Although announcing plans to retire from filmmaking in 2014, the ever-controversial Ken Loach has (thankfully) returned to film-making with his gritty and upsetting I, Daniel Blake. Allegedly influenced to make more films after the 2015 UK General Election, the 80-year-old’s polemic on the welfare state in Britain is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, leaving you at best disillusioned with a system supposed to help the needy.
As the opening credits roll over a black screen, Daniel Blake has a frustrating conversation with a ‘healthcare professional’, reluctantly answering irrelevant questions in order to apply for Employment and Support Allowance. Before we even see Daniel’s face, the cinema collectively sniggers at the plain stupidity of the assessment. Blake is witty, selfless and conscientious, and soon befriends a lonely single mother called Katie after defending her at the job centre. Their pure, moving friendship is at the heart of Loach’s narrative: they are far from the job-seeking ‘scroungers’ that the media would like us to believe in. Hayley Squires’ portrayal of the unstable mother of two is mesmerising, perfectly epitomising the desperation of poverty in Britain.
A recurring theme in the film is that of people on benefits being reduced to numbers on a screen, or customers – Loach attempts to show us that these are simply real people. Poverty is a downward spiral, and it could happen to any of us.
There is a particularly compelling scene at a food bank, a location where most viewers are lucky enough to never have to visit. Surviving on fruit for the past few days, Katie desperately opens a can of baked beans and stuffs them into her mouth. The compassion of those around her, in particular a volunteer who has helped her with her shopping, is extremely touching. But what’s more upsetting is her immense embarrassment and repeated apologies. After being talked down to, humiliated and treated like an animal by the state, she assumes that she will be met with the same treatment from others. It has been so long since she has felt like a ‘normal’ citizen of society, she is unsure how to react to being treated as one.
Unremarkably, I, Daniel Blake has encouraged political discussions across the board. Jeremy Corbyn has urged Theresa May and other members of the cabinet to attend special screenings of the film, in the run-up to the autumn statement which will undoubtedly propose even more cuts to the benefits system. Iain Duncan Smith has criticised the film (likely offended by the use of his name, in a particularly significant scene) and stated that Loach only portrays “the very worst thing that can ever happen to anybody”. The reality is, unfortunately, quite the opposite. Daniel’s story may be fictional, but it is not over-dramatised, and there is no over-acting; indeed, the film sometimes feels so raw that it plays as a documentary. The arbitrary questions in the opening scene, the points system, those who simply give up their claim because of the continuous difficulties – Loach has researched every aspect of ‘benefits Britain’ in order to portray total and brutal honesty.
In a perfect example of privilege, Daily Mail journalist Toby Jones wrote that (although he’s no expert on the welfare system), “several aspects of I, Daniel Blake don’t ring true”, but seems disappointed in the “unremittingly depressing” nature of the film. Maybe, as Jones states, I can only get “misty-eyed” at the film because I’m a working class ‘leftie’, and I shouldn’t be sucked in by Loach’s “romanticism of Benefits Britain”. Or maybe that ‘depressed’ feeling he is trying so hard to suppress is a result of something called empathy. There is no use denying that homelessness, poverty and food banks are real, on-going issues in our country – they are. And if you aren’t angry about it, you’re ignorant to it.
I attended the same screening of I, Daniel Blake as Hannah, much to our surprise, seeing each other there. Reflecting on the film, I was struck by how respectful it was to its subject matter, the film did not dissolve into the ‘Poverty Porn’ it so easily could have been. This could only have been created from a place of respect, as well as experience. Loach knows the world the characters inhabit, he’s made a career out of being a populist film-maker. The film is now the centre-piece of the modern British film movement of social realism, with films such as This is England, Tyrannosaur, Billy Elliot, and Loach’s most famous film Kes, also a part.
The film won the prestigious Palme D’or at Cannes Film Festival (the equivalent of a superbowl-win for film-makers all over the globe) making it Ken Loach’s 2nd win. The award has a history of being bestowed to films that deeply reflect issues of their time, or are awarded to a film as a part of honouring the director’s whole body of work. Hence it is clear, this win is the result of the global, and particularly European (Cannes being a very European festival), focus on Britain. After years of austerity and protest, Brexit and the political shit-storm of the summer, this film is released – epitomising the thoughts and feelings of millions. It acts as a rallying cry, loud and demanding of change, despite the film’s un-melodramatic, quiet, and understated approach. It is doing what many who have protested for years have failed to do, instead of being loud and shouty, it demands respect in it’s sombre tone, and in it’s realism and intellect.
As the film ended, in an oddly jarring silent fade to black, the audience was in a solemn state of shock. The credits rolled, a few clapped, but everyone was silent, as if in mourning, all knowing just what they had seen. I, Daniel Blake is a reality; it works very hard to be realistic, with long patient shots and fades between scenes, barely any music, and a cast of unknowns. In a way the audience has been informed and moved by what is happening in their own towns, on their streets, to people they may know – that is the real success of this film, it demands change through truth.