The Old Oak is a special place. Not only is it the last pub standing, it is the only remaining public space where people can meet in a once thriving mining community that has now fallen on hard times after 30 years of decline. TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) the landlord hangs on to The Old Oak by his fingertips, and his hold is endangered even more when the pub becomes contested territory after the arrival of Syrian refugees who are placed in the village. An unlikely friendship develops when TJ encounters a young Syrian with a camera, Yara (Ebla Mari). Can they find a way for the two communities to understand each other? So unfolds a deeply moving drama about loss, fear and the difficulty of finding hope.
The ex-mining villages are unique. Sitting at the top of the village looking out over the rolling hills. A young mother had walked her child to primary school, come back home, and then hung herself. This image and imagining her haunted us. Wandering around many of these villages it's striking to see the older members of the community who were miners, or family of miners. One remarkable older lady in her nineties was a nurse and tended the wounded (one was her neighbour’s father, who still to this day lived next to her) from the Easington mining disaster of 1951 in which 83 miners died. Listening to vibrant people like her, and others who were involved in the miners’ strike in 1984, bore testimony to a powerful sense of community spirit, cohesion and political clarity which contrasted with the hopelessness of many in the present. It becomes apparent that the past ie a character in the film.
How did a once organised working class with militant unions end up in the world of TJ, the main character in the film. He’s a good man. Ex– miner, his father was killed in a mining accident and as a consequence of that his mother bought The Old Oak pub. She’s been dead 20 odd years and he wanted to help his mother, but his marriage has broken up, he’s living in the poverty zone and the pub is struggling, as are most of the village pubs around. It’s the only public space left in the village. Because of what’s happened to TJ, he’s lost. He had been an organiser in the village – previously he ran football teams; everyone knew TJ. But because of what’s happened to him he’s just been beaten down and he’s withdrawn into himself. Then one day, some Syrian families move into the village. And that’s where the story of TJ in this film starts.
TJ’s life did not happen by accident but by a series of political choices. It seems to us The Old Oak had roots stretching back, that might help us untangle many of the conflicts and contradictions of the present. It begs the bigger question of how hopelessness, unfairness, and lack of agency in our lives, play out in how we treat each other. This is how the character Yara comes in and helps us open up the story. She’s a refugee who came here with her family. She doesn’t know where her father is because he was taken to prison and that was the last she heard of him. And we know real people who still don’t know anything about their fathers, where they're. Yara wants to make life here easier and more friendly and to forge a friendship between the two communities. She's brave. She stands up for herself. She’s also sociable. She’s trying to see hope through the ugliness and unfairness of the world. The camera gives her hope. That’s very similar to what TJ’s role is, building bridges. You feel empathy towards Yara because she faces a lot of racism. Most of them were detainees in Syrian prisons and were tortured for doing nothing. But in the story of the film, they're not focusing on what happened in Syria.
Laura (Claire Rodgerson) is an old family friend of TJ’s. They used to be activists together, probably doing anti–austerity stuff. Then TJ has kind of lost his way but Laura has kept on fighting for the community while trying to build a family and hold down a job. When the Syrian families arrive she wants to be a positive force to bring the communities together. An irreverent force of nature, is how she was described in the script! She doesn’t take any shit but just believes that the community can be better. She’s a fighter. And she hasn’t given up like TJ. That’s we like in real life, you can’t just give up and accept the fate that’s been dealt to you by the powers that be.
The Northeast in particular is a really segregated place. There’s this idea from the Blair age of ‘problem communities'. It’s not problem communities, it’s problem systems, problem scapegoating and problem dumping. It’s a complex film, because normally in films you're dealing with one community. Here, we've two communities. We've to the local families and the local pub goers, and then within the pub group, we've people who are in favour of the refugees being here, and we've’vepeople who are against. It’s a complex tapestry of characters and people and families.
Photography is the thread that stitches the locations and the characters and all the narrative together. It’s the device that links Yara to her history, to her present, and to her exploration of a new place and a new people. It gives her the licence to look and see. And then photography is also the device of how we self–select. It reflects what we choose to see and what we choose to remember. Because what we don’t see, we then start to fill in with our imagination. So photography in the film is the prompt to what has happened, what is happening, but also what isn’t there. The film shows the pain that Syrian families must go through. It’s not easy to move your life from one country to another.