One of the great British directors, Ken Loach, now 87, known for such cinematic gems as I, Daniel Blake (2016), Sorry We Missed You (2019) and the 60s classic Kes, now presents what he suggests is his final film, The Old Oak. If true, the film wraps a career during which he has long focused on championing the working class and shining a light on social inequality. He tackled issues such as poverty in his debut movie, Poor Cow (1967), homelessness in 1966 TV play Cathy Come Home, and labor rights in Riff-Raff (1991) and The Navigators (2001).
The Old Oak, penned by Loach’s longtime collaborator Paul Laverty, is the name of a pub in County Durham, in northeast England, in a former mining town that has seen better days. When a busload of Syrian refugees arrives, most of the locals don’t bother to mask their anti-refugee sentiments towards these unwelcome arrivals. Devoid of sympathy or compassion towards their new neighbors, who have faced unimaginable horrors in the home country from which they have escaped, it is apparent that the disgruntled community is suffering too, primarily from a lack of agency in their own lives.
But not all of Loach’s characters share the same mindset. Pub licensee T.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner) demonstrates an understanding of the refugees’ plight and the complexities of those seeking assimilation and acceptance. He shows kindness towards a young woman, Yara (Elba Mari), who has arrived in her newly-adopted city with her family.
No stranger to the Cannes Film Festival, Loach is a two-time recipient of the Palme d’Or. He won in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and again in 2016 for I, Daniel Blake. He also won the Grand Prix twice, for Hidden Agenda, in 1990, and Land and Freedom, in 1995.
This year he conducted a press conference at the prestigious film festival during which he talked about the germination of The Old Oak. “The film’s origin is based on having worked in the northeast for two films where we saw the areas that were most deprived, most neglected, with a strong industrial past. [I, Daniel Blake, Sorry I Missed You]. With the solidarity that industrial struggles bring, and yet have now left abandoned, we also saw the refugees from the Syrian war being placed in areas where they would not be seen. The northeast had more Syrian refugees than anywhere else [in the UK] but they had the least in infrastructure, in work, in social services. Why is that?” he asked, rhetorically. “Because the government doesn’t want you to know they’re there even. On that basis, Paul, Rebecca O’Brien [producer] and I thought there might be a film here.”
Loach spoke candidly about what he deemed as a failed geopolitical situation in the United Kingdom, as well as his continued disillusionment with the system. “In Britain, we have a right-wing party in government, the Tory party, and a party in opposition called the Labor party. They’re very close to each other. You could put a cigarette paper between them, just about. Still, neither of them will challenge the essential contradictions of the system that will continue to bring inequality, poverty, and great wealth on the one hand, and deprivation and hunger on the other. The system creates it, and they will leave the system in place. It also leads to wars where they defend their spheres of influence, and our illegal war in Iraq, which should bring shame to those who supported it and instigated it.
“[Then-Prime Minister] Tony Blair should be in front of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, not making millions from his lectures. [George W.] Bush as well. That created a huge refugee problem, and that destabilized that region. When the refugees come to us, particularly in Britain, we say, ‘No, the door’s closed. We don’t want you,’ and that’s the problem. We need a government that gives power to the people in terms of ownership, services, of production so that we use the world resources for our mutual benefits, not for big corporations to make profits and declare war around the world by the politicians to act for them.”
In view of his legacy of political cinematic offerings, it is clear that Loach was never interested in making films merely for entertainment’s sake, but with the aim of highlighting social injustice – and those films have certainly served to educate even the most unenlightened. Did he think he had changed anyone’s mind?
“Well, no, but in a way, we wouldn’t expect to, really. Because back in the early days when I was just beginning, I did a film about homelessness [Cathy Come Home] and there was a small change in the law to support families who were homeless. But it was a film that didn’t really challenge the system. And I think what we are talking about is a fundamental change in economic power. I wouldn’t expect a film to be able to do that. It goes to the heart of their system.”
Conversely, he said of many Hollywood movies, “They carry a very clear message: wealth is good, greed is good, and the United States will come to your aid to support democracy as they have done throughout South America. As we know, in every country where they intervene, it’s on behalf of the dictators and to suppress democratic decisions. If we can be a voice in that chorus of popular opposition, I think that’s a high achievement. It’s the most we can hope for.”
The Old Oak has garnered rave reviews from the Cannes Film Festival and the film will hit theaters in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland on September 29 this year. Other territories to follow.
Undoubtedly, Loach has much more to say, though everything suggests The Old Oak is indeed his swan song. On the subject, he quipped, “Well, one day at a time. If you get up in the morning and you’re not in the obituary column, you’re doing well. So, one day at a time.”