Jacobin sat down with legendary director Ken Loach at the age of 87 to talk about his latest and final film, The Old Oak; the influence of the Czech New Wave on his movies; and why Hollywood filmmaking is antithetical to the working-class experience.

Ken Loach at a press conference during the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2014, in Cannes, France. (Ian Langsdon / Getty Images)

Since the 1966 BBC television play Cathy Come Home triggered changes in England’s homeless laws, Ken Loach, the son of an electrician, has made films about ordinary, salt-of-the-earth characters. They grapple with unjust, cruel capitalist systems — from the working class in Britain to the Contra War in Nicaragua to the Irish rebellions to Los Angeles’ “Justice for Janitors” union organizing campaign to covert actions in Belfast — as well as documentaries such as 2016’s In Conversation with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s leftist leader.

The Old Oak is the socialist stalwart’s latest film about the travails of ordinary people. After a distinguished, lengthy career dramatizing and documenting the wretched of the earth, The Old Oak is also the final feature by Loach who turns eighty-eight this June. Loach’s many accolades include two Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or Awards, three César Awards, and three BAFTA Awards — but he declined an Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal in 1977. Film historian David Thomson writes, “In his dedication and seriousness, he is an exemplary figure.” Ken Loach was interviewed via Zoom in the West Country in England.

Ed Rampell

Tell us about The Old Oak and what drew you to directing that story?

Ken Loach

We’d done two films in the North East [of England]. One [I, Daniel Blake, 2016] about the way people who are vulnerable are denied the financial support they are entitled to by a state that sees poverty as a way to discipline the working class. The second film [Sorry We Missed You, 2019] was about the insecurity of work, the gig economy. You have no job security, you’re seen as an independent contractor, when in reality you’re an employee — but you don’t have the rights of an employee, in fact, you have no rights at work at all. It was about the consequences of that for family life.

What’s special about the area is that it’s very defined, it has a very strong character, a very strong working-class culture. It’s based on the old industries — like shipbuilding, steel, and coal mining. And they’ve all gone; they’ve all been shut down. The villages are very clear, visual examples of what happens — the consequences of neoliberalism. Nothing must stand in the way of private companies making the most profit they can. So, you can’t tolerate strong unions, for example. You can’t tolerate strong organizations. You can’t tolerate workers’ resistance and demands for better wages, because that gets in the way of profits, competition.

We’ve had neoliberal governments since the ’80s. Both parties are now neoliberal parties, both the Conservative Party and what is supposed to be the Labour Party, which is in fact a right-wing party, also. It’s a bit like your Republicans and Democrats. They take it in turns to basically apply the same economic policies. You see the same consequences.

The pits, the houses around it, the church, the miners’ welfare, the pub, the school, the doctor, and then countryside — when the pit closes, everything closes with it. Apart from the people who still remain, and they’re abandoned. We wanted to tell that story, but we needed a catalyst that would reveal it. And Paul [Laverty] heard the story of the arrival of Syrian refugees from the Syrian war. They were sent there because they were out of sight. The right-wing press wouldn’t be complaining about them all the time — they’re out of sight, nobody goes there. They have no reason to. They come, they’ve suffered the trauma of war, they’ve nothing but a suitcase and what they’re wearing. The local people have very little — can the two communities live together?

The local people, many of them are bitter and angry with what’s happened to their village, which was a thriving, strong community. Now it’s empty. Alongside that is the old tradition of the miners, which is solidarity, internationalism. When there was the big [1984] strike, they went to other countries and people from other countries came to theirs, and they were put up. Great hospitality. What’s happened to that? Does that tradition still live? Or is it dominated by bitterness, anger, and resentment? Which of those two tendencies will win? And the Syrians, they don’t speak the language, they have nothing. So, can they live together? Or will resentment win in the end?

[Hollywood] is such a different culture, such a different way of looking at cinema. It’s hard to think of — as a way of approaching the medium, there’s something intrinsically hostile to expressing working-class culture. Hollywood is about building famous people in films — the star system. It’s about creating fame, people to look up to and worship. That works against credibility because you’re watching a great performance, but you have the star’s previous performances in mind. So, obviously, great films have been made, ostensibly about working-class situations. But the essence of Hollywood filmmaking is antithetical to the real working-class experience.

Ed Rampell

Regarding the cast in The Old Oak, you’ve said that “Syrians in the film should be those who have settled in the area.” Almost all of the Syrians in Oak are nonprofessional actors. So are some of the English locals. What inspired this approach?

Ken Loach

It comes primarily from just being with people. Observing people, taking part in the same organizations, meetings, campaigns, caring about the same things, standing alongside them, being on picket lines. Listening to them — listening, above all. And remembering your own family’s history. My father was from a big mining family. Though he worked in a factory, his family were all miners. It’s from that. You have to feel part of that culture, or very close to it. Filmmaking can lead you into another social area. We’re not anthropologists going to examine another species. We’re actually a part of it, as far as one can be. I feel very close to it.

Film-wise, the Italian neorealists, what they did do was to say that working-class stories are legitimate subjects for films. They said it’s okay to go to the cinema and expect to see working-class stories. That’s very important.

But the films that had the most impact on me were the Czech New Wave films of Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, and other directors like that. They had a delight in human comedy, connections, relationships, interaction, and just the enjoyment of people’s company. They gave a huge enjoyment to films. That sense of the camera as the observer. The way they were shot, how they used lights. Just the warm humanity of them was very special. So, these films are the ones I’m most connected to.

Ed Rampell

You’re tackling one of the big hot-button issues in the US and Europe right now — refugees and immigrants, which is at the core of The Old Oak.

Ken Loach

The immigrants had no control over where they went. They were just told this is where you will live, this is where you will stay, and they were given houses. And they were given houses in that area because the houses are cheap. People have left; there’s no work. So they were put into a place where there was no work, very little infrastructure, the schools were cut down, the schools were already under pressure. Doctors were under pressure because some doctor’s offices had closed. Then they have extra requirements for immigrants who didn’t speak English — and very little support. The local authorities were given very little warning because there wasn’t much consultation.

The other problem is when people have nothing, as the people in those villages, they get angry, they feel alienated, nobody cares about us, and out of that anger comes the search for a scapegoat. Someone to blame. That’s when racism can emerge. Because here are people to blame. Our kids are not getting properly educated — it’s the fault of those children. We can’t get into the doctor — it’s their fault, we don’t want them here. And then that can turn into racism. That is the fertile ground in which racism can grow. It begins with a justified complaint. We have nothing; we have nothing to share. It’s wrong they have been put here when things are so bad with no extra help. A justified complaint, turning into racism.

Ed Rampell

The Old Oak leads up to a grand finale. Do you see the parade, the march of the miners, as the alternative to that racism, that division?

Ken Loach

Well, yes. This is an actual parade that happens in that area [Durham]. It’s the biggest demonstration in the country of working-class power. There are 200,000 people, different unions from all over the country. It’s a massive display of organized working-class power — ignored by the mass media. Never reported, of course. But it’s a great [annual] event.

It’s a little coda at the end of the film. The real end of the film is T. J.’s realization that all the work they did in bringing people together was not wasted. Even though they don’t have the backroom [at the pub] anymore, or not for the time being, where they can eat together. They’re going to find another way. But the connection that was made was not wasted.

Ed Rampell

What does the Arabic writing on the bottom of the banner mean in English?

Ken Loach

It’s the same as the English words on the top of the banner: “Solidarity” and “Resistance.”

Ed Rampell

In the post–[Margaret] Thatcher era, there was a trend of British films that were the opposite of the kind of solidarity that you’re extolling in movies like The Old Oak. Examples include 1996’s Brassed Off, 1997’s The Fully Monty, 2000’s Billy Elliot, 2005’s Kinky Boots, and possibly 1998’s Little Voice and 2003’s Calendar Girls.

These films posited the idea that to deal with changes in the UK economy, instead of militant resistance and organizing or taking part in collective struggle, workers had to rely on developing new talents in order to get on in British society. What do you think of this post-Thatcher film vogue?

Ken Loach

I wouldn’t criticize other films. It’s hard enough to get a film made without someone else criticizing it. But I think the danger is they can get sentimental. The Fully Monty, in a way, is about humiliation. They’re skilled working-class men and to be reduced to taking off your clothes for money is humiliating. Of course, there’s a lot of comedy and the comedy can swamp the humiliation. But the essence of it is how our dignified, skilled working people are humiliated. That was the story that came over. Of course, everyone enjoys a good laugh, and the danger is the laughs overwhelm the forced humiliation they’ve been through.

The important thing is, which people often miss, is that the working class is strong. Workers can turn off the switch, and everything stops. No transport, no production, nothing goes to the shops, nothing is sold, nothing is distributed. The whole economy can stop. The working class has that power. The exploiters don’t have that power. All they live off is the profit they extract from other people. Unless you’re political you don’t see that; you just see the surface. But the reality is if there is to be change, it will come from the working class. It won’t come from the bankers, the superrich, the tax havens, it will come from the working class. Because they have the necessity for change. And secondly, they have the power to change. Until we get to organize that, then we’re going to lose. But we have the power. That’s what a lot of people miss.

Ed Rampell

How would you describe your own political convictions?

Ken Loach

The critical time for me was the 1960s. It was when I began to think of cinema and when I did films about social issues. A group of us began to think, what’s the common denominator of all these conditions? The homelessness, poverty, lack of choice? Why do people live with so little when wealth is so abundant? At that time, a whole New Left movement began and one of the key slogans was: “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” In other words, we oppose both the capitalism of the West and the Stalinism of the East. Obviously, the history of what happened in Russia was very important, and the struggle with [Joseph] Stalin and [Leon] Trotsky was important, and the movements that arose out of that, the anti-Stalinist movements.

If one guiding principle emerged, it was the essential class conflict at the heart of all our societies, which is the struggle between those who sell their labor and those who profit from it. That conflict is irreconcilable. They have directly opposed interests. Once you see that then it becomes so clear. I’ve seen in succeeding decades — Margaret Thatcher understood it better than anyone. In order for capitalism to succeed, the working class has to pay the price. Weaken the unions, cut the wages, close the factories, mass unemployment, make people compete for jobs because that makes them more disciplined, anti–trade union laws, defeat the strikers in dispute. And interestingly, it was the Labour Party and the trade union leaders who colluded in that because they’re social democrats and they believe in capitalism, too.

So a political analysis that begins with that essential class conflict, that’s the map and the compass for politics to me. Very simple, but so clear.

Ed Rampell

Do you believe the alternative is some form of socialist democracy?

Ken Loach

Well, yes. And then the two words will be indistinguishable. But first of all, you have to organize, have a principled leadership, have a skillful leadership that understands not only the principles, but the tactics, and can guide the way through the morass of sectarianism on the Left — you know, all the egos, vanities, the would-be leaders — and unite the working-class organizations. That’s a massive, that’s a huge, huge task but you would hope that the object of circumstances would demand that leadership comes forward. The problem is, where is it?

Ed Rampell

You’ve had a thirty-year collaboration with Paul Laverty — The Old Oak’s screenwriter. What’s that partnership like?

Ken Loach

I must say, first of all, the characters are Paul’s — the writer. We’re really a partnership of equals. Paul starts with a blank sheet of paper. The characters and stories are his, so I mustn’t take credit for another man’s work. He’s brilliant, a great friend and comrade; we’ve worked together for thirty years. The director gets all the attention, and the writers are often forgotten. I really have to give credit to Paul, he’s a great friend and a brilliant writer.

Ed Rampell

It’s being said that The Old Oak is your final feature film. What are you going to do now? What’s next for Ken Loach?

Ken Loach

Well, I don’t know. Life is very full. There are so many meetings, campaigns — like, it’s nice meeting you, people do quite like to talk. So that’s good. There are lots of things going on, I can fill my diary three times over. I’ve been very lucky. The years pass, you can do less and less, really, as time goes on. And also a game of cricket and football, now and then, as a spectator.

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