Always a bit of a film buff, I do enjoy a visit to the cinema. Like many of my generation I grew up before television became compulsory in every household, and the weekly visit to the cinema enriched our lives no end. In fact, in the drab British fifties, where every street boasted a bomb site waiting to be cleared, films were our main form of escapism. They showed the possibility of a glamorous world quite beyond our experience.
I especially loved those old Hollywood musicals – you know, the ones where people would burst into song at the drop of a hat, and dance along crowded streets regardless of the passing traffic. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, my heart was yours. But I had very catholic tastes, and loved them all, from the Westerns, and the quasi religious epics (which all seemed to star Charlton Heston) through to the crime thrillers.
I became conscious as I grew older that films also had the capacity to change hearts and minds. Even Bambi, all those years ago, made people view the treatment of animals and the planet they, and we, live on in a different way, and we can all think of many films which have influenced our thinking.
In the last week or so, I have seen two films. The first was Ken Loach’s bleak and horrendously accurate, I, Daniel Blake. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. This gives me food for thought, as although I was gripped by the film, I could not resist the feeling that it was a political statement rather than a great film. Ken Loach, as so often in his illustrious past, is concerned with highlighting a broken system which breaks lives. From which, as for the central character in this case, there is no way out.
For anyone who does not already understand how easy it is to fall through the net through no fault of your own, to end up homeless and hopeless on the streets of our so-called civilised county, then this is the film for you. But if you have not already noticed the prevalence of food banks and the despairing souls sleeping on our streets, then you will either not go and see it, or dismiss it as leftish propaganda.
I think it was a worthy social commentary, splendidly acted and directed, but that, sadly, that it will change nothing. Perhaps if it had been shown on television without any prior publicity it might have caught the audience that Ken Loach must have hoped for, as Cathy Come Home once did, but I fear only the already converted old lefties like me will flock to see it. Fifty years on, social media makes it more difficult to take your audience by surprise with a left hook to their conscience.
The other film I saw was A Streetcat Named Bob. I had read James Bowen’s book about his experience of being rescued from his life as a homeless druggie on the streets of London by Bob, a ginger cat. No secret that I am devoted to cats, so no surprise I wanted to see the film. I expected confetti. Something charming and light, a sort of feline Marley and Me I had seen a couple of reviews, ‘charming’, a ‘delightful comedy/drama’ ‘fun’.
I am left wondering if they saw the same film as me? Because although this film is indeed charming and delightful, that very framework enables it to deliver a mighty punch to the gut. The script is totally non-judgemental. No-one cares about the previous circumstances of the destitute. There is no subliminal message about some being more or less deserving of their fate, there is no categorising of the good, the bad and the ugly. (Sorry about that, but I have admitted to being prey to cinematic influences.)
While centring on James and Bob’s life and relationship, the film makes no effort to camouflage the dirt, the danger and the sheer horror of life on the streets. Even the confrontation with the Big Issue seller underlines the poverty and desperation of those frantically trying to rise above the circumstances they find themselves in. But neither does the film shy away from recording the suicidal apathy of those who have given up.
Luke Tredaway is a remarkable young actor, and his portrayal of James has enormous honesty. From the first frame I felt total empathy with his initial alienation. Bob, we are told, had a little help from his friends, but also emerges as a feline thespian of no mean ability.
So what is my point here? Well, it seemed to me that possibly A Streetcat Named Bob might, almost inadvertently, ultimately change more hearts and minds than I, Daniel Blake. Because the unpleasant truths it portrays are there for you to find, rather than thrown at you. And because in the end, this true story is about hope and redemption. Perhaps, without at least a glimmer of that, we shrug our shoulders and keep our heads down.