The Spirit of 45 Dogwoof VE Day Celebrations London 1945 copyright IWM

Ken Loach’s reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher yesterday is as direct in its politics as his latest film The Spirit of ’45.

“How should we honour her? Let’s privatise her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.”

Weaving archive footage around interviews and audio recordings of post-war life from the miners, steel-workers, and NHS staff of the time, the film doesn’t shy away from identifying its enemy – Thatcher and the dismantling of the common ownership that was built up in the post-war spirit of ’45 – the footage of her met with booing and hissing at screenings around the country.

Following recent cuts to welfare and the NHS, the generation of workers that lends its story to the film’s narration is now likely to live through some of the same struggles twice. As they join the majority of the older working class on the industrial scrapheap of the capitalist society, they leave the question What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911) at the mercy of the current government that this month introduced bedroom tax, cut legal aid and disability allowance, and capped welfare benefits, while scrapping the 50p tax rate for high earners. Loach’s answer to the question, through gathering their collective voice on film, is a call for empowerment.

Spirit of ’45 Interviewee Sam Watts read his first book, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists aged 25, later unable to sleep, thinking “I just thought what fools everyone are. How have we all been taken in? How we’re still being taken in. We’re just sucked in to a false life of what it’s all about.”

The relevance with which Tressell’s 1900s informed Sam’s 1945 easily translates to the effect the personal accounts of the working class in the film could have on an audience today. Despite being reduced by some critics to words like propaganda and fantasy, the film’s expression of the spirit of ’45 succeeds in showing how close society came to an alternative way of life through its passionate retelling.

The obviously staged archive clip of troops in earnest discussion at the Army Bureau of Current Affairs would let the modern viewer dismiss the idea of an educated working class to be a similar sort of propaganda – something scripted by video producers at the time, yet records show that the ABCA programme successfully made political discourse intelligible to the undereducated, with 83% of the service men and women saying they would still attend if it was voluntary. Similar to this archive clip, The Spirit of ’45 as a whole still reveals the truths of the past despite its simplistic delivery, and demonstrates a serious analysis by the working people who are not apathetic to parliamentary politics. This is key to the film’s purpose and its relevance to 2013 – a year that urgently calls for the return of empowerment.

In Loach’s own words from the 70s supporting the idea of documentary form, “there were things we wanted to say head on and not wrapped up in fiction…things that should be said as directly as one can say them… Thatcherism just felt so urgent that I thought that doing a fictional piece for TV, which would take a year to get commissioned and at least another year to make, was just too slow… Documentaries can tackle things head on, and you can make them faster than dramas, too – though, with hindsight, it’s just as hard, if not harder, to get them transmitted.”

The choice to make this documentary reflects the same urgency felt in the 70s, and has been released at a crucial time in British politics. Transmission may be easier today through independent cinemas and distributors, but even the venues that showcase the film appear to be crumbling within the current system – as recently revealed by the Curzon chain. April’s welfare and NHS cuts, and yesterday’s death of the film’s antagonist Margaret Thatcher has resurrected political debate in the UK and precedes next week’s DVD release of The Spirit of ’45, keeping in public discussion its central message – that “the price of so-called ‘economic freedom’ for the few is too high if it is bought at the cost of idleness and misery for millions.”

Win a DVD of The Spirit of ’45 in our competition (deadline 14th April 2013)

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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