“We’d like to encourage as many young people as possible to break the law and try and see this film.”
Paul Laverty, Ken Loach’s long-term collaborator, ex-human rights’ lawyer and Cannes award-winning screenwriter is talking about the 18 certificate their new film, Sweet Sixteen, has received. Loach, Laverty and Martin Compston, their lead actor, are in Leeds to launch the largest regional film festival in its 16th year.
“We’re really furious, we think its censorship. You know you can blow people up, and you can be racist and kill people by the thousands like in Black Hawk Down, but street language is somehow beyond the pale, especially if it’s a working class accent”. Laverty’s thick Scottish accent is flying so furiously fast he’s almost tripping over his words.
“We hope cinema managers will turn a blind eye and use some common sense to let kids see this film, and we hope Sir Quentin Thomas (who presides over the British Board of Film Classification) gets out of his air conditioned office a bit more, and occasionally hears how ordinary people speak. The idea that sixteen year olds can have families, look after children, but shouldn’t be allowed to come and see this is totally ridiculous. So two fingers to the certificate”.
The ironies in Sweet Sixteen run further then it’s bitter title. Martin Compston despite starring in the film is unable to legally watch it. Compston is grinning cheekily ear to ear at the fiery Laverty – he is a typical Loach lead – unknown, untrained, yet hailed by the critics for his ‘fierce intensity’ mixed with ‘conscious tenderness’. “It’s so frustrating”, Compston agrees, “I mean there’s no ultra violence in it, and there’s no sex scenes, which I must say I was gutted about”, he laughs, “we’re allowed to go and see films with people being blown up and that’s not going to affect us?” His voice peaks with incredulity. The Scottish accents are so strong in the film, the first fifteen minutes have subtitles -”at no extra cost” quips Laverty. “In Europe everyone is used to subtitles because of language, we’re so dominated by American film that we’ve cut ourselves off form world cinema – it’s an introduction to another world, you see people who are not white and square jawed and always win in the end.” Loach is no stranger to championing the disenfranchised. His films are usually hard to find, tucked away in art houses – launching Sweet Sixteen in the Leeds multiplex, The Ster Century Cinema, is refreshing.
“The Leeds festival is important,” Loach says, “it reminds us of that breadth of films around the world. What you see in most cinemas is a very narrow range of films, it’s American industrial films, its like the only restaurant is a fast food one.” Loach despairs at the ‘McHollywood’ state of the film industry, the Big-Mel and Whopper-Cruise with the obligatory side order of kick-ass, gun-toting violence. “Film is more than an accompaniment to popcorn”. For such a softly spoken, gentle man, his words are sharply felt. Loach was a high profile figure at the anti-war demo in London last month. “The New Labour bubble I think has burst already, and they’re just waging a propaganda war now, as well as this serious war that they’re in danger of taking us into.” Loach is more concerned with the language of war and terrorism than that of the street that his film has been criticised for. “We’re so dominated now by the US, by its food, its language, its omnipresent war mongering president, that you really need other views, you know the world is a bigger place, so well done to Leeds for giving us that.
“I did a film in Yorkshire a long, long time ago, called Kes, and people to begin with were rather sceptical about the language, and said oh, nobody will understand it. The American financiers said they understood Hungarian better, but in the end lots of people saw Kes. So I hope people will have the patience with Sweet Sixteen that they had with Kes, because in some ways it’s similar, in so far as it’s about young people who’ve got huge potential, energy and wit who are given a very raw deal. Liam is a lad who’s far too bright for his situation – he’s got a really sharp eye and quick mind. I think there’s a lot of kids in Leeds and Yorkshire who will say that’s a story that could happen here, and really enjoy it.”
Enjoyment may not be the right word. Peter Bradshaw in the Independent described watching the film to being kicked in the stomach, but that if you left the film feeling ‘winded’, then it must be counted as a success. Martin Compston’s image is plastered across Scotland’s cinema billboards. Loach believes to have a local boy up there does more for their sense of pride and identity then to have Tom Hanks peering down. As Loach heads off into the precinct-glare of The Light’s multiplex cinema, designer outlet stores, obligatory Starbucks and trendy bars, he looks slightly dazzled. With the help of festivals like Leeds, perhaps Yorkshire will see more of much needed angry, humane, unique filmmakers looking slightly lost on the escalators of multiplexes.