The Old Oak: Ebla Mari & Dave Turner

At the UK Premiere of Ken Loach’s swan song THE OLD OAK in Newcastle, Dave Turner, an ex-firefighter, and Ebla Mari, a theatre teacher, sat down to discuss starring in the film. The Gateshead-born Turner plays TJ Bannatyne, the landlord of a struggling pub called The Old Oak, who aids Syrian refugee Yara (Mari), who has been relocated to the North-East. The film runs parallels between the war-torn Syria that has forced the refugees to abandon their homes and a North-East mining village that has been broken by government inequality, the lasting ramifications of Thatcherism that have seeped into the village’s bones. As Yara attempts to assimilate into her new life, support from the people of the area is lacking as the racist patrons of the pub cower together, planning how to prevent the ‘invasion’ the Syrians pose to their fractured life. The film is pleasantly simplistic in the ideas of empathy towards our fellow humans and resoundingly hopeful that the North-East can assimilate successfully with other people who have been maligned by the powerful people who enact wars and incite hatred. Having premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, this was the first time audiences from the North-East will have been able to see the film.

Connor Lightbody: So, this is ten minutes down the road for you Dave?

Dave Turner: Aye, took us ten minutes to get in, so it was a lot easier for me than it was for Ebla.

Ebla Mari: I live in Golan Heights, which is on the border between Syria and Israel.

CL: Firstly, I need to know what it was like to film in Durham Cathedral. How did that come about?

DT: It was a special day for both of us. Ebla was quite anxious before because there’s a lot of dialogue. How they managed to get the cathedral to ourselves for a day is beyond me, I have no idea.

CL: Especially as it’s normally used as set dressing for productions like Harry Potter and Marvel movies, so showing it in all its glory was quite special.

DT: I spoke to the editor about the scene. He was saying it’s his best scene in the film and I don’t say a word. It’s Ebla’s scene, she’s absolutely incredible.

EM: It was also Ken’s birthday that same day.

DT: The choir actually got to sing Happy Birthday to him. That was really special.

CL: Oh, that is lovely! That would have been great to have seen.

DT: And he didn’t know his wife had travelled up, so she’s standing there surprising him, and next thing you know, the choir burst into song. It was a lovely day.

CL: During the film, Ebla, you have to put up with hearing racial slurs. How was the set in that way? I was wondering if there was any support put in place for you in those situations.

EM: Yes, those scenes were hard, but when shooting, everyone was nice and caring. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t being treated well. It was like a big family, a really kind and caring atmosphere. Not for one second did I not feel respected, culturally too. I felt very sorry for the character of Yara though.

CL: It’s been five months now since you premiered in Cannes. How was that, and how has the journey been to this point?

EM: For me, it was very stressful, I was very nervous the whole time. My visa got refused the day before, so I didn’t know if I could go or not. The whole week before I was waiting for it, so I didn’t feel mentally prepared to go. In the end, it worked out at the last minute, and I did travel. It was also my first time seeing the film, so everything was really overwhelming.

CL: Was it your first time, too, Dave?

DT: I was very fortunate to have organised a cast and crew screening about a month before, so I’d seen the film. It was particularly difficult for Ebla because we had to do press on the morning of the premiere. We did Dutch television, two French channels and then the written press and all the time, Ebla was being asked these questions about the film, but she hadn’t seen it. We did all this press, and just after, a pigeon [Dave blows a raspberry] all over her.

CL: Oh no! There weren’t any photos of that in my research.

DT: Kept telling her it’s lucky, but it didn’t seem like it at the time.

CL: At least it happened afterwards. That was lucky.

DT: I’ve seen the film twice now, and I’m still not certain which scenes are in. There were over 55 hours of footage, condensed down to 113 minutes. I’ve still got bits in my head that I think are in the film because I remember doing them but are actually not. So it was really difficult for Ebla, having not seen it. Walking up those steps and you’re then having to turn on the red carpet with hundreds of people shouting your name to take photos. You go through this tunnel and into a 2500-seat cinema; when you walk into that light, it’s dazzling. That was Ebla’s first experience seeing it and in that environment.

EM: There were a lot of people there, like famous actors.

DT: I mean, we got a 15-minute standing ovation. A lot of that was for Ken, he’s idolised there.

CL: He’s got two Palme d’Or to his name, so that’s understandable.

DT: He can’t walk around in Cannes without people stopping him. One night we had to leave the hotel by the backdoor because so many people were waiting for him out front. Everyone wants to have a selfie with him, everyone wants to talk to him. Cannes was one of those things we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives. It was an honour.

CL: Ken unfortunately couldn’t be here today due to medical reasons. How is he?

DT: He’s okay. He had a fall and is bruised, so he needs a couple of days to rest, and hopefully he’ll be okay for London events. There’ll be a lot of people disappointed at the two premieres, here in Newcastle and then in Durham, who were looking forward to meeting him, but his health comes first. He’s 86 years old. We’ve been so lucky to spend so much time with him. One of the photographs I took on set was of Ken and Ebla having a deep conversation about a scene in the back room of the pub. Because Ken doesn’t tell you much about your role, he doesn’t tell you this is what you do, he just lets you go with the flow. It’s very rare you have those one-to-one moments with him. He doesn’t direct you.

EM: I feel my life is much deeper and richer for knowing him.

CL: Ebla, I read that you had not known of Ken before being cast. It must have been so intimidating for you, coming onto his set with him having such respect.

EM: Very true, but I was also excited, lucky, and grateful for it. He doesn’t make you feel strange on set, he’s so accepting and humble. He just accepts you for who you are, it was very comfortable.

CL: I get that impression from the films he makes.

DT: I mean, I was asked to go down to London about six months ago for an Empire Magazine piece, where there was myself, David Bradley from KES, Hayley Squires from I, DANIEL BLAKE and other actors and they interviewed us and Ken in a theatre and it was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever seen him. He hates being praised. He is uncomfortable with people saying nice things to his face. He’s that humble that he’d prefer you take the mickey out of him! I had a small part in I, DANIEL BLAKE and I called him Mr Loach on set. He eventually said to us that if we didn’t stop calling him Mr Loach, he was going to start calling me Mr Turner.

CL: Well, he was originally credited as Kenneth Loach on KES and over the years, it’s now just Ken. I’m a big fan of KES.

DT: Funnily enough, David Bradley can’t watch it anymore. He hasn’t been able to watch it for at least 10-15 years now because he finds it too painful.

CL: Can you tell me more about being directed by Ken? Dave, this is your third time working with Ken as his leading man. What were those discussions like?

DT: Well, Ken is so good at putting you at ease. He gets people who have never acted before and makes you so comfortable.

EM: He’s so very kind.

DT: But let’s not oversell the bits I had in those (I, DANIEL BLAKE and SORRY WE MISSED YOU) because this was a totally different experience. You could have cut me out of both of those films, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. You don’t walk into a Ken Loach film, no matter who you are. With Ken, he will remember you. If it’s someone who’s been there for a day or a week, Ken treats you all the same. He’s thirty years older than me, and he remembers everyone’s name. The person who’d interviewed us for that Empire magazine had interviewed him fifteen years ago, and he remembered her. I met him for the first time for about 45 minutes, and then a month later, he opened a door, saw me and said, “Hi Dave, thanks for coming”. That’s the type of man he is, and it’s why we both have so much love and respect for him.

CL: How about yourself, Ebla?

EM: There is a casting director called Annemarie Jacir; she knows Ken. She knew about the film and was helping him find a Syrian actress. She told an actor from my village who told me, and we then had a Zoom meeting with Ken and Kathleen (Crawford), the casting director for Sixteen Films. We did a Zoom audition after that, and then I came to Newcastle and did an audition here.

CL: How are you finding it here in Newcastle?

EM: I really love the city, the people are so nice and the accents.

DT: I did three read-throughs with three different actors from the Middle East. The way Ken works is that he gives you scenarios rather than scripts. One of them was that you’re the director of a theatre company from Palestine, and you’re told the Israeli embassy is going to attend. He puts you in these confrontational scenarios just to improvise.

EM: He wants to know who you are as a person. What are your principles, what do you stand for?

DT: I say Ken should start calling himself a doctor because it’s like therapy. You say things that you don’t expect to say. He just leaves you that space to find yourself. It’s important to note that all three of them were great, but Ebla stood out because she was that good. They even delayed filming twice for Ebla to be able to get into the country because that’s how much we wanted her because we knew how important she was to the production. He puts so much trust into you and like Ebla said, he wants to know what your beliefs are and what your personality is. He just said “I trust you to be yourself”. The trust he placed in us was incredible.

“I really believe in art. I study theatre, and I really believe in political art, social theatre, and art of the oppressed. I believe cinema about underprivileged people and communities, films like ours, can make a difference.” – Ebla Mari

CL: In the same vein as our discussion about Durham Cathedral, how was your first experience of Big Meeting?

EM: Ahh, yes, Big Meeting. Very busy, but for me, I loved that it was in the culture, that you are still participating in it and still remembering history. It’s very beautiful.

DT: I mean, it’s my favourite day of the year. I’ve been going to it for years. I never miss it. I’ve carried my old union banner on many an occasion, but this last one where we filmed will really stand out to me because after we finished filming, we put the banner away and we all just sat there having a drink and a chat. We’d actually had two weeks of break between finishing filming and shooting at the Big Meeting. It was such an incredible day because we got such a positive response from people who came and asked us what the banner was for. Then we went into a church and said our goodbyes to everybody, but then five or six of us stayed back and went down onto the grass and chilled together. The following day Ebla had to fly home, so emotions were running high. It was a special day that I’ll never forget.

CL: Dave, being from Blaydon, why do you think it important that the story was set here in the North-East?

DT: Before the film even got off the ground, Paul (Laverty, writer of THE OLD OAK) had gotten in touch with me, and he came down, and we had a cup of coffee and a chat. At the time, I was working in a pub in a pit village in County Durham. I retired from the fire service in 2014, so for four and a half years, I’ve worked in a pub for my ex-wife. I just discussed with Paul about these various villages in and around County Durham that have been left to rot. All the pubs are shutting, everywhere is closing. There are no investments, there are no jobs. I drove Ken and Paul around Durham, through Sacriston and Craghead, Stanley etc.

CL: I used to live in Langley Park, so I know the area well.

DT: Yeah, so you know what it’s like. What you see in the film is a genuine reflection of what is happening in the villages. Everyone who is in that pub is North-East based. No one came from London and put on an accent. Trevor Fox was a great help to me as the only experienced actor we had on set, and he was a godsend. He’s a top actor, but he’s also just a top man. I saw him play at the Theatre Royal a couple of months ago, and he was brilliant. At the same time as our chat, Paul is having conversations with people about helping refugees. It’s important that people realise that these Syrian families are genuine. They’ve gone through a horrendous ordeal just to even get here. The Syrian refugees in the film were all actual refugees who had gone through an ordeal that I barely have an understanding of.

CL: So all the Syrian refugees in the film are played by actual refugees that they hired?

“[Ken Loach has] as much anger and is as passionate as he ever was. He’s probably angrier now than he was ten years ago, which is why he has kept making films and telling important stories.” – Dave Turner

DT: Yes, it was a very humbling experience listening to the stories they had to tell. Also because Durham were one of the first councils that agreed to provide housing for refugees, but only because they were paid by councils further down south. Say a council in Essex, they could get money from the government to house refugees, but with the housing in places like Boldon Colliery being so cheap, they would end up making a profit by placing them here. Which is why there are a disproportionate number of refugees up in the North-East where there’s no money, rather than the South East where there is lots.

CL: Do you think there’ll be another film in the future involving yourself or Ken?

DT: No, I don’t think so. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be. It’s getting poor now, same as his hearing. The thing that’s most important about him, though, is that mentally he’s as sharp as ever. When we did the press conference at Cannes, there was a reporter trying to trip him up, and he just sat there and smiled. Made them look silly in the end. And he’s got as much anger and as passionate as he ever was. He’s probably angrier now than he was ten years ago, which is why he has kept making films and telling important stories.

CL: Ken once said that cinema can be a tool for societal change. What do you think about films’ impact on society?

EM: I really believe in art. I study theatre, and I really believe in political art, social theatre, and art of the oppressed. I believe cinema about underprivileged people and communities, films like ours, can make a difference.

DT: When you watch the news these days, it’s talking about these small boats – but it’s not small boats, it’s people in small boats. We’re all human beings and what the west has done to these countries is force people into an impossible situation where they’re so desperate that they will put themselves and their children in these boats. The way the narrative has gone in this country with it just being small boats, they don’t mention the people and that’s how they dehumanise the whole issue. I just hope that people will come out of The Old Oak with a second thought about what they’ve read in the press or online because the language they use about refugees being an invasion or a swarm is utterly unacceptable and poisonous. The Labour Party are even frightened to oppose the language being used. It’s a small-budget film and it’s not going to change the world, but if we can change a few people’s opinions, and give people pause for thought and notice that we do have more in common with what unites us rather than divides us, that’s so important. It’s more relevant now than when the film is based. It’s based in 2016, which was a conscious effort by Ken to avoid Brexit or referendums as you’ll notice it never gets brought up in the film. There were times when we were shooting in Murton that Ebla was shocked by the anti-social behaviour, but people have got no hope in these communities that are still devastated by the mines closing. The one thing Ken said about this film is that he’s done two films in the North-East that have ended in a certain way, and he wanted this one to have an element of hope in it. If you’ve got no hope, what have you got?