Suppose you could go to the movie theater and see a film about working people, struggling against great odds to enrich the quality of their lives. And suppose that instead of relying on a great individual leader, they made their own decisions and fought their own battles.
Then you would have a taste of Ken Loach's brilliant and engrossing new film Jimmy's Hall, which will open in New York City and Los Angeles this coming weekend, and then cities around the country in the weeks to come. Based on previous experience with Ken Loach's films, you may want to keep a close watch on your local movie listings, because the film could easily be gone before you knew it was showing.
Jimmy's Hall is based on the life of Jimmy Gralton, an Irish republican and socialist, the only Irish citizen ever deported from Ireland. Like many who fought on the losing republican side in the Irish Civil War, he was blacklisted and forced to leave for New York.
Jimmy's Hall picks up when he returns to his native County Louth in 1932 and tries to re-open the "Pearse-Connolly Hall" as a place where young people can learn everything from W.B. Yeats' poetry to boxing to the latest jazz dances from America, and tenant farmers can meet to try to stop evictions.
The film is about two struggles: Community people trying to build a space to organize their own education and enjoyment. And tenant farmers who are threatened with eviction from land their families have worked for generations.
The Catholic Church and a growing neo-fascist right wing are determined to crush both. As a character says early in the film, "Our problem has always been the masters and the pastors."
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Ken Loach described the Pearse-Connolly Hall as a place for "life, energy and good times" in a recent interview on WBAI Radio. One of the film's characters proudly explains that although the hall is built on Gralton's land, it belongs to the whole community. It's run by an elected committee, and all the teachers are local people.
The Catholic Church, in the person of the local parish priest, sets out to close the hall down. For him, there can be no education except the education controlled by the church. Jazz is the devil's music, a licentious foreign import that corrupts innocent Irish young people.
In rural Ireland in the 1930s, the Church had a power that's difficult to even comprehend today. When the priest told people what to do, they were expected to just listen and obey.
In Jimmy's Hall, we see the price that people pay for standing up to the Church. A local shopkeeper explains that the priest will put her out of business unless she stops teaching. A young woman comes back to the hall even after being beaten by her father because the priest denounced her from the altar.
In the film, and in real life, the hall is a meeting place for tenant farmers who couldn't make the rent at the height of the depression. Gralton himself wrote in The Workers' Voice that "my ancestors have been paying rent...for the privilege of cultivating the soil to feed themselves and families."
In a critical scene, Jimmy is asked to speak for the tenant farmers' campaign. Some of his friends warn him not to do it, because he'll be driven out of Ireland. Others say we can't stand by and see families thrown off their land.
They decide they have to go ahead. An evicted family is put back on their farm at gunpoint. Jimmy makes a stirring speech denouncing the landlords and the bosses, which ultimately gets him deported.
Their debate about resisting the evictions represents one of the unique strengths of a Ken Loach film. Jimmy isn't portrayed as the leader who has all the answers. Instead, people discuss, debate, try to weigh their options and finally make the best decision they can. Earlier, people are seen trying to come up with a strategy to at least neutralize the parish priest.
In Loach's film about the Irish Civil War, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a republican court forbids a landlord from evicting a tenant farmer. The local Irish Republican Army commander protests that without the landlord's money, he won't have any bullets. The audience is left to decide who's right.
This commitment to portraying the lives and struggles of ordinary people was reflected when Loach cast people from the west of Ireland who had never acted before for Jimmy's Hall. He told WBAI:
You try to find people who can portray the character because they really are them. When you have a working man or woman, the camera sees that...They've lived the ideas.
Finally, of course, good politics don't necessarily make good movies. A well-intentioned film can still be dull or didactic. There's no danger of that with Jimmy's Hall. It's exciting, fast moving, with compelling, believable characters. If you actually believe that working people can fight to change the world, it's also a film to treasure.