Ebla Mari as Yara and Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne
Sponsored by Studio Canal
Ken Loach’s latest film, The Old Oak, is a story of two traumatised communities thrown together. When a group of Syrian refugees are housed in a neglected former mining village in the north-east of England, what emerges is a complex story. The welcome isn’t instantly warm. But the story is infused with hope as common cause is found between a community of refugees fleeing war and a local area decimated by decades of government neglect.
When Loach casts his films, he always does it in a way that brings genuine authenticity to the work. And so it is with The Old Oak – with real-life Syrian refugees who now live in the north-east bringing lived experience to many roles. Loach says: “Casting is critical. It was clear that Syrians in the film should be those who have settled in the area. Paul [Laverty]’s script allowed them the freedom to contribute so that the story was a true reflection of their experiences.”
The Old Oak is the third of a trilogy of films exploring the impact of austerity. In 2016, I, Daniel Blake looked at the brutality of benefits sanctions and the desperation fuelling the rapid expansion of food banks, while Sorry We Missed You (2018) showed the devastating impact of the gig economy and the erosion of workers’ rights.
For more than 60 years, Loach has focused on big issues. The Old Oak could be his final film.
For more than 60 years, Loach has focused on big issues – with Cathy Come Home bringing homelessness into sharp focus back in 1966. The Old Oak could be his final film. But Loach’s sense of mission is as strong as ever as he reunites with long-term collaborators, writer Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien, whose previous films range from Looking For Eric and The Angels’ Share to The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
Ebla Mari, a theatre teacher from Golan Heights, leads the cast as Yara – a young Syrian woman who arrives with a passion for photography and an open heart. As she sets about building bridges between the two communities, Yara and her friendship with TJ – landlord of the Old Oak pub, is central to the story.
“My personal story is different from the character because I am not a refugee,” says Mari, via Zoom from her home. “I am from a place called Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in 1967. My village is on the border of Syria and through more than 10 years of revolution and war there, we heard the bombs.
Culturally, and also emotionally and mentally, I am Syrian. We are connected. I have family there. But I live under occupation, I’m not a refugee.” After hearing about the film via Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir – who was helping Loach with casting – Mari won a key role. And coming to the UK to begin filming was emotional.
“Going to audition for the film and meeting the Syrian refugees was my first time meeting Syrians from inside Syria, because we cannot cross the border,” she explains. “So it was my first time experiencing my identity. Some of the refugees in the cast are from a village that is maybe 10 minutes from where I live. It was very emotional. Very hard to hear what they have been through. But I felt so close to them.”
Questioning the systems
Joining Mari in The Old Oak is first-time actor Claire Rodgerson, who lives in Sunderland. She was initially involved advising writer Laverty about young people drawn into the politics of the far right. But, after hearing about local auditions via her trade union, first-time actor Rodgerson brought her depth of knowledge and lived experience to the role of community activist Laura.
“My character isn’t too dissimilar from me,” says Rodgerson.
“She probably makes some decisions I wouldn’t, but we both care about the rights and experiences of migrant communities – be they refugees, asylum seekers or other. I’ve worked with refugees off and on since I was 21. My granddad’s a migrant to this country and I’m lucky enough to have grown up among my white British family in Sunderland and my Indian and Pakistani family and adopted family down in Dewsbury. So I’ve always been anti-racist by my very nature of being a mixed-race person, but also from observing how migrants can be scapegoated. Because it’s very convenient for us to be pointing the finger at each other rather than questioning the systems that are harming our lives.”
Overcoming fear and resentment
When Syrian refugees in The Old Oak initially arrive, they are quite a surprise to the locals. In scenes based on real events Laverty heard about during his research, the locals were not informed what was happening. This can lead to confusion, fear and resentment – which some seek to exploit. “In Sunderland, the summer I met Paul there had been seven far-right leaders visit our city,” says Rodgerson.
“I was working trying to help young people disentangle their economic and political fears from their outward expressions of racism. I was also part of an anti-racist collective in Sunderland called Sunderland Unites.”
The film is at pains to understand both the community that has been so neglected and suffered through years of austerity and loss of the mining industry, and the Syrian refugees fleeing war.
We need to connect and look beyond the headlines. We need to see each other as human beings.
“One of the things that stood out to me off camera was that some of the Syrians were shocked at the levels of poverty they saw in some of the old mining villages,” says Rodgerson. “If we look at Horden, where a lot of the film was produced, that’s a community that has been traumatised by the state – albeit in a very different way to the Syrian families in the film. After 30 or 40 years of political and economic disenfranchisement, it’s hard to hope within that context. But there are great people in those communities. We can’t rely on other people to fix our problems. We only have each other. We need to connect and look beyond the headlines. We need to see each other as human beings. Because that’s really powerful. And it’s one of the reasons I’m a part of this film.”
Finding hope in human connection
What The Old Oak does so well is to find some hope through human connection, through sharing food and stories and experiences. Scenes of local families literally breaking bread with the Syrian community show how misconceptions and stereotypes about refugees promoted in parts of the media break down in the face of real connection.
“The whole experience of filming was very beautiful,” says Mari. “When we were making the film, I was seeing two communities in real life coming together just as they did in the film, and they continued to do so afterwards.”
Both actors hope the film will have a lasting impact – with the key message that there is more that unites than divides coming through loud and clear.
“I would hope there would be greater interest in and valuing of the contributions of migrant communities and that they aren’t here to take from people here, they are here out of necessity and to contribute as well,” says Rodgerson.
“Also, it might show a bit more of the complexity behind the outward expressions of racism in working-class communities. People have been lied to and manipulated for a long time and no one is benefiting from that. Will it change government policy? Probably not. But imagine if the film enabled a conversation about how refugees are better off in communities rather than in camps and on barges? That if we treat them like human beings, all of us might benefit.” Mari agrees. “It is very, very important to have a film talking about a minority whose story is different, whose background is different but where we can see we are not that different. These are people who have had a lot of pain and suffering,” she says.
“So maybe people who don’t know what happened in Syria can become more open-minded. Maybe when people who wouldn’t have the chance to meet them in real life or who wouldn’t stop to talk to them or think about them see a film like this, they will really see who they are. And that’s important.
“Because, in the end, we have more in common than we have differences.”
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