“There can be no resistance without memory or universalism” – Jean-Luc Godard, In Praise of Love (2001)
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With his new feature, The Old Oak (2023), Ken Loach concludes an unofficial trilogy of films exploring the structural abuse, inequality, and prejudice rampart in austerity-era Britain. In the Palme D’or winner I, Daniel Blake (2016), Loach dismantled the byzantine bureaucracy of the British benefits system, detailing the travails of a widowed carpenter who is deemed unfit for work by his doctor following a major heart attack, yet is denied financial aid by the state. In Sorry We Missed You (2019), Loach set his sights on the gig economy, focusing on the pressures experienced by a delivery driver hired by a large corporation on what is essentially a zero-hours contract, meaning that he receives no sickness or holiday pay, must buy his own equipment, and has no guarantee of a minimum weekly wage (he gets paid according to how many parcels he delivers, and he has to deliver them according to the strict deadlines determined by his supervisors, lest he face ruinous sanctions). These two films tell relentless, uncompromisingly bleak stories of individuals gradually crushed under the weight of a capitalist system that only judges their value according to how much monetary value their labour can generate for the bourgeoisie: I, Daniel Blake’s title character is ground down by a benefits system that pressures to accept work that may threaten his health or force him into destitution; Sorry We Missed You’s Ricky is manipulated into relinquishing basic employment rights with illusory promises of having greater flexibility and control over his work.
Over the course of a prolific career spanning more than 60 years, Loach has been one of UK cinema’s preeminent political filmmakers, beginning with a number of searing television projects produced for the BBC, including Cathy Come Home (1966), a critique of the UK’s housing crisis and the government’s treatment of the homeless, and Up the Junction (1965), a drama that argues for the necessity of legalising abortion. These early projects were distinguished by their location shooting, fluid camerawork, their combination of fictional and documentary elements, their naturalistic performance styles, and their eagerness to engage with controversial, hot-button issues in a manner that was explicit, direct, and confrontational. Not only did Loach’s aesthetic style appear fresh and radical amongst a television landscape characterised primarily by multi-camera sitcoms and sanitised, studio-bound dramas, these works struck such a chord with audiences that they had a direct impact on state legislation: Up the Junction was discussed in Parliament at length before the official Abortion Act was passed by Parliament in 1967, and the public outcry that followed the broadcast of Cathy Come Home inspired a long-running campaign against homelessness that would lead to the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977.
Since then, Loach has remained a vital artistic voice, valiantly speaking out against various forms of injustice perpetuated by the British social system. Collectively, his filmography stands as a valuable document of the transformations – social, political, economic, technological – of British society from the postwar years to the present day. Through his work, Loach has documented the establishment of the welfare state, expansion of public services, and empowerment of trade union movements under the Clement Attlee government; and the erosion of these social democratic principles under Margaret Thatcher, whose neoliberal economic policies brought about the privatisation of key industries, widespread deregulation, reductions in government intervention, and anti-trade union legislation. Loach has also been a vocal critic of the so-called “New Labour” government, which sought to distance itself from the party’s socialist past in order to carry on the neoliberal project with a few minor concessions. Rather than undoing the damage Thatcher had wrought, the New Labour government continued the privatisation of essential public services, accelerated financial deregulation, increased the gap between the richest and the poorest, and embraced a punitive approach to law and order. In addition to these sweeping social changes, Loach’s work has also cast a light on shocking colonial atrocities committed by the UK state, the reverberations of imperialism in modern society, and the myriad social movements that have aimed to resist the overwhelming systemic violence of British capitalism, with varying degrees of success.
Following the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent election of the conservative government, the UK has been ravaged by substantial cuts to public spending, impacting sectors such as health care, education, and welfare. In tandem with austerity, labour market policies have further atomised working practices and further accelerated the disintegration of workers’ rights. The Trade Union Act 2016 imposed restrictions on industrial action, making it more challenging for trade unions to organise strikes. Cuts to public services and social welfare programs disproportionately affected vulnerable and marginalized communities, stoking social tensions that have been intensified by aggressive campaigns by large sections of the political-media complex to treat the most vulnerable groups in society as scapegoats to divert attention from colossal state failures.
Loach’s films have always been unflinching in the way they depict exploitation, poverty, and suffering, yet they also allow for moments of levity, of small triumphs, of camaraderie. What’s more, Loach’s work has long been infused with a sense of optimism, a feeling that positive social change may be established through collective action, worker solidarity, and carefully considered political manoeuvring. This is not the case with I, Daniel Blake or Sorry We Missed You. The nature of Ricky’s employment means that he is isolated when at work, having very little engagement with either the other drivers employed by the firm or the customers he delivers parcels to. In the few scenes set at the depot, the workers are pitted against each other to compete for the best routes. This atomisation of labour is presented as a means by which workers are disempowered and kept in a state of subservience; it is difficult for them to organise when they are barely in contact with one another. And although I, Daniel Blake depicts the friendship that emerges between Daniel and a single mother also entrapped within the benefits system, their relationship is based on the mutual understanding of shared hardship, not on an impulse to overthrow the existing system. Daniel’s aim throughout the film is relatively small-scale – he simply wants to subsist, and even that ambition is brutally snuffed out by the film’s end.
This is not intended as a criticism of either film. Both I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You are powerful depictions of a society in which merely making enough money to live has become so exhausting for so many that they have little energy or time to devote to pursuing utopian dreams of political reorganisation. It is heartening, however, that Loach has concluded his trilogy (and if reports of Loach’s retirement are true, his career) on a decidedly more hopeful note. There is nothing naïve or rose-tinted about The Old Oak – its depiction of poverty, deprivation, and xenophobia is as harrowing as anything in Loach’s oeuvre – but it is also a film that stresses the liberatory potential of a collective action that’s shared across generational, racial, and cultural boundaries. If, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You were relentlessly contemporary, depicting characters so immersed in the pressures of day-to-day survival that they thought neither about the past nor the future, The Old Oak is about the necessity of forming an active engagement with the resistance movements of the past in order to fight oppression in its present-day manifestations.
Like much of Loach’s late work, the narrative of The Old Oak is deceptively simple: the film focuses on Yara (Ebla Mari), a Syrian refugee who is housed with her brother and elderly mother in an impoverished village in County Durham. Their arrival immediately draws hostilities from the white locals: the opening scene depicts a cluster of the villagers crowding around the van transporting the newcomers, delivering a series of complaints about overcrowding, the dilution of “national culture,” and the potential threat to the region’s security. These taunts are clearly parroting the xenophobic right-wing narratives frequently peddled by the UK’s national press to stoke division and displace the blame for governmental failures on marginalised communities. Tensions come to a head when one of the locals forces a camera out of Yara’s hand, demanding that she delete the photos she captured when entering the village.
In the resulting scuffle, he carelessly drops the camera, rendering it unusable. In her subsequent effort to track down the man who destroyed the camera to receive compensation, Yara strikes up a friendship with T.J. (Dave Turner), the owner of The Old Oak, a shabby village pub only barely being kept afloat by the patronage of a handful of white locals. The regulars who frequent it are themselves tormented by a number of very real, very serious issues. The town, we learn, was once a thriving mining community, but after the deindustrialisation of the British economy in the 1980s, it has fallen into disrepair. The town has suffered for decades from underinvestment, unemployment, and lack of resources, and now resembles a shell of its former self. Recently, they’ve discovered that real estate companies are buying properties in bulk at cut-rate deals so they can rent them out at extortionate prices, thus lowering the value of their own homes. T.J. himself has been put through the ringer in recent years. He’s from a long lineage of miners, but was forced to find a new line of work after the increasing privatisation of key industries substantially reduced the number of stable jobs in the sector. His father died in a workplace accident, the result of his bosses’ lax attitude toward health and safety practices. His son left the community in pursuit of greater opportunities, and now rarely talks to him.
The problem is that the locals fail to recognise the true cause of their suffering. Instead, they channel their frustration into expressions of xenophobia. They complain that the village’s resources are being stretched to the limit by the influx of immigrants, and pin the unemployment crisis on foreign labourers willing to work for below minimum wage. In one striking scene, a local charity donates bikes to the newly arrived refugee children while a group of local youths look on with envy – we learn that their own families can barely afford to put food on the table, and a new bike seems like an unthinkable luxury, far beyond their grasp. The film doesn’t flinch from depicting vile attitudes toward immigrants and the horrific consequences that result from the normalisation of these attitudes, but it also acknowledges that the other villagers are themselves victims of an exploitative capitalist system, and that they are being manipulated by the misinformation and inflammatory narratives peddled by the political-media complex to turn their hatred toward those they perceive as even lower than they are in the pecking order.
T.J. does not share these bigoted views, but he does allow them to run rampart in his pub unchallenged. With all the community centres in the village now shut, the locals have turned The Old Oak into an unofficial shared space to voice their opinions. T.J. passively allows for his pub to become a breeding ground of racial hatred, not because he endorses these views, but because he is too afraid of the money he might lose from the remaining patrons. Thus, Loach dramatizes how being silent in the face of encroaching racism may contribute to the perpetuation of harmful attitudes, reinforce discrimination, and create an environment that is unwelcoming and unsafe for certain individuals. Indeed, T.J.’s failure to combat discriminatory attitudes in the pub leads xenophobes to view it as a safe haven to indulge in their most toxic impulses; in one harrowing scene, T.J. scrolls through the official Facebook page of The Old Oak and finds that the comments and public posts made by the pub’s patrons are a cesspit of racial hatred and abuse.
It is only after growing closer to Yara, and bonding over shared stories of familial strife, that T.J. alters his position and realises the importance of confronting discriminatory views in the interest of fostering empathy, breaking down stereotypes, and building a more inclusive society. In the pub’s long-dormant function room, Yara is drawn to images of the village’s history, particularly images documenting the 1984 miner’s strike. T.J. passionately tells her about the strong sense of solidarity experienced by the community during the strike, as everybody clubbed together to feed one another when the government attempted to starve them into submission. Since that strike was brutally quelled, however, the formerly tight ties have increasingly fragmented, breeding division, suspicion, and envy amongst the population. Galvanized by the slogan “When you eat together, you stick together,” which inspired the miners during the difficulties of the strike, Yara hatches the idea to convert the function room into a mutual-aid community kitchen, where impoverished locals and refugees can gather to share free meals. When she first approaches T.J. with the idea, he rejects it, fearing a backlash from his customers. But after Yara and her mother console him with homecooked food following a bereavement, he realises his complicity in allowing venomous attitudes to spread through the community. Although there is a vocal minority who object to the presence of foreigners in the establishment, T.J. and Yara are willing to overcome the abuse hurled their way in the interest of breaking down social boundaries between all members of the community, hoping that their enterprise will inspire everybody to realise that they are collectively stronger when they work together, rather than allowing for hostilities to tear them apart. As T.J. vocalises at one point, the aim of the kitchen is not just to provide food for those in need, but to unite all members of the community in an act of political resistance against a common adversary; as he succinctly phrases it, “This is solidarity, not charity.”
If the sharing of food is one major strategy for establishing solidarity, the production and distribution of art is the other. Yara devotes her photography skills to producing burnished black-and-white portraits of the village’s inhabitants and locating the hidden beauty of the environment. These images are vital to reinvigorating the community, giving it a newfound sense of hope and confidence. In one sequence, an impoverished mother scolds Yara after she brings her young daughter home, having seen her faint at school from malnutrition. The mother then makes amends with Yara after she sees a series of portraits Yara has taken of her daughter, stating that Yara has an ingrained ability to bring out the girl’s natural exuberance. In another sequence, Yara hosts a slideshow of her photographs for an enthusiastic crowd of locals in the backroom of The Old Oak. The event ends with Yara unveiling a new emblem of international solidarity she has designed: an image of an oak tree standing tall, with the words “Strength, Solidarity, Resistance,” written in both English and Arabic. Collectively, the sharing of memories, culture, art, and culinary delights helps foster a sense of community amongst the refugees and the locals. Just as the photographs of the miners’ strike T.J. keeps in the backroom of his pub represent the preservation of historical moments of resistance, instilling a sense of common lineage amongst him and those who come to the community kitchen, so Yara’s efforts to document the current struggles of everybody in the village inspire a feeling of resilience and shared purpose. Although the xenophobic element in the community is never fully eradicated, as the narrative goes on, Loach emphasizes the feelings of companionship that grow among people from very different walks of life.
Yara’s emblem returns in the final scene of the film, as a crowd of the refugees and former British miners march at the Durham Miners’ Gala, an annual cultural and political event in which communities from across the region reflect on the historical struggles of the mining communities and discuss obstacles currently facing the working classes. It’s a striking, inspiring image for Loach to close the film on, a reminder of the interconnectedness of struggles against myriad forms of exploitation, injustice, and oppression, and a cry for communities facing comparable struggles to increase their collective strength through unification across superficial boundaries. If The Old Oak truly proves to be Loach’s final film (and it should be acknowledged that he announced his retirement once before, following the release of Jimmy’s Hall in 2014, but felt compelled to return to filmmaking in light of the continuous cruelty of the austerity years), then it is a testament to his own resilience that he has chosen to bow out not on another one of the bleak endings characteristic of his most recent films, but on a utopian plea: a message to younger generations to carry the torch and pursue a revolutionary transformation of society, to keep producing and sharing art that sheds light on social injustice, to amplify the voices of the voiceless, and keep pushing back against the dehumanising pressures of late capitalism.
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All images are screenshots from the film.