“When you lose your self respect you’re done for” is one of the many powerful messages contained in the latest film by Ken Loach. I, Daniel Blake won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and that I suspect will be the first of many awards. The other is why in 2016 are the most vulnerable members of society being failed by the State.
The film follows the story of Daniel Blake a middle aged joiner living in Newcastle who suffers a massive heart attack at work and needs help from the State. Whilst trying to navigate the benefits system he meets Katie a single mother of two who the State say they cannot rehouse in London, where her support network is based, and the only housing that can be found is in Newcastle. So she and her two children must move 300 miles to Newcastle where she knows nobody. Together they battle the system to try and get help but come to realise the State doesn’t want to help.
Dave Johns takes the title role but it is Hayley Squires in the role of Katie who ignites the screen and together they deliver powerhouse performances. Ken Loach teams up with his long term writing partner Paul Laverty to write this. They want you to be angry. The film makes you angry. Daniel Blake is told by his consultant, GP and physio he cannot work yet he still fails the benefit system’s points test and only scores 12 instead of the arbitrary 15. This means he’s not entitled to employment and support allowance. This is because the nameless and faceless health care professional said so after asking spurious questions such as is he able to defecate. The opening scene is excellent in conveying the staggering absurdity with the simple use of audio and a black screen. Paul Laverty as ever manages to capture humanity and humour in all the scenes he writes. When Daniel struggles to fill out a form online because he’s never used a computer and he literally runs the mouse up the screen. It will make you laugh but then you catch yourself. Yes we may be digital by default but what about society as a whole and its vulnerable members – it’s not serving everyone’s needs this digitisation.
I, Daniel Blake is not Cathy Come Home – that seminal play directed by Ken Loach for the BBC in 1966 followed Cathy and her husband Reg descent into homelessness and caused such an outcry that it provoked parliamentary debate. In the same way in France that Days of Glory/Indigènes by Rachid Bouchareb which after viewed by Chirac brought about the payment of pensions to all Algerian soldiers. Film is a powerful medium. Whilst this film will definitely cause debate by those who see it. The scene in the food bank broke me. The humanity and the pity you feel for Katie and the shame of watching someone decent into such feral act will not only haunt you for days but left me raging inside as to why we people have to live like this in 2016. I never cry watching films but that scene goodness – it made me recall the John Donne poem do not ask for whom the bell tolls for it tolls for thee. Paul Laverty explained that all the scenes were based on incidents that actually happened, stories that he had been told. That food bank scene actually happened. The reason for me the power of I, Daniel Blake is diluted is the penultimate scene – it almost seemed cliched and a vehicle for the final scene. What I call the soap box scene which really wasn’t necessary and actually dissipated some of the power that film had.
What Ken Loach does well are that his films are simple, no razzle and yet brutal in that simplicity. He gives you just enough in the 100 minutes running time and this film will captivate and disgust the viewer in equal measure. I just wish the final scene had been cut.
Having said all of that you should go and watch this film. Then channel the anger you’ll feel in a positive way. Ken Loach wants to create a movement in the Q&A afterwards that was clear. Both he and the screenwriter are angry at what they see as the rhetoric of striver and skiver. Even the very words used now instead of welfare system it is benefits which has a negative connotation. The distributor E1 (email Ben Metcalfe) are planning on allowing individuals and community groups to write to them and they will provide a DVD copy of the film for a very small fee so that groups who wouldn’t ordinarily go to art house cinemas can see the film and be spurred in action. Watch and if you are minded to do so engage in some social activism.
I, Daniel Blake opens in cinemas across the UK on Friday 21 October.
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