Cinema serves as an important instrument in shaping social policy. Sometimes social problems simmer and fester without commensurate policy solutions and if this goes on for too long minor social agitation can build up to a revolutionary upheaval.
Cinema has played a critical role in highlighting unaddressed social problems. Because of cinematic portrayal of social issues, many social issues have in turn risen to the policy agenda. No film maker has done this better through films than the renowned British film maker, Ken Loach.
Ken Loach shot to fame with his gritty, realist drama Cathy Come Home in 1966 which shaped policy debates around homelessness and housing issues. The drama, declared one of the best in BBC’s history, focused on the issue of homelessness and the role of the bureaucracy and the rigid policies that cause it. The drama tells the story of Cathy, who leaves the overcrowded rural home of her struggling parents, to find employment. In the city, she finds a job, meets her boyfriend and gets pregnant. The two start living together in a rented apartment. Soon, Cathy cannot work anymore due to her pregnancy and her boyfriend too becomes jobless. Both lose the apartment because of falling into arrears. The resulting homelessness, a combination of policy and bureaucracy, is depicted in heartrending scenes.
The ensuing outcry led to the formation of two national housing charities, Crisis and Shelter; and both have played a significant role in shaping housing policy ever since.
Since Cathy Come Home, Loach has continued to produce films which directly address social problems and social injustices that are inherent in the prevailing system. Cathy… is cited as an example of the unmatched
potential and power of cinema in shaping social policy.
Loach is a deeply political film maker with strong socialist beliefs and his films have served as powerful interventions in policy debates. The Navigators uses the story of privatisation of a railway maintenance organisation to talk about the impact of such policies on the lives of workers. In the film, five workers find themselves tossed around between private companies and agencies after losing secure and permanent employment offered by the government-owned railways due to downsizing. The privatisation robs these former state employees of their pride and dedication. The cumulative result of the runaway privatisation is lowered performance, higher profits for the private companies, reduced patient safety and incessantly hiked fares.
Like Cathy Come Home, The Navigators has added a human angle to the long-running debate on the idea of privatisation. The debate rages on undimmed with parts of the British rail track tipping back into government ownership and the Labour Party promising full renationalisation of the British rail in its manifesto as the June election approaches.
Despite his announcement of retirement, Loach returned to his craft with his remarkable new film I, Daniel Blake last year continuing his long tradition of directing cinema that is critical of social policy.
I, Daniel Blake focuses on the brutality and heartlessness of the welfare benefits system in the UK. Predictably, the film has caused heated debate on the welfare systems, both inside and outside the parliament. The film was mentioned at the Prime Minister’s Questions time by the leader of the opposing party, Jeremy Corbyn, to illustrate how the welfare benefit system is agonising the struggles of millions of job-seekers living on the state benefit system.
The story revolves around a widower, over 50 years of age who, for no fault of his own, is thrown upon the mercy of the benefit system when he loses his job. The new system is so heartlessly bureaucratic and cruelly administered that he cannot cope with it. He becomes so scared of the bureaucracy of the privatised benefit system that on the day of his interview to assess eligibility for benefits he collapses and dies.
In the film, another single mum mother is torn from her community and relations to be sent off to a far-off area as part of a heartless and cruel ‘efficient’ cost-saving exercise. The benefit she gets is so inadequate that she has to eventually rely upon food banks and charity food. The suffering imposed upon both characters through deliberate policy decisions binds them in shared solidarity. Already, there are ongoing passionate discussions on the issue of the cruel benefit system in which the film has had a great role as a work of art that sparked the debate.
The film, as of now, is being shown around the country to packed houses with the film maker often leading discussions on UK’s benefit system after screenings. In this, Loach is going an extra mile in spreading the message and reiterating the intent of his film. He has carved a niche for himself in the league of film makers who have taken the art form to a higher policy level relevance by consistently making socially conscious films.
Not just this, Loach has also directed films aimed at presenting pro-refugee and prejudice-free attitudes among the public. This he has done through his film, Carla’s Song, the story of love between a Nicaraguan refugee and a Glaswegian bus driver in Scotland. Unlike the myth of a refugee coming to Britain to milk the welfare infrastructure and trick the immigration system, Carla returns with her Scottish boyfriend to Nicaragua when political situation stabilises there.
Loach is very engaged in everyday struggles of the people and very much alert to the human effects of official policy, be it the benefit system, privatisation of British rail and growing homeless or refugee and immigrant bashing. His policy-specific fictional and factual cinema shows how socially engaged cinema can contribute to highlighting injustices and correcting and reforming unjust practices.
Loach has won the Palme d’Or prize twice for his direction, making him the ninth filmmaker to do so. His films are a veritable delight for both film buffs and audiences interested in politics.