I, Daniel Blake
Whenever there are debates around national debt or public spending, the validity of the social welfare system is almost always questioned. Often characterised as bludgers, cheats or leaners, those who receive some form of financial assistance are lumped together as one collective drain on the government purse. In I, Daniel Blake, director Ken Loach makes us see a welfare recipient in a way that we rarely do. We see them as being more than simply a recipient of welfare, but as a person with their own wants, their own abilities, and their own sense of dignity.
After suffering a severe heart attack, 59 year-old Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is deemed unfit for work and must apply for financial assistance to sustain him through his recovery. Dan is a proud man, a carpenter by trade who would much prefer to earn his money than have it handed to him, but whose unexpected decline in health has taken that choice away. The film follows Dan as he attempts to navigate the bureaucratic maze that is British welfare, and we watch as he is slowly worn down by the system that is supposed to support him.
There is an unexpected humour in Dan’s story that builds out of a recognition of his plight. We have all, at some point in our lives, been required to sit on hold for hours waiting for a human voice, or filled out form after form that in no way relates to what we need. When Dan is faced with rehearsed, robotic responses and instructions that are impossible to follow, we understand the frustration that he feels because we have felt it ourselves. Loach draws us into his story by giving us something that we can connect to, making it all the more powerful when Dan truly begins to suffer.
The cold, unfeeling nature of these interactions is countered by the small acts of kindness that appear throughout the film. Friends, neighbours and even strangers offers their assistance where they can, giving Dan both the help that he needs to take on the welfare system and the strength that he needs to keep fighting. We get to see the more personal side of Dan through the friendship that he forms with Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother who is also fighting for the money to keep her two children fed and clothed. There is a tenderness between the two that is not seen by the outside world, their friendship reminding us that their lives exist beyond the walls of the welfare office.
The performances are unpolished and gritty, and give the impression that you are watching real people reacting in the moment. While this can at times cause lines to fall flat, these few momentary weaknesses are overshadowed by the sense of reality that dominates the tone of the film.
I, Daniel Blake demonstrates how delicate our situations are in life. A single event can very easily throw us into insecurity. Loach shows us that there are holes in the social safety net through which any of us can fall, and that the systems existing around us can actually work to keep us there once we do.
This is the story of one man trying to survive another day, but he is one among many. When he fights against the indifference of the system, he is fighting for more than just himself. He is fighting for every person who must answer demeaning and embarrassing questions in order to have enough money to eat. Through his story, he reminds us that the so-called bludgers, cheaters and leaners of this world have their own stories too, and they are stories worthy of our attention.
I Daniel Blake is screening nationally.