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'The Old Oak' follows a small English community amidst the arrival of Syrian migrants


Ken Loach says "The Old Oak" is his final film after 56 years in the business. The Old Oak's an old pub in a desiccated English mining town in County Durham, where some locals feel uneasy when a group of refugees from war-blighted Syria arrive in 2016. A few people welcome them, offering friendship and support, but more seem to receive them with resentment, suspicion, even worse. They put them here, a character grouses, not Chelsea or Westminster.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you going to explain? You didn't even tell us they were coming. When are you going to do that?

DAVE TURNER: (As Dave Turner) We'll be around...

CLAIRE RODGERSON: (As Laura) Listen.

TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) ...To explain to everybody.

RODGERSON: (As Laura) But they've got a good point, haven't they?

TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) I understand...

RODGERSON: (As Laura) You've got to admit they've got a good point.

TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) I understand what they're saying.

RODGERSON: (As Laura) Listen. Like, there's bairns on the bus.

SIMON: TJ, who owns the Old Oak, the last pub in town, is played by Dave Turner. Ebla Mari is Yara, a young refugee with whom he strikes up a friendship. And "The Old Oak" is written by Paul Laverty, who has written every Ken Loach film since 1996. He won the best screenplay award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for "Sweet Sixteen." And their film "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" won the 2006 Palme d'Or. Paul Laverty joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL LAVERTY: It's a great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Why did you and Ken Loach want to tell this story?

LAVERTY: You know, we've been working together for over 30 years now. And I suppose we knew this was going to be Ken's last film. He was actually turned 86 in the middle of the shoot and is due a rest. He's still as sharp and as bright as ever, but it takes a toll physically, you know, to direct a film, especially the way he does it. He doesn't delegate much. So we really did want to try and just examine the notion of hope and perhaps where we draw nutrition for each other in this mad world, this mad, violent world.

And it was remarkable wandering around these old ex-mining villages, which were once vibrant communities before the miner strike in 1984. It was just seeing how these communities had been decimated after Margaret Thatcher. And then Tony Blair, when he took over, you know, had allowed these communities just to fall into rack and ruin. And so the people who lived there felt that they had lost agency in their lives, lost control of their lives. They were angry and furious. And so when refugees came from Syria and landed there, and many people felt like, you know, why here? Why not in the richer areas? They've got more resources. There was a very mixed reception.

SIMON: It seems important in the film - I imagined you and Ken Loach - that the people in the pub not just be shown as a bunch of drinkers who are stereotypes of bigotry.

LAVERTY: Scott, thanks for saying that. And that was very, very important to us. Anyway, two-dimensional characters or thugs or racists or people who are just angry and furious - it's not very interesting, really, because it becomes just two-dimensional. But what I think is much more interesting is to kind of try and understand why decent people who are sophisticated and understand the world, how their sense of confidence has been worn away, how their sense of well-being, their sense of self-worth, their energy and their empathy for people has been worn down.

SIMON: And how do you get hold of what the people from Syria have been through?

LAVERTY: Well, I think the first obligation is really to listen to them. And then we met some remarkable people there who had just unimaginable lives. I suppose we are dealing with two traumatized communities, but we're not trying to say that the ones of the working class in the U.K. are anywhere near the trauma of these people who have just suffered war. We're not trying to make some specious equation out of that. I mean, what they've gone through in Syria is just unimaginable, you know, just industrial-scale torture and murder of the most brutal kind. And everyone who is in the film was from Syria, apart from Ebla, who played Yara, the main Syrian character.

SIMON: Ebla Mari.

LAVERTY: Ebla Mari, yes. She's a wonderful young woman. She is the only person who is a professional actor. She comes from a theatrical background. All the rest of the Syrians in the film have actually, you know, had to flee Syria because of the war. And Ebla - she actually comes from the Golan Heights, and she actually looks over Syria. She comes from a Druze community. You know, Arabic, obviously, her first language. Her accent was slightly different from her Syrian friends in the film. But she spent a lot of time with them and worked with them on her accent.

SIMON: You and Ken Loach like to work with people who haven't been in films before.

LAVERTY: What Ken has always said from the very beginning - I remember this when we met the very, very first time - was that the casting procedure was really trying to give flesh and blood to the characters as best we can, as imagined in the screenplay. Sometimes, that will be very, very experienced, you know, actors. Cillian Murphy was in our film "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," for example, an actor with tremendous range.

And sometimes, it's people who have never acted before. In this case, we found a wonderful character called Dave Turner. Dave had only done a couple of scenes in our two previous films. But he's a man of great hinterland. He was an ex-trade unionist. He was in the fire brigades union, a man of great sensitivity, and he totally understands the world of TJ Ballantyne, the fictional character. And he even works in a pub. He lives in that area. His accent was perfect. But he understands it in his blood. He hardly needs to think about it, so his instinct was great.

SIMON: Why do you think there seem to be relatively few films about working-class people?

LAVERTY: Well, I think, like in every aspect of our lives, I think you have to examine where power lies. Who has the finance? Who has the money? And let's face it - we live in a world which is dictated by corporations, and then so profit is everything. So perhaps people don't want to make films that celebrate the working class for obvious reasons. Very seldom is the collective celebrated or dug into for the great stories that it has to offer us. But it's a great pity because Ken often says that films should be like a good library where you have a great expanse of different types of books. And unfortunately, I don't think we see that in film and certainly not film that gets properly distributed.

SIMON: I want to ask you about a very quiet and moving scene...


TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) Your dolls are very pretty.

SIMON: ...Where a young Syrian girl shows TJ her dolls.


TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) Do they have names?

EBLA MARI: (As Yara, speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Rahat, Rafif, Sham, Shahad, Amara (ph).

SIMON: What put that scene in your mind?

LAVERTY: And I'm glad you mentioned that scene, Scott. That's just one of these little gifts that come to you, I suppose, when you're trying to dramatize trauma, I suppose. That scene came out of talking to kids who missed their friends because it's like some great big iron fist has smashed into the country, and people have been scattered around the world to the four winds, and they've all ended up in different countries and different spots in the world. But these kids have lost their precious friendships.

What you try to do when you're writing, I suppose, is to write things that seem seamless, that might touch you but also give you insight into the imagination of a child. So, you know, the actual Syrian children in the film just come from local schools close by. The mother - she lives in a little village close by, too. She was really at the heart of the story. So what we found was just remarkable people who shared their lives with us, who gave, you know, flesh and blood to the story.

SIMON: Speaking of flesh and blood, so this is the last film you and Ken Loach will do, you're sure?

LAVERTY: I think so, Scott. I think we've made about 14 feature films together now. So I'd like to see the glass as half full. We've had the most remarkable run together doing films all over the world. And so it's been an absolute privilege for me to work with Ken and also our wonderful producer Rebecca O'Brien, who makes it all possible for us. So rather than mourn it, I'd celebrate just the wonderful journey we've had.

SIMON: Paul Laverty, screenwriter for Ken Loach's new and maybe last film, "The Old Oak." Thank you so much for being with us.

LAVERTY: Great pleasure, Scott, and thank you for having me on your program.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "FARMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.