Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake (2016) was hard for me to watch. I left the cinema with a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes. It was a visceral experience that brought back memories of my own family’s struggle. The knot become tighter as I realised that the experiences I remembered from the 1980s are now being lived by a whole new generation. Nothing has improved. In fact, things are worse.
The film tells the story of Daniel Blake, a carpenter who has been forced to stop working due to ill health. He is subjected to uncaring bureaucratic systems as he tries to obtain Employment and Support Allowance (disability benefit) and finds himself deemed ‘fit to work’ despite his ill health. At the Jobcentre (welfare office) he meets a young single parent, Katie Morgan, who has her welfare ‘sanctioned’ because she is late for her appointment. She got lost because she was unfamiliar with the city to which she has just been forced to move, but her excuse is rejected and her payments cut. Katie was moved from London to Newcastle upon Tyne (400kms from her family and support networks) because there was no available public housing in London. Daniel and Katie strike up a friendship and try to support each other. At all turns they are thwarted by draconian and punitive systems. Loach shows the absurdity of these systems and how they affect people’s lives with gut wrenching realism.
The story is familiar to many people. Working-class people in the UK have been devastated by austerity measures, and reports suggest that many people have become seriously ill or even died because of welfare sanctions or being told they are fit to work. Activists have been protesting against austerity and lobbying politicians, but still people cannot feed themselves and their families, heat their homes, or purchase necessities such as sanitary products. Poor and working-class people continue to suffer.
Loach’s film offers an important fictional account of the impact of austerity, and it has resonated with a wide audience in the UK. The film has been talked about across many platforms and even mentioned in Parliament, and it has inspired criticism of the system of Work Capability Assessments. Guides have been published on how to navigate the benefits systems. I, Daniel Blake has also reached a large and diverse audience, including not only the usual middle-class art house film audience, but many working-class people as well, some of whom attended ‘pay what you can’ community screenings of the film. Working-class audiences have welcomed the film, and the characters of Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan have taken on a symbolic value. Many see them as representing the thousands of working-class people suffering due to Tory policies.
I, Daniel Blake is not the only recent activist film about the human cost of austerity. The London-based group Inside Film produced a short documentary about people who use food banks, featuring actual users of the food banks who explain why they need the extra help and reflect on the consequences of their poverty and how welfare sanctions have contributed to their difficulties. These documentaries are constructed specifically to empower the people in the films while also informing those on the outside.
But in the case of I, Daniel Blake, fiction seems to have had a particular power, and more than the documentaries, it has generated a great deal of empathy in audiences, in part because of some key emotional moments. The screenwriter, Paul Laverty, and Loach have used film’s ability to create affect (emotional and/or sensory responses) expertly, and it would be difficult to imagine any audience member not being affected by these scenes. For those of us who shared some of the experiences depicted in the film, these scenes are almost too much to bear. One scene caused me to sob involuntarily. For viewers with no idea of what life might be like for single parents or someone who is unemployed, the film provides a taste of the struggle – for a moment the audience is forced to feel what it’s like and this is powerful indeed.
The film is not without its critics. Some in the conservative press (unsurprisingly) dispute the veracity of the film and suggest that its representation is exaggerated. But working-class critics have also expressed concern that the film focuses on ‘respectable’ working-class people. Because he was a hard working skilled worker prior to his illness, Blake is represented as deserving of our sympathy. One critic suggests that this reinforces rhetoric around the deserving and undeserving poor. People who adhere to bourgeois notions of respectability by working hard, staying sober, and keeping themselves ‘nice’ deserve sympathy, whereas ‘feckless’ individuals who refuse to work, or drink too much, or spend money they don’t have on luxury items deserve neither sympathy nor assistance. I understand the concern and agree that films should represent working-class life in all its various forms, and I also acknowledge the limitations of Loach’s films (they tend to focus on white male protagonists). But I, Daniel Blake is an important film because it has created sympathy and brought audiences much closer to understanding life for people who are struggling due to austerity measures.
For many people, myself included, Ken Loach is a cinematic hero. His large body of work has shown a lifelong commitment to representing working-class life. Loach has been making films for decades, and I, Daniel Blake demonstrates that film has the potential to affect change. I hope that the story of Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan resonates long after the film stops showing at the local cinemas.
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