28th Oct – 10th Nov, DCA
Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake has been repeatedly compared to his 1966 work Cathy Come Home. Cathy aired on the BBC and managed to completely transform the public perception of homelessness, even leading to the founding of the charity Shelter. Does I, Daniel Blake have the power to do the same for the array of problems with the welfare state in 2016? The rhetoric on benefit claimants has been deteriorating for the last decade, and the last general election saw even Ed Miliband’s Labour use words like ‘scrounger’. It does seem like a shift is beginning to take place. Corbyn’s Labour Party are now largely unanimous on anti-austerity policy, and an occasional Conservative MP like Iain Duncan Smith speaking out over the severity of a system he helped to develop. Only yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled against the bedroom tax. At this stage in politics, after the referendum result has left the country soul-searching, a film the quality of I, Daniel Blake has the potential to effect real change.
The film follows the titular character (Dave Johns) as he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two who has just moved to Newcastle. Together they navigate the minefield of the job centre, facing sanctions, condescension, and dehumanisation- all a result of bureaucracy. Commentators like Toby Young, or Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Damien Green, who call the film “unrealistic” or “unfair” simply reveal how out of touch they are. Loach never paints with broad strokes, and the plot does not descend into exaggeration or melodrama. In fact, the majority of the film is closer to tragicomedy or farce. Dave Johns who plays Daniel Blake, a stand-up comic, succeeds in wringing the maximum amount of humour out of the banality of the process. Figures of authority within the film become absolutely absurd. I, Daniel Blake is closer to Kafka’s The Trial than traditional social realist depictions of powerlessness to be found in say, Dickens or Hugo, although there are some emotionally devastating moments too. An early scene in the food bank, for example, is heart-breaking in its familiarity. Loach’s light touch in early scenes intensifies the horror of the pitfalls the characters fall into later, and indeed the film is so moving that it was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year. I, Daniel Blake taps into the dispossession that is taking hold across Europe, and the judges recognised that the film captured the reaction against the austerity policies that are taking place all over the continent. What remains to be seen is whether the film can lead to any solutions to the problems it presents.
It certainly seemed to make an impact in Dundee. Screenings were busy throughout the run, and some cinemas offered free tickets for benefit claimants. I have heard multiple stories of congregations of criers assembling in the bathroom after the credits. The events of the film are a daily reality in Dundee. Audiences here are well aware that I, Daniel Blake is not fabricated, that thousands of people in this city and all over are desperate. An appearance from Ken Loach on Question Time the week of its release cements the film as a serious political statement. It was a storming performance from the eighty-year-old, who lambasted the politicians on the panel for using fear as a weapon. The Conservatives will likely be in government until 2020 and policy movement on these issues can seem hopeless, but the power of the cinema should not be underestimated. I, Daniel Blake can engage people, raise their awareness, and inspire anger in the disillusioned. An energised public can restore the welfare state to its former glory.