At age 87, veteran British filmmaker Ken Loach says The Old Oak will be his last film and it closes the trilogy set in the north-east of England after I, Daniel Blake (Cannes Palme d’or 2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019). It looks at the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees to be housed in a rundown north-eastern town, the reactions of different locals and the bonds that are formed between the communities.
Loach has championed human social-realist dramas since his debut as a TV director in the 1960s. He has examined working-class lives in Britain through housing crises, Thatcherism, and de-industrialisation in films like Cathy Come Home, Raining Stones and The Angels’ Share as well as looking back at historical struggles such as the Spanish and Irish civil wars in Bread and Roses and The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
The Old Oak is set in a former mining town and centres on The Old Oak pub, which is the only public space left to the inhabitants. Its ex-miner landlord TJ becomes friends with a young photographer, Yara, one of a group of refugees from the war in Syria who are being housed in the town in 2016. TJ has been a union representative and very active in his local community but has been worn down as the village has sunk more and more into poverty. But egged on by an active young local woman, Laura, and inspired by Yara, he tries to help the two communities come together despite the traumas and difficulties they have faced.
That is a difficult ask. The locals have plenty of problems of their own, and have not been prepared for the arrival of the refugees the authorities are happy to house in an area with cheap accommodation and no prying media eyes.
This extract shows how local children are actually as poor as the refugee families who are receiving donated furniture and necessities from a charity.
“The principle is always the same. Listen, observe and allow the people to be true to themselves.” Ken Loach
Loach again worked with long-time collaborators screenwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien, and they spent many months researching on the ground in the north-east before settling on a script.
As is his habit, Loach used many non-actors for roles in the film, and only provided scripts day-to-day in order to include spontaneous interactions in the film. Dave Turner, who plays TJ, had had small parts in Loach’s two previous films. Ebla Mari, who plays Yara, is from a Syrian village which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Claire Rogerson, who plays Laura, is a local charity worker who hadn’t acted before.
Stories Begging to be Told
This is not the first time Loach has announced the end of his career. Each time the same thing has brought him back: seeing injustice and feeling it is a story no one else is telling.
As he says of his north-eastern trilogy, while making the first two films, “We had met so many strong, generous people there, who respond to these dark times with courage and determination. We felt we had to make a third film that reflected that, but also did not minimise the difficulties people face and what has befallen this area in the past decades.”
Reflecting on his long collaboration with Loach, Paul Laverty says, “It might make him smile if I quote Saint Augustine from over fifteen hundred years ago who said that hope had two beautiful daughters. One, the anger at the way things are. Two, the courage to try and change them. This has been his working life.”
The Old Oak is on general release 25 October.
There is a teaching pack available to download from the French distributor's website.
There's a fascinating long-form radio interview with Ken Loach during the making the film in the BBC World Service's In the Studio series. Discover part one and part two of the interview.
This film will complement the document on Sorry We Missed You in Shine Bright AMC File 9 Brit Flicks.
> I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach
> Ken Loach Takes on the Gig Economy
> Zombies, Loach, Tarantino and Elton John at Cannes
> ‘What They Took With Them’: Refugee Poem
> Teaching about Refugees