Saturday, 29 October 2016

Fleapit revisited:I, Daniel Blake

"When I say what things are like everyone's heart must be torn to shreds." - Bertolt Brecht.

It's probably a good job cinemas are dark. Fellow patrons may've been embarrassed by the tears streaming down my cheeks during Ken Loach's timely, important, and vital new film I, Daniel Blake. I'd been warned in advance that it was a tough, but rewarding, watch and it certainly is both those things. But it's so much more as well. It's a righteously angry, heartbreaking, tightly scripted (by Loach's regular collaborator Paul Laverty) look at the 'conscious cruelty' of the current ruling class and how it affects, corrupts, and destroys everyone beneath them in the food chain.

Loach is renowned both for his powerful realist work and for the strong social conscience that underpins it. TV drama Cathy Come Home about a young woman's descent into poverty and homelessness, Kes, the film about a bullied Yorkshire schoolboy who finds hope in caring for a kestrel, and My Name Is Joe, about a recovering alcoholic who falls in love with a health visitor. They're all excellent but I, Daniel Blake may be his best yet.

The film centres around the story of 59 year old Blake, a joiner living in Newcastle who's suffered a heart attack and been told by medical professionals he can't go back to work. During a farcical, and occasionally hilarious, eligibility assessment for sickness benefit he comes up a little short of the 'points' required and is forced instead to apply for job seeker's allowance.

This throws him into a byzantine, Kafkaesque world of sanctions, punishments, and having to spend his days applying for jobs that either aren't there or he can't do anyway. Not computer literate he struggles with the new online world. The ludicrous CV workshop he attends would be enough to send lesser men into a life of crime. All the while his appeals and applications for benefit are handled by an unseen 'decision maker' on the end of the phone. Like the banker on Deal or No Deal all power seems to rest in the hands of a person who's barely real.

During one typically fractious day at the Job Centre he runs into Katie. She's not long arrived in Newcastle from London with her two young children, Daisy and Dylan, and, due to her lack of local geography, has arrived slightly late for her interview. This, of course, cuts no ice with the bureaucratic regime instilled within that organisation from higher up.

Daniel and Katie strike up a friendship. Daniel's lost his wife, Molly, and, having never had children himself, appears to be taking Katie and her children as surrogate daughter and grandchildren. In a film so bleak and harrowing in places the warmth of their relationship, the small acts of kindness played out, is almost harder to watch than the scenes where Daniel verbally dukes it out with authority.

Predictably things go from bad to worse for both Daniel and Katie. Slowly a proud man is brought to his knees and Katie's dreams of returning to the Open University have to be shelved as more pressing concerns, like visiting a food bank so her family don't starve and buying shoes for her children, take over. Quiet scenes, like Katie crying on the stairs after Daisy asks her to look after herself, are nearly too much to bear. Many directors would show the drama and not the consequences. Loach allows the camera to linger those few extra seconds. The viewer, of course, realises that these seconds can become hours, weeks, and years.

Though the prognosis never looks particularly good I found myself genuinely caring, and rooting, for these characters. It's a testament to a fine performance in the title role by Dave Johns and, perhaps, an even better one by Hayley Squires as Katie. Like Tiffany Mitchell from Eastenders hitting the skids her determination and resolve sit in stark counterpoint to her grim reality. That Squires conveys this with such a light touch underlines what a wonderful performance she provides.

Briana Shann, who plays Daisy, must earn plaudits too. At times she seems preternaturally grown up as she calmly gets on with her new life in a new town. Trying to look after the adults as much as they try to look after her. But when she climbs into her mum's bed for a cuddle after a bullying incident at school you realise she's really just a little girl who's been forced, by circumstance, to grow up quicker than she should. The bastards won't just steal your hopes and dreams. They'll steal your childhood. It's sickening.

Some light relief is provided in the role of Daniel's neighbour China (Kema Sikazwe) who leaves his half-eaten takeaways in the aisles of the block they live in, runs an imported trainer racket with a mate, and helps Daniel with his technophobia. The employees at the Job Centre aren't so well sketched but there's a telling scene where one member of staff takes pity on Daniel and offers him some extra assistance. She's immediately called in for a reprimand. It's made clear it's not the first time she's been in trouble for helping people.

This small moment speaks volumes about where we're at as a society. Nobody should ever be in trouble for helping somebody and until the system is changed so that kindness replaces cruelty these scenes will play out over and over again, in real life, and often much worse, up and down the country. The people who work in these places aren't the problem. They're also victims of a system of mistrust and blame that's been whipped up by the right wing press and exploited by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and his buddies for decades. Vice reports that between December 2011 and February of 2014 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance ended because a work capability assessment found they were "fit for work". If this doesn't make you angry you're part of the problem.

One person who seems intensely relaxed about it is Camilla Long, an ancestor of the Duke of Newcastle who was educated at Oxford Corpus Christi before taking a highly paid job for Rupert Murdoch spewing out vile filth about the 'lower orders'. She claimed, of this film, "for all its hideously condescending attempts at teeth-grinding realism, it feels unreal".Well, being an ancestor of the Duke of Newcastle feels pretty unreal to me. What's concerning is that Daniel Blake is clearly a competent, able, articulate man. Not everyone who falls into the system is and they're the ones that get crushed the quickest and most painfully.

What would Camilla Long say if she saw the disabled people being squashed by the DWP? What would she say about children being forced into destitution and women being pressured into prostitution? How would she justify the terrified and desperate being whipped up into fits of rage by the (tax-avoiding) man she works for so they can continue voting for the spiral of hate? She seems to represent the very worst of entitlement, the management class, the anti-Spartacist element. Her existence, and success, prove this film's worth.

The quote at the start of this piece was given by Loach himself at a Cannes press conference for I, Daniel Blake (where it won the Palme d'Or). Bertolt Brecht died in 1956. Loach made Cathy Come Home in 1966. The fact that 50/60 years later both seem not just pertinent, but more relevant than ever, is an absolute fucking disgrace.

Ken Loach should be applauded for shining a light on to the darkness. Those of us who watch the film are surely duty bound to do what we can to move away from it, reject the right wing agenda of Rupert Murdoch, and, in common with the more life affirming moments of this film, reach out to each other and share our humanity while it's not too late. It's what we're for.

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