Truth from Fiction: The Fusion of Art Cinema and Documentary Forms in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, UK, 1995)
While it is an almost defining feature of art cinema and documentary films that they retain some level of ambiguity, Land and Freedom has been subjected to criticism over questions of historical accuracy, representation and ‘truth’. Such criticism can be seen as a by-product of divided, class-based societies that are frequently the subject of Loach’s films, and into which his films are projected as social actors with a purpose. This latter point has significance for the development of art cinema and documentary in the UK throughout the 20th century. Whether in the service of government war propaganda or working class emancipation, these two different forms have been (and remain) collaborators for better or worse, and with varying reactions from different sectors of society. In Land and Freedom Ken Loach mixes forms of documentary, art cinema and naturalism to create a historical narrative that veers between truth and fiction. The purpose of this essay is to take a brief look at the specific socio-historical points that allowed for the fusion of art cinema and documentary forms, before going on to show how Loach moulds them into the naturalism contained in Land and Freedom.
The British documentary movement of the 1930’s and 40’s was a great influence on the later Free Cinema and British New Wave movements of which Ken Loach was a part. Although proponents of these new movements reacted against the Griersonian tendency’s later “complicity with the state, and for it’s seemingly patronising representations of the working class” (Lay 2002: 49) films such as Housing Problems (Arthur Elton, 1935) as well as the later Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings, 1942) had a lasting influence. Grierson’s own interpretation of documentary as “the creative interpretation of actuality” (Lay 2002: 42) rang especially true to young filmmakers who began to criticise the old movement for its ideological conformity while remaining “noticeably influenced by the work of Humphrey Jennings, a filmmaker who produced all of his work within the documentary movement” (Lay 2002: 39). These filmmakers were also reacting to what they saw as an unexciting mainstream British cinema.
From the late 1950’s to the mid 1960’s British cinema underwent a kind of renaissance. It is certainly true that something had changed…There were new filmmakers who, despite breaking with previous traditions, nevertheless continued to advance the realist project begun some thirty years earlier by Grierson and his film units (Lay 2002: 57)
What placed these films outside of the mainstream and in the category of art cinema was their desired freedom from commercial constraints, as well as a focus on poeticism, social issues and representation of the working class. While they had many discernible differences, it is around a general backdrop of ‘social problem’ films, ‘kitchen sink’ films and what critics called ‘British New Wave’ films that Ken Loach began working at the BBC in the 1960’s, beginning with the direction of three episode of the TV show Z Cars (BBC 1964). In an interview with John Hill Loach describes his early directorial influences as “Brecht and the French New Wave” as well as current affairs programs like World in Action “so that people didn’t think “we have had the facts, now we’ll have some fiction” but rather “we have had the facts- now here’s some facts from a different point of view” (Hill 1997: 160). The form and style of Loach’s work has changed continuously throughout his career. While his work at the BBC blended social commentary and a fragmented Brechtian realism, this was to change by the early 90’s, as Loach veered toward a tradition of British naturalism. It is in this later form that his films constitute a more subtle and affective collusion between art cinema and documentary forms.
Deborah Knight traces this form of naturalism back to “The Experimental Novel” of Emile Zola. Zola saw that the experimental methods of 19th century science ended up, in one way or another, revealing to us something about the world. He asserted that “if the experimental method [in the natural sciences] leads to the knowledge of physical life, it should also lead to knowledge of the passionate and intellectual life” (Knight 1997: 61). Zola’s goal was to apply this method to narrative fiction with the purpose of revealing to the reader not only an observation, but also the circumstances in which the observation takes place. The job of the text is to foster a creative understanding of the reader’s own material situation via the interaction between themselves and a fictional narrative. At the same time the role of the reader changes from one who is told directly what to think to one who has to draw their own conclusions, the experiment having been presented to them by means of fiction. “The Experimental Novel” is one that is situated in, arises from and reveals a series of social processes, and much of this is exemplified in the work of Loach, not only in terms of the formal aspects of his films but also in relation to the circumstances of their production and exhibition. According to Knight
Many British naturalist filmmakers had backgrounds in documentary filmmaking and their films reflect this- from the uses of location shooting to the types of camerawork…it is impossible to over-emphasise the powerful and double role played by location shooting in naturalist films. There is simultaneously a literal, documentary use of location, and a metaphorical use (Knight 1997: 66)
This tendency to shoot on location is shared by art cinema, and indeed art cinema and naturalism share many other formal methods as well as narrative conventions. Loosened cause/effect narrative structures that lack a clearly defined ‘end’, characters with ambiguous psychological motivations, a preference for realism and authorial expressivity, are all traits shared by art cinema and naturalism. But the two things that most greatly distinguish art cinema from the classical narrative mode are the formers explicit delineation of itself as a reaction against the latter, and what Bordwell calls “a commitment to both objective and subjective verisimilitude” (Bordwell 2008: 4). Both of these are easily identifiable in Loach’s naturalist films, which have always stood outside of the political and industrial mainstream both in their radical content and circumstances of production, while the characters they portray tend to be subjectivities situated in an objective world over which they have little to no control. This is especially true of Land and Freedom. Where then, if anywhere, do questions regarding documentary form enter a debate on Loach’s later works?
In his essay The Material Ghost Gilberto Perez suggests that photography, especially moving pictures, affects us as if it is a phenomena in nature rather than a human construction, and that for this reason it is the perfect instrument of naturalisation. In this sense all films “are a fiction made up of documentary details” (Perez 1998: 6), which sounds overly broad until we add the rider that
Documentary film doesn’t mean avoiding fiction, for no film can avoid fiction: it means establishing a certain relationship, a certain interplay, between the documentary and the fictional aspects of the film so that the documentary aspect may come forward in some significant way (Perez 1998: 10)
With these statements in mind one question we might look at is how Loach brings forward these documentary traits and what kind of interplay he establishes between these and the fictional aspects of his films. Regarding criticisms around truth and accuracy so often leveled at Loach’s work, we might look at the flip-side to Perez’s statement that “films that stress their documentary aspect are especially called upon to deal with the problem of fiction” (ibid) and ask how films that foreground their fictional aspects use this to express the kind of hidden or underpinning circumstances that Zola tried to reveal with “The Experimental Novel”. These questions are central to an analysis of Loach’s naturalism, which fuses art cinema and documentary forms to create a politically engaged art cinema. They also frame my analysis of Land and Freedom.
A historical polemic about the Spanish civil war, the film follows protagonist, David Carr, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as he travels from his native Liverpool to Spain after being convinced of the need to fight Fascism abroad. By chance Dave meets and joins members of the POUM, an anarchist union that has formed a militia. Together they travel to the Aragon Front and engage in a long and tedious fight from the trenches, occasionally attacking fascist lines and at one point liberating a town. While training recruits Dave is injured by a gun backfire and has to travel to a hospital in Barcelona. There he decides to leave the POUM militia and join the newly formed regular army of the Republic, much to the dismay of his lover, Blanca. Soon after Dave is sent to repress the anarchist CNT union and finds himself fighting fellow leftists. After witnessing the lies and repression enacted by the Republic army he tears up his CPGB membership card and returns to the Aragon front. The POUM suffer a major defeat at the hands of the fascists, and, when the new popular army shows up they believe the cavalry has arrived, only to be told by their former comrades that they are under arrest and have to surrender their weapons. In the anger and confusion that follows Blanca is shot dead by a Republic soldier. Dave travels home to Liverpool.
In its first two scenes the film establishes the basis for themes that remain central throughout. It begins with Dave’s death in the ‘present’. Two paramedics enter a flat block in Liverpool. One of the first shots is a high angle shot as they climb a flight of stairs. The camera seems to overlook two symbols that have been graffiti’d on the wall behind them: the anarchist symbol and the symbol for the fascist National Front. This establishes a historical continuity between past and present struggles against fascism. The residue of the past remains, and this theme is embellished as Dave’s granddaughter begins to search through his old things after his death. She frequently uncovers newspaper clippings and old photos, historical artifacts that represent a documented history. On one hand, then, we bear witness to a historical continuity, and on the other we bear witness to a story that is underpinned by subjective and objective verisimilitude. What the film has done within a few minutes is establish a relationship with the viewer that invites them to uncover a ‘truth’ by engaging with this fictional narrative. A cut to ‘real’ documentary footage of Spain during the civil war allows us to merely observe the past, but when the following cut situates the camera within the audience of a 1930’s cinema we have been imbibed into the diegetic world of the film. In other words, the fictional narrative has been naturalised by the fusion of documentary and art forms.
In this scene the bridge between these forms is provided in the character of the Spanish revolutionary who narrates to the audience as they watch footage on the cinema screen. It is the narration of a fallible, perhaps unreliable subject, and this is another step toward Loach’s foregrounding of fiction. However, narration itself is a typical documentary convention. This interplay is collusive with the cameras position looking out from within the audience cut against the first shot of Dave, also shown as part of the audience. The film, therefore, is active insofar as it identifies us as members of its diegetic and non-diegetic audience. Situated both inside and outside the film, we are being implored by the narrator to fight fascism, evoking the naturalist ethos of the text as having a social purpose while inviting empathy for the protagonist next to whom we are seated. Narration is used throughout the film as part of the over-arching focus on dialogue, which in turn acts as a vehicle for many naturalist and art cinema themes. Dave’s narration to his wife, Kitty, is enacted through his granddaughters reading of old letters. The primary function of this is to stress the contradiction between a determined subject and an objective world over which they have little control. While at the beginning of the film Dave’s psychological motivation is pretty clear, this changes as he encounters the world.
The first narrated segment after he arrives in Spain, for example, states “there’s no organisation for people like me here. You’ve just got to make your own way”. It seems a complete accident that his path throughout the film is delineated by the fact that he meets POUM members, rather than communist party members, on a train. He later states that “I’m not with the communist league, but it doesn’t matter. We’re all fighting on the same side”. The film later shows us that this does matter, as external events warp the “daft romantic idea” with which Dave left home. During one sequence he states “Be nice to know what was going on in the rest of Spain”, displaying a lack of knowledge and control over objective reality which at its height results in the gun backfire that injures Dave, sending him to Barcelona, where his disillusion with the communist party occurs. He gets his wish and finds out what is going on in Spain, and this experience, in all its uncertainty, reflects that of the viewer insofar as “that’s all part of me now, and I’ll never shake it off”. What Loach says here is that films should reflect the social processes into which they are injected, which in this case helps to foster a creative understanding of the subjective/objective contradiction. However, Dave’s narration also serves to highlight the disparity between the ‘truth’ of an event and the historical documents that represent it. In the scene where Blanca finds that Dave has joined the Republic army he tries to explain his reason for doing so, though to no avail. Blanca leaves him to return to the POUM. The cut takes us to the present: a shot of Dave’s granddaughter in which the narration from his letter states “that’s why I’m in Barcelona. It’s dead complicated and difficult to explain”. Thus the film shows us the difference between a personal explanation and a documented narration. A temporal connection is established by the sentence “that’s why I’m in Barcelona” running over the cut. Again the film has displayed a historical continuity, allowing us to see both sides of the temporal disjuncture while showing the discrete time zones experienced by the characters in the film.
The protagonist himself even makes a comment on the disparity between ‘truth’ and representation when he sends some photos of life in the trenches to Kitty with the message “these photos will give you some idea of how cold it was, but what they don’t show you is how the rain turned everything to freezing mud”. The point is that documents such as photos can only ever be a microcosm of truth. In a number of scenes the characters are placed within objective history via their enunciations in the fictional narrative. There is an Italian who “knows about Fascism” as a result of being Italian at that point in history, a Frenchman who knows how to fight because he was in the army, meanwhile the Irishman Coogan got his combat training while “fighting the Brits”. Statements like these are frequently contrasted with still black and white photos of those same men in the trenches in Spain, which are then cut back to shots of them talking, moving around and laughing. These cuts establish the kind of interplay between documentary and fictional aspects written about by Perez. From them we gain access to something a ‘pure’ documentary cannot show due to restrictions on what constitutes a ‘true’ representation. In other words, the film is able to tell underpinning truths, naturalising historical events and social processes trough the fusion of documentary and art cinema forms.
It is not necessary for the film to fully foreground a ‘pure’ documentary form in order to tell the ‘truth’. Rather
as we might expect from a naturalist, the point of these narratives is not to present and resolve a problem, but to make plain the nature of the problem and its consequences in terms of the characters lives (Knight 1997: 78)
In Land and Freedom the extrapolation of a problem, its being made plain, takes place in the scene in which the POUM have just liberated a village from the fascists and are discussing with the villagers whether or not to collectivise the land. In this scene more than any other “Loach’s decision of where to film and whom to film contributes to the rendering of moments that can expose ‘a whole sort of world’” (Leigh 2002: 12). Loach does this through methods such as having his actors ‘un-learn’ their scripts before shooting, minimalising the presence of the camera, and allowing the camera to follow whomever begins speaking as if its attention is being drawn rather than it being an instigator of the action. This latter method creates the naturalistic feel that the viewer is taking part in the conversation in much the same way we were situated in the cinema at the beginning of the film. Overall the naturalistic approach to shooting dialogue allows for what Leigh calls the “leaking” of information to the audience. It is used to resolve “a tension between the requirements of the dramatically plausible and the requirement to get certain facts across to the viewer without resorting to graphics or commentary” (Leigh 1997: 7). It is this form of “leakage” that constitutes perhaps the most poignant fusion between art cinema and documentary forms because it involves the revealing of the ‘real’ person through the fictional character. This occurs during the dialogue scene when Bernard, making a rather heated point, begins to stutter and mess up his lines. Rather than re-take the shot, Loach keeps the camera running, instead choosing to cut to a shot of Maite and Gene as grins appear on their faces. This reveals a genuine friendship and camaraderie between the three characters that could not be portrayed in strictly documentary or art cinema forms. From this “it immediately follows that the truth “declares itself in a structure of fiction”” (Renov 1993: 1). In order to reach this certain kind of truth we require a fusion of the two into a naturalism that draws from reality in order to create fictional narratives that help us understand it.
Bordwell, David (2008) Poetics of Cinema, London: Routledge
Hill, John (1997) “Interview with Ken Loach” in Mcknight, George (eds) Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, p. 160-176, Wiltshire: Flicks Books
Knight, Deborah (1997) “Naturalism, Narration and Critical Perspective: Ken Loach and the Experimental Method” in Mcknight, George (eds) Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, P. 60-81, Wiltshire: Flicks Books
Lay, Samantha (2002) British Social Realism: From Documentary to Brit Grit, London: Wallflower
Leigh, Jacob (2002) The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People, London: Wallflower
Perez, Gilberto (1998) The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press
Renov, Michael (1993) Theorising Documentary, London: Routledge