Ken Loach has never shied away from addressing controversial political topics in his films. His 1966 TV play Cathy Come Home uncovered the terrible state of housing in the 1960s and energised a social movement to improve the quality of housing. Since then he has tackled issues such as life on a Glasgow council estate, Irish Independence, the 1945 election and the damage caused by Thatcherism. His characters are usually working class and his films frequently have a left wing political message. In his latest film, I, Daniel Blake, Loach attacks the cruel and unsympathetic welfare system.
The film focuses on Daniel Blake, a carpenter from Newcastle who has been signed off work following a heart attack. When he is denied Disability Living Allowance he has to apply for Job Seekers Allowance, however, Dan quickly finds that the system is set against him. This is a film that states clearly that the safety net is not helping the people who need it, because of the restrictions on claiming benefits.
I, Daniel Blake is effective in making its point. Almost every scene is dedicated to showing how the loops that Dan has to jump through are set up to grind down his self-esteem. The film is filled with characters who try to help Dan, from his neighbours to a friendly Jobcentre employee, but the benefits system itself actively prevents them from making a difference. Loach is saying that people are good and want to help, but the rules prevents them from doing so. It is a bitter indictment of our collectively lack of humanity.
Loach digs into the wider economic and social problems that have contributed to Dan’s situation. When Dan is sent to a mandatory CV workshop by the Jobcentre, he makes the point that there are way too many job seekers for the amount of jobs that are available, so it does not matter how good his CV is. The housing crisis is examined through the character of Katie, an unemployed single mum that Dan befriends. Katie has been moved to Newcastle from London, because this is the nearest council flat available for her and her two children. Food poverty is tackled when benefit sanctions force Katie to visit a food bank. Katie also skips meals so that there is enough food for her children. One in five UK adults are current struggling to feed their children.
The audience knows that it was Tory austerity and Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms that made it so much harder to claim benefits. It is these policies that have removed the safety net that was created to protect people like Dan or Katie when they were in need. The film does not point to specific policies, people or parties as responsible for the situation; the Tories and IDS are only mentioned once by an unnamed supporting character. Maybe this is because it would be out of character for Dan to understand the politics that oppress him. The result is that this is not a partisan film, it is about how cruel and unfair the system is.
The strength of I, Daniel Blake is that Dan and Katie are very sympathetic. They are good, honest people who want to and actively seek work. They are hard working families and cannot be described as scroungers. Through their story we see the very human cost of welfare restrictions, which makes the audience angry with the system and want to change it. It is worth remembering while the disaster of Brexit unfolds, the unemployed are still suffering under a cruel benefits system. Effectively conveying this fact to a large audience is a huge achievement for Loach.
One of my main concerns with the films is that Dan and Katie are so sympathise that the film could make it worse for benefit claimants. Campaigners against welfare cuts frequently use instances of the deserving to back up their case for a more just welfare system. Perversely, this actually increases support for welfare restrictions. This is because when the public find out about cases of the needy being unable to access benefits, they become angrier at the scroungers they read about in the papers taking money away from people like Dan and Katie. This leads to a desires to further tighten access to benefits as a means of helping deserving claimants.
My other concern about the film is whether it will reach the right audience? Cathy Come Home was very successful in starting a public campaign to improve housing conditions in the 1960s. However, Cathy Come Home was on the BBC when there were only two channels. We had less choice and therefore more people who ordinarily would not have been exposed to the ideas of the film found out about the state of housing at the time. Now we have a much wider choice in media and I worry that I, Daniel Blake will only be seen by an audience who already agree with its message.
At the screening I attended, in a middle class area of North London, a huge cheer rose from the audience when a character insulted Iain Duncan Smith, but I live in a safe Labour seat. The Daily Mail has barely covered I, Daniel Blake, even when it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival this year. They are able to pretend that it does not exist, because their audience will never find out to about it. The people who should have to experience the anguish of watching Dan suffer never will.
It is a problem with contemporary politics that we all live in bubbles filled with the opinions we already hold, fed back to us by social media and selective news that we consume. We are isolated from ideas that challenge our worldview. I, Daniel Blake is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but regardless of how good it is, it will only ever be seen by people who agree with it.
We need more films that challenge the cruelty of our government and the callousness with which many of us have thrown huge numbers of the unemployed onto a scrap heap. However, if we cannot reach out to a broad range people who think differently, then no one’s opinions will alter and nothing will change. To paraphrase Karl Marx: I, Daniel Blake interprets the world. The point, however, is to change it.