I, Daniel Blake (2016)

by sfe medusa

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(dir. Ken Loach)

The story of Ken Loach’s latest is that one Daniel Blake has been cornered by our welfare system. This is it. It is a streamlined story muddied little by sub-plots. Just a reminder that when the system designed to keep you in work, good health (and with a viable pension) backfires and f**ks you over, there’s no escape.

The core relationship in the film is between Dave Johns’ Daniel, a straightforward and warm carpenter caught in an unforgiving bureaucratic spiderweb, and Hayley Squires’ Katie, forging a path for herself and her kids through the barbed wire of poverty.

Besides this friendship, there is little to be said for anyone in this film putting themselves out on a limb for a fellow person. And when they do, they’re escorted from the premises.

Casting is great, bar the kid who was a bit too Sylvia Young for me.
Squires gave a super performance, a combination of streetwise resilience and fragile vulnerability that frequently drew out both my admiration and my tears (three words: food bank scene).
Daniel is played by a personification of common sense, firm values and basic human decency. His character traits makes us mourn the frustrating lack of these elsewhere (I’m talking to you, job centre Sheila).

The CV workshop scene in particular strikes a chord about the superficial nature of work these days; how, in comparison to the utility of Daniel’s manual savviness, we earn our crust by talking the talk, and convincing people we’re doing well.
Am reminded of that Ricky Gervais quote about no one else knowing what they’re doing either. What are we all playing at?

As the film finished my friend pointed out a significant lack of a call to action (“Your nearest food bank can be found at 101 Charity Street”), and this seems to be the whole point. The film and its characters are staunch in their stoicism, impervious to pity.

This dispels any incipient “well we’ll just end up all nanny-state” comments, meaning that Loach can in one fell swoop stop discussion of his film from sliding back into your typical one-dimensional Tory vs. Labour dissension.

Suddenly we are taken back to looking at our welfare system on a human level, away from the abstract (and mostly meaningless) political rhetoric that now dominates our lives and conversation.

It’s an affirmation that neither of our main political parties are wrong (not saying they’re right either), but the entire system is destined to fail, because governing people on a large scale means organisation on a large scale, lovingly known to us as bureaucracy.

And as well-thought-through the bureaucratic facets may be (in this case Jobseeker’s Allowance and the Work Capability Assessment), there will – by nature – always be anomalies for which the rules cannot cater. No amount of adhering to said rules will help.

So without sounding like a total hippie, it looks like the answer is just about showing a bit of love to thy neighbours. Love, care, and just plain spending time together – not an empty promise to help with “anything, seriously, anything you need. I’ll be there” before sidling back into your own comfortable life, reassuring yourself that you’ve done your bit.

I, Daniel Blake is an appeal to us all that society doesn’t progress through the huge leaps of groundbreaking bills passed and swollen cash injections, but from emotionally edging forward – that little extra from all of us.

So, uh, first stop, Halifax then.

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