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Thursday, September 21, 2023



Review by Patrick Compton

The film The Old Oak is part of The European Film Festival 2023 which runs from October 12 to 22, 2023 with screenings of all 16 films at cinemas in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and limited screenings in Durban, and online.

This may well be 87-year-old Ken Loach’s final film – his 28th in a distinguished career that has spanned 56 years devoted to the lives of ordinary working people, mainly but not exclusively in England.

In terms of his immovable and unrelenting socialist agenda, he has explored many themes, from homelessness in his first feature, Cathy Come Home, to a biting indictment of the British education system in what many think of as his masterpiece, Kes, and now his last, The Old Oak, about the relationship between local working-class people and Syrian refugees in a down-at-heel old mining town near Durham in north-eastern England.

If it is to be his swansong, The Old Oak is a fitting testimony to Loach’s (never uncritical) reverence for working people in what he believes is a cruel capitalist system in which the poor and the dispossessed are exploited mercilessly.

Tommy Joe Ballantyne (‘TJ’ to everyone in the community) is the owner of a down-at-heel pub (The Old Oak) that is almost the last usable public space in the village. It is filled with a variety of characters, some bitter about the past in which unsuccessful strikes have not been able to keep the local mine alive. Unable to direct their bile at the uncaring Tory government, they lash out at those less fortunate than themselves – an influx of Syrian refugees who are moving into the neighbourhood.

TJ (a powerful performance by Dave Turner) is essentially a decent man, albeit complex with his fair share of skeletons, and he forms a friendship with Yara (warmly played by Syrian actor Ebla Mari), one of the refugees who has a talent for photography. The film’s theme of reaching out (or not) to the Syrian refugees, hinges on the rehabilitation of a long-disused room at the back of the pub into some kind of charity diner where the whole community can eat sponsored meals together. (“Those who eat together, stick together,” is TJ’s takeaway from his dad's days as a miner).

This is a film about desperation and hope, with the refugees mourning their lost ones, victims of the brutal Assad regime, while the English villagers vary from bitter racial hatred (‘let’s take our country back’) to those wishing, however reluctantly at times, to make gestures of accommodation.

Scripted by Paul Laverty (his 14th film with Loach) and directed with unswerving verisimilitude by Loach, The Old Oak is a powerful portrait of some of the grim challenges of our time, with the director finally offering us a ray of hope in what could otherwise have been the blackest of movies. – Patrick Compton


Screenings take place at Ster-Kinekor’s The Zone in Johannesburg, and The Labia in Cape Town. Each film will screen once.

Ster-Kinekor Gateway in Durban will present a limited programme of films not available in the online streaming. Five of the most recent films will only show in cinemas: Anatomy Of A Fall, Goodbye Julia, The Old Oak, The Teachers Lounge and Mavka – The Forest Song. 11 films can be viewed for free online.

Visit for more information or click on the European Film Festival logo to the right of this article.