Ken Loach, film and television director, on the ‘terrible beauty’ of faces of resistance.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
KL I think beauty is a difficult word because it has connotations of happiness and well being and pleasure and I think that’s not the sense in which I’d use the word. At the time of the 1916 Easter rising in Ireland, the poet Yeats had a phrase “a terrible beauty is born” and I guess I’m thinking of beauty in those terms where it’s an image of people struggling for something noble, whether it’s justice or freedom from oppression, freedom from imperialism, freedom from hunger – but it’s the struggle for something that is important to attain, something that recognizes the dignity of them as people. It’s the people engaged in that struggle that can be beautiful, but inevitably, their struggle is met with oppression so their faces are maybe full of pain and anguish as well as full of hope. If we can detach the idea of beauty from a jolly feeling of happiness I would say that the faces of people in struggle can be very beautiful.
GB Hope is something that really comes across in your work. Is that a big part of beauty for you?
KL That’s what we try for in our work. I’ve met it on many occasions. We did a film in Nicaragua that was set in the 1980s when the Nicaraguans, led by the Sandinistas, were building a new society based on common ownership. They were building hospitals and schools and had literacy programmes – so it was a terrific project. And of course it was destroyed by the Americans and their terrorist accomplices, the Contra, which the States had supplied with weapons and training. We met a lot of people who were resisting the Contra when we were filming. We made the film a few years later but they had been there and took part in the film. We met many beautiful people whose lives had been tempered by that struggle, women and men whose faces were lit by that struggle. They took us around and showed us what they’d done and what the Americans had destroyed and in a way they embodied the beauty of that struggle. I met a woman called Anne Milburn during the miners’ strike. She was from the North-east. We filmed her making a speech at a meeting where there was a lot of music and comedy and she made a speech that just made you weep. Her use of language was beautiful, her whole presence was beautiful and what she stood for was beautiful. There are so many pictures of children from Gaza now, where despite the terrible slaughter, there are images of resistance, that break your heart. There is the one illustrated above. There’s a terrible, tragic beauty about them. There was a picture in the last few days, a wide picture of a middle aged woman with her arms out, standing in ruins and the pain in her face strikes your heart. If we see beauty then we have to see the ugliness, the cruelty that has inflicted that., the ugliness of the minds that have sent those shells into Gaza and the ugliness of the Americans who have just today sent them more ammunition to carry on doing it. I think it’s important to record ugliness as well as beauty.
GB Do you get angry about people’s indifference to this ugliness and this beauty?
KL People are demonstrating their opposition but they’re not reported. There’s a conscious effort, particularly on the part of the BBC, to exclude Palestinian voices and to exclude the rage that so many people feel. I’ve been on demonstrations and there are many more taking place but there is no reporting of them. There’s an ugliness and a brutality in colluding with the oppressor which is what the BBC is doing. Of course you rage at the violence of that collusion.
GB Do you think we’re so bombarded by images that the meaning gets drowned out.
KL You can get immune to the number of images that come in but if you have any humanity you have to respond to them.
GB Is beauty something you think about a lot in your work?
KL It has to be aesthetically pleasing but I want images that are satisfying. Beauty is such a praising word, I tend not to think in those terms but rather something that gets to the quintessence of whatever it is you’re doing. I think hope is very important. The tragedy is the betrayal of that hope and the betrayal of innocence.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
KL I find beauty in old used furniture or household goods where you can see the use and the human interaction over the generations. Something beautiful has to capture the essence of experience in a very precise way where all the elements complement each other in capturing that essence, whether it’s light on the face, whether it’s the pain in the eyes, the sweat in their hair – something that captures the essence in the most economical, simple way.
GB Does beauty always have an ethical side to you?
KL Yes, I think so. That’s why something that perfectly captures the essence of cruelty has an ugliness about it. But beauty that captures the spirit of resistance, the hope that enables people to keep struggling, that is a beauty to celebrate and – more importantly – to support with practical solidarity.