Alan Morrison on

I, Daniel Blake

Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Paul Laverty
(2016)

Now Daniel Was A Carpenter...

It’s Dave Johns’ deeply affecting, understated and defiantly witty portrayal of the eponymous unemployment statistic Daniel Blake that really carries this moving film on an emotional level. Casting a comedian in the main role for such a political film is inspired since it guards against too much earnestness in the central performance. Daniel’s irrepressible humanity and kindness is in stark contrast to the grey-faced, officious and frankly fascistic jobcentre staff who –with the exception of one sympathetic member– conspire to make his experience of unemployment due to incapacity as abjectly miserable and painful as possible.

One particularly fascistic jobcentre adviser who plagues Daniel’s existence while he’s forced to claim jobseekers’ allowance –in spite of still recovering from a cardiac arrest– treats him with spiteful contempt, culminating in her sanctioning him seemingly for his not being computer literate. The true scandal of how particularly those on JSA are treated in our so-called civilised society is laid bare for all to witness, and the expectation of jobseekers to spend literally 35 hours a week seeking work, which mostly isn’t there, shows how today the unemployed are expected to jump through continual dehumanising hoops just for the privilege of a state pittance each week. They are treated debatably with less respect than ex-offenders; and, indeed, to be unemployed today in a society obsessed with work, which deems employment as some sort of ‘moral badge’, is tantamount to a taboo.

Johns’ infectious performance apart, Hayley Squires also puts in a memorable performance as the young single mother forced to move from London to Newcastle in order to rent a decent-sized flat which is, nonetheless, riddled with damp and black mould. The scene where, half-starved, she peels open a tin of beans in a food bank is rightly cited as a hugely symbolic moment in the film: the scandalous state of malnutrition so many people are reduced to in Tory Britain due to remorseless welfare cuts. In the sixth richest country in the world parents are skipping meals so their children can be fed, and all because of a right-wing government’s elective austerity and choice to do the very opposite to what it claimed it would do, actually putting the biggest burdens on the narrowest shoulders. Daniel Blake -a name at once evocative of the lions' den and one of England's most socially conscious poets- is the everyman pawn of the system who along with millions of others bears the brunt of budget cuts, and in his particular case, to an ultimately fatal extent.

That Daniel is a carpenter is also hugely symbolic: it at once brings to mind the occupation of Christ prior to His calling, and is a form of craftsmanship, a skill of the hands but also of the heart and mind, a practical but also artistic trade, and in those senses very much an authentic –and ancient– occupation which in spite of industrial revolutions and automations has managed to –excuse the pun– carve out its own niche in terms of resisting the estranging effects of more mechanised capitalist employment. In these senses carpentry is very much the kind of occupation which employs both hands and mind of which William Morris, for one, approved, typical of his Arts and Crafts adage, ‘have nothing in your house which you do not know to be both beautiful and useful’.

Daniel’s trade, from which he is temporarily alienated due to being unfit for work, in spite of being found the opposite in a half-baked work capability assessment conducted by a so-called “healthcare professional” (who doesn’t explain what her actual medical background is, of course), is in stark contrast to the unskilled and inauthentic occupation of the Harpy-like employment advisers. There is, indeed, plenty of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in this important polemical film.

I, Daniel Blake is a functional film: it does what it says on the tin, which in a funny sort of way would be its most appropriate epithet, as opposed to the slightly off-putting hyperbole heaped on it since its release. This and its collecting prompt gongs on the film prize circuit actually distract a bit from the gritty authenticity of the film’s message and its clear purpose as a social-realist polemical statement as opposed to a work of art or poetry. Critical praise is one thing, but there’s something almost cheapening about how promptly the trophies came –at Cannes and then the Baftas– and one can’t help feeling that this was more about alleviating a collective middle-class sense of guilt about the parlous state of existence for hundreds of thousands of unemployed and incapacitated people of this nation than anything else.

Everything seems a bit too convenient for this most inconvenient of films. This isn’t a film for which trophies mark triumph, only a change of government policy. It’s also more broadly a film made to challenge skewed public perceptions of benefit claimants who have been so mercilessly dehumanised by our right-wing mainstream media for going on seven years now. Nevertheless, prizes help publicity, even if it’s a slightly depressing fact that all things in capitalist society, no matter how counter-hegemonic, have to be dressed up for the shop window display.

But my emphasis on I, Daniel Blake’s polemical thrust isn’t to say there’s not some element of poetry in the film: Daniel’s defiant graffiti-statement outside the jobcentre near the end is surprisingly powerful, as is the simple but eloquently phrased, profoundly important statement he doesn’t get to read out himself at the belated tribunal hearing to reinstate his abruptly stopped employment and support allowance (the reinstatement of which is the far-distant Holy Grail of Daniel's tortuous quest).

I, Daniel Blake is certainly a film of its times, a true contemporaneous polemic on the state of a nation, or at least, of the Have-Not half of a nation, and for those reasons alone, is a powerful and important cultural intervention, and a kind of Cathy, Come Home for the modern day by the same director. It can only be sincerely hoped that it will come to have as much impact on our society as the aforementioned kitchen-sink breakthrough did back in the Sixties. The scenes showing Daniel pacing around warehouses asking for a job (although in order to fulfil his JSA agreement) was uncomfortably reminiscent of the Yosser Hughes episode of Alan Bleasdale’s Eighties milestone, Boys from the Blackstuff, and it shows just how circuitous our society has become that we’re back in 'the Blackstuff' thirty years later.

One could argue more could have been made of the ubiquity of ‘brown envelopes’ and the now recognised phobia associated with their menace of millions of claimants –we only briefly glimpse Daniel opening one such tan envelope when he receives the medically illegitimate decision that he is “fit for work”, even after we have witnessed his GP clearly state to him that he is far from it. The smoke and mirrors of the appeals process is expertly depicted, however, with the recently imposed obfuscation of a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ –which is just a way of protracting procedures– before an appeal can actually be lodged. The whole Kafkaesque edifice of today’s benefits bureaucracy is perfectly captured.

It’s not really true to say that Loach’s film has ‘sparked debate in the country’, as is claimed on its Wikipedia page, since there has been a long ongoing welfare debate for several years now, even if that counter to Tory and red top ‘scrounger’ propaganda has been frustrated and ostracised from the mainstream, it’s still been there. What I, Daniel Blake does is turn that ‘spark’ of polarised experience and opinion into a full on firework display for a mainstream cinema audience. It might have ‘sparked a debate’ among the less affected middle and upper classes perhaps, but the debate was already there among the working class, the underclass, the unemployed, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the zero hour and low-paid ‘precariat’. Loach, also the founder of Left Unity, has amplified all this from the platform of his influential medium, and for that he deserves our gratitude, as well as for directing a deeply affecting and yet strangely uplifting film of humanity and defiance amid faceless bureaucracy and unfeeling government.

Certainly all DWP staff should be forced to sit down and watch I, Daniel Blake. But for Iain Duncan Smith, chief architect of the administrative atrocities criticised in the film, who is only mentioned once, though appropriately in a curse issued by a half-cut Glaswegian claimant who hails Daniel sat down under his giant graffiti sprawl (the film’s Spartacus moment –to which, I’m Daniel Blake might have been a more apt title than the strangely Gravesian one chosen), his boundless yet unmitigated arrogance, hubris and intransigence of self-perceived ‘mission’ render him chronically immune to any sense of humility, shame or regret. (Just as he’d not consider himself one of the obvious embodiments of ‘hypocritical Catholics’ condemned by the socialistic Pope Francis recently). Morally, there’s simply no hope for IDS, and for someone so hungry for posterity at any cost, even notoriety, the fact that a regime he masterminded forms the entire mise-en-scene of a film by a highly acclaimed veteran film director will only massage his egregious ego more. But Loach’s film is a watertight impeachment of this most malicious and contemptible of politicians.

For me personally, I, Daniel Blake doesn’t quite rank with the very cream of Loach, such as Cathy Come Home, In Two Minds, Kes, Days of Hope, Black Jack, Land and Freedom or The Wind That Shakes the Barley; nor is it quite as shocking in impact as that most Lochian of non-Loach TV films, Jim Allen and Roland Joffé’s The Spongers (1978), which is the definitive welfare state polemic and is still, depressingly, every bit as relevant today as it was forty years ago. But it’s certainly on a par with more standard though no less powerful Loach fare, such as The Big Flame, The Rank and File, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird.

Artistic aspects aside, I, Daniel Blake is an absolute must-see for everyone but most importantly for those who continue to blindly believe all the red top hyperbole about so-called “benefit cheats” and “scroungers” and a welfare state which is “too generous”, which it emphatically is not. As for “benefit tourists”, if they really do exist in this country then they must be complete masochists. Loach has shown in this immensely human film the full inhumanity of our latter-day welfare state, one which bureaucratically persecutes its own claimants, and which elevates the value of money above the value of human beings.

Alan Morrison © 2017