24 November 2016

Written by Lauren Aitchison

for Daily Focal

My nickname at home is “weepy willow” thanks to my tendency to cry at the drop of a hat. So when my boyfriend said he’d sobbed all the way home from the cinema after seeing ‘I, Daniel Blake’ I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d make it through the first five minutes.

"When an ill carpenter finds himself in need of state welfare, he meets a desperate single mother who needs the same thing."
‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the latest film from Ken Loach, a director known for the social commentary that runs through his portfolio of work right back to 1969 when ‘Kes’ was released. It follows the 59-year-old Daniel as he navigates Britain’s benefits system after suffering a massive heart attack. His doctors tell him he’s unfit to return to his job as a joiner but he’s not considered ill enough by the Department for Work and Pensions to warrant Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) thanks to their faceless, numbers based points system. His only option is Jobseeker’s Allowance and so he signs on whilst combing the streets for jobs he isn’t well enough to actually take.

He befriends Katie, a single mum of two, at the job centre when she is threatened with a sanction for turning up late to her appointment. Her explanation that she only moved to the area a few days before and got lost is not acceptable to the staff and so she is asked to leave, along with Daniel for sticking up for her and “making a scene”. The film follows them as they muddle through this new stage of their lives together.
The film has provoked strong reactions amongst many critics and whether they loved or loathed it, unsurprisingly, depends on their political leanings. You see what you want to see in this film, whether it’s sympathetic characters struggling through a system stacked against them, or a romanticised ideal of the UK’s poor that could never match the grittiness of Benefits Street.

Last year, I had a job taking emergency food and electricity applications from people who had their benefits sanctioned. I did it over the phone and passed on the forms to one of the “decision makers” that are ominously referred to throughout ‘I, Daniel Blake’. I’m so glad it was not my responsibility to make choices because some of the horror stories left me amazed that people in this country could be treated so coldly. 

Inevitably, we got people trying to scam us and trick the system; they usually lifted my spirits after having single mothers tell me they had no food left in the house, whispering so their children wouldn’t hear them. One that sticks out in my mind is a man who’d been sanctioned because a form was missing from the stack he had to fill in to continue receiving ESA, a genuine mistake that meant no benefits for him for almost a month, when he had a six-year-old to feed.

I didn’t see this film through rose-tinted spectacles; at times, I felt Ken Loach was beating us with a social inequality stick with too much “tell” and not enough “show” in the final scene. Saying that, the documentary feel of this film is only possible because we know, surely by now, how close to real life it is. We know every town has a food bank, and the death toll of benefit claimants continues to rise, many of whom have been declared fit for work.

Ken Loach described the system as “conscious cruelty” and has simply told one man’s story, leaving us to make up our own minds. I didn’t cry on the way home (some low feelings are beyond tears) but I did put a bag of shopping in my local supermarket’s food bank collection box, sorry I hadn’t done it sooner and sorry I’d forgotten the people I once spent my working day agonising over. If you see this film, you’ll never forget them either.

Lauren's Film Review Ranking:

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