Loach films the
logic of the system
Review by Corinna Lotz
Filmmaker Ken Loach chose the press screening of his new film about migrant workers It’s a Free World to denounce Gordon Brown as “the son of the manse” whose economy is breaking up families and communities.
“Gordon Brown’s corporate boom is the very essence of New Labour,” he said. “Brown pushed through privatisation and PPP under Blair. Those who think he is substantially different are choosing to delude themselves.
“We constantly hear about support for communities and families from most politicians but Brown’s economic model destroys communities and causes fragmentation. In many families, both parents are forced to work.”
Loach’s 90-minute new film It’s a Free World will be screened on Channel 4 in late September. It follows the director’s earlier feature about the Irish war of independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
Producer Rebecca O’Brian and writer Paul Laverty agreed that rather than another big budget effort, they wanted to make a smaller film, more of a “chamber piece” about the migrants’ working conditions.
“After The Wind that Shakes the Barley we were keen to do something that was of the moment, with a real contemporary smack to it,” explains Laverty.
“Somehow the character Angie just popped into my head. She was totally fictional and from the very beginning I could smell trouble.”
Angie is a larger-than-life peroxide-blonde Essex girl who decides to strike out to run her own recruitment agency for migrant workers in east London after being sacked by her sexist bosses.
She and her flatmate/business partner Rose operate from an old pub near a ring road in Leyton, east London, hiring out migrant workers on a casual basis. She selects the lucky ones from clusters of Poles, Ukrainians, Spanish, near Eastern men and women who turn up at dawn each morning to be shoved into shambolic white vans, their doors hanging open as they rumble off.
When her father Geoff, played by former stevedore Colin Caughlin, turns up one morning to watch, he finds the sight disgraceful, saying, “I thought those days were all over”.
As Angie devises ever more exploitative ways of raising cash, she moves from legality to illegality, tax evasion, and even grassing up a group of the most vulnerable migrants forced to live in caravan camps.
The film refrains from moralising, instead showing her as a contradictory personality, drawn into in vicious spiral of debt to her workers, and unable, in the end, to protect the son she believes she is providing for.
It took Loach and casting director Kahleen Crawford nearly four months to choose Kierston Wareing for the role of Angie – and her spirit-of-the-age character and uncompromising no-holds-barred performance are the heart of the film.
Behind the story of Angie’s opportunism and cruel exploitation of her workforce lies meticulous research by Nina Lowe, backing up Paul Laverty’s own investigations. While the characters are all fictitious, the story is underpinned by a mountain of facts including first hand research, government and TUC reports, studies by university departments including Exeter, Queen Mary College, and work by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
“Reality is more dramatic and stranger than fiction,” Laverty says. “Mafia activity in the underworld around migrant labour is more violent than what appears in the film. I heard Mafioso stories about people having their legs broken and worse. But we wanted to show something closer to the norm, not a shock-horror expose.”
Loach insists that they wanted Angie to be a likeable person and that the world she inhabits is widespread, not an aberration. “It is central to the functioning of today’s economy. Angie is actually a cog in a bigger wheel. We wanted to show the logic of the system, not just a victim of it.”
The film achieves a fierce sense of excitement through dramatic twists in the plot. Angie’s hot temper and naked ambition are set against the more thoughtful personality of Rose, played by Julie Ellis. The clashes between them are amongst the most dramatic moments in the story.
With It’s a Free World, Loach and his team take their political film making on to a new level. Rather than simply highlighting the scandal of how migrant workers are exploited, they challenge the prevailing wisdom “that ruthless entrepreneurship is the way that this society should develop – that everything is a deal, everything is competitive, acquisitive, market-orientated and that’s the way we should live. It seeks out exploitation. It produces monsters.”
At the media screening, Loach called for the repeal of all anti-union legislation and said the unions should be much tougher and stronger so they could take action together. “People are sacked for even proposing to join a trade union. If unions were free, British Airways stewards could have supported Gate Gourmet catering staff,” he said.
It’s a Free World has succeeded in showing - through the conflict and unexpected actions of flesh and blood characters - the skeleton beneath the surface of society.