October 31, 2016

It takes a story to make change: ‘I, Daniel Blake’


Image: I, Daniel Blake (Director, Ken Loach, 2016)

By Áine O’Brien

It’s been 50 years since Ken Loach’s television play Cathy Come Home was first broadcast. It generated huge public debate and outrage about the state of public housing in this country, driving public awareness and change around the issue of homelessness. 50 years on it is debatable, amidst the tabloid noise and social media clutter, whether an equivalent film or broadcast could raise public awareness or even emerge as an instrument for significant social change.

And yet you could literally hear a pin drop in the packed cinema during the final scene of Loach’s most recent film, I, Daniel Blake. The silence was palpable and possibly telling.

With stand out performances from Dave Johns and Hawley Squires plus a stunningly sharp script by Paul Laferty, Loach’s most recent film is searing in its political clarity; and, like Cathy Come Home, it is knock down screen storytelling. The airwaves and online debate about the film indicate the impact it is already having; with former Work and Pensions Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, drawn to (surprise) critique the film, for painting an unrealistic picture of the welfare system and an unfair depiction of Job Centre staff.

I, Daniel Blake pivots around two key characters: 61-year old joiner, Daniel, and single mother of two, Katie. Daniel has worked all his life and is recovering from a heart attack; yet, contrary to his doctor’s prognosis, he’s deemed fit for work by an anonymous ‘health professional’ or ‘decision maker’ (neither a qualified nurse or doctor), whose tick-box phone assessment sets the tone in the opening scene: ‘Can you walk 50 paces; can you lift your arm so as put something into your top pocket; can you raise your arm as if to put a hat on your head’.

Losing his employment and support allowance (ESA), Daniel struggles to apply for jobseeker’s allowance, is required to attend futile CV workshops and search for nonexistent jobs he is unable to take because of ill health.

Katie has been ‘dispersed’ to Newcastle far from her immediate family in London – having spent a year in a hostel (previously evicted from her flat for complaining of the damp that hospitalised her son). New to Newcastle, Katie arrives slightly late for her benefits appointment at the Job Centre and is immediately ‘sanctioned’ (*a punitive form of welfare reform) resulting in her payment being stopped. We witness Daniel come to Katie’s aid, and from there on their friendship grows as they both make their way through a Kafkaesque welfare system, designed to punish rather than support.

The lines between drama and documentary are thinly drawn, with Laverty’s script meticulously researched and based on hundreds of first-hand interviews, together with a cast comprising people who had previously worked in Job Centres or currently working in food banks. The food bank scene is utterly devastating and gut wrenching, all the more so for the quiet and gentle humanity shown to Katie by local volunteers when she breaks down and is comforted by Daniel. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography adds to this powerful neorealism, with spare lighting and non-intrusive camera angles.

Throughout, Laverty manages to balance the film’s chorus of ‘voices’ with Geordie humor and quick wittedness. Daniel is told that the ‘DWP is digital by default’ to which he retorts, well ‘I’m pencil by default’. The portrayal of the Job Centre and its workers is nuanced. What we’re shown is a creeping culture of ‘fear’ with employees under daily pressure to reach imposed ‘sanction’ targets.

Nevertheless, the warmth, kindness and everyday empathy shown by workers, volunteers, neighbours and local communities gives a sense of enduring hope and decent humanity, despite the unremitting punishment meted by the welfare state. As Loach puts it on BBC’s ‘Question Time’, the film sets out to tell an unadorned human story about the State’s ‘conscious cruelty in the way the [Jobseekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance] is being imposed’ on people and families.

At a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Loach quotes the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, whose words guided the creative team in their crafting of this chilling story. ‘I always thought that the simplest of words will suffice, when I say what things are like, it will break the hearts of all’. To which Loach adds: ‘And I think that’s what we tried to do, to say what things are like because it not only breaks your heart but it should also make you angry’.

Loach’s film upturns the popular binary of hardworking English folks versus migrants and other scroungers exploiting the welfare system. The stigmatised ‘other’ in this film transcends ethnicity, identity and culture – you’re demonised and essentially dehumanised for being vulnerable, for being ‘poor’ and the upshot is poverty is your own fault.

Loach is right: I, Daniel Blake will make us angry, and rightly so. This film is a powerful instrument for urgent debate and social change, and one that deserves – and needs – to be widely screened.

Find out more about the Unite Community NoSanctions campaign. And join the conversation on the I, Daniel Blake Facebook and Twitter pages tagging #WeareallDanielBlake

* A sanction results in the cessation of payments when a claimant fails to meet certain job search conditions.

* Recent Oxford University research identifies benefit sanctions as a ‘key driver of hunger and food bank use’: