Ken Loach backs TUSC at packed house in Peckham
Report by Duncan Carson
A sell-out audience of over 250 people came to one of London's few truly independent cinemas, Peckham Plex, to see director Ken Loach screen his long-suppressed film, 'The Save the Children Fund Film' and to discuss his politics with Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate for the London assembly, Nick Wrack. Attendees left with hundreds of leaflets to distribute across London, backing TUSC's robust anti-cuts agenda.
In 1969, Ken and his producer Tony Garnett received a commission from Save the Children to produce a television documentary celebrating fifty years of the charity by looking at their work in care homes in Blackburn, Kenya and Uganda. What Loach and his collaborators uncovered was not the stuff of a celebration: institutionalised racism, patronising and dismissive attitudes to the children in care, the triumph of big business in areas of extreme poverty and the failure of charity to provide a sustainable future for those most in need. As a result, the film was suppressed for forty years, only kept from destruction by a demand from Loach that it be kept in the British Film Institute’s archives, forever unshown.
'The Save the Children Fund Film' shows three institutions. The first, in Blackburn, is run by two charity workers that the children are encouraged to call ‘Auntie Lena’ and ‘Uncle Chris’. Loach pairs this with Lena’s view that of these children’s ‘cunning’ and their ‘certain amount of animal instinct’ and disbelief that ‘you can ever educate them’. The film then shows two institutions in Kenya: one is The Place of Rescue, Nairobi, a shelter for the many street children who beg and work on the edges of the city; the other is Starehe School in which Swahili is forbidden from being spoken, and the students receive a thoroughly British education, reading from Biggles and Tom Brown’s School Days. Finally, in Uganda we see a makeshift hospital attempt to treat malnourished children, with a sense of the futility of their actions against the overwhelming inequality of the region.
Ken's film captures the ruling classes in these recently independent countries with a unique candour. A group of glamorous white women sit poolside, boasting of the shooting ‘their own zebra’ and that ‘even in their poverty they are basically happy people.’ Ken admitted on the night that he found himself in an awkward position, having to refuse invitations to their many parties.
In a passionate, humorous and inspiring discussion, Ken and Nick Wrack (TUSC’s second candidate for the Greater London Assembly election) brought to the surface the lamentable similarity between the film’s document of decades past, and the crisis in public services we face today. The inadequacy of charity’s ability to provide for social change is easier to see in this insightful film, but no different today. The Coalition government’s contradictory approach to charity – at once encouraging a laissez-faire social responsibility through their Big Society, as a smokescreen to cut well organised public services, while at the same time reducing the ability of charities to perform their work by confusing their tax status – is challenged by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and their members. Nick Wrack, explaining why the work the film's message of inequality is sadly more relevant today than at the time of filming said,
'In the forty years since the film was made, we’ve seen a retreat of socialist ideas, and the growth of the idea you’ve got to make it on your own. The powerful use this as a means to divide people up in their struggle to make society better. We really need to begin a national debate about what sort of society we want to live in. I think about the things that our generation has taken for granted, like free higher education and the National Health Service. Now, because capitalism is in crisis they’re trying to take everything back in order to protect their profits and they’re trying to make ordinary people pay. If we don’t organise to fight privatisation, the generations that come up after us will have nothing. That’s why, Ken and I, and others in the Trade Union and Socialist movement have come together to form this coalition. We’re trying to make a change in London and elsewhere by saying, ‘We’re different. We don’t agree with this consensus. We’re not prepared to accept your programme which is making us pay to defend your system.’”
Although partly a result of the film’s unfinished state, there’s a strength in the lack of distinction the film makes between Blackburn, Nairobi and Uganda. Many of the issues faced by the emerging states of Kenya and Uganda (Kenya had gained its independence only five years before filming and Uganda only the previous year) allow an insight into the construction of a modern capitalist economy: what has been rendered invisible in our society is easy to see in its unfinished form. The imposition of big business (malnourished children seduced by advertising into drinking soft drinks that are twice the cost of milk), the futility of education that deals only with the creation of disconnected individuals and the self-justification of the colonial capitalists has become blatant, but as a result all the more pervasive in the years that followed.
Nick and Ken’s discussion ranged over many topics, but at the centre of the debate was the need not to lose sight of socialism as a necessity, not a possibility. While Save the Children’s work has changed and improved unrecognisably since the film was produced, the inequality that the charity was formed to combat has grown more severe in the decades that followed. As Ken said, 'In politics now everyone is singing a variation of the same theme, that the market will provide, private capital has to be encouraged at whatever cost, workers have to be encouraged to be as flexible as possible so they can scrape the meanest job on the most temporary contract. To have a voice that says, "No, we need a socialist, planned economy for all of us, where we own the commanding heights and the public services." I think that horizon is really important to pursue and that’s the reason that I’m supporting Nick Wrack and TUSC.’
Ken's message in making the film was that 'charity comes into play when society's failed.' TUSC's campaign in London and across the country aims to provide a true resolution to society's failures by aspiring to a genuine equality founded on not only a defence, but an improvement of public services for the benefit of all people.