More than 2,300 people in the UK died between December 2011 and February 2014 after they were deemed fit to work, according to figures published by the DWP in August 2015. The current government seems very insensitive to the urgent needs of many working-class people facing difficulties, and it’s only natural that the master of British realism made a film denouncing the incongruities of the benefit system. I, Daniel Blake won the Palm D’Or in Cannes earlier this year, and it could easily become the British film of the year.
Fifty-nine-year-old Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower and a carpenter living in Newcastle. He recently had a heart attack and his GP and physiotherapist will not allow him to go back to work. Despite the medical evidence, the government suspends his Employment and Support Allowance, based an assessment of very questionable credibility. A very unsympathetic healthcare professional without any medical qualifications asks Daniel ludicrous questions such as “are you able to walk 50 metres unaided?” and “are you able to put on a hat” before deciding that he should be in employment. Meanwhile, the young single mum Katie (Hayley Squires) also struggles to provide for her two small children. Daniel and Katie meet in a Job Centre and immediately strike an unlikely and yet very profound friendship.
The system that the two friends encounter is rigid, cold and calculating. The red tape is both incomprehensible and insurmountable. The agents (or coachs, as they are often called) at the Job Centre lack any type of humanity, and instead act like callous bureaucrats. There is no regard for the special requirements and limitations of claimants. Daniel is forced to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance online at the local library, despite the fact that he has never used a computer in his life. At one point, he’s told that his computer froze, and he promptly asks to desfrost it (!!!). The system is so broken and that it elicits a tragic laughter.
By the time someone at the Job Centre breaks the protocol and displays a scyntilla of compassion towards Daniel, it’s already too late. By then, he has already lost his self-respect (as he describes it himself) and resorted to a very Draconian measure in order to survive. Katie comes to his rescue and provides her unwavering support, but she too has already succumbed to despair and chosen a very difficult path in order to make ends meet.
I, Daniel Blake is a tearjerker, but not because it relies on forlumaic devices – such as melodramatic music, plot ruses and unexpected twists. It is not exploitative and it never evokes extravagant emotions. The film is so effective because it’s is extremely accurate in its realism, a quality virtually absent in the British mainstream media and cinema. While the story is fictional, the plot is entirely based on real horror stories from people on benefits interviewed by Ken Loach and his long-time scripwriter Paul Laverty.
The dramatic vigour of the movie lies in the absurdities that benefit claimants have to face, supported by cogent and astute performances. Both the filmmaker and the actors and in sync with the plight of the people they depict. The film is also a reminder that a honest and trustworthy person could eventually stumble into such horrible predicament, and so we should always exercise solidarity.
DMovies asked Ken Loach whether British working-class people are likely to lose their dignity and self-respect even more in the next couple of years, given our Theresa May’s rabid rhetoric against people on benefit and the new rules being implemented. Ken seemed to agree: “With Brexit comes economic collapse, lower wages, more unemployment, and the government will likely make it harder for people on benefits”. He also noted that new rules have already been put in place: “now the Job Centre can’t even tell you what jobs are available, even if they have it in the computer in front of them. They are there to punish, and not to help people”. He finished off his answer with a very political statement: “for the first time we have a socialist at the top of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Not even Clement Attlee was a socialist; he sent troops to fight. We have to seize this unique opportunity.”
I, Daniel Blake was out in cinemas across the UK on Friday, October 21st (2016). It’s available on BBC iPlayer from January 14th to February 4th (2019), just click here for more information. On Disney+ UK on March 4th, 2022.
We strongly recommend that you watch it, whether you agree with Ken’s political convictions or not. Ultimately, this is a film about human dignity.