By Zoe Maggs
Subedited by Charlotte Bale
Meet Daniel Blake, a middle aged out-of-work carpenter – a man who has dedicated forty years of his life to hard graft while supporting his mentally ill wife – who finds himself at the margins of society after suffering a major heart attack. Mr Blake has never had a need for the welfare state. Surely, after all the taxes he’s paid, all the effort he has put in, now is the time for the system to step in and allow him the financial aid for a couple of months of recovery before he can go back to work. But no, in austerity Britain – also home to one of the best economies in the world – there is no such thing as welfare for the likes of Mr Blake; the government’s very own ‘healthcare professional’ has decided that actually, things aren’t quite serious enough and he cannot seek illness or disability benefit; he must instead claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) and spend 35 hours a week actively looking for work, against the advice of his GP and Consultant.
What is perhaps most uncomfortable about viewing this film is its dystopian elements, despite it being a social realist drama. Before Mr Blake can appeal the rejection he has received for his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claim, he is told that the ‘Decision Maker’ – an anonymous yet all-powerful body which seems to preside over the administration of the system – must first contact him via phone-call, in no particular timescale, in order to confirm what he already knows – that he has been found to be illegible for ESA. The recurrence of the term ‘Decision Maker’ throughout the film becomes sinister yet laughable; it will invoke ideas of Orwell’s ‘Thought Police’ for anyone who has read 1984, and as the film goes on it becomes impossible not to scoff tut each time the empty yet life-limiting phrase is repeated to Mr Blake as a means of avoiding any accountability. In these incredibly frustrating scenes, Loach makes use of fade-outs, combined with a lack of music in order to capture the time-wasting nature of the Department of Working Pension’s (DWP) phone line.
Despite his troubles, Mr Blake is a courteous neighbour – the typical jolly dad-type figure who keeps a brave face on when things go wrong – and Loach does well to keep the focus of the film on the struggles of his characters while allowing them to develop personal relationships with each other. Some viewers of the film have interpreted a key relationship which develops between Mr Blake and Katie, a single mum of two who has arrived abruptly in Newcastle with hardly a penny to her name, as a romantic one. However, to allow the film to delve into matters of romance would be a failing, detracting attention away from the struggles of the characters, and this is definitely something which Loach does very well to avoid.
Daily Mail’s Toby Young has questioned the film’s authenticity, suggesting that Loach has simply taken the absolute worst things which can happen to a person and shoved them all together for an hour and forty minutes of sob-worthy material. ‘Would a middle-aged man who’s just had a massive heart attack really be declared ‘fit for work’ by the Department for Work and Pensions?’, he asks, and had he bothered to consult that very difficult piece of technology called Google and actually do some research like any self-respecting conscientious journalist should, he would have found that Mr Blake, although a fictional character, is not alone in his situation; there are plenty of others who have been declared fit for work after life-changing diagnoses, including strokes and cancer. With his accusations of over-dramatising being unfounded, Young’s complains that the majority of the film is “unremittingly depressing” is simply heartless and cold; poor him for having to sit through the miserable details of lives which people live, all over Britain, every day.
Young’s further complaints that ‘the two protagonists are a far cry from the scroungers on Channel 4’s Benefits Street’ is also sick; it is symptomatic of a society wherein ‘reality’ TV shows owned by media tycoons are somehow seen as a valid source of news or insight into life. Yet, perhaps in isolation from the ignorant references to Benefits Street, Young’s grievances with the lack of ‘drinking, smoking, gambling, or even watching television’ from Mr Blake is a fair one. After all, people who aren’t poor do these things every day too; we are only human. However, throughout the film there is plenty of wrongdoing on behalf of other characters. They are not all model citizens crushed by the weight of the ever-oppressive government. Katie shoplifts, and has no real excuse for her situation other than being foolish and young when she had her children, admitting that she chose the wrong man the first time round and did the same again after. She is generally imaged as an aloof and uncollected mother, trying but failing to stop her chaotic life from impacting her son who is clearly disturbed in some way. Elsewhere, elements of Only Fools and Horses’ ‘Del Boy’ persona are seen in Mr Blake’s neighbour, who is always wearing branded clothes (like those terrible benefits street types!), and is always selling something out the back of a van.
Loach’s choice to base his drama around a more sensible, identifiable character while feeding us the chaotic lives of others who are not free of blame themselves is overall a strategic one, but surely such a manoeuvre says a lot about the society we live in: should we need a main character who likes classical music, who exhibits no frivolous or wasteful behaviours such as drinking or smoking, in order for us to feel that he is worthy of state help? What about those who have fallen into addiction, or crime, or a life of dodgy deals; are they too far gone, too unlike us to be helped?
To see I, Daniel Blake merely as a film about two protagonists, as Young does, is to miss its message entirely. This is not a film of us vs. them, as much as reviewers have commented on the way Job Centre staff appear to be vilified in quite a few scenes. Everyone in this film is a protagonist. We never meet a single politician, or any of those signing away legislation in parliament to allow for benefits caps, sanctions, and welfare cuts against the advice of experts. In I, Daniel Blake, we meet the little people. While it is true that some scenes display a lack of compassion from workers in the Job Centre, these are counterbalanced with others attempting to step outside their roles in order to provide a touch of humanity for the system’s ‘service users’. We see the sheer horror in one worker’s eyes as she pleads with Mr Blake not to cut himself off from the system, as she’s ‘seen it before’, when people end up on the street.
Loach wants us to go beyond simply feeling sorry for Daniel. He wants us to feel sorry for the entire situation; even when a Job Centre advisor is given a few stern words by her manager for trying to help in ways that don’t fit the stated protocol, there is a strong sense that all these people are doing is following instructions and getting on with their jobs, lest they end up becoming ‘service users’ themselves.
Young is right about one thing, though. He is ‘no expert on the welfare system’. Perhaps one thing to take from the film and its incongruous relationship with existing, popular discourses on welfare, is that we should look instead to views of people who are experts, like Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, who has recently published Hunger Pains - a detailed piece of social research conducted during her time working in a food bank in Newcastle, where the film is set. As Dr Garthwaite states, ‘benefits sanctions, delays, errors, low pay and debt’ are the main reasons that people end up seeking help from food banks – all issues which Loach covers within his film. People are scared, she notes, of even signing-on due to the stigma surrounding benefits, leaving many to end up on the street.
The lasting message this film leaves us with is one of hope, of encouragement and a cry for inclusivity. Despite all that happens to him, Daniel Blake’s ending remarks are imprinted on us. Before anything else, he is ‘a citizen. Nothing more and nothing less’; he is no better than anyone else, and no worse either. If, despite losing his job, health and trust in a country which he thought he could depend on, Daniel Blake can continue to keep a modicum of self-respect throughout his ordeal, surely we as viewers and as the general public can be grateful for what we do have ourselves, and in awe rather than in a twisted sense of jealousy and resentment regarding those who struggle more than ourselves.