If Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” had a subtitle, it could well be “Why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader”. Focused on the Kafkaesque ordeals a 59-year old widowed carpenter puts up with to get health allowance benefits after suffering a heart attack, it is an indictment of an entire social system in which Britain’s most vulnerable are being thrown overboard by a cold and cost-conscious bureaucracy that received its marching orders from the combined forces of New Labour and the Tories.
As the film begins, we only hear the voices of Daniel Blake and his petty official interrogator who is asking him a series of questions about his health status: Was he able to lift his arms above his head?; Could he walk 50 meters from his home?; Was he having problems with his bowel movements? After each question, he responds by saying that it is heart preventing him from work, not his hands, feet or ass. His physician has told him that he must receive benefits for another month before he can be cleared to go back to work, something that he wants more than anybody including the penny-pinching bureaucrats. This is of no importance to his interrogator who deems him fit to work.
When we finally see the two, they are sitting in a benefits office in Newcastle, a solidly blue-collar city in northeast England where Blake has worked all his life. It gave birth to the saying “Bringing coal to Newcastle”, which means a foolish action since Newcastle had been a mining town as far back as the sixteenth century. The office houses the local Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and looks just like the unemployment office I used to visit after retiring from Columbia University in 2012. Despite the reputation of American cruelty to those in a dependent state, I never faced the kind of grilling that Daniel Blake submitted to. When Blake is told by the bureaucrat that he is required to start working for work immediately or else he would be cut off, he challenges her. How do her inane questions that have nothing to do with his heart attack trump the his doctor’s orders? What gives her that power? Upon being challenged, she replies superciliously that she is a qualified health professional and invites him to challenge the denial of benefits if he so wishes. She has him over a barrel.
Not knowing much about this aspect of the one-time vaunted British welfare state, I did a bit of research and discovered that the interrogation was being carried out under a plan designed by Atos, a French firm that was hired out to the DWP in 2008 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.
Was it possible that Loach was exaggerating the assault on health and income benefits? If anything his account was understated as demonstrated by this February 12, 2016 Telegraph article:
A dying Army veteran suffering from dementia has been sent a “Capability For Work questionnaire” by the Department for Work and Pensions, his family say.
Desmond O’Toole, 63, served his country in the Royal Engineers but is now being cared for in a nursing home as Alzheimer’s has left him unable to walk, talk or chew food.
Now his family have taken to Facebook to complain about the DWP questionnaire to see if Mr O’Toole is able to return to work.
“Yet again my mum has to fill in another 20-page form so my dad can get the benefits he needs.”
Daniel Blake is simultaneously a fully-developed character and a universal symbol of Britain’s betrayed working class, just as much as the miners who struck in 1984. Although much more representative of individual resistance than mass action, Blake continuously evokes sympathy from onlookers who also feel screwed by New Labour and the Tories. As Blake witnesses a young woman and her two children being given the runaround at the DWP office, he does what any class-conscious worker would do. He speaks up on her behalf and confronts the two security guards who are throwing her out.
This leads to a close connection between him and the single mom’s family who have ended up in Newcastle when an apartment had become available. It was a big step up from living in a homeless shelter in London but the woman named Katy (Hayley Squires) is still living on the margins, depending on the food bank and even resorting to shoplifting to keep her children fed.
As Daniel Blake, Dave Johns is my pick for best actor of 2016. Besides being an actor, he is a stand-up comedian who has worked in improv. He brings a sense of comic timing to the role that often gives you the feeling that the film itself was partly improvised just like a Mike Leigh film.
As it happens, the script was written by Paul Laverty who wrote the screenplay for Loach’s “Carla’s Song”, a film about the Sandinista revolution. Laverty drew upon his own experience making this film. When I was involved with technical aid projects in Nicaragua, Laverty—an attorney—was providing information to human rights groups about contra crimes he collected in the war zone. He also wrote the script for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, Loach’s film about the Irish rebellion of the 1920s.
Laverty’s recollections in the press notes should give you an idea of how close he and Loach were to the realities of the British poor. The film has an authenticity about the marginalized population that most British films lack, even when their heart is in the right place:
But the immediate spark for this story started with a call I got from Ken to join him on a visit to his childhood home of Nuneaton where he has close connection with a charity that deals with homelessness. We met some terrific workers and they introduced us to some of the youngsters they were working with. One lad whom they had recently helped shared his life story with us. It was his casual mention of hunger and description of nausea and lightheadedness as he tried to work (as usual, zero hour contracts with precarious work on an ad hoc basis) that really struck us.
As Ken and I travelled the country, one contact leading to another, we heard many stories. Food banks became a rich source of information. It struck us that when we made MY NAME IS JOE or SWEET SIXTEEN, or even going further back to Ken’s earlier films, one of the big differences now was the new world of food banks.
As more and more stories came to light we realised that many people are now making a choice between food or heat. We met a remarkable man in Scotland, principled and articulate, desperate to work, who refused point blank to do meaningless workfare, who was given endless sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions. He never turned his heating on, survived on the cheapest canned food from Lidl and nearly got frostbite in February 2015.
We heard stories of “revenge evictions” i.e. tenants thrown from their homes for having the temerity to complain of faults and poor conditions. We were given examples of the poor being moved from London and offered places outside the capital, a species of social cleansing. And it was impossible not to sense the echo from some fifty years back when Ken and colleagues made CATHY COME HOME although this was something we never talked about.
Breaking the stereotypes, we heard that many of those attending the food banks were not unemployed but the working poor who couldn’t make ends meet. Zero hour contracts caused havoc to many, making it impossible to plan their lives with any certainty and leaving them bouncing between irregular work and the complexity of the bene t system.
Another significant group we spoke to in the food banks were those who had been sanctioned (i.e. bene ts stopped as punishment which could be from a minimum of a month to three years) by the DWP. Some of the stories were so surreal that if we had them in the script they would undermine credibility, like the father who was sanctioned for attending the birth of his child, or a relative attending a funeral, despite informing the DWP of the reasons. Literally millions have been sanctioned and their lives, and those of their children, thrown into desperation by a simple administrative decision. Criminals are treated with more natural justice, and the fines are often less than what benefit claimants lose when hit by a sanction.
Food. Heat. House. The basics, from time immemorial. We knew in our gut this film had to be raw. Elemental.
“I, Daniel Blake” will be shown at the NY Film Festival on Saturday, October 1 at 3:00 PM and Sunday, October 2, 12:30 PM. It is Ken Loach at his best and it doesn’t get any better than that. (Ticket information here.)