You were not here

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Roberto Noritomi*

Commentary on the new film by English filmmaker Ken Loach

Ken Loach is back on the front lines, dropping yet another light charge. His works are always a call for debate. This time with a theme of the most current and global. You were not here presents itself as a firecracker launched against the so-called “gig economy”, which has been spreading under the most varied forms of deregulation of labor relations.

The film is built around a proletarian family (the Turners), poor and indebted, living in Newcastle. The father, Ricky, is a former construction worker who, seduced by the promise of “being his own boss”, ends up becoming a franchised driver for a large express delivery company.

The mother, Abby, is a self-employed senior caregiver who performs in-home services. From there, what is seen throughout the film are the difficulties that the father and mother face in dealing with everyday life, in particular the education of their two children, under the pressure of their precarious jobs (personified by the impassive Maloney, the warehouse manager of deliveries). From shared transport to deliveries in general, including services at home and other flexible connections, everything seems to be summarized in this family's misadventures.

In true style, Loach lays out all the pieces on the table, directly and without allegorical frills (which is a win). The film is an uncomplicated realistic drama, supported by ostensive verbal resources and denotative scenes, that is, extremely reiterative of the intended criticism. The organization of the sequences makes this clear.

The film opens with the interview between Manager Maloney and Ricky. Maloney's speech is inferred from management manuals. He explains to Ricky the wonders of the franchise, the total lack of ties and autonomy over earnings and routine: "like everything here, Ricky, it's his choice." Credulous and without alternatives, Ricky is excited by the promises of his new job: he is a “warrior”, not a “loser”. Here is the ideological statement.

The following sequences, in contrast, will counter the manager's cynical rhetoric and describe the exhausting character of Ricky's (and Abby's by derivation) autonomous work and the drastic consequences on family life. Things only get worse and every effort results in more debt. The last plan has an exasperated Ricky behind the wheel, weakened by an injury sustained the day before, and having to meet late deliveries. “I don't have a choice,” he tells his son, in direct counterpoint to Maloney's phrase in the opening sequence. Moral of the story: the freedom and quick gain promised by the “new economy” are nothing more than a sham.

Without the risk of making a mistake, you soon realize that the film You were not here it is very close to a very simple didactic libel. It shows how the hyper-advanced and comfortable mechanisms of consumption and self-employment are just masks that cover up a reality of oppression and despair. It is the fallacy of an ideological play that is being exposed and denounced. This is the immediate and tempting key to entering the film and falling into the trap of valuing it for its content.

Exposing the topic, wherever and however it may be, contributes to increasing awareness and rejection of the dismantling of meager labor protection resources. Without a doubt, the film is necessary and Loach's intentions are timely. However, the work has a lot to lose aesthetically if the analytical path is just that way. Your flight is short. Thus, if it is not for its negative that You were not here manages to take a less short flight, its positive would remain, that is, what adds value to its main substance, that is, the working class. It is as a chronicler of this class that the English director receives his best grade and remains in a relevant position. Your realistic commitment counts here. Well, then, it is worth observing how this happens.

Em You were not here, the structural arrangement of the sequences gives the input clues. The film develops linearly, but it cannot be said that there is a dramatic arc that supports it. With the exception of the already mentioned first sequence, which triggers the whole sense, the others are not arranged in a rigidly hierarchical succession and interconnected by a closed script.

There is certainly a chronological chain, but that does not mean the unfolding of a growing expectation towards an expected end. No character has a goal or a specific adversity to be overcome and around which the spectator's emotional involvement would be fixed until the great, and cathartic, outcome (paying the debts and buying the house are very vague yearnings and would not have a precise diegetic paper).

The sufferings and conflicts are absorbed within the sequence in which they manifest themselves and do not unfold beyond it: the misunderstandings between father and son do not reach more serious ends; the bitter arguments between Maloney and Ricky do not culminate in the breach of contract; As much as Abby's anguishes in dealing with her patients accumulate, this does not lead to a change of course in her profession. What is verified is a web of relatively stagnant and heterogeneous dramatic units, loaded with variable intensity. An event does not necessarily prepare the next step.

As assembled, these units can be seen as sections of a continuous reality. There is no break of continuity fitted between them. They are, in fact, snapshots or clippings of proletarian daily life that range from the work routine to the frugality of family life, with all the richness they may contain. It is the delivery of goods that is repeated day after day; waiting at the bus stop; the tease about Ricky's team; arrival at the distribution post; a discussion about the child's performance at school; a violent assault; and the long wait for care at a public hospital.

Each of these moments, more or less simple, are coated with meanings and deserve to be seen simply for what they show. The decoupage of the scenes is not totally conditioned by strict eye control, including or excluding elements within the field according to narrative needs. They are there too, sometimes ostentatiously, but coexisting with a camera that moves and frames in a less conventional way. Without being subject to a narrative time, the shots seek to stick to the duration of the phenomenon, allowing to record what overflows the scene, from the last bite of a sandwich to a door that slams and does not close completely.

Everything is impregnated with the class experience, which is determined and must be apprehended in its entirety and elevation. Hence Loach's insistence, throughout his career, on the use of a more restrained camera, concentrated in fixed, medium or set shots, few cuts and restricted movements. Definitely, the temporality of the English director is not in line with many of his young contemporaries.

This extended, slow register has the privileged object in the worker and in his making himself, through work. It is not gratuitous, therefore, that the work process receives a very special focus and occupies most of the film. For Loach this has always been fundamental and it seems that now it is even more so. In You were not here, the work process imposes itself on the sequences from beginning to end, as something inescapable. Almost like a “scientific management” inventory, the camera is busy scrutinizing every step, instrument, and skill in the process in its minutiae.

Ricky's profession ranges from the use of scanner (the gun), loading the van and traveling through the streets, until the delivery of the order to the consumer. Abby also has a similar apprehension of activities, with an emphasis on bus trips, the use of measuring devices and reports. There is no news, in recent cinema, of the work receiving such an ostensive, explicit visual representation. The displayed activity is arduous, reiterated in a continuous and repetitive movement so that its concreteness is imprinted.

Who takes the foreground is the worker, active and haughty, who is subjected by capital and at the same time reacts on the process with his dexterity and knowledge (however degraded he may have become). Ricky and Abby dramatically assert themselves by the way they perform their roles; this is how they and the entire working class face daily oppression. There is no chance for parasitism or for characters resentful of bosses and the world.

Despite the accentuated emptying of work, gradually controlled by telematic systems and equipment, these workers maintain some pride in what they do. In them, work perseveres as a still relevant value. In the interview scene, Ricky assumes a grafter, that is, a person who works hard and skips leisure, and that's what his routine comes down to. In another scene, at home, he tries to convince his son that work is the only way to survive (in the police station it is the police who will do this). Ironically, all dedication to this value did not result in a prosperous life for the family; but for Loach the problem is not work, it is the forms it takes under capitalism.

For Loach, work cannot fail to be the core activity of social life and the definer of class dynamics and boundaries. Class that is not, however, a vague and trivial idea that can be applied indistinctly to any oppressed or poor category. At this point, the English director is mindful of material determinations and, living up to the documentarist facet, is concerned with interweaving them in the film fabric.

Here, the chronicler meets the historian. The daily microcosm is buoyed by historical data. The class spoken of is English, with its habits and dialects; symptomatically lives in Newcastle, a city famous for its industrial past and today a place dominated by commerce and services. Ricky's biography is part of this productive restructuring (he is originally from Manchester, the cradle of industrialization and the labor movement, and had to move).

Likewise, her family situation is a consequence of the 2008 crisis, and the collapse of the Northern Rock Bank, which dragged a crowd into unemployment, according to the conversation between Abby and her client Molie, a former left-wing militant, today with serious mobility difficulties and abandoned by her family. By the way, this is a significant moment. That's when Molie, showing photos to Abby, remembers his participation in the support committee for the famous miners' strike against the Thatcher government, in 1984.

The strike was massive, prolonged, and is part of the first clashes against the first great neoliberal wave. Loach was also there, supporting and filming, and produced two engaging documentaries about the strike (which side are you on? (1984) End of the Battle… Not the End of the War?(1985)). The memory, therefore, has a singular weight; on the one hand, it points to the origin of the institutional dismantling that is experienced today; on the other hand, it signals the combative working-class past and the role of the director himself in this context.

It is data from which many readings could be derived. For now, the melancholy note that emerges from the scene is enough. After Molie exposes the photos of this event of extreme political importance, Abby presents, embarrassed, the photos of her family life. In the meeting of these two generations of workers, through the confronted photos, the political-economic setbacks that have shattered the identity and organization of the class in recent decades are implicit. However, despite the changes in profile, depoliticized and individualistic, Loach does not seem to propose a condemnation of these new workers and their attitudes; They are the ones who make up the class today. It is necessary to look at them and understand them as they are, objectively.

One of Loach's concerns, in You were not here and throughout his work, it is to establish with the characters and their dramas some form of objective treatment, never neutral or exempt. One of the procedures to account for this approach is the way in which Loach tries to rearticulate the relationship between the camera and the point of view within the scenes. Although the classic identification mechanism is present, it is not faithfully subscribed throughout the film.

The set shots, the camera angles that differ from the character's perspective and the discontinuity of some cuts are resources that imprint a certain emotional distance from the scene. Scenes that show dialogues and work practices are often framed together, in longer shots, and sparsely decoupage. Objects or people appear between the camera and the filmed event, demarcating both the distance and the position of the spectator's lurking.

This occurs, for example, in the hospital, when Abby rants at Maloney. The frame moves from Ricky to Abby, who stands up and is held in a medium shot as she speaks; some people cross in the very close-up, indicating how far the camera (and the spectator) is from that dramatic moment. The cut to the astonished faces of the other patients transfers the point of view to those gazes, which establish themselves as witnesses of a painful situation over which they cannot interfere, only become indignant. The feeling of those watching does not completely merge with the feeling of the protagonists on stage. There is no room for cathartic involvement. Loach restricts himself to leading the viewer into that family of workers, without making him one of its members.

The construction of this distance is crucial for Loach to indicate that it is about the collective, the class, and not the individual. The condition of these people transcends any particularity and refers to a historical, objective movement, traced by the struggle between capital and work. This does not mean that characters and situations are mere allegorical caricatures or typifications of anachronistic socialist realism. The film, as we tried to demonstrate, is based on a structure without a very precise diegesis, the characters are not the expression of schematic social agents, the staging is not tied to a restrictive script and is done on location. The effort is to anchor the fiction in the present, documented reality, and to produce a work that dialogues and intervenes in the world.

Ken Loach is an effectively political filmmaker. He takes sides. His camera has ethics and is at the service of the working class. Since the beginning, he has been carrying out works that aim to account for the struggles and ways of being of male and female workers. You were not here is faithful to this position. It is worth more for what it affirms than for what it denies.

The precariousness of work devastates the lives of Ricky and Abby, however, it is the fiber and resilience of the two that matter. It is the dignity of work and of an entire class that resides and resists in that family. In Loach's view, the class may capitulate, but it does not comply. Along these lines, some might say that the film is pessimistic and not conducive to conflict. In fact, from the point of view of the accusation, the wheels seem to grind the workers inexorably. However, it was seen that Loach is a social columnist interested in strengthening the image of the working class in action, in its daily existence. It is not for him to lead a workers' uprising, mainly because of the film. The director inserts himself into the struggle, but does not intend to be its guide. The open ending highlights this. The historical leap is outside the scene, outside art. In the hands of the class.

In an age when outbursts of resentment flood the screens and are hailed as emancipatory and redemptive actions, Ken Loach is a necessary antidote.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.

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