The human touch

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

Soha Hesham takes a look at the 16th Panorama of European Film

The Old Oak
The Old Oak

 

In its 16th round this year, the Panorama of European Film takes on special significance due to the Cairo International Film Festival being cancelled due to the war on Gaza. This edition of the Panorama features seven sections in addition to a retrospective of the work of the Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki. Those sections are: Character Action, Ruptured Youth, Visceral Attractions, Raw Materials, In/Visible World, Politics of Sociality, and Family.

In the Politics of Sociality section, this year’s highlights include the new film by the 87-year-old socialist British filmmaker Ken Loach, The Old Oak. Loach’s previous films all tackle such issues as poverty, unemployment and working-class suffering. His credits include Kes (1969), Riff-Raff (1990), Raining Stones (1993), My Name is Joe (1998) and The Angels’ Share (2012). But more recently — with I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, and Sorry We Missed You (2019) — Loach’s style took on a riveting realism that makes fiction films feel like documentaries featuring real exemplars of the social ills he sets out to critique.

Co-written by Loach and Paul Laverty, The Old Oak extends that legacy. It stars Dave Turner (who played the lead in Loach’s last two films) as T J Ballantyne, the widowed owner of the last remaining pub in the northeast England village where the film is set. In the opening scene he is trying to fix one of the letters spelling out the name on the facade using a mop stick, but just as he enters the bar it falls back down. This idea of something being fixed only temporarily is a recurrent trope in the film, and characterises the village in its entirety. Loach’s message, on the other hand, is blunt enough on its own.

The film is set in 2016, coinciding with the arrival of several Syrian refugee families in the village due to the availability of cheap houses there after the closure of the coal mines a long time before. The first clash between the refugees and the locals takes place when a young neighbour deliberately breaks the camera belonging to the Syrian girl Yara (Ebla Mari), which is expensive and has sentimental value, in front of her family. T J witnesses the incident, and that leads to a friendship between him and Yara. When her assailant violently refuses to fix the camera, T J offers to do it himself, and invites her in a backroom of the pub where he keeps his own family photos. There Yara notices something T J’s mother said: “When you eat together you stay together.”

But most of the pub regulars are unhappy about the arrival of their new neighbours. Their xenophobia is such that they speak to T J about his friendship with Yara, telling him he should be thankful to them for keeping him in business. T J starts facing persecution, faced with the local kids’ vicious dogs, which their owners can barely control while walking his own small pet. At one point while visiting his wife at the cemetery, T J’s dog runs off and in no time is killed by the bigger dogs.

It is then that Yara and her mother visit his house, bringing him a meal of Syrian food and enabling him to disclose his troubles: the loss of his wife, and his estrangement from his son. In turn they tell him of Yara’s father, whom they left to his unknown fate in Syria. Eventually, along with the aid worker Laura (Claire Rodgerson), T J and Yara plan a big meal for the two sides of the community of the village at the pub — inspired by his mother’s statement. But it is news of the death of Yara’s father that brings the community together in the end. As the family starts to mourn him, locals and refugees unite at Yara’s house, which is flooded with flowers.

Loach structures the film beautifully despite the directness of his political and moral message against racism. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and won the Audience Award at the Locarno International Film Festival.

 

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In the Aki Kaurismaki retrospective, the Panorama is screening Calamari Union (1985), Ariel (1988), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), The Man Without a Past (2002), The Match Factory Girl (1990), and — his latest — Fallen Leaves (2023). Known for his deadpan comedy and his focus on themes of alienation, poverty and social injustice, Kaurismaki is a unique artist and this may be the first opportunity for Egyptian cinephiles to enjoy a sizable portion of his oeuvre on the big screen.

Set in contemporary Helsinki, Fallen Leaves features Ansa (Alma Pöysti) as a woman whose job at the supermarket is to throw away perfectly good food. When the security guard catches her giving it to desperate, hungry people, she is fired. The stated reason for her dismissal is “attempt to take home an expired sandwich.” She lives alone and listens to sad songs on the radio in dim lighting. On some nights she hears the horrific news of the war in Ukraine. Now that she is unemployed the electricity bill quickly forces her to switch off both radio and lights.

Asna meets a construction worker named Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a heavy drinker, at a Karaoke bar — where their respective friends end up flirting — and there is a special connection between them, as if they instantly recognise each other’s loneliness. They get together right after Ansa is fired from her second job as a cleaning lady at the same Karaoke bar and he asks her out on a date, so they have coffee and go to the movies, but the alcohol brings out Holappa’s nasty side later at Asna’s house and she finds out he is an alcoholic; for a while they stop talking.

With minimal incidents, Kaurismaki manages to evoke a whole world. One of the most impressive aspects of the film is that it omits any indication of time period. There is no sign of smartphones or even televisions. But the war in Ukraine is the one taking place now — and the Russian troops are near the Finnish border. The 81-minute feature ends absurdly but hopefully when the two characters, even though they barely know each other, turn out to be passionately committed to staying together, holding onto their closeness and intimacy.

Fallen Leaves was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize. Kaurismaki has won more than 60 awards. His 2011 film Le Havre received a special mention and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. The Man Without a Past (2002) won Canne’s Jury Prize, while The Other Side of Hope (2017) won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear for Best Director.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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