In their 15th film together director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty confront a subject that could hardly be more relevant. They thrust us into the dramatic bitterness felt by both an abandoned British community and weary refugees. Set in north east England, audiences watch a group of Syrians arriving in a derelict former mining area.
Right from the start we find a Newcastle United football-shirted bloke bellowing insults at a group getting off a coach. Trying to referee the situation is pub landlord TJ Ballantyne. Loach and Laverty don’t simplify the harsh realities of everyone caught in this situation. Tory and Labour governments and councils have taken jobs, education, training and pensions from old and young workers.
The refugees have lost out too—from family members to mental and physical health. Both are short of money and self-respect, loaded down by the most elementary of human needs. Dave Turner as TJ is utterly convincing as the worried, pragmatic manager of The Old Oak pub. He jostles the demands of regulars who carp on about the new arrivals with his wish to give the new arrivals a break.
TJ’s wife has divorced him and his estranged son has left him, so his dog is his only companion. He walks a fine personal and political line to survive. Loach told Socialist Worker that this character is key. “Everything around him shouts out despair,” he said. “From what’s happened to the community, the nature of work, the conscious cruelty to vulnerable people and the uses of hunger.
“The forces against us seem so powerful, with the impending climate disaster too. Everything is screaming despair.” Keen refugee and photographer Yara, played by Ebla Mari, becomes TJ’s main ally. She is enthralled when he opens a disused back room at the Old Oak. The walls are covered with framed black and white photos of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.
It gives her an idea about what the area has been through, and what might help her integrate her own group. Yara is also later captivated by Durham Cathedral, to which TJ later organises a visit. Laverty told Socialist Worker, “We have to be true to the characters and subject matter we are covering. There’s a time and a place to try all sorts of stories.
“But to have tagged on a happy ending to films like ‘I Daniel Blake’ or ‘Sorry I Missed You’ would betray everything we were depicting.” A number of characters working or living within the community provide support, care, advice and entertainment for the refugees. This gives the Syrians confidence. But there are also a range of views expressed by locals about their refugee neighbours that leave us doubtful about how the tensions will play out.
Once again Loach as director displays his distinct skill of casting amateurs. He spends months finding them to see from their general posture, voices and gestures if they are right for various parts. The film also represents Loach’s deep engagement with an immigrant acting community. The majority of this cast are again amateurs.
Loach has to trust his judgment as he only gives the cast their lines with an outline of their necessary actions on a daily basis. The scenes are improvised, with cast members not fully aware of what each other has been asked to do or say. This allows them to act spontaneously and respond authentically.
Narrative flashbacks, future personalised visions, interior monologue or time-shifts are rare in Loach’s films. Typically his stories move forward sequentially, akin to lived time. This lack of individuation of characters is an important way of highlighting objective, collective circumstances rather than interior subjectivity.
Loach encapsulates his intentions about this latest work. “The struggle for hope is political because if people have hope they have confidence, they believe there’s a viable way that they can change a dreadful future,” he says. “Hope isn’t wishful thinking. It has to be based on a sense of possibilities. People are not fools. What’s in Paul’s script, with great delicacy, is that struggle between despair and hope. To find hope is not easy.
“The far right will come in and tell you that what you need is a strong leader who shows you how to hate. But there is an innate solidarity between people who in the end will always resist.” In 2023 too much popular cinematic hope is to be found in individualised nostalgia like Barbie. Or there are franchised adventures such as James Bond, Harry Potter or Batman.
The entertainment business guarantees profit through bankable stars, fluffy scripts and awesome pyrotechnics. No wonder Loach has never been recognised by the Hollywood Academy. Whenever this film reaches your locality, it would be a great tribute to Loach, Laverty and their colleagues to organise group viewings.
Watch the film to spark discussion about those fighting this racist Tory government, and the disgusting supine attitude of the official Labour opposition. Some readers may not know what a unique figure Ken Loach has been in British and European culture for the last 58 years. No other cinema or television film-maker has amassed such a prolific body of class-conscious work.
He has relied on the talents of devoted writers, producers, cinematographers, actors, editors, musicians and all the craftspeople needed to get any film done. By 2018 Loach had won 98 international film awards and been nominated a further 76 times. There have been more since. None have come from the US.
Today’s crass Labour Party has deemed him an unwelcome antisemite and thrown him out. Irrespective of his particular party affiliations over the years we should salute what Loach has stood for artistically and socially. Loach explains, “The huge issue we’ve had will be familiar to Socialist Worker readers. We have great strength.
“Everything is created by the working class. But the present Labour Party leadership is cynical, unprincipled, opportunist and treacherous. Keir Starmer himself epitomises it.”
The Old Oak opens in cinemas on Friday 29 September
For more on Loach go to: http://howtomakeakenloachfilm.com/en
Keeping It Real: The Brutal Art of Ken Loach: http://isj.org.uk/keeping-it-real/
Ken Loach At The BBC: DVD Boxset of 9 early important works from 1960s and 70s.
Versus: The Life and Times of Ken Loach: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilm/films/versus-the-life-and-films-of-ken-loach