I, Daniel Blake: An Authentic Cinema

On Film / Essays — Jan 16, 2018

Art cinema so rarely finds itself at the heart of public debate. When it does, the focus—as with a film such as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001)—is usually the censure or banning of a work for sexually transgressive content. But it is uncommon for a movie that describes normal, everyday life, as I, Daniel Blake does, to spark passionate public discourse, and so, when that happened in Great Britain upon that film’s release in 2016, it was a surprise. An early supporter of I, Daniel Blake was the democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party and one of the strongest opponents of the government’s austerity programs, which have sought to drastically cut public services and welfare funding. Corbyn took to his Facebook page to announce that Ken Loach’s critique of the British benefits system was “one of the most moving films I’ve seen,” thus helping give the film, which had several months earlier won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a new level of visibility back home. In Parliament, he publicly urged Prime Minister Theresa May of the ruling Conservative Party to watch the movie so she might witness the damage being wrought by the government’s social and economic policies, a harsher version of Thatcherism, on the middle-class and the poor. The secretary for work and pensions, Damian Green, retaliated by calling the film “monstrously unfair”—only to admit, when pressed, that he hadn’t actually seen it.

As the film became the subject of heated debate, hundreds of testimonies began pouring into the media from citizens all over the country, detailing the everyday realities and horrors of a cruel and broken system. The Guardian published a long post on its website that collected numerous such stories. In a rare example of a valuable internet comments thread, the post gathered scores of other personal accounts of a system that, in Loach’s words, is “designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out . . . and stop pursuing their right to ask for support.” Meanwhile, the impact of I, Daniel Blake—which followed up its Palme d’Or (Loach’s second, after his win for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006) with a BAFTA award for outstanding British film—became even broader. Activists began putting its title on T-shirts, and, at a protest against unemployment in France, hundreds of “Moi, Daniel Blake” placards were on display. The hashtag “#WeAreAllDanielBlake” caught fire on Twitter.

The sensationalism of the response was at odds with the film itself, which is quiet, understated, and sprinkled with unexpected humor. Its restraint is apparent immediately, in an extended opening in which we hear, over a black screen, a phone conversation between the protagonist of the film’s title—a fifty-nine-year-old Newcastle carpenter and widower—and a “health-care professional” of unknown qualifications. The purpose of the interview is a “work capability assessment” to determine whether Daniel, who had a heart attack on the job, is eligible for ESA (employment and support allowance), an income replacement benefit for those who are disabled or unwell and unable to work. He is asked a series of questions—Can he walk fifty meters? Can he raise both arms as if to put something in his shirt pocket?—and then denied benefits. Thus begins Daniel’s journey of Kafkaesque absurdism, as he is forced to throw his energy into a self-contradictory effort: spending thirty-five hours a week looking for work in order to qualify for JSA (job seeker’s allowance), although he knows that he will have to turn down any job he is offered, on his doctor’s orders. As if this dilemma weren’t enough, he is also fighting the original benefits decision, and being told that he cannot appeal until he is granted, via another convoluted process, a right to an appeal.

This bureaucratic nightmare unfolds in multiple spaces, both virtual and physical: on the telephone (Daniel endures repeated calls with endless waiting, scored to deadly Muzak); on the computer (Daniel’s frustrations in learning how to use one make for earthy comedy); and at a government job center. It is at the latter that he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), an indigent young mother of two who has been kicked out of her flat in rapidly gentrifying London, separated from family and friends, and assigned a new home three hundred miles away, in Newcastle. When she is sanctioned for arriving late to her appointment because of a public transport problem, Daniel steps in to intercede on her behalf, and a friendship begins. He helps the family set up house and forms a bond with the children. But the indifference of the state proves crushing, and their lives collectively begin to spiral down into deeper poverty.

Causing a stir is not new for Loach, who turned eighty the year I, Daniel Blake was released; he has spent more than five decades making films about the socioeconomically marginalized. One of his earliest works, Cathy Come Home (1966), is an account of a destitute family’s descent into homelessness. It had an audience of 12 million viewers on its first airing and led a member of Parliament to announce in the House of Commons, “The conscience of the nation has been jolted, by a television play.” According to Loach scholar John Hill, special screenings of the film were scheduled for government ministers, and the housing minister even met with the filmmaker to discuss how the problem of homelessness could be tackled. Cathy Come Home inspired the formation of one housing charity organization (Crisis), and significantly contributed to the success of another (Shelter) that was launched weeks after the film aired. In a British Film Institute poll conducted in 2000, it was voted the best British television drama ever made, and it is one of several that Loach created in partnership with producer Tony Garnett for the socially conscious BBC series The Wednesday Play. A skeptic about the notion of the “genius auteur”—and a lifelong avowed socialist—Loach has done his best work within collaborations. After his association with Garnett ended in the late seventies, he spent the eighties keeping a relatively low profile, mostly making documentaries. Then, in the midnineties, he began a new long-term partnership, this time with the Scottish writer and former human-rights lawyer Paul Laverty, which has yielded several of his strongest films. I, Daniel Blake is among them.

“Arguably the most prolific and enduring of all British directors,” wrote scholar David Forrest in 2013, “Ken Loach is the definitive social realist.” Even if Loach cites Italian neorealism and the Czechoslovak New Wave as the key influences on his filmmaking—explicitly excluding the British New Wave—he is clearly part of a distinguished lineage of British “realisms” that stretches back to the thirties. As Forrest points out, it is possible to trace a line from the Documentary Film Movement of that decade, under the leadership of John Grierson, through the social-problem film cycle born in the late forties and continuing into the Free Cinema documentaries of the midfifties by such filmmakers as Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz, who would found the British New Wave a few years later. Even so, critic Alexander Walker has drawn a useful distinction between Loach and the New Wave directors: like them, he often sets his films in working-class milieus, but he parts ways with them in his relative lack of interest in subjective and psychological exploration, instead favoring a “communal gaze” whose ultimate aim is to serve the larger project of social change. Laverty echoed this objective in an interview at the time of I, Daniel Blake’s stateside release when he said, “A film by itself changes nothing, only the activity and organizing afterwards.”

An unfortunate side effect of these aspirations is that the aesthetics of Loach’s cinema have sometimes been undervalued by critics. “It has been said of Loach,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in his review of I, Daniel Blake, “that he would do without the camera if he could, and that doing-without aesthetic is absolutely right for the unfashionable, uncompromising seriousness of what he has to say.” While meant as a compliment, this sentiment nevertheless sells the director’s cinema short: it obscures the rigorous preparation and carefully worked-out production methods that Loach has gradually refined over decades. The feeling of authenticity that I, Daniel Blake exudes, seemingly without effort, is the result of a myriad of thoughtful decisions made about setting, casting, shooting, and (especially) dialect.

Dave Johns, whom Loach chose to play Daniel Blake, was a bricklayer turned stand-up comedian, with no previous film acting experience—and, as was crucial to his casting, he was raised in Newcastle. The job center that is a significant presence in the film was based on its real-life counterpart in that city, and the script was substantially informed by testimonies of the center’s current and former employees; many of them turn up in the film to play roles based on their actual occupations. The fact that the cast is mostly “Geordie”—a colloquial term used for residents of the Tyneside region of northeast England that includes Newcastle, and also the name of the spoken dialect of those parts, with its flattened vowels and uvular r’s—adds to the film’s unstrained naturalism. Speech, in fact, has long occupied a critical place in Loach’s casting process. “You carry your class with you in how you talk,” he has said. “You can’t act a dialect . . . A film can see right into your eyes.” Little surprise, then, that few directors in cinema have made regional speech and accent as integral to the full sensory effect of their films, ranging from Cockney in Up the Junction (1965) to Yorkshire in Kes (1970), Lancashire in Raining Stones (1993), Glaswegian in My Name Is Joe (1998), and Greenock in Sweet Sixteen (2002). In fact, the latter film and Riff-Raff (1991), about a Glaswegian in London, were both distributed in the U.S. with English subtitles.

Loach’s films feel authentic for other reasons too: he shoots chronologically, avoids closed sets as much as possible—filming, for example, in a store during business hours with real-life customers milling about—and shares only fragments of the script with actors, and even that just a day or two in advance of shooting. I, Daniel Blake’s food-bank scene—celebrated by many as one of the most moving in the cinema of this decade—illustrates the effectiveness of his method. It was shot on-site, with workers playing themselves, and most of the actors in the scene had no knowledge of how it would unfold. As it begins, Daniel, Katie, and her children line up with dozens of others on a dirty street, waiting to be admitted into the food bank. As they shuffle in, Katie follows a kind worker, who begins filling a plastic bag of necessities for her, but then Katie stops following, and we see her hunch near a shelf and eat some food directly from a can with her fingers. It is only at this point, nearly halfway through the film, that we viscerally understand that she has been starving herself so her children can eat. Poverty and hunger are not abstract notions: in this moment, which seems to erupt out of nowhere, they are rendered with horror, vivid and real.

At the heart of Loach’s cinema is an ability to take large ideas and phenomena—such as the way the rise of neoliberal capitalism goes hand in hand with the hollowing out of the welfare state—and translate them into human-scale dramas that feel compellingly detailed, genuine, and truthful. One would think that at this particular historical moment—marked by exploding inequality, escalating corporate power, and looming ecological catastrophe—we would be witnessing a surge of broadly accessible, social-realist, fictional cinema urgently attuned to the needs and concerns of the contemporary world. Mysteriously, this phenomenon is not yet in sight—at least not in abundance. Perhaps the time is ripe for a new wave: a worldwide, progressive-populist Loachian cinema of social engagement.