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)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder