Edinburgh Festival / Day 2: The truth, or something like it: Ken Loach should be a happy man: Raining Stones was a success and Parallax, his film company, is doing good business. But he's not. He now stands accused of distorting the truth.

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The Independent Culture
When Ken Loach attended the British premiere of his latest film, Ladybird, Ladybird, at the Edinburgh Film Festival last Sunday, his pleasure was soured by allegations that the film ('based on a true story'), was fundamentally flawed. He was accused by one journalist of gullibility and - worse - in presenting only one side of the story about a woman whose six children are taken away by the social services, one of them within an hour of its birth.

This attack was bound to upset Loach, not least because of the timing. It is an important moment for him. An iconic figure to the Left during the Sixties for realist film work like Cathy Come Home (1966), he suffered lean years in the Seventies and Eighties, but has been on a roll in the Nineties. Riff Raff (1990) and Raining Stones (1991) were both critical and popular successes, and Parallax, the film company he has joined, is proving that it is possible to be profitable making commercial films on low budgets. Ladybird, Ladybird has already picked up awards at the Berlin Film Festival, including Best Actress for Crissy Rock, a stand-up comedian making her acting debut. Hopes, however, of its commercial success depend on it being seen as 'true'.

In an editing suite in London last week, taking a break from cutting his next film, a Spanish Civil War drama, Loach said: 'If you were to tell this story and it hadn't really happened, people would say, 'Well, you're making it up to fit your own ideas.' It's important to know, as the story unfolds, that it did actually happen. Otherwise they'd say, 'Come off it.' '

And that is exactly what is being said. As a master of realism, using unflashy camera movements and hiring non-actors, Loach has injected a feel of real life into all his gritty - though often witty - social documentaries. There's not much humour in Ladybird, Ladybird, in which Maggie, the central character, has her four children by four different fathers taken away because she insists on remaining in a violent relationship. Maggie meets Jorge, a gentle Latin American refugee, and has two children by him only for the social services to take them too, because of her history. Although the social workers are presented sympathetically, they remain the villains of the piece. So how close to the facts is it?

'The essential ingredients about the dynamics of the situation and the central facts about the children being taken are true,' Loach says, sneaking out of the Edinburgh premiere of the film once the lights have gone down. 'But the people are different. The essence of their relationship is true. The whole thing was done under the guidance of social workers. For the scene in which the baby is taken away, for example, we had social workers on hand saying that, if we had to do this in real life, this is how we would do it.'

When Loach and his producer, Sally Hibbin, were first approached with the story by someone they will only identify as 'a friend of the family', their first thought was to make it as a documentary. 'It was a toss up. Some of the events were so overwhelming that if you did a talking-heads doc you wouldn't experience them in a way the woman did. If I'd done it as an investigative piece, I would have talked to the local authority, to everybody in social services, then done a selection of talking heads.

'There were two reasons I decided in the end not to do that. It would no longer have been a film about the two main characters, whose love affair is what interested me, and we were bound by the Children Act - we are talking about a specific case, but we're not allowed to be specific. We decided not to do anything to stir up trouble for the real people, not to go to the local authority, otherwise the real people would have been sucked back into all the trauma which they were trying to put behind them.'

The journalist who attacked his methods was Carol Sarler, who has a reputation for thoroughness and accuracy in her research. Her conclusion is that there were 'good, serious reasons' for removing the children, because of allegations against the couple 'far, far more serious than anything even hinted at in this film'. She talked to the people Loach decided not to interview - the social services department involved in the case, for example. She gained access to confidential files that Loach seems not to have seen. Sarler believes, on that evidence, that Loach has been irresponsible in presenting the story only from Maggie and Jorge's point of view.

In the foyer of the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, Loach is unrepentant: 'The characters are fictional, it is a fictional story - which did happen. The questions is not, 'Is the story true?' but 'What is the truth in the story?' ' We may never know for sure.

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