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The Old Oak (Ken Loach, 2023)

When I met them on the terrace of the Palais des Festivals at Cannes, director Ken Loach and his writing partner Paul Laverty—who together have been to Cannes 11 times and won two Palmes d’Or—informed me that of the roughly 150 journalists who sought to interview them about their Competition selection, The Old Oak, I was the first from America. Considering it’s their third consecutive film (after I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You) to be set in Northern England, it’s plausible that outsiders see their project as merely a localized one—though this entirely misses the point of what they do.

Over the course of more than a dozen movies, the pair has explored the movement for Irish independence (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), unionization among L.A. building cleaners (Bread and Roses), and a shared love of football (Looking for Eric), but at the heart of all these highly researched character studies—and even of their efforts apart from each other—is an emphasis on solidarity and the rights and dignity of labor. Many of Loach’s early television masterpieces, like The Rank and File or the four-part Days of Hope, feature lengthy scenes of organizing, while Laverty’s rich melodramatic sensibility has introduced additional focus on intersections of race, immigration, and class, beginning with their very first collaboration, 1996’s Carla’s Song, about a Nicaraguan exile living in Glasgow.

The Old Oak is very much steeped in the duo’s long-standing political commitments, while emphasizing the possibilities of an international, and intergenerational, working-class solidarity. The film brings the struggles of Northern England’s white working class together with those of Syrian refugees unceremoniously relocated to their neglected village, a former mining town. The central character here is a young Syrian woman, Yara, who navigates racism and hardship while befriending TJ, the owner of a struggling local pub. Through his family history, exemplified by the historical photographs (taken by TJ’s late uncle) that adorn the pub’s walls, she connects her own struggle with the legacy of the miners’ strike previously documented in Loach’s 1984 film Which Side Are You On?

Given their militant working-class ethos, Loach and Laverty’s perennial presence on the Croisette, with all its displays of wealth and excess, seems incongruous. This year, amid nationwide anger at French pension reform and the ongoing American writers’ strike, the city of Cannes preempted potential turmoil by banning protests, making The Old Oak’s late-festival competition bow all the more jarring.

My experience of this festival was bookended by the announcement that protests would be banned on the Croisette and, at the end, by the image of protest and solidarity that completes your film. How do you square that cognitive dissonance?

Paul Laverty: I actually didn’t know that. But I suppose Cannes is bound to be full of contradictions.

Ken Loach: For the record, we couldn’t support the banning of union protests and union demonstrations in Cannes. It’s a very appropriate place to hear that public debate. I can’t support that ban and I don’t think the festival would expect us to support the ban. And I wish I’d known that, because I’d have said it more explicitly at our press conference.

One of the things that really moved me in The Old Oak were the photos of the striking miners in the bar. They hark back to your film Which Side Are You On? Can you talk about returning to the events of 1984? Where did the photos in the film come from?

Loach: The great ’84 miners strike was a pivotal event in our postwar history—it was the critical industrial event, because it allowed Thatcher to pursue her neoliberal agenda. Also, Paul wrote a story called Bread and Roses, about the janitors in Los Angeles, who were Mexican, Central American immigrants, so it refers back to all these industrial struggles.

Laverty: This story was also really important to tell after we did Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You. It’s really interesting to go to these many communities. We wanted to understand the history of organizing industrial power and how workers have become impoverished and isolated. To try and understand the reality of these communities today, we’ve got to go back and see things. But that’s an abstract idea. You don’t understand the alienation, the anger, the fury of disenfranchised people who feel they have no agency in their lives, unless you go back to 1984.

We really felt that the past was a character, and the way to embody that, I suppose, was to have this old pub hanging on by its fingertips. Then we invented the idea of the uncle who had taken those photographs. Fergus [Clegg], our wonderful production designer, found a local photographer who took many of these stunning photographs. They’re very, very evocative. During the course of the investigation, we found a great photograph of the Easington mining disaster in 1951. We met an old lady, a 91-year-old living in one of these villages, who was a nurse that day. We met these incredible people who had lived through that event, who had massive solidarity with the mining communities, who were embodiments of that rich culture.

But when we met people 60, 70 years younger than that out in the street—disenfranchised, lost souls—we saw the disintegration in how these people lived their lives. We really, really filmed to try and capture that.

Loach: You see the pictures of the strike, and in the next scene in the bar, the men are talking about the strike and they’re fighting over the memory. One starts to say, “Don’t give us the old stories about the miners,” and the other one calls him out. And then another younger one says that his father went back to work before the strike was over. In other words, he broke the strike, and his regret was that he didn’t go back to work earlier. Then the older guy picks up on that and says, “Yeah, but he still got the sack, whether he went back to work or not, like everyone else.” The argument is still there. There are still families that don’t speak to each other.

The young Syrian woman at the heart of the story, Yara, is herself a photographer. So there’s something about the role that visual documentation of history plays in our current lives.

Laverty: We talked to many different people. You don’t invent a screenplay from the street—we’ve got to develop a story, and it needs to be credible. But we imagined that she was in a refugee camp and her father had given her this camera, and that really helped us, because if you just have a passive character, it’s very hard to find a narrative driving the story. It also helps her backstory, because photography becomes a way of saving herself, she says, by choosing what she looks at.

She says she “finds hope and strength through the lens.” Which I took to be an analog for you two.

Laverty: How about this? It’s an interesting question, what you choose to look at, and what we all choose to look at. You made a choice to come here, one of the only Americans in the entire three days we’ve been here who has interviewed us. That’s a choice. Many other people made a different choice.

I wanted to also ask about your continued commitment to social realism, both stylistically and politically, even as the genre seems to now be less popular than ever. Can you explain your continued belief in that mode of expression?

Loach: I’m not keen on the “ism,” really. Our starting point is: you tell stories in a way that shares a common humanity—a way in which, if we were in a room with them, we’d be empathizing with the characters. We would be understanding why these people were behaving in the way they do. We would know who they were. We’d come to conclusions about what we were seeing, and we’d share their tears, we’d share the laughter. Everything follows from that—the camera positions are chosen to ensure the performances are as true as possible, and that we’ve photographed the characters in a way that is sympathetic. You don’t go and stick a wide-angle lens under the actor’s nose. You use natural light, so that it doesn’t look as though you’re making a film. And you light in such a way, again, that is sympathetic to the people on screen.

You’re drawn to people, rather than repelled by them, and you can do that by the way you photograph them. You don’t cover the film in sticky music to tell you how to think. You record what people actually say rather than doing it afterwards in a post-sync studio. You cut the film so that if you are in the room and your eyes move, we cut, because your attention’s gone somewhere else. You have to have a cue for that: something causes it. So they’re simple things, but they lead to a style. We never say, “Oh, let’s make another social-realism film.” We say, “Let’s tell another story.”

When you started, it was referred to as “kitchen-sink realism.”

Loach: Again, that’s a bourgeois class description, a hostile class description. “Who are all these millions of people whose lives we don’t recognize? We’ve got servants who clean the kitchen that we don’t go to.” I mean, it’s disgusting, absolutely disgusting. And there’s so much hidden class hostility. If it was racist, it would be called out. But because it’s only to do with class, people use it.

Laverty: It’s so true, isn’t it? We’re often told, “Well, you’re political filmmakers.” As for all these films with massive big budgets like Clear and Present Danger, to pick one from the past, those are seen as entertainment, even though it glorifies the CIA. There’s always a character being critical of the CIA in the middle of it, but at the end of the day, it’s the CIA sending their men down to South Africa, and what they’re doing is spreading the word of democracy and freedom. I mean, that’s entertainment. That’s not political. It’s absolutely remarkable that films like that are seen as entertainment, and we are the political filmmakers. Take The Birth of a Nation, for example. That great film led to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s kind of remarkable to see how so many films like that celebrate the “American way of life,” the myth of the rugged individual, and not the community.

The moment I really teared up in The Old Oak was when the Syrians reveal the solidarity banner they’ve made as a gift to the people of Murton, which features the old miners’ slogan. I’m wondering: do you still believe in revolution?

Loach: Well, I believe in catastrophe unless there is one. Because if we carry on this road, we know where we’re going. The economic system is driving us over the cliff. And if anyone disagrees, well, let’s hear the argument. We haven’t heard any argument that suggests big business is willing to cut their profits, cut their exploitation of natural resources, stop burning oil, in order to stop catastrophic climate change or even mitigate what’s already happening. I haven’t heard it. So what other solution is there?

Laverty: One of your [American] compatriots, Frederick Douglass, the Black freedom fighter, said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He lived that in his life. I mean, that encapsulates it, doesn’t it?

When you see power more and more concentrated in these massive corporations that are taking the narrative and the control of our lives, those words seem more relevant than ever.

Loach: And the other great American quote to pass on, which I’m sure you probably have hanging over your bed, is “Agitate, educate, organize,” from your Wobblies. We do a little bit of agitation. We can’t do education in a film, and we can’t even touch organization. And organization is the big one. Because people can see the problem, people are not stupid. But it’s organization that the ruling class prevents. Don’t show any protest in Cannes. So yeah, I think “Organization, comrades” is wonderful.

Inney Prakash is a writer and curator based in New York City.