For some this film is an unrepresentative picture of what the benefits system is like and what benefit claimants are like. For others this film gets right to the heart of the social injustice which exists in Britain today. To the loaded question of whether benefit claimants are skivers who are leeching off the state and other taxpayers’ money, Ken Loach’s film responds with an emphatic “No.”
Ken Loach’s vision for I, Daniel Blake is to act as a counterpoint to the many stories told in the press and elsewhere about persons who are living off benefits because they think they can get away with it; feeling no desire to get a job and contribute to their community or wider society.
Daniel Blake is the antithesis of this depiction of benefits claimants as fraudsters or scroungers. The desire to work and be productive runs through his veins. He does not take any joy in being unemployed. He does not sit on his backside and watch the world go by. Instead he sees Katie with her two children in a vulnerable situation and supports them. He keeps an eye on the young lads who live next door to him, wanting to make sure they don’t get into too much trouble. He is an asset, not a burden, to his community.
What’s more he is an honest man, a man who keeps his integrity throughout, despite his grave mistreatment by the very system which is supposed to be supporting him. And the character of Katie is much the same, willing to do anything to keep her kids fed and keep a roof over their head. This depiction of benefit claimants has naturally been questioned by some critics and commentators. For, example, Toby Young said:
“We’re asked to believe people who claim incapacity benefit are all upstanding citizens who would love nothing more than to earn an honest living if only they were able-bodied. Forcing them to undergo a Work Capability Assessment is a needless humiliation from a sadistic Tory government.”
He accused Loach of romanticising people on benefits, seeing them through his rose-tinted, lefty-socialist spectacles. However, I think Toby Young misses the point. Loach is not necessarily saying that absolutely every single unemployed person on benefits, or applying for benefits, is an upstanding member of society. What he is trying to do is to say is that our current image of what a person on benefits is like is a lie and with I, Daniel Blake he is providing a retort to that image and challenging people’s preconceptions on the matter.
In my opinion, it was a bold piece of cinema. Shot with no background music, giving the scenes a rawness and immediacy, there are many scenes which will bring a tear to your eye. There were a couple of scenes I found very difficult to watch. However, there was also a surprising amount of humour in the film. Dave Johns, who plays Daniel Blake, delivers some brilliantly sharp and witty lines over its 100 minute running time. Most importantly, I, Daniel Blake is a film which has something critical to say about our society as it is today and it says it well. For this reason alone it is a film worth seeing.
I, Daniel Blake was released in cinemas last month (October 2016).
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