Time To Plant An Acorn

Still from the film The Old Oak directed by Ken Loch

The Old Oak is a new film by Ken Loach, who has now directed some 57 films.  The title refers to a standard issue pub (originally, The Victorian, renamed for the film), in County Durham, northeast England.  Oak is not only symbolic of strength and endurance, but the pub represents the one place residents of an old mining town seeing downward trending times since Brexit can gather and drink a pint and think aloud and vent their considerable grievances against malignancies of fate and the indifferent state.

The film was written by Paul Laverty and stars Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne, Ebla Mari as Yara, Trevor Fox as Charlie, and Claire Rodgerson as Laura. Turner previously starred in Loach’s 2016 system-fighter film, I, Daniel Blake.  Fox has starred in several Shakespearean productions and is a lead in the 2023 British TV series, Rain Dogs. Mari and Rodgerson are relative newcomers to film. The storyline of The Old Oak is straightforward:

“The future for the last remaining pub, The Old Oak, in a village of Northeast England, where people are leaving the land as the mines are closed. Houses are cheap and available, thus making it an ideal location for Syrian refugees.” [IMDB]

The village is indeed a bleak looking place to do time in. Bad things happen in such places.

The old dilapidated pub reminded me of many a rough-and-tough unclean, unwell-lit places I frequented as an undergraduate philosophy major at university in Boston.  One pub, in Dorchester, where I was living at the time, attracted because it offered fish-and-chips that brought a huge serving of haddock and french fries for a measly 5 bucks, which made no sense, until I realized the fish may have come from filthy Boston Harbor, and that haddock are bottom-feeding detritivores. I mean, the fish they served up were morbidly obese. For all I knew (know) they may have been fished off some landing near Southie’s waste treatment facility. If Durham had an ocean nearby, that might have been what they served up.

But mostly it reminded me of a couple of pubs where I’d sat to drink me Kilkenny in Dublin. One place, near where we (my future bride and I) bed-and-breakfasted, was so dark and dreary, and my presence so unwelcome to the grim-faced locals, who sat around in the near dark like Van Gogh’s potato eaters, that I hurried with me ale and hoofed it out of there. Making sure I still had my wallet. That could have been The Old Oak.  But a better fit came in Derry (Londonderry, say the Protestant Orangemen), where all eyes seemed to be on me, relaxing only when the bartender spoke with me and it became clear I was an American — from Boston — and so, maybe a potential supplier of weapons against the hated Brits. At least that’s how I remember it. I sat there drinking, and thinking how I couldn’t wait to get out of Ireland: we’d come into town after a visit to the Cliffs of Mohair, where I’d suffered a bout of amazing vertigo: E.T. want to go home. Anether point? the barkeeper asked. I said, sure, why not?

Loach delivers an excellent working class vibe. The Old Oak could very well be a stage play, with the pub providing excellent drabbiness to complement the emptiness that has taken the town by storm.  That and a massive exodus of miners, leaving behind cheap real estate, and thus, the opportunity for refugees and other migrants to come to town and move in.  That’s where the Syrian refugees come in.

Yara, and her family (her mom and sibs, minus the father who has been imprisoned in a Syrian prison), are new arrivals. They create local tension when Yara is out snapping photographs with her beloved camera. The locals don’t like what they’re seeing:

[woman] She’s taking your fucking photo!

[man] Taking my photo without my say-so? It’s a fucking disgrace, TJ!

[TJ Ballantyne] She’s a bairn. Howay.

The newcomers are barely off the bus and already they are being accosted. The locals fear that what little value their property has remaining will be further depressed by the indigent newcomers unable to properly maintain the value of their digs, bringing everyone’s value down. One character, Rocco, intentionally breaks Yara’s camera. She refuses to accept this as her reality, and, after her family is settled in, she goes to TJ in The Old Oak, and asks him to assist her in identifying the person who broke her camera, so that she can seek reparations. This is essential opening tension. What will TJ do? He’ll side with the girl, and, for a while, change his relationship to the town. He begins by promising to have the camera fixed.

In a series of conversations TJ gets to know Yara. He begins to understand her plight and why the camera is so special to her. She mentions that her Dad was taken by the Ghosts in Syria:

[TJ] Ghosts?

[Yara] They are state-sponsored militias of the Syrian regime. My mother thinks he’s dead. [sighs] But I know he’s still alive.

[TJ] Your father got you that camera, didn’t he?

[Yara] Yeah. When I was a little girl, I told him I wanted to be a photographer and travel the world. So…This camera saved my life.

[TJ] How’s that?

[Yara] Because I saw a lot of things I…I wish I hadn’t see. Don’t have the words to describe them. But when I look through this camera, I…I choose to see some hope and some strength.

It’s poignant stuff. And it’s an efficient means for Loach and Laverty to provide necessary background information about Yara and the refugees. It also makes her camera a symbol and an object that captures human memory and the frames the see-er chooses to capture for future contemplation. It recalls Eisenstein’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929). And, later in the film, when Yara goes around taking intimate photos of the townspeople (with their permission), her collection becomes a means for bringing them together in warmth as she presents the frames to them in a special exhibit accompanied by Syrian music.

While most of the dying town is (mal)content to sit in the pub and bitch and moan about their demise, TJ is interested in Yara’s story.  It is story that connects humans; the story each one has about their being-in-the-world, and how that story fits into the greater pattern of human progress. They discover that they have a common ethos, as expressed in a working class axiom:

[Yara] “When you eat together, you stick together.”

[TJ] Yeah. Me mother always said that.

[Yara] Yeah. We used to do the same before we left Syria. We used to cook together, too, with our neighbours, and sleep under the stairs in case we were bombed.

TJ tells her how folks had to get together during the mine strikes, staying strong in numbers: “Me father always said, if the workers realised the power that they have, had the confidence to use it, we could change the world.” They have a common enemy; the State. Together, they will slowly change the sentiment and drive of the community, as they re-discover their common plight.

Word gets around about the plight of Yara’s father in jail, where it is so crowded that “they take turns sitting down.” And later when they learn the tragic news of his fate in jail, the loss to the recently-arrived Syrian family becomes another rallying point for the Durham downtrodden. The camera takes on new poignancy, as Yara leaves her father’s gift among the mourning flowers left on the sidewalk.

There is a really special moment in the film that one again shows Loach and Laverty at their best.  Yara is told to hurry if she wants to hear a choir sing at the local cathedral.  She runs there, she hears, she looks around and up and down and sees and feels its beauty.  She has a conversation with TJ while the two sit in a pew. She speaks of her surroundings:

[Yara exhales]

Beautiful. My children will never see the temple in Tadmor. Palmyra. Built by the Romans and destroyed by the Islamic State. When you have half of your country in rubble and you see this… [sighs] It makes me want to cry. What will Syria be like in a thousand years? [sighs] How many years to cut the stones… to lift the weight, to imagine the light? How many brilliant minds? How much sweat? How many people working together? [sighs] Such a beautiful place… makes me want to hope again. When they torture, when they target hospitals, when they murder doctors, when they use chlorine gas, when the world stands by and does nothing, that’s when the regime lives.

Now, I’m ready to blubber.  I recall John Ruskin and my readings in The Stones of Venice (1851-53), a tome which celebrates the genius of cathedral construction, and the singular mass purpose expressed, with cathedrals sometimes taking hundreds of years to finish construction. Nothing says Fuck the Regime like a slow-cooked cathedral that takes 500 years to serve up. Cathedrals inspired my best sonnet, published in The Morning Star:

Here at the end of time, as measured

by successive falling empires, half-notes

tumbling from a fading horn, the goats

of our tragedy are now untethered

and all that’s left of god is his disease —

madness, gone viral, at the moat of the mind

that divides being and not, a twice-bound

vexation, a coup de grace, if you please.

At the threshold of new human being

trading in one darkness for another,

like a transubstantiative other

released from bonds, we become the seeing.

All around us cathedrals are tumbling —

stoned gods, dying notes, aeons crumbling.

Sure, it’s self-indulgent to cite it here. I justify it by reminding you of the importance of reader-response theory. I emote with purpose here.

While the tone of The Old Oak never approaches bathos or even the pathetic, despite the clear signs of neglect all around, it does conjure up reading about Van Gogh’s life and how he actually wanted to be a pastor and would have preferred to stay among the coal miners he visited to minister and share in their suffering. Art was his third preference — writing was second. I like this vibe of solidarity that Loach and Laverty push: It’s the triumphant final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony rather than the groaning, suicidal-seeming end of the 6th that sounds like Ol’ Ilyich just had a tall glass of Flint, Michigan water. And one is filled with something akin to hope at the film’s end with people marching through the streets in universal solidarity.

Not everyone likes the Loach approach, but I liked this one and highly recommend it.

Dialogue from the film cited above comes from the transcript published at Scraps from the Loft.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.