sense of visual poetry, of tying images together and re-contextualising them, (as Loach does so evocatively with the black and white stills accompanied by aural performance) gives a formal mirror to a rich collection of socio-political signifiers.  

By David Forrest

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