Ken Loach: Up close and personal

Ken Loach's new film is about a cross-culture romance in Glasgow. But, he tells Diane Taylor, he hasn't left politics behind
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The Independent Culture

On the set of Ken Loach's latest film Ae Fond Kiss..., inside an elegant building in Glasgow, there's a minor commotion about the size of the kitchen table.

The crew is setting up a scene between the two stars, lovers Casim (Atta Yaqub) and Roisin (Eva Birthistle). Their relationship is passionate, intense and fraught with difficulties. Casim is an Asian Glaswegian and Roisin is an Irish Catholic who teaches music at his younger sister's school. Casim's family have arranged a marriage for him to a young woman from Pakistan, and Casim is torn between the connection he has with Roisin and a lifetime of tradition and respect for his parents' wishes.

The kitchen table is centre-stage as a disagreement between the two unfolds at Roisin's flat. Loach decides a bigger one is required to make the scene look right. A crew member who lives round the corner obligingly offers to pop home and get her own table. Not quite your standard Hollywood solution, but one which works perfectly. Ten minutes later the cameras roll.

Many of the crew members are regulars on Loach films. Although Birthistle and Yaqub make a very attractive couple, the most noticeable thing about the set is its lack of glamour. "For me," says Loach, "the process of filming has to be as simple as possible, then you can get to the heart of what people are doing and why. I think a lot of the artifice around film-making is just a barrier to that."

He stands in the corner of the room, a slight figure with thinning hair, smiling and nodding encouragement to cast and crew. He's self-effacing yet steely, and speaks softly, periodically pushing his glasses up his nose. The scene goes well and he keeps coaxing the actors. "Well done, that's good, keep it strong..."

Ae Fond Kiss... is the third part of Loach's Scottish trilogy, following My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen. It's also his fifth collaboration with the screenwriter Paul Laverty. Laverty came up with the idea after September 11. He was in America on the day al- Qa'ida struck and observed the instant hostility that the attacks generated towards US Muslims. He spoke to Muslim friends in Glasgow and found that they, too, reported feeling under siege. "I wanted to examine what was going on with different cultures in the same city. I saw the crudeness of how everyone is tarred with the same brush. I wanted to look at how religion and culture affect our lives and to examine identity."

Loach says getting the right cast was challenging. "We had a very specific hoop to jump through. We had to find actors for the roles of Casim and his sisters who spoke pure Glaswegian, and for his parents individuals whose accents were a combination of Glaswegian and Punjabi. To get someone to come in and put on those accents would have undermined the integrity of the film.

"The Muslim community has no tradition of public singing, dancing and acting, so we couldn't do our usual thing of going round the clubs and the variety acts. We couldn't have chosen a more difficult group to pick a family from."

In the end, Loach found Yaqub through a modelling agency. Birthistle, meanwhile, is a professional actress who stars in the Irish film Timbuktu, due to be released in Ireland in September. She has also appeared in the BBC production Trust. Yaqub works for a charity that provides advice and support to drug users.

"This film was my first experience of acting since I played the lion in The Wizard of Oz at school," he says. "Thankfully I had no idea who Ken Loach was before I got involved, otherwise I would have been much more nervous. Ken made me feel so relaxed during filming. He wanted my natural reaction to certain situations. This film shows what goes on behind closed doors in different cultures all over the world. A lot of things happen in secret." Yaqub identified with Casim's dilemma - he, too, had a white girlfriend for a few years. "A lot of our relationship was hidden, and when it did come out it wasn't well received in the community," he says.

Yaqub was happy not to see a script before becoming involved with the project, but it was different for Birthistle. "If it had been with a director whose work I didn't know, I wouldn't have been prepared to commit to the film without seeing the script. But as it was Ken, who's so well respected, I was happy to do that.

"At first I felt slightly vulnerable, but once I got my head round the way things worked I just went along with it and gave it my all. Ken creates a very naturalistic environment and I trusted my instinct. It was different from anything else I'd ever worked on. I would be handed a scene the night before we were due to film it, with the bottom half of the page blank."

Has Loach's venture into what he admits is virgin territory worked? The film is certainly gentler and less cruel than Sweet Sixteen. The familiar components of white working-class poverty and deprivation are absent, withRoisin a professional and Casim coming from a comfortable middle-class home in suburban Glasgow. So what about the politics? Did he decide it was time to go easy on the themes of his other films, poverty and injustice, and life on the margins of society?

He says not, pointing out, "People have a very narrow definition of 'politics'. Politics is everything about how people live together and their economic and social relationships. This is about a community that has come here seeking opportunities, trying to contribute to society and maintain their own cultural identity."

Loach (married since 1962 with five children) is also keen to challenge the idea that marriage is necessarily for life. "We are who we are now, but God knows what we will be like in 30 years time. The film challenges the whole idea of monogamy, of permanent marriage that is either arranged or a love match."

He and the rest of the crew are very protective of the film's young protagonists. Ae Fond Kiss... is Loach's most sexually explicit film to date and, according to Birthistle, he was more nervous about filming the intimate scenes than she and Yaqub were.

"I probably was," says Loach, his lips twitching into a smile. "Those scenes are testing - there are so many clichés waiting for the unwary. The sex has to be true, but not exploitative. There's a great responsibility to make sure the actors don't emerge feeling ripped off, and that the people watching the film don't stop seeing the relationship as a relationship while the characters are having sex. What passes between their minds must continue."

Yaqub hopes that the film will be well received in the Asian community in Glasgow, but is anxious about how the subject matter in general, and the explicit sex scenes in particular, will go down in some quarters. "My mum hasn't seen it yet, and when she does I'll be sitting a few rows away," he says. "I have had advice from some people in my community that the film could reflect negatively on me, but I chose to do it and I have to deal with that. I hope something positive comes out of it, and if there is a backlash that it is against me, not against my mum."

'Ae Fond Kiss...', Edinburgh Film Festival, 22 Aug; on general release from 10 Sept