The Old Oak is a film that speaks to contemporary UK social issues through a strikingly raw lens. It centres around the rehoming of Syrian refugees who are placed in a non-descript northern ex-mining town. Exploring the highly charged dichotomy of a local population who feel neglected by its own country and a group who have literally had to abandon theirs, the film showcases the messy relationship between these two sets of people as they are thrust haphazardly together by an uncaring British government.
What transpires then is a series of clashes, but also an eventual type of bonding over their shared experiences of neglect. Whilst some characters immediately offer to help the refugees, others are far more resistant and, in some cases, hateful. Whilst in no way excusing racist behaviour, the film illustrates why people put up walls. It makes them human, not just classist stereotypes of northern racists, and that is what makes this film so important. Understanding the reasons for prejudice is how we can identify said factors and stamp them out.
In discussion with the brilliant and friendly writer Paul Laverty, he revealed the choice to underpin the film with the symbol of a run-down pub was a way of “making the past a character”. In these forgotten towns, where public spaces are closing down, the pub acts as the last bastion of agency and discussion. It is a link to the past where the town thrived.
Presently however, as Laverty continued, the “old oak, a symbol of England” is “falling to pieces”. Now even this pub, the only space for the loyal customers to commiserate together, is threatened by outside forces as TJ Ballantyne the pub owner (Dave Turner), agrees with Yara one of the only english-speaking refugees (Ebla Mari), to turn the back room into an area where the Syrians and locals can come together.
The film is truthful in every sense and one of the rawest I’ve come across. Do not expect to come out of the cinema with dry eyes! Dave Turner himself attested to the emotional experience of shooting a film of such gravity, stating he felt “humbled by it”. A man who worked behind the bar for over four years, and even longer as a firefighter before that, Dave’s role as pub owner but more importantly a selfless asset to the community is exceedingly natural.
Ebla Mari also spoke to the film’s importance. A Syrian herself who had to flee her home country, she felt incredibly strongly about its message, calling this film “the kind of art she believes in”. Despite being trained as a theatrical actor back in Syria and this movie being the first major filmed role she appears in, Ebla is seamless as its star.
The Old Oak is an important film to see. It serves as a reminder of the strength of unity and the importance of empathy. Though of course a fictional movie, the characters that feature in this film are based on real people and their real problems. It’s a reminder to reject those dehumanising descriptions of refugees and to instead to see them for who they really are, people.