I, Daniel Blake is a hard film to watch. It is fantastic to hear people talking about it, and infuriating to hear people dismissing its message.
Daniel, a widower and carpenter, is declared unfit for work by his doctor after a heart attack. But he is told by an independent assessor that he did not ‘score enough points’ to receive employment support allowance. Instead he must sign on, which means applying for work he is too unwell to do.
Unhelpful call centre staff tell him he must wait for a phone call from ‘the decision maker’ after being on hold for hours; the employment office pitilessly churns through endless cases like his; a member of staff shows sympathy, and is reprimanded by her manager for ‘setting a precedent’; a potential employer thinks that Daniel would prefer to be a ‘scrounger’ on benefits. He faces judgement on all sides.
Newly moved to Newcastle, mother Katie also represents an increasingly common issue – a single parent and two kids forced to leave behind their family, support network, and school, because there is no social housing available in London. Rather than continue to live in cramped temporary accommodation, they move when a flat becomes available, even if it is three hundred miles away. Their visit to the food bank might be the most devastating scene in the film. Waiting in the long queue is cut by the magic of cinema, but Katie’s tears of shame and desperation at feeling unable to look after her family are all too real.
I, Daniel Blake tries to capture the quiet desperation of being beholden to a system that does not want to acknowledge you. The job centre staff are forced to focus on ticking boxes and calling security if anyone ‘causes a scene’. It is the epitome of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’.
Ken Loach has created a reflection of ‘Cathy Come Home’ 50 years on: a modern update. Daniel and Katie are sympathetic characters, even when the script becomes awkward or the acting is unnatural. You could argue that a polished, overproduced piece would only take away from the narrative. And even when the dialogue becomes really clunky, it rings painfully true to anyone who has needed the support of an increasingly stretched system, or worked within it. It is already too late for Daniel to protest: ‘I am not a client, I am not a customer, I am not a service user… I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.’
I’ve been made redundant and gone ‘on the dole’. Having full access to a computer, it was no problem for me to tweak my CV and fill in one online job application after another. My employment officer had ten years of experience, and his best advice was ‘Something will come up.’ He recommended I attend a workshop, as Daniel does, to fill the requirements of Job Seeker’s Allowance, but couldn’t tell me what to do if it happened to fall on the same day as my appointment. For anyone with a health problem, a disability, children to look after, or lack of access to a computer, the system is needlessly punitive and the drive to fill unending requirements is all too real.
It is painful to be reminded of the reality of a system that thousands of people are facing every day, and that threatens to harm more and more of us. Like a documentary, there is no happy ending: simply the moment when the cameras are turned off.