Film Focus: The Spirit Of ’45

Posted on March 14, 2013

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Each week SampoMedia will take a look at a new film release to uncover some of the key issues and ideas raised 

Ken Loach says he has a clear ambition for his polemical documentary The Spirit Of ’45 – ‘to make people angry.’

He said the film, which opens in cinemas this week, is a call to arms, summoning up the powerful mixture of anger and optimism that inspired demands for a post-war new deal with the state that had sent them to fight.

The film begins with evocative images and interviews, making a powerful case for the socialist reforms of the Labour Government of 1945-1951, including the founding of  the National Health Service. The second half of the film is a pointed plea from activists to rekindle the spirit that inspired that era to fight what it says is a final attack on what remains of the  legacy of 45.

The film has immediate advantages, not least Ken Loach’s name (in fact it is hard to imagine another film-maker being given such licence for this scale of release).

Loach has recently enjoyed international success with less overtly political films, including 2012’s The Angels’ Share ($6.7m all markets) and 2009’s Looking For Eric ($11.5m). His more political dramas have made an impact on the international market too, led by the Palme D’Or-winning Irish independence film The Wind That Shakes The Barley ($22.9m).

For his new film, however, he has opted for a documentary format. He told SampoMedia founder Michael Gubbins at a screening in Cardiff, that he believed the first-hand testimony of pioneers and activitsts was the best way to explain the spirit of the age.

From a box office perspective, there is logic to the approach. The polemical documentary has made a strong mark over the last decade, led by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which took an astonishing $220.4m at the international box office. Documentaries from a left/environmental perspective dominate the top end of documentary box-0ffice hits, although the fervently conservative 2016: Obama’s America became the fourth biggest documentary of the last 30 years, taking $33m.

But Loach has made it clear that he wants the film to mobilise a broad-based movement that might have an active political impact. Its political aims and box office potential may, however, diverge. In practice, that potential has in-built limitations, beginning with the nature of the modern media, as opposed to the linear, less diverse mass media age.

Loach has previously succeeded in making at least one film, which did inspire people to take significant action. His 1966 BBC documentary-style drama Cathy Come Home, famously led to the creation of two influential bodies working with homeless people. It was watched by 12 million people on the UK’s main public broadcaster at a time when there were just three television channels, and no home entertainment alternatives.

That audience was bigger than the audience for the 2012 final of talent show X Factor.

The faces of those who voted for change in 1945 would have lived in a world of even more limited access to media. One of the themes that the film touches upon is that education programmes and state propaganda,essential for the social cohesion necessary for total war, actually contributed to the defeat of the war leader Winston Churchill. (Perhaps the most electrifying image in the whole film was of Churchill being jeered by crowds in the 1945 election campaign. It could be argued that the mass media and a common cultural identity played critical roles in the real spirt of 45.)

Tellingly, in the UK, cinema admissions reached their peak during the 1940s – 1.64 billion in 1946 – compared to 127 million in 2012. In that linear world, control of cinema in one form of another was considered an essential tool of political control.

The society of 2013 is far more fragmented and cinema itself has long since lost the primary place as a political tool that it had in Bolshevik Russia, Nazi Germany, or that McCarthy and censors believed it still had in 40s and 50s.

Film, of course, is no longer simply, or even primarily, about theatrical release. The revolution won’t be led by arthouse release and good reviews in The Guardian.

But The Spirit Of ’45 is supported by a strong social media and marketing campaign and is being released by UK distributor Dogwoof, which has built an impressive reputation for campaigning documentaries, including The Age Of Stupid. The release is supported by a promotional site, which includes archives, additional material and a entertaingly partial interactive element, which imagines life without the welfare reforms of the 45 government.

There is, however, an underlying question. As The Age Of Stupid showed, it is possible to mobilise direct political action from those who support a cause. Indeed, the Internet has proven itself a great tool to organise crowds, from demonstrations during the Arab Spring to the Harlem Shake. The potential for mass reach through social media was equally demonstrated through the viral spread of Kony 2012.

But the nature of Internet use raises a big question for films with the ambitions of Ken Loach. Is it possible to change minds? Search engines and online sites are marvellous ways of reinforcing opinion but it requires an unusual effort to delve into the opposite side of an issue. The development of journalism in the digital era, for example, has increasingly been to preach to the converted.

Audience research, such as analyst Forrester’s Social Technographics surveys, suggest that most people’s activity online is essentially observing, rather than contributing or interacting.

Loach then faces the problem of a demographic reach through cinemas that do not conform with his objectives of mass support, and an online campaign that will struggle to win the broad coalition that was necessary for the ’45 spirit to catch fire. There are many emerging mechanisms for creating more points of interaction and smarter calls to action.

The most impressive calls to action have come online with unequivocal direct action and political aims. The disruption caused by ‘hacktivist’ groups, such as Anonymous, are able to have an immediate and powerful impact. Where film plays a part, it is in supporting an existing broader movement. To support the widest reach, distribution is often free, using, for example, BitTorrent (such as Steal This Film). Mobilising the audience is not a function of marketing but the raison d’etre of the piece, often beginning with crowd sourcing.

These campaigns are genuinely challenging, not just to the media but to politics more generally. These are net-native movements, suggesting perhaps that the new political division in the world is no longer left versus right, but open versus closed. Where one sits on that axis is difficult for those whose politics were defined, one way or the other, by the spirit of ’45.

There is one element that offers a positive change for all those aspiring to make political statements through film – timing.

It is clear from any study of the box office that there are films that, more by accident than design, make a much larger impact than could have been expected at the production stage. They are the feelgood films that come out at a time when there is a general appetite for an antidote to depressing news (Amelie, for example), or that capture a general desire for a coherent argument about an issue (arguably Fahrenheit 9/11). The length of time between making a film and getting it into the market has made it all but impossible to plan effective timing.

New technologies and release patterns, however, have been speeding up the process. A film that directly speaks to, and explains a current debate, has a far greater chance of making a mark, as does the large amount of consumer data informing the making, the format and the release of a film or cross-media work.

Documentary may lead the way in that respect, able to find a way to market at the optimum time to make an impact, and using cross-media tools to increase reach. There is virgin territory here with potential ethical and legal complications but potentially offering a new and exciting challenge.

Loach’s documentary is in many ways built on the belief in an underlying sentiment that conventional politics is failing to reach. He may be right about but it is difficult to shake the sense that the optimistic, even romantic, socialism that comes through his films will connect across the generations.

At least some  of those who benefited from the welfare reforms of 45 went on to support Prime Minister Magaret Thatcher’s systematic destruction of much of the legacy 35 years later.

One interesting thought is the value of black and white footage.

There is a striking set of photographs accompany visitors to the museum commemorating the Warsaw Uprising in the Polish capital. Each is in colour with an explanation that the decision to colourise them was based on the idea that black and white images put a distance between the viewer and the events.

The thought sprang to mind looking at the newsreel images. They may be our fathers or grandfathers, but there is something about those images that seem impossibly remote.