The Old Oak

Still from the film The Old Oak
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By RAQUEL VARELA*

Considerations about Ken Loach's new film

Yara arrives with a camera, which breaks after being forcibly taken from her by a young lumpen, alcoholic, symbol of unemployment, who shouts insults at Syrian refugees in a community of ex-miners, in the north of England. The bond – art and memory (which the machine represents) – breaks in the first scene: the working class, victim of the military war in Syria and the social war of the English State and propertied classes, is at war with each other . Their bond – “the memory of the strength they have and don’t even know they have” – breaks when the machine falls to the ground. Without knowing our history we are nothing.

start like this The Old Oak, by Ken Loach, acclaimed director, socialist, of the Trotskyist tradition (left-wing opposition against Stalinism and the union bureaucracy of the Labour Party). Ken Loach, aged 87, demolishes xenophobia, wars, hopelessness and also, masterfully, the identitarianism piloted by the North American Democratic Party and spread with “good intentions” by the UN, equality agencies, combat “ to hate speech.” Here the entire narrative is universalist against multiculturalism, class against identitarianism, self-organization against the State, political and union organization against loneliness, full of class confrontation.

Here the path is strategic, Ken Loach says that it is essential to overcome the fragmentation of this class, which, without conscience (without knowing its past), allows itself to be deceived and divided: the beautiful, affectionate encounter, between equals, between a young Syrian woman, and an older man, son of English miners: when the world of a memoryless left cries out for platitudes of “global south”, “white sexist unionist”, “tolerance”, “charity”, Ken Loach makes a film about imperialism, the unity of the working class in the heart of capitalism, England, and takes sides against consensus, for class solidarity – against left-wing identitarian ideas. It is a film of concentrated politics: the cry of the film is “workers of the world, organize and unite!” and it is given to us in the form of the Minas Gerais banner, now redesigned by Islamic workers – who, in support of “faith, hope and charity”, boast “strength, hope and resistance”.

In between, there is everything. It's all there. The destruction of the way of life when you don't have a right job with rights, the isolation of children, alone in front of computers and cell phones, illnesses, obesity, missing teeth, sagging skin, depression, lack of food ( yes, there is hunger among a large number of working women in Europe and Ken Loach shows it, in a realism that goes to the bone), to the point of sadness for those who only have a dog for company, for a friend. There is the scene of this dog Marra – a comrade's name for the miners –, the same one who keeps company in solitude, brutally killed by two pit bulls, which symbolize the fascist militia.

And there is the opposite of all this. The defense of employment and not subsidies, work as a definer of who we are, a universal human right, the meeting between communities, outside of churches (Islamic or Christian, both, by coming together in solidarity, take a step towards being stronger and therefore this is further removed from the need for any religion – Yara never wears a scarf), around a table (“you stay together when you eat at the same table”), a meeting between generations, from children to the elderly, no one is left alone. And as the tragic death of the dog reminds us that, despite tragedy, people need people, communities of equals, to be happy, it is with others that we become who we are.

There is even an extraordinary reference to the climate of cancellation and widespread denunciation – TJ refuses to denounce anyone. Fight against. But it does not individually denounce this or that one. And make it a point of honor. Ken Loach left nothing untouched.

There is the cathedral, a reference to the work of another socialist, William Morris, from the XNUMXth century, remembering that religious temples were built by workers and belong to them. And listen – only listen to those who have read it before –, Leon Trotsky's voice on how churches could be cinemas, in this masterful book Way of life issues. In fact, all The Old Oak It is, as always with Ken Loach, a giant “questions of the way of life”, devastating, melancholic, alive, happy, everything is there, enough to cry for more. Yours and your opposite.

The Pub is the public sphere, public houses, this is how unions were born in the XNUMXth century, today most people are unable to meet in public spaces, everything is paid for, there are no associations where they can eat together, be together, because these places are “dangerous”, they are the places where those who works conspires to stop being oppressed. Ken Loach, in fact, seeks the birth of the world labor movement, the most advanced, the English one, to show how urgent it is to know the history in order to regain strength (which is symbolized in the broken machine, now rebuilt with the money from the miners' old machines , and which shows how people fought in the past).

The machine also operates a Marxist-Freudian scene that is the highlight of the film: when together, more and less qualified workers, from various origins, celebrate together at the Pub and see the photographs that Yara took, this scene reproduces the revolutionary genesis of the cinema: there is a political awareness of who they are and who they can be, they are looking at themselves in the projection of those photographs, to the sound of Arabic music. They finally see each other, they move from class to self.

Ken Loach defends a way of doing politics there. To get to the core of people, it is necessary to resurrect common spaces of conviviality, of art, it is necessary to eat together, the real encounter where the needs of the stomach and soul are suppressed. Never again have a political meeting without dinner! This is the motto of this place, the Old Carvalho (Old Oak), who says that politics cannot be an arid place without affection, that loneliness has to be combated by the left, that joy has to fit into the space of political organization in everyday life. It's a question of the way of life.

There is still transformation (not redemption). So much so that the left today, once again driven by dominant ideas, without ideas of their own, had to learn when they look at mass votes from the extreme right and cry “they are all fascists”, finally giving up on politics. Ken Loach shows that you cannot give up on changing people: “he who expects nothing, gains nothing”. Some of those who attacked the pub finally regret it and are together in the final scene. Not everyone who thinks badly should be cancelled, mistakes are normal, debate cannot be prevented. It is necessary to fight and not cancel the people (and of course, without any tolerance for fascist militias).

A final scene like Walter Benjamin, but it could have been like Saramago in lifted off the ground. When despair takes over TJ, owner of the Pub, Yara's father dies and at the funeral the entire community comes to pay their respects, of all colors and nationalities: “they come from everywhere” or something like that, I quote from memory, says TJ with surprise next to Yara: it's the revolution. She will come.

*Raquel Varela is a professor of history at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Author, among other books, of Brief history of Europe (Bertrand).


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