Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake turns abstract concepts of inequality and social justice into lives that matter.
Daniel Blake, 59, is a skilled craftsman. He has assets, but not the kind that the market rates highly since they have little monetary value: qualities such as integrity, honesty and compassion. In Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, Blake’s attributes carry little weight in a system designed to pitch one human being (the bureaucrat) against another (the citizen temporarily in need of state support) at a time of “necessary” austerity.
In a meticulously researched script written by Paul Laverty, Loach’s collaborator for 20 years, Blake, a widower, has had a serious heart attack. What follows are his struggles with the benefits system and his growing friendship with a single parent, Katie, and her two children. After two years in a London hostel, Katie has been moved 300 miles to Newcastle because, allegedly, there is no housing in the capital – a city with 10,000 empty homes.
Katie has her benefits frozen, leaving her penniless, while Daniel, a man whose doctor says he is too ill to work, has to spend 35 hours a week applying for jobs he can’t take, on the orders of the jobcentre “work coach”. It is a surreal, dehumanised world in which empathy has little place and no allowance is made for the chaos of everyday life.
I watched the film with Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group and Marissa, a single mother with an autistic daughter of three, who has been on benefits since leaving an abusive partner. Marissa was in tears for much of the film; humiliation revisited. Each one of us has heard identical testimonies to those on the screen many times: not fiction, but painfully true stories.
Fifty years ago, Ken Loach was the young director of Cathy Come Home, a BBC1 Play for Today, filmed in documentary style and watched by 12 million. Cathy, her lorry driver husband, and two children, live happily in a flat. He has an accident and loses his job, so they move to lodgings, a caravan, a hostel. Cathy becomes a single parent and her children become homeless. Social workers finally take the children into care. The public were moved and enraged.
It was a time of job security, reciprocity and solidarity; the working class received accolades, rather than insults, as the source of much of the talent that propelled the swinging 60s. In 1965, sociologists Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend published an unexpected bestseller, The Poor and the Poorest. One historian commented: “The poor family and the poor working family were about to be reborn as a political issue.” The year of Cathy Come Home also saw the launches of the campaigning housing charity Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group.
The difference between now and then? A greater understanding that poverty is systemic, not down to character failure, as many politicians imply. A factory closing, a spell of illness and life unravels when income is modest, a theme often explored by Loach, who is now 80. His work, including 19 feature films, plays and documentaries, has at times been banned, censored and derided – as well as feted by international prize juries. However, more recently, his ability to capture the demolition of the soul of decent people, as the social contract between citizen and government is ripped apart by the rapacity of neoliberalism, has hit a wider target.
In 2012, the poorest 10% of Britons, many in work, spent 47% of their income on debt repayments. A single person like Daniel, on jobseeker’s allowance, is eligible for £73.10 a week in a system that gives childcare tax breaks to couples on £300,000. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says government policy is both increasing and reshaping poverty, dragging in even those on moderate incomes. This is a political choice, not the outcome of a feckless sub-stratum of society. The facts ought to speak for themselves. But such is the toxicity of the shirkers-versus-strivers message, delivered by all the leading political parties, that facts are no longer believed. That’s why we need the visceral emotion of Loach.
His work is frequently dismissed as “didactic”, shorthand for leftwing, biased propaganda. Yet, the stream of films and media that casually endorse the avaricious and the talentless rich, the exploitative and the violent are viewed as entertainment. But they, too, in their own way, are didactic. They send a message that greed is good; the individual comes first.
Loach’s films are often about the ordinary man and woman, eventually pushed to take direct action because they have nothing left to lose but their self-respect. Designer Agnès B rightly says: “There’s Balzac, Dickens, Zola and Loach.” Each is a master at turning the abstract concepts of inequality and social justice into lives that matter. But how much do we care now?
Daniel Mays, actor: ‘I’ve not cried this much during a film in a long time’
I think this film is up there with Ken Loach’s best. It’s powerful and raw, and of all his work I don’t know if I’ve watched something with such an emotional punch. It’s a searingly honest and brutal portrayal of ordinary people living on the breadline. I really admire how un-showy it is: it’s very simplistic in its storytelling and I think that’s the film’s power. I think no other film-maker would want to make a film about these characters. You’d pass Daniel Blake in the street and not notice him, and yet Ken Loach has turned the camera round and moved me to tears with it, and made me angry.
It’s about a man who is widowed and pretty much goes to war against the state, and the unwavering level of red tape he has to go through for his jobseeker’s allowance. The characters’ descent into desperation just to make ends meet is heartbreaking. I thought the relationship between the two central characters was beautifully realised: it was completely truthful and the performances were pitch perfect. I don’t think I’ve cried this much for a film in a long time.
You can sense the overwhelming research that has gone into it: all the form-filling in the jobcentre and that hypocrisy is brilliantly realised. It’s a shocking and important film, because this is the state that a lot of people in the country are in. With everything that’s gone on with Brexit, a lot of that was a protest vote. The world of this film is connected to that – it’s a film about austerity. It wears you down as a viewer: you feel like you’re on that journey with Daniel, and you feel an overwhelming frustration about his plight. There’s a beautiful line in it that says, “When you lose your self-respect, what have you got?”, and I think that’s really what the film is about – identity. And about how no matter who you are or where you come from or how much you earn, that you need to have recognition and a place within this world.
There seems to be a lack of films that want to address difficult subjects like this. Shane Meadows has taken on the baton from the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but there’s definitely room for more. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as politicised as I am at the moment; I feel desperately frustrated and unhappy that we voted out. We should never flinch from asking difficult questions in culture, and it would give us an increased identity as a UK film industry as well. The power of film can really highlight these predicaments and drive the message home.
For more comments about I, Daniel Blake , see The Guardian…