I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a kind of film whose theme of the individual vs. the system, brutal honesty and underlying power make it a compulsory watch for everyone. The story centres on Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year old widowed carpenter living in the UK, who is forced to rely on the benefits system (welfare system) to support himself after his doctor diagnosed him with heart problems. What follows is his experience being part of that system where a person is just a number and where there is little place for basic human understanding and compassion. All this may sound mundane and even dull, but the film is anything but that. Under Loach’s nuanced direction, we follow Blake as he makes friends with a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and does everything in his power to make his own and others’ lives bearable. The true power of this gentle, realistic film that displays the kindness of others and human hope, lies in showing ordinary people struggling on a daily basis against the system that is paradoxically designed to keep them in the same miserable place.
Ken Loach is not an ordinary film director. In 1977, he rejected an OBE (Order of the British Empire), one of the most prestigious British awards that are given to those who made significant contributions to science, arts or public service. Loach said that he did not want to belong to a club whose members committed horrible crimes, and did not want to “defer to the monarchy” and to the name of the British Empire. This director is a brave one and one with the vision. His philosophy when it comes to film-making is even simpler: following in the footsteps of director Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves (1948)), his films focus on ordinary people and their day-to-day struggles. In I, Daniel Blake, we are presented with a carpenter who faces homelessness through no fault of his own. Daniel is not a criminal, a social outcast or a moral degenerate. He is a good man and a kind human being who has been working all his life and now wants to make ends meet.
Set in Newcastle, UK, this brave film talks about the social issue that the director is very passionate about: the UK employment/social support/benefits system, its loopholes and weaknesses. The film shows people who find themselves at the very bottom of the social ladder in the country. The UK remains a class-based society with discriminatory principles in place and virtually no possibility for lower classes to move up the ladder (because of their “undesirable” upbringing/lack of education/accent, etc.). Ken Loach’s knows that this is a story that needed to be told through film. The benefits system in the UK, especially a pre-reform system, is kafkaesque, with many people stuck in one place, feeling as though they are just “numbers” in the computer, reduced to being almost prison inmates facing endless, often demeaning appointments with advisors that blame exclusively the unemployed for their situation, stripping them of the last vestige of respect they had for themselves, especially through various endless delays and support appeals that lead to nowhere. These people are often stigmatised and bullied. And these are often the people who need human understanding and a kind word the most, because they often have children on their hands, psychological problems (depression), and money and accommodation worries.
The UK is not a country known for its bureaucracy (in comparison to many other European countries), but the benefits system in the UK can become bureaucratic and seems to aim to humiliate the already desperate, depressed, poor and already stigmatised-through-their-unemployment individuals even further. I Daniel Blake is so fascinating because it is so true. Without any embellishments, Loach just shows the truth – and it aims both to pain and wake people up. Daniel Blake in the story becomes stuck in “no man’s land”, unable to work but unable to claim the government money either. The frustration and desperation felt by the character is also felt by the audience, especially since Mr Blake is also computer-illiterate (he had no need for computers in his life being a carpenter) and most applications and CVs (resumes) are to be done digitally, or so the regulations “dictate”.
The housing crisis also gets its spotlight in the film. Katie, a single mother of two, was forced to leave London and move to Newcastle because she was deemed “incapable of affording a London address” anymore. In reality, many families such as hers in the film were uprooted from their London homes, where they have lived for generations, because they could not afford their London address anymore, especially in the wake of the economic crisis of 2009. That meant not only taking their children out of schools and leaving their friends behind, but changing jobs and careers and sometimes saying goodbye to the very soil that their great-great-grandfathers called “home”.
Perhaps I, Daniel Blake is a little predictable and just a tad melodramatic, but the director and the scriptwriter must be commended for putting such an “uncomfortable” social issue in the UK on the global scene for everyone’s attention. It is not only the royal family and the Lords that live in the UK, but millions hard-working people who struggle on a daily basis and their hardship is often exacerbated by the system on which they are completely dependent. With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach proves that one does not need some extraordinary circumstances, celebrities, grand adventures or exotic locations to make a powerful, unforgettable film full of conviction – it is simply enough to show life as it is – a simple daily struggle known to many only too well. I, Daniel Blake is one of the finest examples of the realist cinema that focuses on social issues. The “beating heart” of this film is the spirit of a simple, unpretentious man who says “I am Daniel Blake, a decent citizen and a hardworking man, these are my circumstances, and I do not need to prove anything or apologise for anything to deserve basic human respect and dignity”. 9/10