Jon Woodward, SAT-7’s new Communications and Advocacy Officer, reviews Ken Loach’s acclaimed new drama The Old Oak, which explores themes of community, poverty, immigration, racism and hope in a small community in County Durham which receives Syrian migrants.
Global movements of people continue to increase year on year, with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region a major source of international migration and significant internal displacement. The UK remains a key destination for refugees – receiving 1.2 million in 2022. Throughout Britain’s long history, immigration has played a vital role in shaping the country into the place we know today. But the topic has become a controversial one in UK politics today, and those from other countries are not always welcomed with open arms.
This is the topic of The Old Oak, the latest (and perhaps final) feature from Ken Loach, the UK director famed for his humanistic dramas and social commentary in films such as Kes, The Wind that Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake. The Old Oak focuses on the reaction of the residents of an impoverished ex-mining town in the North East to the arrival of a small group of Syrian refugees, mostly women and their children, fresh from escaping untold horrors from their homeland.
The story focuses on the bold, hopeful, Yara – a trusting young Syrian refugee and informal spokesperson for her fellow migrants, and world-weary, middle-aged pub landlord TJ Ballantyne, played with understated charm by ex-fireman-turned-actor Dave Turner. Yara’s character is brought to life by the immediately engaging Ebla Mari in her first screen outing – her warmth and emotional intelligence quickly establish a relationship with an expectant audience waiting to understand how these two very different worlds will collide.
Starting with a simple act of kindness by TJ to replace Yara’s prized black-and-white camera (broken by one of the angry, suspicious locals in the first scene), the pair share an understanding of personal pain and soon see a mutual need for hope for their respective communities. Young English families are going without food, as are the newly arrived Syrian refugees who are also are struggling to adapt to life in a neighbourhood where they are treated with misplaced resentment by locals who view them as taking their homes and amenities.
The central, interweaving theme of hope sees the local community begin to dare to reimagine what it could be. TJ, Yara and friends start a weekly free kitchen in the pub’s back room, offering meals and much-needed social interaction for anyone in need in the neighborhood. Shunned by a small group of TJ’s previously close friends, who exhibit painful but timely reminders of ingrained racism and the dangers of parochial selfishness; the flourishing community hub begins to build a long-forgotten culture, captured in a slogan on an old photo on a wall in the pub which the subtlety wise TJ had pointed out to Yara in their first meeting. “‘Those who eat together, stick together.”
The film clearly captures the intense challenges faced by refugees as they attempt to start a new life in strange surroundings, as well as the social impact on existing communities. Loneliness, fear, frustration and homesickness are seen played out in the lives of Yara and the migrant families. Reassurance, respect and love are vital human responses, gradually shown here by their slowly softening neighbours.
In its message of responding to refugees with love, the film made me ponder the ways we at SAT-7 UK could provide an authentic, loving and Christlike welcome to those from the MENA who find themselves in our midst. In particular, through our programmes and resources, we are uniquely positioned to help UK churches show Jesus’ love to migrant families on a local level.
Of particular benefit to people who have been uprooted or are in transit is SAT-7’s on-demand streaming service, SAT-7 PLUS. The SAT-7 PLUS website and app, available on the App Store or Google Play, provide 24/7 SAT-7 programming online for any internet connected device – a vital lifeline to people of the MENA in the UK. Viewers can access live shows in Turkish, Arabic and Persian as well as documentaries, films, discipleship series, church services and children’s programmes.
Our hope is to make this vital app more widely known amongst Middle Eastern migrants in the UK and the churches who support them, to provide them with teaching and encouragement in their own languages. In doing so, we pray that SAT-7 UK can, like TJ in The Old Oak, help the stranger and the outsider find love, friendship and belonging in the community.
And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19