Analysing socio-political themes of protest cinema in Carla’s song by Ken Loach
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Lola Rose – discusses Carla’s song by Ken Loach
The political sociology made prominent in Ken Loach’s films often depict inequality in Britain through various narratives. Carla’s Song (Loach, 1997) continues to explore Loach’s social-realist tradition of fighting against the establishment, by delving into the poetic portrayal of a love story between a Glaswegian bus driver and a Nicaraguan refugee. Set in 1987, when the Nicaraguan revolution had reached its peak in Central America and the Sandinistas largely dominated in power, this film serves as a stark reminder to the brutality of innocent lives affected by the Contra war, which took ‘the lives of some 50,000 Nicaraguans’ (Peace 2012:13). Loach amalgamates love and war into one conclusive whole to exhibit how ignorant British and American people were to the injustices committed by conservative leaders during the 20th century. In this Ronald Reagan, America’s president for much of the 1980s, had a large role, particularly in his support of the Contras (unruly anti-socialist right-wing rebels) through undercover operations of the CIA. The historically complex message hidden behind Carla’s Song takes a blatantly anti-American stand in light of this. George, the protagonist, is merely used as a sympathetic observer to the post-traumatic stress Carla experiences after escaping Nicaragua during the peak of its civil war. This paper will predominantly examine the social contrast between the lives of Carla and George and demonstrate how he resembles the film’s audience, who remain detached from the atrocities of war. It will also delve into why Loach chose to transform a typical romance plot into a deeply politically routed form of protest cinema, aimed directly at the American government.
‘Realism was deployed in the New Wave films as part of a moral commitment to addressing serious social issues’ (Weiner 2015:167) and Carla’s Song makes no exception in reiterating Loach’s critical ideology of power structures around the world. Specifically, in this case, America’s involvement with guerrilla groups in Nicaragua. Drawing away from Loach’s typical portrayal of working-class British lives, the film instead provides an account of the psychological and physical distress caused to the victims of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Carla first makes an appearance in the film when she sneaks on to George’s bus and is confronted by a bigoted ticket officer due to her being unable to pay the fare. The theme of anti-authoritarianism in George’s character is introduced here, as he defends Carla and lets her run off the bus to avoid being fined. After this event, George continually sees Carla reappear around the West End of Glasgow. However, each time he attempts to communicate with Carla she seems afraid and vanishes. It is established from Carla’s hesitant mannerisms that she is an extremely traumatised character who does not wish to relay any of her past life to him. Only when George follows Carla into her home, a decaying refugee shelter, does he catch a glimpse into her tragic life and insists she stays instead, in a spare room at his friend’s flat. Even after the two become romantically involved, there is no answer provided to the cause of her trauma. As a result, these unconfessed demons lead her to attempt suicide. We see her body lying in a blood-filled bath, surrounded by mysterious letters with no explanation as to who wrote them or why this led her to attempt suicide. Only after George is alert to her suicidal tendencies, does he and the audience discover that she has fled from a war zone in Nicaragua. This scene relates to the main template behind the film, which is to demonstrate the devastating impact political decisions have on ordinary people’s lives. Loach has a distinct way of immersing the audience into the story by allowing them to become emotionally involved with the main characters in the film. This is a technique used to further understand the social situations that they were living in at the time. In this case, for the viewer and George, the object of affection is Carla, and we remain in a confused state of distress watching Carla’s paranoia spiral into these depressive episodes. Combining elements of real historical events into fictional narratives allows the actors to further develop their roles. Carla, played by Oyanka Cabezas, was a little-known actor, but was also from Nicaragua. Thus, the emotion portrayed behind her face when discussing the traumatic effects of the Contra war, would have been genuine reactions to the tragedy caused to the peoples of her land. This is therefore, a clear depiction of how human relationships are mutilated and destroyed by historical events.
After Carla is discharged from hospital, George insists on buying tickets for them both to return to war-torn Nicaragua, so that she can face her past life and rekindle former relationships. The primary link to her trauma seems to be with her ex-lover Antonio. Carla does not explain what exactly happened to him during the war but it is made clear that he was badly tortured by the Contras and that Carla witnessed these crimes. It is later clarified that the letters surrounding Carla’s unconscious body in the suicide scene were written by Antonio. The contents of the letters were previously unopened as Carla was afraid to read the content. When she read them she became so distraught that the only option she had left was to attempt suicide.
The obscurity behind Carla’s haunted past continues as she and George return to Nicaragua to discover what happened to Antonio and her relatives. George acts as a solace to Carla during her poignant battle to find her lost lover but it is made clear that he is extremely ignorant to what life is really like in a war zone. He is a British outcast with little to no knowledge of the political background behind the conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contra’s involvement with the CIA. George’s character objectifies how the majority of democratic societies were kept unaware of the ongoing censorship and torture occurring in Central America. It was not widely known in Britain or the USA that the anti-government rebels showed ‘a pattern of brutality against largely unarmed civilians, including rape, torture, kidnappings, mutilation and other abuses’ (McManus: 1985). It is only when we are first introduced to Carla’s friend Bradley, a former American CIA agent and current aid worker, that the severity of these crimes and George’s ignorance to what is happening is uncovered to both George and Loach’s audience. Bradley quickly takes a dislike to George, unable to tolerate his foolish outlook on love and war. Before delving into Bradley’s role, it is worth noting that the writer of Carla’s Song, Paul Laverty, had previously worked as an aid worker and human rights lawyer in Nicaragua at that time. Laverty’s persona, therefore, arguably reflects the form of Bradley’s fictional character, as his job was to ‘record testimony from those who had been attacked by the Contras’ (Herald: 2006). As the film was created by outsiders, at first glance the narrative can seem quite simplistic in its attempt to understand the huge impact and horror of the Contra’s counter-revolution. Loach had been criticised for his former films allegedly succumbing ‘to a “naïve” realism, which was simultaneously tautological and lacking in depth’ (Cresswell & Karimova 2017:31). However, hiring Laverty as the screenwriter brought further awareness to the events he had witnessed at first hand. So, this was a tactic purposely employed by Loach to avoid controversial claims of British white filmmakers undermining social tragedies through fictional narratives.
It is only towards the end of the film that an account of what happened to Antonio is revealed in a conversation between Bradley and George. Here, Loach provides a detailed explanation of the past, which is fundamental in allowing the viewer to understand the true horror and impact of war. Films often avoid illustrating atrocities through visual scenes, as to do so can
attract charges of gratuitousness and can cause distress to the victims of war that have experienced such crimes. Therefore, Bradley’s reiteration of the scene to George and to the observer, shows how we are desensitised to ever experiencing the pain of war. Bradley describes how the Contras used torture methods on Antonio by cutting out his tongue and pouring acid over his face, whilst Carla helplessly watched her lover suffer from afar. Even though this description is never shown visually in scene, the storytelling aspect is crucial in providing an understanding of the social reality of innocent Nicaraguan lives. We become slowly educated into this anticipated realisation of the extreme impact of war, which leaves behind a residual shock. The words then remain etched on the observers’ mind throughout the duration of the film. Loach was therefore arguing that the ongoing situation occurring in central America at the time this film was set, should not be a news item that society ignored, which it was continuing to do at the time.
Antonio was attacked because he was an educator, so the symbolism behind him being forced by the Contras to never speak out again on political matters, demonstrates how corrupt politicians sanctioned the most horrific violence. In Contra controlled areas civilians were left ignorant of ongoing affairs and denied medical help, to diminish the publics role in society and heighten the rebels’ own sovereignty. Political masters who were responsible for these matters, were extremely distanced from the horror of war. However, the majority of civilians living in areas controlled by the Ortega government, were also detached from these atrocities. George’s journey towards understanding this and his realisation of what occurred, creates a distinctly similar shadow of self-reflection to that of the viewers. It is this reality that makes a mark on the viewer and allows us to be awakened to the ongoing corruption of war by experiencing it the way that George did. The theme of human connectedness is illustrated when George gifts a Nicaraguan man a t-shirt reading ‘City of Glasgow’. Later in the film, this same man wearing this top protects George from an explosion during a Contra invasion, leaving him badly injured. So, the swapping of t-shirts demonstrates how we, George, and the people of Nicaragua, all share similar lives that could consequently become destroyed by war. Loach reiterates his anti-war outlook by showing how the malignity of political forces generates perpetual suffering in the world due to its destruction of universal love in human relationships. As the film draws to a close, Carla becomes reconnected with Antonio. We see a severally disfigured face of a man staring into the abyss with a guitar in hand. Although he is unable to speak, the power of music through Antonio’s playing of the guitar as Carla sings to him emphasises the power of the human spirit and its significance to the film. It is a telling tale of survival and revisits the theme of the spirit of love binding humanity together despite the significant consequences of war. The trauma Antonio and Carla experienced and the connection they have with one another, in essence, allows them never to be silenced.
At a superficial level, this story seems to be a tale of romance. Yet, in light of this, the tenderness between the characters of George and Carla and the development of their relationship throughout the film, allows the viewer to become emersed within the story so that the political education we receive is almost acquired by stealth. Loach created engaging protest cinema by analysing social and political factors. With its use of universal themes touching on humanity, sacrifice and love, we, the audience, are introduced to a world of which we were previously unaware. Thus, the characters and the naturalism of the story behind this complex political message effectively convey the harsh truth of present-day life by focusing on the connection of relationships between George, Carla, and Antonio’s impact on the audience. Consequently, Loach’s bittersweet love story combines political and personal links to project the barbaric, inhumane consequences of war occurring in everyday life.
Lola Rose, July, 2022
Cresswell, Mark and Karimova, Zulfia. ‘Ken Loach, Family Life and Socialist Realism: Some Historical and Theoretical Aspects’ Journal of British Cinema and Television,
14:1. (2017), p.31
Default content holder ‘He witnessed war in Nicaragua, studied philosophy in Rome and now lives in Madrid. Is screenwriter Paul Laverty Scotland's greatest export? Barry Didcock meets the award winning screen writer of The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ Herald (2006) https://www.heraldscotland.com/default_content/12431873.witnessed-war-nicaragua-studied-philosophy-rome-now-lives-madrid-screenwriter-paul-laverty-scotlands-greatest-export-barry-didcock-meets-award-winning-screen-writer-wind-shakes-barley/ (Accessed 25th March 2022)
Mcmanus, Doyle. ‘Rights Groups Accuse Contras: Atrocities in Nicaragua Against Civillians Charged’ Los Angeles Times. (1985) https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-03-08-mn-32283-story.html (Accessed 25th March 2022)
Peace, Rodger. The Anti-Contra War Campaign. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. p.13
Weiner, Nathaniel. (2015) Resistance through realism: Youth subculture films in 1970s (and 1980s) Britain. European Journal of Cultural Studies 21:2 (2018), p.167
Carla’s Song (1997) Ken Loach [DVD]. London: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
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