Old Oak, The: Director Ken Loach on Britain’s Decline of Community (Cannes Film Fest 2023)

Ken Loach, Writer Paul Laverty on the Poisonous Far Right Politics in Britain’s Communities

Paul Laverty with Ken Loach
Paul Laverty with Ken Loach (Sixteen Oak Limited, Why Not Productions)
In The Old Oak, which played in Competition in Cannes, vet British director portrays a village in North-East England where the indigenous white community comes into conflict with Syrian refugees – a conflict fueled by the despair, deprivation and decline of the rust-belt region. Such conditions can be seedbed for far right groups.

Such issues have not been explored sufficiently in film and television, Loach says, and he draws a parallel with the the rise of Nazism in Germany.

“We have endless programs about the Second World War, about the horrors of Nazism and fascism, about the racism, about the Holocaust. But what they refuse to point out is that that arose from alienation, anger, feeling cheated, and finding scapegoats. And that’s how we ended up with Hitler, and that’s the ground in which the far-right flourishes.

One of the film’s points is to say: This is the cause of fascism. This is where it comes from. This is its seedbed, and it comes as an inevitable consequence of our economic system.

Because if the neoliberal agenda was an essential development for capitalism, to use the old-fashioned word, then that’s where fascism comes from. Implicit in that is that the far right will rise because that’s how people will be heading. And they know that and yet the mass media, the press, just turn their backs on that. They’ll tell us all about the horrors of Hitler. Sure. But they won’t tell us how he came to power. And that’s the huge lesson. And we see it in essence now all the time.”

The area is now a dumping ground for former prisoners, problem families, and refugees, who fight for the limited resources the local government provide.

Dave Turner stars as T.J. Ballantyne in “The Old Oak.”Courtesy of Sixteen Oak Limited, Why Not Productions

The economic malaise of the area has led to widespread poverty, and as hope recedes, depression and despair have taken hold, made worse by a feeling of isolation among the local people, in stark contrast with the communal spirit that flourished when the mines were open.

“The destruction of that began in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and everything was returned to the private corporations.  Everything became a source of profit. And it also meant that the work had to change.”

Ebla Mari plays Yara in “The Old Oak.”Courtesy of Sixteen Oak Limited, Why Not Productions

But after Thatcher, “all that went, and it was a return to the basic 19th-century [economic model]: Workers are there to be exploited in the best way for big business because their politics is: If big business is successful, we get their taxes, and that’s where we get our public services from. It hasn’t worked like that. And we knew it never would. So now you have these areas, like the North-East, based on steel, gone, based on shipbuilding, gone, based on coal mining, gone, and the mining villages crystallise this destruction. So, rows of shops with the shutters down, no satisfactory work, the gig economy. You’re hired and you’re fired. Paid by the day. Poverty wages. Kids with no future to look forward to, getting into drugs, and God knows what.”

This sorry state is the result of a deliberate policy on the part of successive governments to destroy working-class solidarity, per the director and his long-time screenwriting partner Paul Laverty.

“What has struck us since we began working together over 30 years ago is this is conscious; this isn’t a mistake. This isn’t people stumbling along and not getting things right,” Loach says. “This is a conscious decision to destroy those communities because they were the politically active, the politically conscious elements in society. Destroy them and wait for the market to bring work in. Well, the market never did. And then refugees; yeah, we’ve got to take some but put them where nobody sees, just leave them there. Of course, against that, you’ve got the old tradition of the mining industry and the mining trade unions, which is solidarity. So, some of the people there, recognize the human connection, and do what they can to welcome [the refugees] with resources that came solely from the local council. It’s not the government, it is local councils.

“But you’ve got some places where the far right has made inroads with their propaganda. So, there is resistance to these refugees, because you’ve heard it before: They’re taking whatever job we’ve got. They’re taking our services. You go to the doctors, they’re ahead of us in the queue, and no one can understand what they say. They’re in the schools. No one knows what the kids are saying. The teachers aren’t teaching our kids, they are teaching the refugees. And so, of course, resistance builds up, and it chimes with the press that says: We’ve allowed too many people to come into this country. It chimes with the government, who are saying that, and just this week, just yesterday, the Home Secretary, one of the most senior government ministers, is saying we can’t take these refugees. So, they’re blaming the most vulnerable people. So, bringing all this together is what we tried to do.”

One of the most striking scenes in the film is where the dog owned by the pub landlord, T.J. Ballantyne, is killed by two feral dogs belonging to local youths. It echoes the sense that there’s been an almost deliberate attempt to set people against each other, by the government or by other elements in society, such as the press.

Laverty references the recent media furore faced by sports pundit Gary Lineker when he suggested the rhetoric of government ministers regarding immigration was similar to that used in 1930s Germany.

“All you have to do is listen to recent rhetoric. It’s a clear case of scapegoating. I mean, the whole Gary Lineker thing put its finger on it. That was almost like a litmus paper test, wasn’t it? That whole debate arose out of scapegoating. And what’s remarkable really is there are many people on the move. But Britain compared to Europe, it’s laughable. Lebanon: a third of its population are refugees. Germany took over a million Syrians, a million. Great Britain took 20,000 Syrians over five years. It’s a joke. But they still managed to turn this into the great issue of the day, and I think it’s because it divides people. It makes people frightened, and it makes people feel scared. And that’s a political choice to scapegoat.”

He mentions a character in the film, Charlie, a friend of T.J.’s who has fallen on hard times and blames the refugees and other marginalized groups for his plight.

“I think the Charlie figure was very interesting. In a way, you could have done a more melodramatic film by having the far right come in and organize, and put-up posters, and beat people up and frighten people, and invade The Old Oak. But it struck us that a far more interesting journey was Charlie’s journey. How do decent people become like that? How did they lose their self-confidence? How did they lose their generosity? How did they lose that capacity to be empathetic? And that’s a very interesting journey. And it’s the story of rotting. The things that make the world civilized are torn away piece by piece, very imperceptibly, and I think that’s what’s happening with many people. I’ve talked to many old miners, and I was astounded at some of their views. But they feel that their life has been destroyed, and so they punch down, instead of looking up and seeing the big picture, and saying, ‘Who’s planning all this?’”

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