Political Film Review #694


Director Ken Loach has a knack for depicting how forgotten people view their worlds. In his The Old Oak he focuses on a pub called The Old Oak in a small town near Durham, northeast England, during the year 2016. Once upon a time the town was flourishing because of coalmines, but now the mines are closed, their union has folded, many residents have left town, those remaining no longer fill up the seats in the pub, and they meet to complain about the new realities. For example, some empty houses are being bought at bargain prices at auctions by entities (possibly government agencies) that never even inspect or remodel the properties before the sales.

Meanwhile, refugees from Syria are arriving on busses and entering hitherto vacant homes, while existing residents in the street articulate ethnocentric hatred toward them. But onetime coalminer Tommy Joe Ballantyne (played by Dave Turner), the disheveled pub owner, greets new arrivals in a friendly manner. In the middle of the street, one of the remaining residents shouts resentment at having a refugee take his picture without his permission from inside the bus, grabs the camera from her pack of clothes after she disembarks, and the camera is broken in the scuffle. Yara (Ebla Mari) complains to TJ and asks him to get the upstart to pay for the cost of repairs, something very unlikely. Soon, TJ goes into the back room of the pub to locate cameras long abandoned and promises to sell them to pay for the repair cost. While in the back room, shutterbug Yara is amazed by photographs on the wall, one of which has a caption about those who eat together stay together.

In time, that maxim prompts Yara, who shares her snapshots on social media with the community, to suggest that the back room could be repaired by refugees and used as a location for free food twice weekly for anyone in the neighborhood, the food being purchased and cooked by extraordinary Syrian chefs. Thereby, the two communities soon come together in a spirit of unity, albeit resented by four oldtimers who meet daily at the front room in the pub to drown their sense of loss in pints of beer. One member of the drinking gang, however, decides one day to sabotage the plumbing in order to teach TJ a “lesson” because TJ earlier refused to use the room as the location for an anti-immigrant protest rally. As a result, the pub must close, and TJ contemplates suicide. Rescued before he can do so, he is welcomed by the refugees, who possibly are Kurds fascinated by Durham’s cathedral. By the end of the film the community has embraced the refugee cause in a large rally that unites the entire community for the first time since the miner’s strike of 1984/85.

The film contrasts downtrodden personalities of former English miners, who cannot think beyond their unfortunate past, with the enthusiasm of former Syrians who arrive after years at refugee camps and now are enthusiastically making a better life for themselves and the community. While TJ savors the new cuisine of the community, filmviewers may recognize how he clearly personifies Ken Loach as someone who understands the true history of England, a country that rose to prominence in past centuries by welcoming refugees from continental Europe and elsewhere and now is on the cusp of yet another social transformation, deriving such unexpected benefits as when a millionaire youthful prime minister is chosen in 2022 with roots from India to unify a political party and the country.

The Political Film Society has nominated The Old Oak as best film on human rights of 2024.  MH

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