I suppose you could say that Ken Loach has never been more relevant. An outspoken socialist whose films have almost exclusively been about pointing out the flaws in the system and how those affect the working class, Loach has been making films about the world that surrounds him ever since his beginnings at the BBC. Now 83 years old, Ken Loach turns his camera towards the gig economy with Sorry We Missed You — an injustice that he perhaps could not have imagined when he was making his first films 50 years ago, but one that seems positively tailored for the Loach take.
Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) have been in a state of perpetual struggle since the 2008 economic crash, which wiped out their savings, prevented them from living in the home they had so carefully saved up for and forced them into a series of precarious employment situations. Abby, a home-care nurse, is seemingly perpetually on-call to patients that require immediate and absolute attention. Ricky struggles from job to job until he finds a potentially decent position as a delivery driver for a third-party company that Amazon and other giants outsource to. It’s a pretty enticing offer, except that it means Ricky is considered a freelancer. That means he has to either buy his own truck or lease one from the company, which about halves his take-home pay. The family’s first move backwards is selling Abby’s in order to pay for the truck. This only leads Ricky into a hellish situation: he can never take a day off work to attend to family business (like the constant messes their teenage son finds himself in), and he’s at the mercy of extremely demanding stats and goals.
Sorry We Missed You is very much about the safety nets and social programs of Britain, which are ostensibly better than American equivalents but have been put through the wringer by the current political situation. I couldn’t resist comparing my own life to Ricky’s — when I was in a car accident in November, I didn’t have to worry about losing my job because of the safety nets in place.
“There’s still meant to be a safety net in Britain, but it’s being eroded by the way work is changing,” says Loach. “It’s developed over 40 years. All the games that trade unions won have been undermined over 40 years. When you look back, you can see the stages very clearly. Thatcher came to power, choosing to weaken organized labour through legislation of the labour unions. There were big strikes, there was massive unemployment and all that weakened the bargaining power of workers. The door was open, then, for employers to impose these harder conditions. Workers no longer have the right to holiday pay and sick pay and all that, because they’re called self-employed. They’re entrepreneurs, to use the jargon. (laughs) What they mean is they’re responsible for everything. They have no rights as workers because they’re not legally workers. They’ve signed a contract to deliver a service, which makes them sort of their own little independent company. The fiction is that they’re an independent entrepreneur, which means they can just be ripped off.”
Though Sorry We Missed You was first screened at Cannes last year, it has taken on additional timeliness as its release coincides with the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. In places where the system offers workers no safety net like America, workers are penalized for not coming in to work even though the recommendation is that they self-quarantine. In other words, the rigidity of capitalism is making it so that the pandemic is practically unavoidable. This is something that the film touches upon, even if the current COVID-19 situation was nonexistent at the time.
“Our fear is that the health system won’t be able to cope with the great increase in people needing treatment,” says Loach. “At the moment, the health service is struggling. The reason for that is that the government wants to turn it into an American-style system where more people take out private insurance and the service that is left for everyone else is basically inadequate. They don’t put the money into the health service, and they also encourage private contractors to do the work. Bit by bit, the basic principle where everyone was employed by the health service; now, it’s mainly self-contracted and these contractors employ the gig economy style of hiring workers. The whole thing is very frail at the moment and, come big emergencies, the fear is it won’t be enough.”
Ken Loach films are, since the mid-’90, essentially also Paul Laverty films. Laverty has written every single one of Loach’s films since 1996, making them one of the most productive writer-director teams of recent years. (Laverty has also, on occasion, written films for others.) I asked Loach if that working relationship has changed at all over all the years and topics covered.
“It’s pretty much the same!” says Loach. “Obviously, there’s lots of work with other people in between. We’ve worked together for 26, 27 years now – a long time – and Rebecca O’Brien, the producer, has also been with us all that time. We’ve been very lucky, really, to find a good team to work with. The danger is you get into a rut! But I think that we’re sufficiently aware of that. The importance is to be sufficiently critical of what you do. I’ve been very lucky to work with Paul and Rebecca.”
One of the most impressive things about the body of work of Ken Loach, really, is how it can pretty consistently take the pulse of social ills without ever repeating or doubling down on material. Obviously, if one sets out to make a movie that points out problems with society, one will find more than enough to choose from.
“As we’ve been saying, it’s a vast subject,” says Loach. “The question is always what are the images? What’s the core of it? Paul said something at the beginning, when we first started working on it. He said that the pressure was coming into the family. When you’re at work, you put on a brave face. They don’t know your story. You knock on the door, give them a smile, give them their package and drive away. You’ve got to present a public image that’s okay — competent. But if you’re working a 12-hour shift and you’re not eating, maybe. You get back, you’re exhausted, your alarm’s going to go off in eight hours’ time… You have no patience. You have no patience for your kids or your partner. You’re exhausted — and that’s when the pressures come. That’s when you lose your temper and things go wrong, because you have to be ready for the next day with a smile. So we thought we’d look at the consequences within the family.” ■
Sorry We Missed You directed by Ken Loach is in Montreal theatres now. Watch the trailer for Sorry We Missed You below.
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