February 2017        

Hard times

Jenny Farrell

Very few contemporary artists put working people and the unemployed, their raw treatment by society and their heroic attempts at fightback, centre stage as consistently as Ken Loach and Paul Laverty. Indeed there are few films—or art in general—in which working people can recognise themselves or their actual lives.
     This life experience is simply ignored by the arts. Instead mainstream art presents middle-class people living in comfortable or even luxurious accommodation, faced with relationship crises or other issues that do not question the nature of society. Seldom do we see films, or read books, that explore the innately inhuman character of the neo-liberal capitalist world we live in.
     Over a span of fifty years Ken Loach has championed the cause of the working class in his films, with singular success. His most recent film, I, Daniel Blake, his second after The Wind that Shakes the Barley, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It is indicative of the value of Galway’s decoration as UNESCO City of Film, and its aspiring status as City of Culture, 2020, that this film was not screened there.
     I, Daniel Blake has that documentary feel that is a hallmark of many of Loach’s films. Britain, in this age of austerity, is shown to be Dickensian without Dickens’s sentimental hope for reform. It’s a depiction of a 21st-century poorhouse, run by a “social benefits” system out to deter and crush, “protecting” only the most deserving and compliant of the poor.
     Disembodied, computer-like “decision-makers” interrogate Daniel Blake after long waits “on hold” on the telephone, following set questions that exclude interaction with the respondent. This Kafkaesque bureaucracy pronounces Blake ineligible for sickness benefit and a young mother not entitled to financial support—her penalty for challenging the authorities. Both characters are driven into freezing living conditions and near-starvation.
     This faceless and inhuman system is purposefully inefficient, deliberately high-and-mighty, its procedures designed to intimidate and humiliate the poor. Protest against the power of these authorities to impoverish absolutely leads to desperate scenes in the “social welfare” office, resulting in further sanctions and punishments. Communication about real lives and problems is impossible, thanks to to rigid regulations and procedures. These include superficial courtesy and meaningless bureaucratic phraseology, which specifically forbids human solidarity. Where this leads to protest, the poor are threatened, evicted, and handed over to the police.
     Yet solidarity is at the heart of this film. Despite the ordeal faced by the dispossessed and disempowered, they support each other—not only Daniel and Katie but also neighbours, other jobseekers, and even an employee in the benefits office, before her manager reprimands her for this “inappropriate behaviour.” When Daniel protests outside the dole office, passers-by sympathise and join in. There is genuine feeling of a common cause in defending the poor against the state.
     Daniel, Katie and Katie’s children are distinctive and authentic. The viewer can easily identify and sympathise with their humanity and their plight, their struggle against the authorities. They, their neighbours and some friends treat one another with the respect and humanity that is lacking in the state’s attitude. Daniel, surrounded by a world devoid of beauty, creates magnificent wooden decorations. Here we find some of the ingredients needed for a humane society: humanity, dignity, and a sense of what life should be like.
     The sympathy of both Loach and Laverty lies with their main characters. They are furious with the system that attempts to crush them. However, there is no sentimentality. This is the account of discarded working-class people, a very real story of those many who are at the mercy of the system.
     To return to our opening thoughts on the gulf between the “lofty” domain of escapist art and the real lives of working people: Loach’s film shows what honest, realist art can achieve. Resulting from his film, a BBC Newsnight report dealt with the cruel and vindictive sanctions imposed on the unemployed in Britain. Actual reality may be even worse than that portrayed in the film. Also, many people have commented on their own experience on social media, how they have been humiliated in the way seen in the film, how the film tells their story.
     As Loach rightly pointed out, the unemployed are not at fault for the lack of jobs: it is capitalism. Ken Loach bestows dignity on his characters, and a presence that is rare on our screens. This dignity is expressed throughout the film and emphasised in Daniel Blake’s final statement, which begins, “I, Daniel Blake.”

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