The Selfish Giant, the new film from UK director Clio Barnard, has been hailed as “A Kind of Loach 2.0” and has attracted massive and glowing attention from the press. The film centers around the moving relationship between two young teenage boys, Arbor and Swifty, who live on a housing project in Bradford in the North of England. To put it charitably, both boys come from ‘hard living’ working-class families, and the plot revolves around their efforts to help support their disintegrating families. Both become excluded from school after getting into a fight as they react to the abuse they suffer because of their family background; both boys are picked on because of their lack of respectability. In order earn some money while not in school they set themselves up as putative scrap men, travelling the streets with a knackered old stroller, collecting pots and pans or indeed anything made of metal that they can convert in to ready cash. Predictably they graduate from hunting out abandoned household implements to stealing cabling and wire from the utilities and railway – ‘recycling’ their ill-gotten gain through a corrupt and corrupting scrap metal trader. The Selfish Giant is a beautiful and profoundly moving film about friendship, young masculinity, and above all working-class culture.
I was invited to react to the film on a panel ‘sociology meets film’ at my University cinema last week. Because many of the reviews had connected The Selfish Giant with Ken Loach’s film making style, especially his 1969 production Kes, based on author Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave, I decided to watch Kes before the event. Like The Selfish Giant, Kes is the story of a boy, Billy Casper, estranged from education and on the point of leaving school for the adult world of work. He finds friendship and meaning in his life through his capture and training of a kestrel. Like Arbor, Billy comes from a broken home and is shunned by his community as a result of this lack of respectability.
These films were made over forty years apart and tell us so much about what has happened to the English working class in that period. Both illustrate real poverty, restricted culture, and poor living conditions. In both, the fabric of the built environment is shabby and unkempt. In different ways, each details the casual disregard of the education system for ‘difficult’ working-class boys. However, the central theme that unites and divides the two films is the issue of work. Arbor has virtually no prospects of getting any form of mainstream employment when he eventually turns sixteen. He makes his living in and around a deindustrial landscape of loss. Like many left behind in the wake of economic change he is living off the scrap of residual plant and machinery from former industry. Much of the film looks as if it was shot is located on a former colliery site. Four decades earlier, Billy Casper had the looming prospect of employment in a working coalmine that is at the center of his community and already employs his abusive older brother. Both characters seem trapped by industrial landscapes in very different ways. For Arbor there are no jobs to choose, while for Billy the life of a miner is seemingly his only choice. We see how the hidden injuries of class play out both when people have access to work and when they don’t.
After the screening and comments from the panel reflecting on the film, audience members were invited to make their own observations. One person effectively reframed the discussion when she asked “Where is the hope?” The panel at the front of the auditorium shifted uneasily on their stools, hoping not to get the microphone – myself included – for there is little hope in The Selfish Giant’s unrelenting bleakness. In the late 1960s when Kes was released, living standards for the English working class were rising as they had been for over three decades. While many still lived in poverty, nearly everyone had a job, and above all there was still a strong and vibrant labour movement rooted in working-class community, culture, and workplaces – perhaps especially in pit villages. Today, the Arbors do not enjoy the range social structures to fall back on, nor can they look forward to anything other than precarious employment at best. If there is hope here it lies, I think, in the humanity that Clio Barnard captures in her respectful film, which is a feature of the best drama about working class issues. We see Arbor, or forty years before him Billy Casper, as rounded characters shaped by their surroundings, for sure, but also as embedded in relationships with others. Both Arbor and Billy are capable of demonstrating care and commitment to those who are important to them, to things they value. Because of this, the audience sees something of themselves in the characters, and so the film seems to ask, what would you do in that world? What choices would you make?
The problem, of course, is that films like The Selfish Giant won’t necessarily be seen by as wider audience as they deserve. All the press attention will bring more viewers to see this film, and perhaps this will create another important parallel with the earlier Ken Loach film. For while Kes was not an immediate blockbuster, it eventually became a word of mouth hit seen by a very wide audience and had a presence in national life, which it still enjoys to this day. Indeed generations of school children got to read the novel A Kestrel for a Knave as part of their secondary school English classes in large part because of the success of the film. That mainstreaming of working-class subjects and issues was the positive feature of the earlier film and book. Let’s hope The Selfish Giant has a similar impact forty years on.