Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ken Loach In Madrid

Ken Loach was in Madrid yesterday, to give a presentation at the Casa Encendida. More out of laziness than curiosity about the technology involved, I watched the whole thing live on the internet from the comfort of my sofa. It worked very well, apart from the occasionally erratic simultaneous translation of Loach's talk. He talked, not surprisingly, about the dominance of US cinema in the market and about the contrast between the ideological image that such cinema often presents and the crude realities of the "war on terror". It wasn't a blanket condemnation of American cinema; both Michael Moore and John Sayles were mentioned as examples of those whose work does not follow the formula. He appealed for a more local cinema, one that receives the kind of assistance that the theatre gets from local municipalities. For him, independent cinema needs to justify its existence and the idea of cinema that motivates him to make films is one that deals with the human condition, putting things into the social context of the relationships of people with their friends or family, or what happens to them at work. It is also a cinema that tells stories from the past; making people think about the version of events they have been fed. Films can agitate, but they are not there to educate on the “big questions”, there are issues that require more than a film to explain them.

Much of the discussion focused on the disparity of resources between Hollywood and national cinema in countries such as Britain or Spain, although Loach paid as much attention to the power of the distributors as anything else. The big players in distribution decide what people get to see, and the fight for access to screens for independent cinema is the key issue. Yet the reason why there is so little good Italian or French cinema compared to the past is not just because of Hollywood or even problems of distribution, it surely has as much to do with national conditions as anything else. I have had (Spanish) people here look at me with amusement when I tell them I'm going to see a Spanish film, if a large part of the native population regards their nation's cinematic products as not worth considering then it is always going to be an uphill battle. It doesn't help that we do not seem to be going through a particularly splendid period anyway, I'm still waiting for a Spanish film this year that impresses me enough to make me want to write about it. Ken Loach makes deeply committed cinema, and yet probably finds it easier to get his films made now than he did 20 years ago; there is a space that exists for his kind of cinema and as he himself pointed out, nobody is "obliged" to end up in the US to get money to make their films. The battle is to keep that space open, the way things are going in Madrid with the closure of several cinemas in the centre, suggests that the big chains are going to end up controlling almost all of the screens in the capital. Outside in the provincial cities the situation is worse as a single cinema probably owned by one of these companies makes the decision on what the local population can see.

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