I, DANIEL BLAKE directed by Ken Loach (UK, 2016)
In part 12 of his illuminating Channel 4 documentary series on The Story Of Film, Mark Cousins focused on notable directors from around the world like John Sayles in the US and Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland who were prepared to stand up for worthy, though unfashionable, political causes.
The connecting theme was what Cousins frequently referred to as ‘speaking truth to power’, a phrase that originated with the Quaker movement in the 1950s and was later adopted in the United States as a rallying call to those opposing the dark forces of Fascism and totalitarianism.
For half a century, Ken Loach has followed this principle by being a voice for the dispossessed and downtrodden in society. He opposes the political establishment that serves the masters yet ignores the slaves. He stands against systems which sustain the healthy and the wealthy but provide little nourishment to the poor and needy.
As the song goes, nobody loves you when you’re down and out and society is too often constructed to ensure that when you’re down, you stay out for the count.
Ken Loach has consistently argued that a civilized society is one in which the working class are able to maintain a level of dignity. This basic right is, of course, denied by political ideologies where power and profit routinely take priority over humanitarian interests. For example, very little sympathy is afforded to those who fall by through the flimsy safety net provided by an inadequate welfare system.
Loach’s groundbreaking 1966 TV drama ‘Cathy Come Home‘ highlighted the plight of the homeless and brought this neglected issue to the public’s attention. It shamed politicians into paying lip service to the problem but concerns like this persist in a world where the divide between the haves and have-nots remains as wide as ever.
At the age of 80, Loach, and his long running screenwriter Paul Laverty, have lost none of the passion to pursue what cynics would regard as lost causes.
In what may be the British director’s swan song, Daniel Blake (brilliantly played by Dave Johns) is ground down by a soul-destroying bureaucracy that flies in the face of logic and is seemingly designed to make the task of claiming a living income as complicated as possible.
Long claims forms and outdated procedures place a series of insurmountable obstacles in his path. Having recently suffered a heart attack Blake has been told by doctors to stop work as a joiner and although this leaves him with no source of income, he is denied sickness benefit because a separate benefits assessment committee deems him to be capable of work.
In his Guardian review, Peter Bradshaw likens Blake to everyman figures in the novels of Orwell and Dickens but I see more similarities with Raymond Briggs’ ‘Gentleman Jim’ , a simple man who naively believes that honesty and decency will bring their own rewards.
To change the decision denying him benefits, Blake must appeal to a ‘decision maker’ , a figure who, like Kafka’s Castle, remains an unreachable symbol of faceless authority. Blake must go through the motions of seeking employment or face sanctions. What makes his position even more frustrating is that the job centre takes for granted that claimants are computer literate and have ready access to smart phones, PCs and printers. In the words of one the department’s jobsworths they are “digital by default” .
For me, a recurring weakness of Loach and Laverty’s movies lies in the fact the depiction of the common man (and woman!) is overly idealised. Set in Newcastle, Blake is a skilled artisan, a lonely widower with an old school, analogue mentality and his inability to adapt to the technological age is presented as a further sign of his integrity. The cassette player in his home is therefore symbolic of a resistance to change for its own sake.
If he were more worldly-wise, Blake could have learnt some rudimentary computer skills and, above all, told some white lies when answering questions about his medical condition. As it is, the check box system shows him to be in good health and fails to take into account that he needs to rest to avoid another cardiac arrest.
Another example of the film’s romanticised version of reality comes in the form of the unlikely relationship Blake forms with the single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires). With improbable haste, he becomes a kindly handyman and platonic father figure to her and her two young children.
Katie is, however, a key character since she is another classic example of how the system fails to provide rudimentary assistance for people in obvious need. With two kids to support, she has to go hungry herself in order to ensure her children are fed and is reduced to selling her soul (via her body) in order to pay her way.
The most shocking scene in the movie takes place in a food bank where Loach used real volunteers from the centre as ‘extras’. The film highlights the scandal that such places continue to be necessary in a supposedly affluent society and that people should be forced to face the indignity of lining up for basic foodstuffs and household supplies.
With today’s cinema being primarily in the business of fueling fantasy and peddling mindless entertainment, Loach is one of a dying breed of filmmakers who see their role as speaking truth to power even when what they say too often falls on deaf ears.
With ‘I, Daniel Blake’, the implicit questions he asks remain as poignant and relevant as ever: Who cares and Who’s really listening?