Jerusalem Film Festival 2013: The Spirit of ’45 & The Selfish Giant

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Ken Loach has been called many things in his time – the last authentic socialist thinker in the arts at one end of the spectrum, quite a few less complimentary things at the other. He’s never been mistaken for a romantic, but The Spirit of ’45 is a love letter, a passionate paean to – as Loach describes it – “ the spirit of unity which buoyed Britain during the war years carried through to create a vision of a fairer, united society.” The emphasis is on community, nurtured and supported the (left-leaning) Labour government: the natural contrast is with the capitalist age, ushered in – in Loach’s opinion, again – by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Ken Loach - The Spirit of '45
Ken Loach – The Spirit of ’45

There’s no point in arguing whether or not Loach’s diagnosis is correct, although it is fair to point out that the advent of Britain’s National Health Service, subsidised state housing and so on in the 40‘s and 50‘s was probably as inevitable as the rise of the cult of the individual in the 80’s. What was important, and what Loach evokes movingly through a combination of archive footage and interviews, is the genuine spirit of communal solidarity that accompanied the age, one that we can only look upon enviously today. The Spirit of ’45 is a touching postcard from the past; it would have done its work well if it encourages us to think even a little differently about our future.

Clio Barnard is part of a (very) small group of British filmmakers often described as Ken Loach’s heirs. It’s true that her first full-length feature, The Selfish Giant, shares some of Loach’s artistic DNA – social (although not necessarily socialist) realism, working class communities, an interest in the palpable disconnect of these communities from the expectations and aspirations of supposedly normative society.

Clio Barnard - The Selfish Giant
Clio Barnard – The Selfish Giant

But whilst Loach occasionally lapses into didacticism, Barnard is a chronicler, showing but never instructing. Her touching and heartbreaking film is about Albert and Swifty, teenagers scratching out a bleak existence in a depleted, dead-end community. Albert, who fancies himself as a young man on the make, skips school to scrounge for scrap metal, steals electric cables so they stripped down for their copper. Swifty, a hulking presence with a gentle soul, has a way with horses, revealing an empathy shared between very few of the human presences in this film.

We can tell from the start that things will not end happily ever after, that there won’t be the contrived deus ex machina moment to rescue the two friends from the marginal existence that awaits them. But The Selfish Giant (inspired, in the loosest sense of the word, by the Oscar Wilde story for small children) is a superior film because Barnard negotiates the space between paternalism and pathology adroitly. She gives her characters agency, which perhaps makes the film’s denouement all the more unbearable. But taking responsibility for one’s actions can only extend so far as one has genuine choices to make. The Swiftys and Alberts of our world will never have many choices, unfortunately, a point that Loach and Barnard make in different ways.

The Spirit of ’45 (UK, 2013, 94 min, English, no subtitles)
Directed by Ken Loach
Screening times: 11.7 at 16:00, Cinematheque 3; 12.7 at 20:00, Cinematheque 2

The Selfish Giant (UK, 2013, 91 min, English with Hebrew subtitles)
Directed by Clio Barnard; starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas
Screening times: 7.7 at 22:00, Cinematheque 1; 8.7 at 22:00, Cinematheque 1