An expectation of finality has followed Ken Loach’s The Old Oak since its premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. “When you’re doing it, you’re doing it, you just have to get a move on and get on with it,” he told The Guardian. “But I can’t see me getting round the course again. Your capacity fades a bit when you’re knocking on.” And while no artist should be begrudged a bit of rest––especially after an artist as prolific and rigorous as Loach––assigning this the preset narrative of “final film” misses, perhaps, its chiefest gift to the viewer: the obscenity of hope at the prospect of living in the modern world.

Set in County Durham, The Old Oak follows TJ (Dave Turner), the owner of the languishing pub that gives the film its name, and Yara (Ebla Mari), a photographer who comes to the village in a community of Syrian families seeking refuge. Tensions spike in the village as the locals––many of whom form a cantankerous, social-media-thumping swath of regular patrons at the Old Oak itself––blame the refugee families for the continued crumbling of their community. TJ, wracked with trauma from his personal life as well as the decimation of the town’s once-thriving mining community and labor movement, becomes the intermediate figure, forging a relationship with the Syrian families while attempting to shift the consciousness of his alienated friends and neighbors. By showing how we see (or deny seeing) each other, Loach’s film becomes a devised theory of seeing solidarity, demonstrating the ways movements are variably constructed and torn apart. The film begins with a racist villager breaking Yara’s camera and ends with a departed loved one’s portrait placed at the locus point of a community finally looking at each other. These are not incidental images. The camera plots how we live together.

Hope’s obscenity (a formulation offered by one of The Old Oak’s characters) is differentiated from its audacity (a neoliberal favorite) by subtle gradations. The latter promises a fungible agent, a boldness inside pre-existing structures all too common to the dead languages of PR, advertising, and corporate art. How fortunate we have been, then, to live in an age when Ken Loach has enlisted the movie camera as that most obscene yawp at movies, art practices, and politics that move a certain kind of way. His films remind us of the renewable furnace of movement-making, not its terminal designations or calcifications. The Old Oak is simply another motion in this movement, no more final or primal than a raised fist or shared shelter.

I spoke with Ken Loach over Zoom last week, in advance of The Old Oak’s theatrical release and a two-week, 21-film festival of his work, all screening at New York’s Film Forum throughout April.

The Film Stage: Have you been able to share the film with Syrian families living up in the Northeast?

Ken Loach: Yes, a lot. I mean, Syrian families––refugees by and large––don’t go to the cinema for obvious reasons, but we’ve had a lot of community screenings. Not in cinemas, but in community centers, trade union halls, church halls, football clubs, right at the heart of working-class areas. Paul [Laverty] and I have been to quite a lot of them and meeting Syrian families really all around the country. It’s been interesting, hearing their stories and reactions––especially for Paul, who did most of the research and talked to lots of those families when he was writing the script. Their stories informed Paul on what they were doing, how they would be. But then hearing their stories echoed back again from the families was quite moving, actually. I was in one community screening just a week ago, locally, and a young woman just broke down at seeing her experience reflected on film. It’s been a very chastening experience.

Was it the same talking to people from those Northeast communities, like County Durham? Families that may have relatives who were miners?

Yes. It was all done in cooperation with them. I mean, we were with them all the time and the people in the film are mainly from those villages. The guy who plays TJ (Dave Turner) was a fireman most of his life and lives in––as most of the actors do––that area. The most experienced actor is the man who played Charlie (Trevor Fox), but he’s still from the local area––a lovely man, very talented man––and the rest are stand-up comedians, ordinary people. They are extraordinary, you know, when they allow themselves to be vulnerable and open, creative. They are extraordinary. They bring something that’s just absolutely authentic, I think. So it’s a real privilege to make the film, then.

It makes me think about the sort of settled definitions of “documentary” and “narrative fiction” filmmaking, that a film like this is splitting some distance between those poles. Do you think about that in those terms?

Well, it’s ultimately fiction. What Paul wrote, 95% of it is there. They speak around it sometimes, maybe rephrase it, but it’s all Paul’s writing. And the characters are Paul’s, and the interactions, the scenes, the story, the development and resolution. I said from the beginning, to the Syrians in particular, “If I ask you to do something that isn’t what you would do naturally in that situation, just tell me.” I never want an actor to do anything they feel is wrong. Because the essential truth of it is more important than any particular incident or scene. That was the basis on which these actors did the film, really. And there were one or two little incidents that we changed as we went along––to fit what they would do.

The scene between TJ and Yara (Ebla Mari) in the cathedral feels especially charged, maybe because these characters are trading monologues––about the laborers who built the cathedral, about the rubble of modern-day Syria––and memories that echo the actors’ experiences. How is it working with actors who are working from a script but also delivering those lines by pulling on something especially close to their emotional surface?

That’s why Paul’s writing is so good. The actors can absorb it and feel, “Well, this is me.” Ebla Mari, who played Yara, she’s a trained actress and she teaches drama now in occupied Syria, in the Golan Heights. We met about 30 Syrian actresses by Zoom, and then three came over. And she gave so much, a really principled young woman and won over everyone’s hearts, really, by her commitment. I think it all comes from the heart as well as from Paul’s pen. Otherwise it wouldn’t work, would it?

It would feel false. How do you guard against that falseness, even when working in fiction?

It’s interesting what you say about documentary. I think every film––whether people are aware of it or not––is documentary. Because film is forensic. It can look into the pores of your skin. It can see what diet you have. It can see what your hands are like, what life you’ve lived, how you stand. It can see everything about you. And so film shows you whether people are giving a performance or not. Most film performances, I dare say, if you saw them in a documentary, you’d say, “Hang on, I don’t believe this.” Dave, who plays TJ, ran a pub for two or three years after he stopped being a fireman, and so he’s got muscle memory when he pulls the pint. He’s not thinking about it, he can talk and do whatever and his muscle memory just does it without thinking. Whereas someone who hasn’t had that experience, that lived experience, obviously they have to think about it. And I think the camera can see that.

In that scene where all the characters watch the slideshow of Yara’s photographs, who took those photographs? 

That was Josh Barrett. He’s been our still photographer for 20 years or so. A great photographer. And he does it with the same aesthetic that we shoot the film, really. He worked a lot with Ebla: her main rehearsal was learning to be a photographer. So Josh went with Ebla around the different villages, photographing things, and Ebla took some really good pictures. And in the course of it she got to hear the language, she got to meet the people. While she was thinking about being a photographer, of course, she’s observing all the time. So the byproduct of learning to think photographically was that she came to understand a little bit about the community. And some of the photographs at the end are her photographs.

This idea of learning to see the world by learning to be a photographer feels like the process of learning the trust that you have to ask someone to take on when they say yes––to be in your movie, to be in your photo. 

Absolutely. And she does that instinctively. There is a relationship with the person you’re photographing. Maybe not if it’s a hidden camera or something, but otherwise it’s invariably a relationship that you have with the person, and the camera catches them open and vulnerable or closed and defensive.

When you show us the ensemble watching Josh and Ebla’s photographs, it feels like there’s a kind of “documentary-able” essence: here are people experiencing images being shown to them in real time and the camera is picking up that reaction. How much is that spontaneity connected to the practice of sharing the script with actors only as the shooting goes along?  

We always shoot in sequence, to take people through the story. So then the actors don’t know what’s going to happen, really. The idea is never to give them a whole scene that is too difficult to learn right away. It can’t be a threat; it’s got to be easy for them. Just however long they will need to absorb what Paul’s written––that’s what time you allow them. Maybe a bit more so they’re not anxious. So the whole thing about the story that TJ tells her about finding the dog and his marriage and his son, Dave, had all that, but without the context. He didn’t know, earlier in the shooting, that there was going to be a water leak in the backroom until he came down to set. I think surprise is the hardest thing to act. Even brilliant actors, take two is never quite as authentic as the first shock. In a way, it doesn’t matter what they do; it matters that it’s authentic. It doesn’t matter exactly what form it takes; it matters what the audience feels, that it just seems true. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not an exact science. 

Speaking of that working practice: how far apart do you see artistic collaboration and solidarity?

Solidarity is a good word. Because the greatest thing that directors have to work with is the actor’s instinct. You’re not thinking about a reaction––it comes from your guts. It doesn’t come from thinking, “This is what I should do and I will do it.” There’s a spontaneity to it, and so there has to be trust. And for it to be true, people have to be vulnerable and open. A lot of the Syrian families, for example, very few had done any filming before. Even Dave had had small parts in the two films he’d done previously, but just a little. You make an environment where the given is that you can’t make a mistake. If something goes wrong, it’s only a bit of celluloid into a camera. We just do it again. There’s no problem. You can’t make a mistake.

How much improvisation occurs when you work that kind of way?

We do little improvisations. You know: family situations that everyone’s been in, quarrels between siblings or, I don’t know, just similar families. But the actor’s instinct is the prime need, and then it’s about creating a feeling of safety and an atmosphere which is easy and unthreatening. There should always be smiles around. Things happen and you don’t have to invent them. And the crew are brilliant, just good pals working together over many years. Alongside that camaraderie, though, they’re just the way we shoot––lighting just happens. [Cinematographer Robbie Ryan] prepares so well. Two things work against good performances. One is a long delay between shots. Because you generate an emotion and then, “Oh God, we’ve got to wait an hour, adjusting a lamp”.

With Robbie, we light the space, not the shot. So the space is always lit. We’ve worked it out so basically we’re always prepared to go. We know pretty much what the shots are and what lenses we’ll use. The other thing to avoid is a lot of technology in the room, or even too many people in the room. We work with the bare minimum of people in there, no monitors. That means no one is scrutinizing the performances. Just trust your instinct and listen to what’s happening. And just live it.

The Old Oak opens this Friday, April 5.

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