I, Daniel Blake is a harrowing film. Set in the present day, it is a drama about people who find themselves trapped in the benefits system in modern Britain. It is a film by Ken Loach, whose work is often highly political and focused upon the working classes, the downtrodden, the poor and the vulnerable. I, Daniel Blake is no exception in this regard. And though I’ve only seen two other of his films, that being his 2013 documentary The Spirit of ’45 and his 2005 documentary McLibel, I’m willing to bet that this is perhaps one of his most politically controversial films to date because the subject matter of the film is so current and the debate surrounding it is so emotionally charged.
The film follows the story of a middle-aged man from Newcastle, Daniel Blake, who has recently suffered a heart attack and has therefore been told by his doctor that he can’t go back to work until his heart recovers. Having spent much of his adult life as a carpenter, he must now look to the state for support so as to feed himself and keep a roof over his head while he is out of action – something he has never had to do before.
He soon learns that applying for benefits is harder that it first seems. He tries to apply for Employment and Support Allowance, the social security one applies for if you are unable to work due to illness or a disability. To do this he must undergo a Work Capability Assessment by the state, which, as the title suggests, assesses whether he is fit to work. Yet, despite the fact that his doctor said he was unable to work, the work capability assessors tell him that he is fit to work and that he is therefore unable to receive Employment and Support Allowance.
He then turns up at the Jobcentre to try to get some money to support himself with and there his life collides with that of Katie, a mother of two young children also seeking support whilst she looks for employment. She and her children are new to the town as they have just moved up to Newcastle from London.
They look to each other for support as they each find themselves in increasingly desperate situations. Katie has to miss meals so as to feed and clothe her kids for school, while Daniel (or Dan, as he is referred to by friends and acquaintances in the community) has to try to survive while he waits for a response to his appeal against the decision made by the work capability assessors to come through – a response which has with no set deadline. In the meantime he has to live off Job Seeker’s Allowance, a benefit which he can only receive if he spends 35 hours per week looking for work. He is forced to look for and apply to jobs which he will not be able to actually take – to the frustration of employers who accept Dan for a job only to then be informed that he’s wasted their time.
Image: By JimmyGuano (Newcastle-upon-Tyne-bridges-and-skyline.jpg) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons