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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution