I, Daniel Blake

Studio: Criterion

Jan 26, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“You give me a plot of land, I can build you a house, but I’ve never been anywhere near a computer.” – Daniel Blake

At its best, film can be a vessel for empathy. The stories being told offer a gateway into the lives of others, providing a glimpse into another world, even if that world just happens to be around the corner from your house or apartment. The tightrope act, especially in films dealing with real, everyday human problems – poverty, hunger, unemployment – is to ensure that the story isn’t simply mining misery for the sake of a cheap swell of emotion and surge of guilt in the audience.

I, Daniel Blake – the 2016 Palme d’Or winner – could go either way, depending on the viewer. Director Ken Loach, screenwriter Paul Laverty, and lead actors Dave Johns (Daniel) and Hayley Squires (Katie) put you through the ringer, but it never quite wallows in its misery. This is achieved by its no-frills approach. There are no camera flourishes. There are no big music moments. That’s not to say it isn’t artfully made, it’s simply that it’s the right amount of subtle, with the style never intruding on the story.

Daniel is told by his doctors that he cannot return to work following a severe heart attack. The government tells him he’s fine, and has to go back to work because he doesn’t qualify for benefits. The “helpful” people at the employment agency condescend to him, run him in circles, and refuse to listen to his complaints or explanations. And when one of the employees has the nerve to help him with his computer application – he’s pushing 60, and has never used a computer – she gets reprimanded for possibly setting a dangerous precedent. This is compounded when Daniel sees a young woman, being shut down by another employee. Katie was late for her scheduled appointment because she’s new in town, got on the wrong bus with her two children in tow, and rushed to make it. To the employment center, the only detail that matters is that she’s late, and the moment she acts frustrated she’s accused of being aggressive before being escorted out.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with a heavily bureaucratic institution (student loans!) will recognize this experience as genuine. It’s cyclical and agonizing, and the deck is stacked against people like Daniel and Katie. It’s worth noting that they both come from very different experiences. Daniel is a working class carpenter who has never taken charity – nor does he seek it out – and feels his pride, integrity, and self-respect erode with every new encounter with a system that does not care about him despite being the only thing he can hope to rely on to keep his head above water.

The closest thematic analog that comes to mind is David Simon’s HBO series The Wire. No, I, Daniel Blake isn’t secretly some saga about the drug trade or criminal enterprise, but it is an exploration of how the systems in place that are supposed to be there to help people in need are constantly failing those very people. The back of the Criterion disc describes the film as Kafkaesque, and that’s another perfect comparison. Kafka, in works like The Trial and The Castle, among others, viciously lampooned bureaucracy and how it inspires madness. I, Daniel Blake is far more subdued, but every sequence where Daniel is either on hold on the phone or beating his head against the wall in person is sure to evoke a response.

Fortunately, misery loves company. Daniel defends Katie at the employment office, and they become friends. And while Katie’s own travails at caring for her children send her down an unfortunate, and relatively predictable road, when the two are together their collective darkness feels a little less oppressive.

In the accompanying documentary How to Make a Ken Loach Film, Loach explains to a group of extras sitting in church pews what their goal for the day of filming is. The church is connected to one of the largest food banks in the United Kingdom, and he wants to recapture a day from the year before where hundreds of people queued for support. This is recreated in a scene where Daniel takes Katie and her kids to the food bank – which is also one of the few moments the two are greeted with unconditional kindness - and unless you’ve personally dealt with this sort of scenario, it may seem exaggerated, but it wasn’t.

I, Daniel Blake is an extremely political film, and it isn’t by accident. It’s a scathing indictment on how vulnerable people aren’t seen as humans by those sitting high on the government mountain. The documentary digs into Loach’s and Laverty’s collaborative process about how ideas come about, and it’s Laverty who comes across as the driving force behind the narrative while Loach acts as the facilitator. Laverty has a righteous anger boiling beneath his words, both in how he talks about the film and how it presents itself in the finished product.

Loach and Laverty avoid clichés or easy forms of catharsis, especially in the film’s conclusion, and while it may feel like there’s no hope understanding that this is sometimes the case is perhaps more valuable in this instance. An essay by critic Girish Shambu called “An Authentic Cinema” describes the response in Britain, and how it got play in the House of Commons and inspired an impassioned response from citizens who have experienced similarly humiliating scenarios in their own lives.

As painful as I, Daniel Blake becomes, it’s never anything less than real.



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