“I, Daniel Blake” is a film in the genre of social realism. Consequently there is a tendency to appraise it as if it were a documentary, expecting everything in it to accurately depict reality. We might need to be reminded that it is a ‘movie’, an imaginative artistic creation. The film is certainly not pure fact, but nothing is ever pure fact. The film is not wholly objective, but neither is anything, ever, wholly objective.
Many object to the film because they feel it has sentimental, polemical intentions. It is no secret that Ken Loach set out to awaken hearts and minds to the human impact of recent changes in the welfare state. He seeks to engage our emotional empathy by bringing the Catch-22 nightmare of the welfare system to life through the depiction of the circumstances of two individuals who come into contact with it.
Most of us are familiar with individuals depicted as stereotypes in the works of , for example, Charles Dickens. Some may feel that Ken Loach adopts some of the same techniques in this film. If the film challenges the viewer to ask the question ‘how real is all this?’, or ‘how concerned should I be?’ then I would say the film deserves the Palme d’Or it received at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
To many the stereotypes are believable. When you yourself are self-employed and you find yourself too ill to work, or when your landlord raises the rent and you can’t make the payments, or when you yourself are forced to move away from family, friends, schools and jobs that were the lifeblood of your support system in order to avoid becoming homeless, when you feel blamed for your bad luck, when the world is moving on but the odds seems stacked against you, this is when the film really hits its mark.
But this is not the whole story. The richest in society know how to jump through tax loopholes with tortuous agility in order to avoid paying taxes, yet many of us don’t think of this as stealing. It is impossible not to think of the petty theft, depicted in this film with the example of Katie stealing sanitary products (unavailable to women at the food banks) without thinking of the wider social context of those who have so much more than ‘plenty’, and who cheat the system in order to keep hold of their income and wealth, living alongside those who have so little and struggle daily just to get by. It’s a stereotype and not the whole story, but we will all, surely, be contemplating the reality of this juxtaposition as we watch this film.
Ken Loach depicts Daniel Blake and Katie as good, intelligent, attractive, caring, capable people. Some may complain that they, therefore, have options and could have bettered themselves without relying on the state for handouts. Are these the real, deserving poor, we may ask, are they really ‘down and out’ enough?
If we get ‘too real’ and show the poor as they might at least sometimes be (uneducated, unwashed, poorly dressed, perhaps smelly) we can view them as ‘other’ and walk on by. We may give some pennies to charity and feel exonerated. We don’t have to ask ourselves how this social plight came to be inflicted on people more or less like ourselves. The utterly destitute can more easily be ignored, blamed, despised, than people more like ourselves. Katie and Daniel are not utterly destitute, therefore we can identify more easily with them.
Katie and Daniel find themselves in a Kafkaesque system designed to trip them up at every turn. When we weep for Katie and Daniel, as so many find themselves doing as we watch this film, we are weeping for ourselves. Whether the film is more fiction than fact or the other way around, the point is to care about people who find themselves in a right pickle and haven’t got a clue how to navigate a way out of it.
“I, Daniel Blake” is a film of poignant, unforgettable, sometimes funny, imagery. It is, nonetheless, anything but ‘big-statement’ dramatic cinematography. It is rooted in the small, but important details of ordinary things; things like the almost spiritually charming, simple wood carvings of Daniel, the carpenter.
The context within which we get to know about Daniel and Katie is a welfare system that seems bent on dehumanizing all those who come into contact with it. Any doubts you may have about whether the context of the lives of these two individuals relates to any actual reality invites you to go and find out for yourself. If you ask yourself, ‘Is this really true?’ then good for you, you have a heart. That is the challenge Ken Loach sets out with the award-winning film “I, Daniel Blake”.