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Loach bows out with a final, hopeful social commentary in The Old Oak

Sunday 24 September 2023, by Julius Marstrand

Julius is an activist and NHS campaigner, and watched the UK Premiere of ‘The Old Oak’ at the Cheltenham International Film Festival, after which Ken Loach answered questions about the film from a packed and very enthusiastic audience.

Ken Loach is undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest film directors, and certainly has been its greatest cinematic social commentator for the last 60 years. Given how long - and how costly - the process of filmmaking is, ‘The Old Oak’ may very well be Loach’s last feature.

If it is, he is bowing out with another great social commentary on some of the biggest issues of our time – poverty and deprivation, war, displacement and migration – even foreseeing the latest issue of ‘dangerous dogs’! The Old Oak is a run-down pub in a small, depressed former mining town on the coast of County Durham. Like so many mining towns around the country, it has never recovered from the closure of its pit by the Thatcher government during the 1980s.

The pub is the last communal facility in a once thriving local community. The old miners welfare club and the village hall have all closed. The publican, ‘TJ’ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) is struggling to keep the pub afloat with a dwindling group of desultory regulars. He lives alone with his dog Magga – a mining term for ‘a mate’, or ‘someone who has got your back’ – who fortuitously saved him from taking his own life a couple of years before.

TJ also helps out in the local community, where he can. Notably helping a local charity worker, Tania (Debbie Honeywood), a real ‘force of nature’, to deliver things to people around the town. The local council is required to provide accommodation for a group of Syrian refugees, from the war-torn city of Aleppo. They are bussed into the town, without any notice, let alone consultation with the local community, and are allocated places to live. Tania is helping the local council to provide food, clothes and furniture for the immigrants.

This inevitably causes resentment among some of the local community. Ken Loach brilliantly captures the justifiable reasons for their hostility to the incomers, who appear to be given ‘everything’, while they have been deprived and neglected for over thirty years since the closure of their pit. The Syrian children face racism and bullying in school, from the deprived and undernourished local children. The adults face racism and hostility in the streets.

TJ befriends a young Syrian photographer, Yara (Ebla Mari) when her camera is broken by one of the hostile ‘welcoming committee’ the refugees meet on their arrival in the town. TJ arranges to have it mended. She is moved by photographs of the mining community during the miners’ strike and at the Durham Miners’ Gala, on the walls of a disused function room at the back of the pub, a testament to the way the community came together all those years ago to support the miners. Photographs of the communal kitchen, which provided food for the miners and their families, catch her eye, along with TJ’s mother’s words - “a community that eats together stays together” - they inspire her and Tania to persuade TJ to open a communal kitchen in the back room of his pub.

The communal kitchen in the refurbished back room has the desired effect of bringing the community together - most locals, and the Syrian immigrants and their children take advantage of the free food. The pub becomes the thriving hub of the community again, until an embittered and jealous local, whose own request to hold a community meeting to discuss the immigrants’ arrival in the town had been turned down by TJ, deliberately sabotages the kitchen.

The film ends when Yara’s family have bad news from Syria and the whole community rallies round to support them.

Despite the apparent bleakness of the film, it carries a message of hope. Ken’s message is that the solution to all our problems will not come from politicians, who no longer seem to care about anyone but themselves, but from the cumulative effect of thousands of small acts of kindness, between ordinary people who are inherently good and care for each other.

*The film opens on 29 September. If you’re in London, you can watch a preview on the 28th, followed by a Q&A with Dave Turner at the Genesis Cinema, as part of the Fragments Festival. The Garden Cinema is hosting a "pay what you can" screening on the 29th, also with a Q&A with Dave Turner, presented by Mydy and The Canary journalist Steve Topple.*

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