I, Daniel Blake is the new film by acclaimed director, Ken Loach. It stars Dave Johns as the title character, a joiner from the north east of England who is now unable to work following a heart attack on the job. And Hayley Squires as a young single mother (Katie) who he befriends after he takes her side in an argument at the job centre. The film follows his attempts to help Katie and her children as they adjust to their new life after being forced to move from London, and away from everyone and everything they know, to the only house that is available for them. At the same time he is trying to navigate his way through a benefits system that seems to be set up to push him back at every turn.
On the surface this is a simple film; an older man who never got the chance to have a family meets up with a young Mum and two kids, and does all the things with and for them that he would have for his own family. But the truth is that the film is about so much more than this. It is, at its core, a film about people vs. state. About how faceless bureaucracy, and red-tape grind normal men and woman down to the point where they no longer have even a shred of self-respect. A film about how the systems that are meant to help people lack the common sense, or the compassion to even acknowledge when someone is in need.
It is a deeply important film, and that fact in itself speaks volumes. Fifty years ago Ken Loach made Cathy Come Home. A film about a young woman, who along with her two young children, is forced from house to house by a system that is rigged against her. At times moving far away from any family to the only accommodation they are willing to give her – failed by people who would pass her from one department to the next until she had no clue what was going on. She spent time in a homeless shelter, and found herself brought to her knees by a system that was meant to help, but instead acted against her, and against common sense at every turn.
The fact that fifty years on Ken Loach can make a film about people forced to move from their homes, in fact to different cities, at the whim of the councils, and about people being failed and lied to by a system meant to help them, is shocking. And it should shock you. It might be that you come out of watching this film thinking it is being heavy-handed, that it`s exaggerating. Well let me tell you that as someone who has years’ worth of experience dealing with the benefits agency, that’s just not true. Everything about this film rang true to me. The hours spent waiting on the phone, medical assessments carried out by people who have no clue what they are talking about, and yes, even people who are being told by their Drs that going back to work would be bad for their health – or perhaps even fatal – being forced to look for a job. I am autistic and can’t speak on the phone myself but I have spent hours watching my Mum deal with the benefits agencies and seen first-hand how much stress and anxiety this causes her. That being said I am lucky, I have someone who will make the phone calls that I myself cannot make. Lots of autistic people are not this lucky and find themselves alone. Unable to get the help they need they end up on the street, or even starving to death.
I wish that I could say the film does exaggerate, but no. It is a true and tragic portrait of modern day England for a lot of people.
I won’t go in to the film`s ending, or people’s reaction to it, as I think it’s only fair to let you experience these for yourself. But what I will say is that as I left the screening people were talking. Not about the normal things people might casually chat about when leaving a cinema. They were talking about their own lives, about memories and feelings the film had dragged up. There were voices raised in anger, and stories being told of past injustices, because that’s the point of this film. Yes we are watching Daniel Blake and the events of his life, but he could be anyone. A man who has worked all his life, and done no harm to anyone can fall prey to the system – so could you, and so could your friends, or neighbours.
As I watched Daniel toil against the system I could recognize all that he went through, and understand how he felt.
This is an important film. Not because it deals with a tragedy from years ago, or atrocities committed in some far off land. No, it`s important because it deals with what is happening now – in this county, and in the very streets where we live. The sad thing is that a lot of people who might be affected by the issues in this film probably could not afford the transport costs, or admission fees to go and see it.
I would urge anyone and everyone who can to go and see it – not only because it is a very well made and moving film, but because it tells a story that means something. There is no drama for the sake of drama, or forced emotions. The drama and emotion come from the brutal and unflinching depiction of real life.
Much like Cathy Come Home did for the 1960s I, Daniel Blake shines a light on a corrupt and hopeless system that is failing those most in need of its help. Yes it is an unashamedly political film, but why should it not be? It tells a story that needs to be told, and it does so while still remaining a moving and effective piece of cinema. One of the most important films of recent years, and one everyone should watch if they have the chance – especially politicians and those working within the benefits system.
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