A performance from the frontline

Dave Turner and Ebla Mari in The Old Oak.
Dave Turner and Ebla Mari in The Old Oak.
When actor and drama teacher Ebla Mari was treading the boards in her local theatre, she never expected to get a call from Ken Loach, she tells Michael Segalov.

There’s a theatre in the village of Majdal Shams. It’s just a short walk from the family home in which Ebla Mari grew up. It’s where she learned piano, and saw her first live theatre, too. In 2014, it was on its stage, racked with blinding stage-fright, that she first acted in front of an audience. Without the Oyoun theatre, Mari isn’t sure where she’d be today. She doubts she would be working as a drama teacher at a local middle school, a job she loves. Certainly, she wouldn’t be on our Zoom call. Because it’s this theatre, the 26-year-old believes, that set her on a path that led her to being discovered by Ken Loach and starring in his likely final feature film — The Old Oak. Today, the theatre is on her mind again.

"Every time I stepped foot inside it," she says, "I’d feel things. At first it was personal — I’m shy, and had this feeling that drama could free me from myself. Then I realised it was bigger than me: a way for our voices to be heard. It was somewhere to express ourselves, and to explore the struggles we face. For us here, that’s particularly important."

Nestled in the foothills of Mount Hermon, Majdal Shams is in the Golan Heights, an area to the northeast of Israel and the southwest of Syria. Since 1967, it’s been under Israeli military occupation. Today, it’s one of only five Druze villages that remain in the region. Before the annexation, there were hundreds.

The Oyoun theatre was the town’s major cultural hub. Others simply weren’t accessible. "It was a place," she says, "to tell stories from our community."

When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the Golan Heights wasn’t directly affected by the fighting. "I’ve been hearing bombs for the past 10 years — sometimes, mortars land here by mistake — and I have family and friends who live across the border. But physically, we were sheltered from it."

A few years after the outbreak of the war, however, the theatre’s doors shut.

"We might have not faced the violence of the war," she explains, "but culturally, there have been consequences. Some supported the regime in Syria, others were opposed. We are Druze, so many kept silent in the hope of protecting Druze people across the border." It left the village split. "Cultural spaces closed."

The Old Oak debuted at the Cannes festival in March and received a standing ovation.

"Suddenly it was all over Facebook," she explains, "so after the screening, everyone in the village was talking about it. Now the kids come up to me when they see me and ask, excitedly, if I’m a film star."

For all the conflicts that have shaped the place Mari calls home, she wants to make clear it has never lost its beauty.

"We’re very close to nature," she says. "Most of our older generation are farmers, so there are fields of cherries and apples; a lake nearby."

The occupation happened decades before Mari was born. The checkpoints have long been taken down. Israeli settlers have built their own communities nearby. "But my village remembers what happened," Mari says. "Every few years, tensions rise and there are clashes. As you come here, you drive past destroyed Syrian villages. You can’t escape the politics and the scenes of war."

After finishing high school, she studied at university in the Israeli city of Haifa, a couple of hours’ drive away. "Honestly," she says of the experience, "it wasn’t easy. I felt I didn’t really belong. We studied in Hebrew, not in Arabic. I faced a lot of racism and prejudice, too." Through theatre, however, she found ways to build bridges and expose others there to her experiences.

In late 2021, Loach came calling. He had set out to find an actor to take on a leading role in The Old Oak, a film about Syrian refugees living in Britain. Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir was one of those assisting him. She helped put Mari in touch. A quick Zoom meeting was followed by a full digital audition.

"I thought it went badly," Mari says. "I could read and write English, but I wasn’t confident speaking. That audition was the first time I’d acted in English." Still, something must have gone right: soon she’d been flown to England for a final audition and immediately cast.

In those early stages, Mari knew little of The Old Oak’s plot. "When I learned I was to play a Syrian refugee," she explains, "I felt quite guilty — I’m not one. Yes, I can relate to the experience of being separated from your identity, culture and people." She suggested they cast an actor from Syria instead. "But they said I had the empathy and imagination to play the part. And the situation is close to me, emotionally and physically. It just felt a lot to take on. But I believe in the story."

Before shooting on The Old Oak kicked off, she researched what a young Syrian seeking safety in Britain might live through.

"My on-screen family are all actual Syrian refugees living in England," Mari says, "none of them were actors. I spent time with them in their homes, hearing their stories. ... I got to know them: the physical and emotional scars the war — and being displaced — inflicted.

"We also talked about life as a refugee in Britain," she continues. "I felt their pain — so disconnected from home and their lives from before. Their isolation. They talked about the racism and discrimination they’ve faced in the UK: bullying in school, physical assaults, being told to go home, passersby spitting on the ground next to them. It was painful to hear these stories of continued suffering."

They also talked of the generosity and kindness they’d received in the UK from total strangers. It’s this tension the film draws into focus.

For two years, the film consumed Mari’s time. Now, she’s thinking about what happens next. "I know I will continue to teach," she says, "but I’d also like to try to build something. To start a production company, through which I can direct and write. It’ll be a way to tell the stories of this community." — The Observer


 - The Old Oak screens as part of the British and Irish Film Festival, at Rialto Cinemas Dunedin, tonight at 8.15pm and Monday at 1pm.