Arts

Ken Loach on Retiring After 60 Years, Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars Speech

Ken Loach says he has “great respect” for Jonathan Glazer in raising the subject of Gaza in his Oscars acceptance speech for “The Zone of Interest,” asserting that the director was “very brave” to say what he did. “And I’m sure he understood the possible consequences, which makes him braver still, so I’ve got great respect for him and his work,” he tells Variety.

The veteran filmmaker and campaigner is speaking ahead of the U.S. release of “The Old Oak,” a feature that also happens to be his last. After a career of more than 60 years, the British director — a two-time Palme d’Or winner who is behind a library of beloved films including “Kes,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “Land and Freedom,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “My Name iI Joe” and “I, Daniel Blake” — is calling it a day. 

Loach has announced his retirement before, of course, and on more than one occasion. So when he claimed that “The Old Oak” would be his final feature in the run up to the 2023 Cannes Film Festival — where it bowed in competition (his record-breaking 15th film to do so) — many observers took it with a pinch of salt. No doubt the world’s preeminent auteur of politically engaged kitchen-sink realism would return to focus his lens on another social injustice.

10 months on, however, and even the current state of the world isn’t enough to drag Loach, now 87 years old, back behind the camera. 

“I think, health-wise, the idea of getting around the course again is probably a step too far,” he explains. “You only stop when you absolutely have to, and I’ve reached the end of the line.”

But Loach is insisting that the current round of media engagements — interviews with the press he’s used with each film to discuss the social issues he’s showing on screen — isn’t a farewell tour. 

“I try just to think of the future and not be nostalgic,” he says. “Not making films doesn’t mean that the connection to films and students and people that write about films ends by any means. And I’ve been lucky, there are lots of possibilities of doing things that are similar to doing work, but not at the same level of concentration and travel.”

For Loach, who celebrated his first Palme d’Or (for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) with a typically low-key cup of tea, the highlights of his six decades in cinema are “the extraordinary relationships and friendships” he’s made along the way. He still keeps in touch with David Bradley, who he cast as the young lead in his 1969 classic “Kes” when he was just 14.

“He’s now approaching 70, and he’s still the same lad,” he says. “We meet every now and then and exchange Christmas cards. But that’s the same for most of my films. That human connection is one of the things you cherish.”

“Kes” got an unexpected shout out at the BAFTA Film Awards in February, when Samantha Morton, upon accepting her BAFTA Fellowship, claimed that her life was “forever changed” when she saw the film as a teenager at school. “Seeing poverty and people like me on the screen, I recognized myself — representation matters,” she said. 

But even this moment, which Loach was in the room to hear (“The Old Oak” was nominated for outstanding British film), wasn’t enough to break his modesty. 

“It was very generous of her, but I’m always aware that it was Barry Hines’ book [“Kes” was adapted from “A Kestrel for a Knave”], and I met Barry through Tony Garnett the producer,” he says. “So I’m always embarrassed when they say that’s your film. It’s our film. And Barry’s book is a real classic. I think the problem with our business is that it does create egotists if you’re not careful. A film ‘by’ the director is embarrassing. A film is by Kodak if it’s by anyone.”

For someone who is one of nine directors to win two Palmes, Loach says that any sense of ego has always been kept in check by “family and friends who are all too ready to take the piss.”

Since his very first film — the TV drama “Cathy Come Home” in 1966 — Loach has tackled countless topics, including homelessness, poverty, mental health, labor rights, the welfare state and the gig economy, plus historical periods such as Irish independence and the Spanish civil war. “The Old Oak” bridges issues both home and abroad, centered around a family of Syrian refugees sent by British authorities to live in a former mining town in the north of England that has fallen on hard times and where the newcomers become easy scapegoats. 

But Loach admits that there is one subject matter close to his heart that he never managed to get his cinematic teeth into: Palestine. 

“That was a subject that I would have liked to have worked on, but I didn’t know quite how to tackle it,” he says. “It would have had to be a documentary, but it was a big project and certainly beyond me for the last decade.”

On the subject of Palestine, Loach and his “The Old Oak” team were very vocal in their support for a ceasefire in Gaza at the BAFTAs, speaking about the subject on the red carpet and posing for photos with a sign that read “Gaza: Stop the Massacre.”

Two weeks later, Glazer made his speech at the Oscars.

In words that have been well-studied since March 10, when accepting the Academy Award for best international feature for his Holocaust drama, Glazer referred to the violence in the Middle East, saying that his Auschwitz-set film “shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present. Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of Oct. 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization — how do we resist?”

The speech was met with both praise and condemnation. Tony Kushner described it as an “unimpeachable irrefutable statement.” Meanwhile, an open letter signed by more than 1,000 Jewish creatives and execs in the industry denounced it for helping fuel “growing anti-Jewish hatred around the world.”

While Loach acknowledges that Glazer has been “attacked” for his speech, he notes that he’s also gotten “lots of support from many, many Jewish people who said it breaks the stereotype that all Jewish people support what Israel is doing, because clearly that’s not the case.”

As he adds, “It was hugely valuable in that it shows that diversity. So I’ve got great respect for what he did.” 

“The Old Oak” opens April 5 at Film Forum in York, April 12 at Laemmle Royal in LA and will expand nationally in select market. The run at Film Forum will be accompanied by a retrospective of over 20 films by Loach including “Kes,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “Riff-Raff,” “Poor Cow,” “I, Daniel Blake” and more, beginning April 19.

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