I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

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Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film ‘The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes’. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low-key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in the Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteers are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this film refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 TV drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.

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5 comments

  1. John David Hall

    Venerable old director Ken Loach is still churning them out at eighty. His latest may make you cry, but only if you are an old softy like me. It may even prompt you to drop off some cans at the local food bank. He should have learned a bit about making feature films by now, but it seems Kenny still lacks the essentials of how to make a film that appeals to the modern sensibilities. He doesn’t know a lot about jump cuts for instance, or sudden plot twists, and as for CGI it is like he didn’t go to school that day. The story develops naturally more or less as you might anticipate, which is not exactly what we need to see nowadays. For Pete’s sake, Kenny, if you want to highlight the bleaker parts of modern existence that is what we now have zombies for. Make it an allegory like Dawn Of The Dead, you silly old sausage ! ‘I, Daniel Blake’ ?! What kind of title is that ? He doesn’t even have super-powers. Anyway, take some tissues because if your eyes don’t get misty when the little girl is talking to him through the door you need to check your pulse.

  2. Roy Stafford

    Keith, we don’t always agree but on this occasion I’m with you on every aspect of your blog post. I suspect that I’ll have to watch the film again and then go back to Cathy Come Home and Ladybird, Ladybird. I think all three films might be similar in exposing the systematic faults in the welfare system but then not offering any representation of organised resistance. They leave you devastated and possibly lacking in hope. I’m obviously pleased that the film has created such a stir, but it needs to sink in and then be properly studied for its strengths and weaknesses.

  3. keith1942

    Interesting comments: ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ is another interesting example.
    Re John’s comments about technique and style. I do no think this is the issue. The film appears to be very effective with what are relatively large audiences. And the first audience I watch the film with was composed of young and old.
    I do not think that jump-cuts or CGI would make a difference. I think the sort of scenes where the politics of the situation are played out are what is needed. In ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ there are the group discussions in the Hall itself. And there is also the confrontation between Jimmy and the Parish priest.
    In terms of Loach’s relatively recent work I think ‘Riff-Raff’ is a fine example. The films ends with an individual act of resistance because organised labour is not present, but this act brings out the whole dynamic of class struggle in the film.

  4. keith1942

    It is reported that Conservative Cabinet Minister Damien Green has criticised this film, partly on the grounds of accuracy. However, according to the reports he has not actually seen the film. We are back with the reception of ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ when we had critics and journalists who had not seen the film giving vent to their prejudices. And back farther still with ‘Cathy Come Home’ we had what I believe was the first ever ‘balancing’ discussion on television.
    So I think I should affirm that I had no problem with the representation of the state system in the film. It certainly fits my experiences of the benefit system.

  5. keith1942

    I was able to see this film again in Montreal, at ‘Cinéma du Parc’. They have regular screenings on Monday nights of interesting films.
    About a 100 people turned up for a brief introduction, the film [with French sub-titles] and a Q&A, commentary afterwards. The film got a round of applause and most of the audience stated for the discussion.
    I was interested in the responses to the film. Apparently Ken Loach and his colleagues have a high reputation in Montreal.
    The audience seemed to navigate the particular British context and language fairly easily. Quite a number of the comments offered examples that paralleled events in the story; we heard about the mistreatment of disability; problems in regard to housing; the ubiquitous CCTV; and the horrors of automated telephone systems and call centres.
    My friend Peter Rist placed the film in the context of Loach’s work: especially in the parallels with ‘Cathy Come Home’. We also heard about parallels with the Dardenne Brothers’ ‘Two Days, One Night’/’ Deux jours, une nuit’ and Stéphane Brizé’s ‘The Measure of a Man’ / La loi du marché’.
    It was clear that this film travels well and whilst it offers a very British stance and setting, raises issues that are widely experienced. Whilst I still retain my earlier reservations I do find it a powerful indictment of ‘the condition of the English working class’ in 2017.

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