The Georgia Straight is a proud media sponsor of The Old Oak at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Few British directors have the same kind of cultural cache as Ken Loach. For one, he’s been making movies for decades, stretching all the way back to 1967 and first becoming a household name with 1969’s drama Kes, about a working class boy taking up falconry.
Kes doesn’t have a happy ending—something of a calling card for Loach, whose movies are concerned with reality in a stark, small, affecting way. Life sucks sometimes—especially for people without wealth or power, whose stories don’t often get told on the big screen.
“It’s a paradox, isn’t it? The more specific and precise you are, the more universal [a story] can be,” Loach says on the phone from the UK. “The more you try to generalize, then it just lacks the detail to be credible.”
Loach’s new film, The Old Oak, is rooted firmly in a time and a place: the north-east of England, not long after Brexit, when Syrian refugees are being housed in town. Pub landlord TJ Ballantyne befriends refugee Yara and helps her fix her beloved camera, but fractures both old and new riddle the town.
Untangling the complexities of class dynamics comes easily to Loach. He’s best-known for I, Daniel Blake (2016), which became a touchpoint of mid-2010s pop culture for being one of the few works of fiction to really challenge the Conservative government’s heartless social welfare system. It was discussed in Parliament, and Loach was brought onto primetime political discussion shows. Politically, little changed—but the movie cemented Loach’s long legacy as a filmmaker for the little guy, bringing his work to a wider audience.
The film also won a Palme d’Or at Cannes—Loach’s second after The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). His class struggle corpus may not always find an audience, but his commitment to telling undertold stories has earned him wide industry respect.
And his dedication to thorny stuff is unflinching. Loach never turns away from the aggression or racism on display. Instead, he tries to find the roots of the dissatisfaction—and show how alienation breeds radicalization. His naturalistic style prioritizes immersion, as does his habit of casting locals and non-actors in his films. As a result, The Old Oak feels at times like a documentary; it’s a portrait of a storm slowly brewing in a town that’s been forgotten.
Because, while the big current conflict is the placement of refugees in the town and the perceived privileges they gain from government aid, that’s not the reason for the community’s dissatisfaction. For that, you need to go back to the miners’ strikes of the 1980s.
Back then, British coal miners protested for months over the planned closure of collieries (though ultimately to no avail). Mines closed, union power was aggressively curbed, and former coal mining towns lost their prime income without replacement industries, resulting in huge poverty. TJ’s relatives worked in the mines; he remembers the solidarity from the community standing together. One of his most troublesome regulars brags that his family broke the strike—but still ended up sacked, like the rest of the miners. The Old Oak isn’t historical, so much as the history is everywhere.
“It was the high point and the low point,” Loach reflects. “It was a high point politically, emotionally, the biggest event most people lived through…but at the same time, in the end it was a defeat, and the consequence was the destruction of their communities.”
The narrative follows TJ and Yara as they attempt to do something—not exactly new, but channeling their own experiences of community and togetherness. Their struggle to unite the townspeople and undo long-standing prejudices is about building bridges. As anti-immigration rhetoric flares in the UK, the cost of living continues to skyrocket, and the far right make inroads into political spheres around the world, The Old Oak shows empathy for the factors that can drive people to become so full of hate.
Instead of attacking each other, Loach suggests, there might still be a way out of the increasingly dire current political situation with a bit more coming together in the face of common foes. That doesn’t make hate excusable: instead, removing it can help strengthen a community.
“For most people, it’s anxiety about a situation,” he muses. “It doesn’t begin with the hostilities towards refugees, but it can turn into it when they feel they need help themselves.”
The Old Oak at the Vancouver International Film Festival
September 29, 12:15pm, Vancouver Playhouse
October 3, 6pm, Vancouver Playhouse
October 6, 3:30pm, Vancouver Playhouse