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Carla’s Song (1996) Dir. Ken Loach. Film Four

It is 1987 and a Glaswegian bus driver’s life is changed for ever by a chance meeting with a refugee from Nicaragua in Ken Loach’s first film with screen writer Paul Laverty, a partnership that would culminate in the Great Man of Film’s piece de resistance on the Irish War of Independence; “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”.

Nicaragua was a cause celebre for the Left in the ‘Eighties as a democratically elected Government which was an alliance between Socialists and the Catholic Church, attempted to better the lives of it’s poorest citizens through Land Reform, and spending money on health and education. This despite a cruel and inhumane economic blockade by the US, and condemnation from the Vatican which took the side of the rich and powerful against the very people the Gospel decrees should be raised up. No change there then.

To cap it all the Americans were then caught selling arms to their sworn enemies in Tehran and spending the readies on funding one of the most brutal of terrorist Death Squads ever to operate in the region.

The Contras aimed to destroy the Sandanista Government through a relentless campaign of targeted assassination and razing of villages loyal to a Government who had given land and freedom to the peasant classes for the first time.

I first learnt of all this when attending SWP meetings with a friend of a friend, but baulked at joining them when they described the IRA in the same terms as the ANC, the Palestinians and the Sandanistas which I found ludicrous and totally offensive. Thus I continued in the Labour Party and became an activist with Militant for a few years. I don’t regret it for a minute but we were deluded.

All this talk of Nicaragua reminds me of a very weird experience in January of 1988 and looking back I’m not sure it was even real.

1987 was a totally screwed up affair for me and I arrived in Dublin on my way back to the North from Limerick for a few days with my cousin who lived in Glasnevin.

It was a cold and crisp winters day and as I was walking across O’Connell Street Bridge there was a pavement artist doing a “Wanted for Crimes Against…” cartoon of Reagan. I said; “You missed out Nicaragua”, which seemed to antagonise a bucolic American tourist. He started ranting and raving to all and sundry in a stereotyped red neck sort of way which only made people laugh, which in turn made him go ever more mental.

That night we went for a few in the Gravediggers, a legendary Dublin Pub arriving back at Donagh’s shared house in (unusually) a fairly sober state.

This guy was sitting there waiting for one of the other people and we started to chat and our kid turned in as he had work in the morning.

It turned out your man was from Nicaragua and studying in Europe and we discussed the situation in general terms until he explained what had happened in his village when the Contras paid a visit.

He told me the whole thing in about an hour, only pausing to light a cigarette, and I listened in stunned silence. This was real. Not some stupid ardent hand wringing student meeting. Just horrid. He was a big supporter of the Sandanistas and explained how they had turned the country around, but the US was just hell bent on destroying the regime.

I was stunned and speechless, and it put my travails into perspective, then he said; “This is my truth, tell me yours”, a famous quote from my hero Nye Bevan.

And I did. The whole thing for the first time ever, totally cathartic and a big marking post on my road to recovery and a normal life.

I finished my drink and went to bed and upon waking discovered the house was empty, our kid had gone to work and there was no sign of my new friend. I packed my stuff and went to Connolly Station to catch the Belfast train. When I next spoke with my cousin he was vague on the matter and to this day I don’t know if this guy was real, a product of my imagination, or something else.

As for Carla’s Song; it’s a film of two halves (Brian) the first part set in Glasgow and is pure Loach in it’s observation of humanity in ordinary settings leading somehow extraordinary lives. The humour is raw and very much to the fore as Robert Carlyle plays the slightly unhinged, yet principled bus driver who is constantly at war with his Inspector for letting people off their fares and then such like.

Carla(Oyanka Cabezas)

is one such recipient of his largesse, penniless and freezing cold she is thrown off by the Inspector and Carlyle makes it his objective to track her down and find out what’s going on.

She is unwilling, scared and suicidal but eventually he wins her trust, sacrifices his relationship and returns to Central America with her.

The plot would have been better served if his love had been truly unrequited, but the second half of the film set in Nicaragua is a stunning achievement in all aspects of film making, from the photography of the magnificent setting, to the acting and the political content.

As a picture about humanity and a condemnation of US Imperialism this piece works on all levels and is another superb effort from the UK’s greatest working maker of films.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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