As is tradition at this time of the year, our writers have been voting for their favourite movies. And at number nine in 2016’s list? It’s I, Daniel Blake…
9. I, Daniel Blake
This article contains spoilers.
I, Daniel Blake is a film where the title character attempts to claim sickness benefit from the state while he recovers from a heart attack. It is a simple film, unadorned by concerns such as CGI or contiguity within its brand. It was filmed on location in and around Newcastle. It’s furious, urgent and very much about now.
It is also a devastating movie, coming across like a variant of Brazil shorn of the fantastical. Dave Johns (previously seen as ‘Cheesy’ Alan Supple on Time Gentlemen Please and God on Harry Hill) plays the title character, a slightly cantankerous but decent man, who is forced into a bureaucratic nightmare that chips away at his life and dignity. The final scenes evoke a sense of dread, a horror film’s inevitability. Despite this gutpunch quality, it’s a film with plenty of laughs, with the strong relationships at its core making the losses more keenly felt. With the cast still relatively unknown, it’s easier to buy into the realism.
Director Ken Loach worked with writer Paul Laverty, who he’d been collaborating with since the mid-Nineties. They used their standard technique of shooting the script in chronological order, with new scenes being given to actors as filming went on. Information was withheld from extras to elicit genuine reactions. The scene in the food bank, for example – where Hayley Squires’ Katie furtively tries to eat beans from the tin, and caves in to worry and tiredness – features genuine reactions of shock. Laverty asked numerous food banks across the country, and confirmed this scene is based on real events. In presenting such desperation, I, Daniel Blake asks questions of its audience, hoping to make them as angry as the filmmakers about the causes of its cast’s indignities.
The film’s contemporary setting was partly a reaction against Laverty’s last project with Loach (Jimmy’s Hall, set in Thirties Ireland), and a sense of injustice regarding the perception of welfare claimants, and their depiction in mass media. Mass media in turn had strong opinions on the film, not all of them positive. The reviewer from the Times described I, Daniel Blake – in a tweet linking to their review – as “Preachy and poorly made. A povvo safari for middle class people.”
Putting the ‘poorly made’ description to one side – as it simply isn’t – the ‘preachy’ accusation seems to be something that Loach anticipated. In an interview with the Guardian (anyone playing the Den of Geek Social Justice Warriors Drinking Game, that’s two shots) he predicted that it would not lead to real social change in the way that his earlier work, 1966’s Cathy Come Home, had managed (Shelter and Crisis were founded as a result of its impact). “I suppose why you hope it connects to people is that we need to fight back.” he said. Demonstrating the perceptions he was fighting against, critics of the film felt it must be exaggerating the bureaucratic nightmare, the zealous emotional distance of the Job Centre staff. Other reviews that said the film did not ring true, and politicians accused it of distorting the reality of the welfare system.
The gulf between these assumptions and reality reminds this writer of a trip to Blair Drummond Safari Park – stay with me on this – where an old tiger was sunbathing. This is quite an impressive feat near Stirling. An increasingly angry man stood watching it, presumably waiting for it to do something wilder and more exciting. Eventually he gave up, muttered “Fucking lazy bastard’” and walked away in a huff.
The power of I, Daniel Blake may only hold sway over people already sympathetic or empathetic to its story. I can only speak for myself, and say that as someone who worked in a council library when the Bedroom Tax was being brought into effect, it felt accurate to me. It reflected the concerns and queries of people who wanted advice and help. It showed the cruelty of children and people taking advantage of desperation, allowing shades of grey and not merely painting day-to-day life as an idyllic bliss (threatened by Corporations being all corporationy). It’s a film of people put into impossible dilemmas, into a system that does not allow anyone a dignified exit. This is shot through with enough moments of humanity and warmth to suggest a whole life, not merely the salient details.
Sure, there are a few clunky lines of exposition in there, but the jarring effect of these doesn’t linger. In the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh the advert for the film in the foyer became a wall of notes where people recorded their reactions. While there were a few dissenting voices, the film has clearly reflected many people’s experiences, while still being focused on a very specific oppression amongst many.
It is impossible to say now whether this howl of protest will be effective as a means to enact change, or if it will merely remain a document of its times. There is a risk that I, Daniel Blake can be merely an ephemeral thing. It will exist only as a piece of entertainment for some viewers, a thing to watch and experience and forget. While this film has undoubtedly shaken and struck a chord with viewers, hence its inclusion on this list, it has higher aims than entertainment, it does not need a passive audience.
Loach said this of I, Daniel Blake in an interview with The Big Issue: “This is happening, this is the reality for hundreds of thousands of people. If you know it’s happening, if you believe it, then you leave the cinema with a responsibility.”