Ken Loach turns down an award

The director shows solidarity with film festival workers.

Some decisions hit hard, tearing down the wall of polite hypocrisy behind which the film community often hide. Ken Loach’s decision to turn down an award from the Turin Film Festival in solidarity with outsourced festival workers made for encouraging news. It appears that his political convictions are not confined to celluloid; lights can sometimes be lit off the set. When economic recession hits hard, political opportunism becomes a palatable option, but not for Ken Loach it seems. In the press statement issued to the Turin Film Festival, the director of Bread and Roses said that to "accept the Award and make a few critical comments would be weak and hypocritical. We cannot say one thing on screen and betray that in our actions”.

The dispute, which had been brewing for a while, came to public attention on the eve of the festival when representatives of a grassroots union started picketing the main festival venue. Slogans such as “shame on you!” and “these are the people who make culture”, sarcastically referring to the festival organisers, "welcomed" Turin's centre-left mayor, Piero Fassino. The leaflets union organisers and activists handed out read, “I love you Ken”, and explained the dispute that brought them on the streets and led Loach to decline his award. According to the union, workers’ rights have been progressively eroded by outsourcing and temporary contracts that prevent the amelioration of working conditions. The Museum of Cinema in Turin, which is in charge of the film festival, has outsourced cleaning and security services for the past 12 years to a company called Coop Rear. “A wage cut was followed by allegations of intimidation and harassment. A number of people have been dismissed, Loach’s statement read. “The fact that it is happening throughout Europe does not make it acceptable." The director had been contacted directly by union representatives prior to his arrival in Turin for the 30th edition of the festival. Romolo Marcella, regional secretary of the USB (Confederation of Grassroots Unions), said that they got in touch with Loach back in August with documents detailing their claims. Without being urged to do so by the union, Loach made his decision not to pick up the award official early last week.

The festival organisers claimed that Loach was ill-informed and that they cannot be held responsible, neither directly nor indirectly, for the behaviour and employment practices of a third party (in this case, Coop Rear). Alberto Barbera, the president of the Museum of Cinema as well as the Venice Film Festival's new artistic director, added that the festival is renowned for its commitment to the fair and just treatment of workers. According to Italian press reports, Coop Rear, whose president is also a local town councillor, has decided to take legal action against the Loach. The festival organisers have retaliated by withdrawing Loach’s latest film, The Angels Share, which was due to be screened at the festival later this week. That the whole affaire took place in Turin is significant since the northern industrial city has witnessed in the past massive industrial action and widespread militancy. The festival itself, widely regarded as a left-wing event, has in the past had sections of its programme dedicated to labour-related issues. One of its prizes, the Cipputi award, which Loach was given in 1998, takes its name from a blue-collar character created by the celebrated Italian cartoonist, Altan.

Turin has invested heavily in culture as its industrial infrastructure withered. Home to the main FIAT car manufacturing plant and formerly home to a large working-class population, Turin is also Italy’s main literary centre. TFF artistic director, the filmmaker Gianni Amelio, after having put Loach's decision to renounce the award down to his temperament, stated his respect for the director's choice while at the same time deeming it inappropriate. As the Italian cultural establishment walks the tightrope of diplomacy, Loach has decided to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who can barely afford to buy a festival ticket.

Director Ken Loach (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis