The Old Oak writer on why Ken Loach wanted final film to focus on hope
Long term collaborator Paul Laverty and the cast of The Old Oak discuss the last movie from the legendary British filmmaker.
It's unquestionably true to say that Ken Loach's two most recent films – I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You – have been sobering, rather downbeat affairs. Set in the North East of England, both films shed light on issues in modern Britain that have been ignored or exacerbated by the governing Conservative Party – respectively the bureaucracy of the benefit system and the troubles inherent in the gig economy.
His latest film The Old Oak – which he has said will be the last of his inimitable career – shares many of the same characteristics. The story once again unfolds in the North East, with Loach this time focusing on another problem that has blighted the nation in recent years, specifically the rise of far-right extremism in response to the arrival of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries.
But where the film differs from his previous two is that while again unsparing in its depiction of communities left behind by the ruling class, it also leaves viewers with a ray of hope.
According to screenwriter Paul Laverty – who wrote all three films in addition to a further eleven collaborations with Loach – this was something he and the director felt was vital.
"After I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, we just felt that we had unfinished business," he tells RadioTimes.com during an exclusive interview. "Those are both tragedies in a way – really, really tough stories. But you have to be loyal to those characters and the premise.
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"[But] Right from the very beginning, I suppose the subtext of so many of our stories is, 'where is hope?'"
He mentions something he read in the book A People's History of the United States by late historian Howard Zinn – about which stories we choose to tell – as being instrumental in shaping his view on the matter.
"He talks about if you only write about history as one catalogue of misery and torture and murder and mass extermination it diminishes your possibilities," he explains. "And you forget that history too is also full of moments of great compassion, empathy, and creativity. So I suppose we both wanted to find something like that, that would feed into that."
The film focuses primarily on TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the landlord of the titular pub whose clientele comprises chiefly of former miners and their families. The regulars at The Old Oak – whose number have been steadily and seemingly irrevocably dwindling for many years – are bitterly divided regarding the news that several Syrian families will be housed in the area.
Some of the pubgoers are furious that their own issues are being neglected, often expressing their concerns in overtly racist language, but after TJ strikes up a friendship with a young refugee named Yara (Ebla Mari) he is increasingly certain that his customers' anger is being directed in the wrong place. And so, alongside a number of local volunteers, he works to help bring the community together in the previously closed backroom of the pub.
During his extensive research process, Laverty met with many activists and people attempting to combat the deeply concerning spread of far-right ideology. Meanwhile, he also spoke with ex-miners, allowing him to get an even greater understanding of the ways these communities have been neglected by successive governments and how this might have created an environment that allowed prejudice to take hold.
"We just felt there was a real canvas there," he says. "And of course that's not to put that in equivalence with the incredible hurt and pain of people on the move around the world, whether from Syria or anywhere else. But we just felt there were so many things going on there in this little village and right at the heart of it were activists trying to be creative and reach out the hand both ways. So we just felt it was very, very rich."
One of the activists Laverty spoke to during this process was Claire Rodgerson, who herself has a key acting role in the film as Laura, a volunteer who works tirelessly to help the Syrian refugees acclimatise to life in the North East. Rodgerson is from Sunderland and has seen firsthand the deterioration of a once-thriving community, and she hopes that the film can help to inspire a more positive future in the area rather than just offering a eulogy for what used to be.
"I've been fascinated with our area, our post-industrial area, and how we went from the stories of the glorious past that I grew up with in school – talking about the miners and the shipyards and the glassmaking," she explains.
"I'd hear my dad talking about trade unionism on the shipyards, where blokes would get together and organise to change things that they didn't see was right in their workspace and in their wider communities. But we only ever heard about the past, nothing about the glory that our future could have, it was: 'There's nothing for you now.'"
This attitude, Rodgerson explains, led to a "brain drain" from the region, and she herself left Sunderland at the age of 19 with the intention of never moving back. Yet every time she returned to visit she noticed things were getting worse – in terms of both the increasing hardships faced by locals and the growing rise of far-right attitudes exemplified by swastikas etched onto walls around the region.
This prompted her to move back to work in the area, where she now helps young people who have been tempted by the far right to disentangle the real reasons for their disillusionment, hopefully preventing them from going further down the rabbit hole.
"When I asked them what they were angry about, they'd be saying 'there's no houses, there's no jobs,'" she explains. "That's not the fault of people like my granddad, who came to this country as migrants. It's not the fault of people like the families that you see in the film, it's the problem with the system.
"But when you've been denied the opportunity to learn about that it's easier – and we're also manipulated – to point the finger at those who are like us or quote-unquote 'below us' rather than looking in the place where we need to, which is the systems that are actually causing that disenfranchisement."
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She hopes that by shining a light on this kind of work, the film can help to convince audiences that communities coming together can have a huge impact in the face of the division peddled by politicians and sections of the press, while also portraying migrants in an empathetic manner that counters the dehumanising way they are often written about in newspaper headlines.
"It's not all grim up north," she says. "The past two films, about the North East have been beautiful and important and vital, but this is also beautiful and important and vital because it tells the stories of – I hope – people like me, but especially the people who I know out in the community who are grappling every day, they're trying to undo some of the past 40 years of intentional decline in our communities."
Laverty adds: "The wonderful thing about cinema and the power of a story if it works, is you really can put yourself in other people's shoes. And we have a lot to compete with because I would argue that Suella Braverman is using language which incites hatred.
"So we have the government and most powerful people in our country... making it as miserable as possible, to isolate youngsters on boats so they're cut off. Is it little wonder, then, that the crazy right comes out and demonstrates and causes havoc?
"So the activists on the ground have got a lot to compete with when you have the state itself sowing hatred like that and the right-wing press doing the same. So the battle that people like Claire and their communities face... they're up against it. But they're absolutely the salt of the earth and for them to be so sensitive to what's going on in the communities and build those bridges, there's great success stories."
While both Laverty and Loach were keen to portray this element of hope, they were equally determined not to do so in a way that seemed unrealistic or dishonest – ignoring the huge obstacles that still lie in the way.
"They didn't just want to create a film that was unrealistically fist-pumping," explains star Dave Turner. "There's a central character in the film, called Charlie played by Trevor Fox. And at one point, my character says to his 'how have you become this man?'
"I think that's a question that's fundamental to the whole film: what has happened to you, to change you from the man that you were to the man that you are? It's very easy to scapegoat the people when their lives are going down the drain, to blame the minority. And so I mean, there is hope in the film, but it's a realistic hope, and I hope people take that away from it."
Meanwhile, Syrian actor Ebla Mari, who plays Yara, is equally hopeful that audiences might take the messages of the film on board.
"I feel like when you have hope, when you know there's a better future or potential future... I think maybe people will feel like they're angry to change something and then act on it," she says.
"So it shouldn't be false hope. But the kind of hope where it lets people act and know that there's a better solution or better reality and makes them angry and changes things."
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