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The Old Oak – An Important Story For Our Times!

5 Oct 2023

Ken Loach’s latest film set in the North East opened in cinemas in late September and Dr Val Barron was privileged to have a small part in its creation. You can see her wearing a dog-collar in the publicity poster above!

In this interview, she talks about her involvement in the project and some of the key messages of the film about the role of local churches and communities, hopefulness and the courage to take action.

How did your association with The Old Oak start?

Almost 5 years ago, my husband John (a real vicar) and I were introduced to Paul Laverty, Ken Loach’s script writer of almost 30 years. They had previously collaborated on two films in the North East ‘I Daniel Blake’ and ‘Sorry We Missed You’, and Paul was exploring a third film based on Syrian refugees moving into communities in the area. The government had committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees and a number of local authorities in our region signed up including Gateshead, where we were at the time. The socio-economic geography of the region resulted in many families being rehomed in isolated communities with high levels of poverty. People were struggling to cope, and the awful ‘Breaking Point’ posters that were being used in Brexit campaigns didn’t help to make the transition to the North East an easy one.

What was your and John’s role in the early stages of the film’s development?

Paul is a gatherer of stories! He does this by spending time with people, building relationships and sharing stories with one another – as well as drinking copious cups of tea. Our role, as well as sharing our own stories, was to introduce Paul and later Ken, to all the amazing people in our community. 

Working with the local Methodist’s, our church folks ran language classes and meetings where we shared food and fellowship as well as weekly community football sessions in the estate where the refugees had moved. These gatherings brought people together and helped build relationships across the community as well as with our new friends who had come to us as refugees. Paul came and joined in and got to know the stories of local residents and their new neighbours. 

What is your role in the film and how did you feel?

It’s fair to say I haven’t missed my vocation in life and I didn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, unlike our community organiser colleague Claire Rodgerson who plays Laura so wonderfully in the film.  On the first day of filming Ken made a point of saying that my role was in the film to represent all the work that churches are doing in their communities to support refugees. That felt important. John reminds me that I do say some of the first words in the film (although it’s off-camera). Maybe, if I had been more comfortable, I would have been less on the cutting room floor – but that’s OK! The first scene was very daunting for us all but right from day one there was a sense of everyone looking out for each other. The most enjoyable was the people involved. It was also a very emotional process. I live in these communities and care deeply about them and the film highlights many of the challenges. On the first day filming I was with some of the Syrian actors and she asked whether people lived in these street as, in her words, ‘it looks like a war zone’.  

Watching a film being made must have been fascinating – what did you learn about it?

I had to pinch myself at times. I was on set for Ken Loach’s last film (probably!). Watching Ken and the team at work was phenomenal. They cared so much about the story and more importantly the people taking part.  Ken knew everyone’s name, including their name in the film and that really made you feel valued. It was really tough at time and so there was a huge amount of trust in him and the team, especially as the majority of the cast were not trained actors. But the overriding thing I took away was the collaborative working. We were all in our own little way helping to shape a story that was important to us for different reasons and I met and made friends with some wonderful people.

What do you see as the message and how do you think it will be received in the North East?

I am sure the film will receive mixed reviews, as Ken’s films always do. The language is tough and uncomfortable at times, however I doubt anyone will watch it and come away unchallenged. The North East has the highest rates of child poverty and a recent study by Shelter found that the region had the highest proportion (31%) of homeless households, including those living in temporary accommodation.  Per capita the North East has the highest percentage of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. Given these tough facts you might not expect the key message of the film to be hope, but it is. Hope that despite all the challenges in our communities we can come together and build beautiful relationships across difference.

Throughout the whole process Ken and Paul were always asking where the stories of hope were. The second message issolidarity not charity‘. This is an important issue for us to discuss in our churches. The natural response of providing charity may not be the most appropriate. Providing spaces to build relationships and learn each other’s stories, whether through sharing food or playing football, could be the most prophetic ministry.

How does the church come across in the film?

The story of the film was inspired by church projects – the film tells a different story but it remains faithful to the truths that were told in the stories of the projects. Rather than being set in a church, a local pub (‘The Old Oak’) is at the centre of the film which will perhaps enable more people in our communities to readily relate the story to their stories. While there isn’t a local church building featuring in the film, the church’s social action very much shaped this venture. There is a beautiful scene in Durham Cathedral in which the character Yara says:

“It takes strength to build something new, it takes strength to build something beautiful.”

I see churches in the North East, and across the country, somehow finding strength to build things new and beautiful, inspired by their Christian faith to make the world a better place to live. 

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler who speaks for the Church of England on refugees, tweeted after the premier:

“The Old Oak made me cry, feel angry, ashamed, disturbed, cry again, but also hope and have a sense of pride in what has and can be done to welcome refugees well. Ken Loach and team have once again produced a superb, timely, film.”

We arranged community showings of ‘I Daniel Blake’ and produce resources to be used alongside these. We will be doing the same again with this film.

Paul Laverty, when talking about the film has quoted St Augustine of Hippo:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” 

My prayer for this film is that people feel anger at the injustice that face many in our communities, not just refugees, and courage to take action.

Dr Val Barron is a William Temple Scholar. Val has worked as a community practitioner in Durham Diocese and she is the lead development worker at Communities Together in Durham. Val is passionate about community organising, social enterprise and working with local churches in challenging social injustice and helping communities to become fairer and more inclusive.

Rev’d John Barron is the Rector at St Michael and All Angels in Houghton le Spring

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