Tagged: social realism

An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China 2018)

This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.

To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.

The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.

If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.

The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.

Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.

This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.

The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.

This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.

The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.

And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belgium 2018)

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Trapped in Iceland

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.

GFF18 #5: Custody (Jusqu’à la garde, France 2017)

The poster showing the parents and the boy.

Custody is quite a difficult film to write about without giving away too much. It’s scheduled for release by Picturehouses in the UK in the near future, so no spoilers! The screening at Glasgow Film Theatre was attended by the director Xavier Legrand and lead actor Denis Ménochet. The nearly full house was very enthusiastic during the Q&A and had clearly ‘enjoyed’ the film despite or because of its intensity, shocks and strong emotions.

I think I was thrown by the opening sequence which comprises a ‘mediation meeting’ between a husband and wife struggling through the dissolution of their marriage and custody of their children, both speaking through their legal representatives who deliver their cases in rapid (French) legalese. They are seated in close proximity around a table. The judge barely speaks and goes away promising a verdict some time later. The couple’s daughter is about to become 18, but her younger brother is only 12 and what happens to him is seemingly the focus of the drama. Watching the sequence, I thought of the opening to Asgar Farhadi’s film, A Separation (Iran 2011) and wondered if Custody was going to turn into that kind of family melodrama with dramatic intensity and legal/social/moral questions. I was wrong and I clearly misread or didn’t notice the clues to a different kind of drama. I can tell you that the director was inspired by three films (all American). One was Kramer v. Kramer. The other two were more suprising, but to name them would give the game away.

Julien (Thomas Gioria) – it is and it isn’t about him.

I can’t tell you what kind of narrative develops without saying too much about the plot and I think the power of the film depends on not knowing what will happen – in fact, creating uncertainty about the characters was a deliberate ploy by the director. The performances of Denis Ménochet as the father Antoine, Léa Drucker as the mother Miriam and, especially, Thomas Gioria as their son Julien are all excellent. Perhaps I can simply say that the audience is offered the same evidence/testimony in the opening as the judge. What do we think? And what will we find out over the next 90 minutes?

One of the perceptive comments in the Q&A was that the film has more female than male characters in important roles, so during the mediation, the judge and both advocates are female. The director pointed out that this was to be expected in urban areas because as mothers the three legal professionals were less likely to take jobs outside the strong childcare network in the city. But it’s also the case that Miriam has a sister and her daughter has friends but Thomas is more on his own. You might take from these observations that this is a film aware of gender issues and that it is in tune with its times. If the Glasgow audience is anything to go by, the film should receive press coverage and strong word of mouth. I think I would have liked to see the story take a different turn, but that doesn’t mean that I think the narrative presented here is not of supreme importance. Rather I have a preference for melodrama and for the sociology of the situation. I was amused that some of the action takes place on the ‘Rue Winston Churchill’ in what the subtitles called ‘the projects’, but these were more middle class than les cités familiar from banlieue films in France. I would have liked to ask questions about the setting (suburban Paris or a city in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, listed as giving support) and the social class positions of the characters during the Q&A, but this clearly wasn’t what the majority of the audience was interested in. I think this might be classed as a social realist melodrama, though there is little music in the film. This is odd since Josephine, the daughter, is a music student who sings two versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’, which could be a commentary of some sort on the action. I hope the film finds its audience on release.

GFF18 #4: Mobile Homes (France-Canada 2017)

The trio of Evan, Ali and Bone ‘camp out’ in an empty property for the night.

Sometimes you find that your selection criteria for festival screenings goes awry. Mobile Homes started late because though we were told the lead actors had arrived they didn’t actually appear in the cinema until 15 mins past the advertised screening start time. I’d chosen the film thinking it was a Canadian film with a French co-production partner. I was bemused that it should have two British leads, Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, but I assumed that the director was French-Canadian. Wrong.

Vladimir de Fontenay won a prize with his short film Mobile Homes in 2013. He is a French director who has lived and worked in the US and studied at New York University Film School which gave him considerable support to help make this extended/’opened out’ version of his short as his first feature. He originated the story based on his experience of areas in upstate New York. Why did he end up shooting over the border with a Canadian crew? The obvious answer is that a France-Canada co-production would be official and would be eligible for both Canadian and French support from public agencies, but there is no indication of this. Does any of this matter, you may well ask. I think so.

Ali (Imogen Poots) tries out one of the new homes being assembled in the factory.

The film’s title is both metaphorical and actual. Ali (Imogen Poots) and her son Bone (Frank Oulton) have teamed up with Evan (Callum Turner), a hustler dealing drugs and roosters for illegal fights. The trio move from one motel to the next or squat somewhere overnight. They have no ‘home’, either in terms of a permanent residence or as ‘a place to call their own’. When they become separated, Ali and Bone find themselves in a wooden house which is being transported on a low loader by Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) who runs a small ‘park’ of these wooden buildings. This is confusing for Brits as we tend to think of a ‘mobile home’ as a trailer, a caravan or a van with sleeping accommodation. These are bigger buildings without wheels of their own. They are assembled in a factory and then moved to a ‘park’. Evan, having lost Ali and Bone will come looking for them in the last section of the narrative.

Ali and Bone look out of the window of the house as it is carried on the low-loader

The film is fast-paced in the opening section with the camera whipping about as the trio try to make money from various deals. The cinematography is by Benoit Soler who also shot Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013), a very different kind of film that I liked a lot. When the ‘split’ takes place, the pace slows a little but I was dreading the return of Evan. Imogen Poots does very well with her role and Frank Boulton as Bone is excellent. This part might have been a social realist drama. I’ve seen Poots in several roles and she’s always been impressive. There is music in the film, but the most important song (the only one I recognised) was Etta James’ version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – an odd choice, especially as it’s a live version. You may have noticed that I’m being rather down on the Evan character who is described in some promotional material as ‘intoxicating’. I don’t think so. The actor Callum Turner has a list of credits in TV and mainly mainstream films, none of which I’ve seen, but he clearly has a fan following and star potential. He and Imogen Poots offered a rather ‘starry’ Q&A which went down very well with the festival audience. The fourth major character Robert is a potential balance for Evan and as played by the Alberta-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie he adds further weight to the central section of the narrative.

I suspect it is my (old) age (and interest in Canadian cinema) that made me less than sympathetic about the film overall. The lack of Canadian identity in the film (no recognisable Eastern Canada accents or distinctive locations) made it feel like it could be happening anywhere. The whole narrative didn’t seem to hold together – the third section includes a dramatic action sequence which in some ways matches the earlier scenes. What starts off as an odd crime melodrama transforms into a social drama/melodrama and then a road movie of sorts.  You’ll be able to make up your own minds later this year in the UK with a release via Thunderbird (a Canadian company I think).

LFF2017 #4: Equilibrium (L’equilibrio, Italy 2017)

Fr. Antonio (Roberto del Gaudio) left, tries to communicate with his successor Fr. Giuseppe (Mimmo Borrelli) who doesn’t really want to listen

Equilibrium is a low-key social melodrama filmed in a style that suggests a Loachian realism, but also a more expressive use of tracking cameras alongside long shots and the midshots of social melodrama. It’s a modest film about an important issue, but for me its modesty gives it great power. Written and directed by Vincenzo Marra, Equilibrium is a questionable concept or ideal when it refers to the role of a parish priest in a difficult area. At the start of the film we meet Fr. Giuseppe who has returned from a mission in Africa and is now working in a hostel for migrants (asylum seekers?) in Rome. He’s a rather solemn man, still with youth and vigour, who is clearly capable but he is also disturbed by his feelings towards a young female teacher/social worker helping in the hostel. Fr. Giuseppe approaches his bishop and requests a transfer. He is sent to the suburbs of Naples to replace Fr. Antonio, a parish priest who is moving on after 15 years. Fr. Antonio shows the new man the smouldering heaps of refuse that are poisoning the atmosphere locally and causing many cancers and other life-threatening diseases. This is the battle to be fought – to persuade the authorities to do something about the pollution. But Fr. Giuseppe soon learns that other battles are not being fought, especially with the local drugs business since it is controlled by a Camorra clan based close to the parish church.

Fr. Giuseppe reveals himself to be emotionally open and also impetuous in attempting to find solutions to the misery experienced by certain parishioners. He seems somewhat naïve in the way he ignores warning signs and barges straight into situations. He wants to save people but is in danger of making life much more difficult for them. This isn’t to say that the status quo should be maintained or that Fr. Giuseppe shouldn’t do anything. Rather, he should think first and look at the various possible ways of acting. I should stress that this is how I read the narrative – I’m not necessarily making a moral judgement. The film’s presentation is key here. Marra, during an interesting Q&A, told us that he decided to use non-professional actors and theatre actors, mainly I think because they would do what they were asked to do and not what they thought was conventional for a film, based on their experience of previous films. Fr Giusseppe is played by Mimmo Borrelli who, if I’ve interpreted Google Translate properly, is a major figure in Neapolitan theatre. His role in this film (his only credit on IMDb) seems far removed from the flamboyance of his theatrical persona. Here he is mournful and moves slowly for the most part (except when he is determined to act). His casting, indeed the whole casting process seems to echo the Loach/Laverty approach and in the Q&A Marra told us that he thought the situation in Naples was similar to other conurbations in Europe, picking out Glasgow and saying that he had visited the locations for Loach’s Sixteen Films productions around Clydeside. During the film I had thought about Sweet Sixteen (UK 2002), made in Greenock on the Clyde and starring the then unknown Martin Compston. I’m not sure why this film came to mind because the situation and characters are quite different. I guess that both films use local non-film actors who play characters who are up against some kind of organised crime in a district with little hope for significant groups in the population. Overall, Liam in the Loach film achieves more and the narrative is slightly more optimistic. The new ‘Equilibrium’ in the Italian film doesn’t seem to offer the locals much more than the old – but there is a glimpse of hope from one character in the closing shot and perhaps that is enough?

I’ve enjoyed all the Italian films I’ve seen at LFF in the last few years. Some have been flawed but all have been worthwhile, so thanks Adrian Wootton, the former Festival Director who now acts as the ‘Regional Adviser’ to the festival on Italian Cinema. Unfortunately, the one thing the films have in common is that none to my knowledge have received UK distribution. All foreign language films struggle in the current climate, but Italy is the major producer that seems to suffer most.

This trailer doesn’t have English subs, but gives a good idea of the style:

¡Viva! 23 #1: La Madre (Spain-France-Romania 2016)

Carmen (Laia Marull) can’t look at her son Miguel (Javier Mendo)

La Madre was a challenging start to my ¡Viva! viewing, both in terms of its uncompromising aesthetic and barebones story. The title is slightly misleading in that the protagonist is 14 year-old Miguel. His mother is largely absent and when she is present she doesn’t contribute a great deal. This explains why Miguel has attracted the attention of social services in his small town in the Valencia region. They want to take him into care and he is hoping that his mother will get a job and be able to provide a home for him.

We first meet Miguel on the street, attempting to sell packets of tissues to motorists at traffic junctions. The camera follows him closely, often focusing on the back of his neck. He’s learned how to be resilient in pursuing the necessities of daily life – shoplifting, accepting food from his friends at school who don’t always eat their packed lunches, selling his (stolen) tissues. We don’t know why his mother is in the state she is in – lacking energy, sleeping during the day and seemingly suffering from depression. We don’t learn about Miguel’s absent father. Quite early on I was reminded of Moonlight, not only because of the mother-son set-up, but also because of the roaming hand-held camera and the use of shallow focus.

As in Moonlight, the narrative provides the young teenager with a surrogate father figure. In this case, at his mother’s prompting, Miguel seeks out her ex-lover Bogdan, who lives in a neighbouring district with his son Andrei. Andrei is a few years older than Miguel and not necessarily pleased to see the younger boy. But it is during his time with Bogdan that Miguel will meet María (the impressive Nieve de Medina) a woman who runs a local bar-café and who offers Miguel the kind of adult support he hasn’t very often experienced. How will he respond and how will it affect his feelings about his mother?

There is nothing sentimental about La Madre and little in the way of generic trappings or obvious narrative delights. The setting is important. This is the south of Spain in a landscape of dusty roads, humdrum residential areas and industrial estates. There is no escape for Miguel into places of natural beauty or contact with animals. It’s traffic junctions, bus stops, small shops etc. It’s also a ‘sterile’, almost abstract environment with relatively few people on the streets or in the shops and bars. Presented in CinemaScope framings, the images seem to contradict or challenge our assumptions about what kind of film this might be.

Miguel – a strong face, resolute but also a mask for the vulnerability beneath

After the screening I read about the film on Cineuropa’s website which carries a review and an interview with the director and co-writer Alberto Morais. He tells us that he wanted to make a film about the new economic ‘war’ on the poor and that his starting point was observing children in Russia after the fall of communism. The orphanages and children’s homes closed and children were sleeping in the metro stations. He argues that he is making a ‘film of the moment’, but not offering a moral point of view. He had the idea of focusing on attitudes towards the marginalisation of migrants by having a Spanish boy be taken in by Romanian migrants. He also gives us ideas about his own influences – Bergman and Pasolini are mentioned but he seems to make a judgement against the Dardenne Brothers and generally what he sees as the ‘Catholic guilt’ of many liberal ‘social’ films. I’m still trying to understand this approach. I like the Dardennes and I’m wary of Bergman (I don’t know Pasolini well enough to make a judgement). I think perhaps I like my realism combined with melodrama and enough sociology to place the characters and the story in the world I recognise. Morais and his co-writers have a different strategy. I think I would have found the narrative even more difficult to engage with if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary performance by the young debutant actor Javier Mendo as Miguel. My attention was certainly held by Miguel/Mendo who is on screen almost all the time. He has one of those faces that can switch from vulnerability to resilience and an almost adult sense of introspection. I couldn’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ La Madre, but I was impressed by the filmmaking and the performances. I don’t think a little more emotion would have undermined the film’s purpose.

The trailer below shows some of the visual style and conveys the tension of Miguel’s experiences.

The Unknown Girl (La fille inconnue, Belgium-France 2016)

Dr Jenny (Adèle Haenel) by the River Meuse in Seraing

Dr Jenny (Adèle Haenel) by the River Meuse in Seraing

The Dardenne Brothers are among the most reliable and consistent filmmakers working today. It was something of a surprise that their appearance at Cannes this year was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed they decided that they needed to recut The Unknown Girl before its international release and seven minutes were excised to leave a 106 minute feature. With this in mind and fearing, if not the worst, then the possibility of disappointment, I was relieved to find that it was business as usual.

The narrative premise is simple. A young and highly-regarded doctor fails to answer the surgery door long after normal working hours. She reasons that if it is really urgent the caller will press the bell again. But nothing happens until later when the police inform the doctor that CCTV footage shows a young woman at the surgery door and that it is the same young woman who has been found dead on the bank of the River Meuse a short distance away. The doctor is shaken and struck by a profound sense of guilt as well as compassion for an unnamed woman whose identity is a mystery. Doctor Jenny Gavin, played by rising French star Adèle Haenel, becomes the first Dardenne brothers’ protagonist to be drawn from the professional classes. She’s also the third mainstream French actress in a row to feature in the Dardennes’ social realist films. As usual, the Dardennes had been mulling over the central idea for the story for a few years before they decided to make it after meeting Adèle Haenel. The circumstances of the story are also quite familiar. It could almost be a spin-off from the opening scenes of The Kid With a Bike when the boy in question runs into a doctor’s surgery. The ‘kid’ (Thomas Doret) turns up again in the new film, five years on in a small role and there are plenty of other familiar faces from the Dardennes’ films including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil and Fabrizio Rongione. But the differences are noticeable.

Dr. Jenny on a home visit with a diabetes patient

Dr. Jenny on a home visit with a diabetes patient

The social class difference is important. In the other films, the protagonist is either a young person struggling with a social/personal problem or an older woman subject to some form of control. Here, Jenny is a successful doctor, able to make her own decisions and to access the money she needs to fund her ‘investigation’ – since that is what she undertakes, a mission to find out who the dead girl was and even to pay for a decent burial (while hoping that the deceased’s family will eventually appear to claim her). I realised later that the narrative has some similarities with the recent ‘Hollywoodised’ versions of popular novels like The Girl on the Train – in which a middle-class woman tries to find out what happened when she appears to be involved in a murder. I won’t spoil what happens to Jenny but she starts her investigation with no accusations against her – the police accept that not answering the door after closing time at the surgery is not a crime. She is therefore motivated by her own sense of responsibility and morality. Jenny’s behaviour is also linked to another ‘failing’ in that she refused to answer the door as part of an attempt to exert her authority over an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). She was trying to teach him that doctors need to be alert and that he must avoid ‘overworking’ so his head remains clear to deal with patients in surgery time. But perhaps she gets this wrong too?

Dr Jenny is also to some extent an ‘unknown girl/woman’. We know nothing about her background. She appears to be single and without any form of ‘outside’ commitments. (It’s still unusual to have a female protagonist who isn’t either involved with a man or constrained by family responsibilities.) She takes her work seriously and the death of the woman seems to galvanise her into making a decision to work alone as a GP in a working-class practice. She works long hours and spends the rest of her time on the investigation – which will involve people from the neighbourhood. This all makes her sound rather dull and indeed some reviewers have criticised the film because they think that she is a dull and humourless figure and that the story is not ‘exciting’ enough. I don’t really agree with this. She isn’t humourless and she has a good relationship with her patients. It’s true that at first there aren’t the entertaining sequences – confrontations between characters – that we find in earlier Dardennes films. But she finds things out and the confrontations come eventually. Some reviewers have seen the development of a film noir narrative in the second half. Other reviews suggest that she is a ‘do-gooder’ and somehow morally ‘superior’ – which are not attractive features. I think her moral dilemmas are ‘real’ and that the reactions she evokes are understandable and have to be handled. The social issues are still there – migrant workers, male attitudes to prostitution and working-class confrontations with a young female medical practitioner. I also found it interesting to see something about social medicine in Belgium, which has a different system to the UK. Home visits are rare in the UK now but thankfully nobody has to pay for treatment. I’ve seen criticism that the narrative becomes contrived, but this can also be seen (as in other Dardennes films) as portraying the inter-connectedness of communities and the film manages to embed the central story in a recognisable world.

Not a crowd-pleaser film perhaps, but a great central performance offering plenty to think about.

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

i-daniel-blake-3

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.