As I watched the 2016 film, I, Daniel Blake, two thoughts ran through my head.
First: This is one of the saddest, most powerful films that I’ve ever seen.
Second: It’s a pity that, for all of his talent, Ken Loach is such an anti-Semitic twat.
Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a carpenter who lives in Newcastle. He’s a widower who lives alone in a small flat, keeps an eye on his neighbors, and always tries to do the right thing. As he explains it, he’s never asked for nor accepted charity. He’s worked hard all of his life and all he’s ever asked is to be treated with respect in return. After suffering a heart attack, he is told by his doctor that it will be a while before he can safely return to work. However, when Blake goes to the Department of Work and Pensions, he is told that he had been evaluated and he only “scored 12 points.” In order to receive an employment and support allowance, he would need to score 14 points. How does one score 14 points? No one seems to be quite sure. Fortunately, there is an appeals process but no one appears to be willing to give Dan a straight answer as to how the process works. He’s told that it can’t even start until he gets an official call informing him that his application for the allowance has been denied. Of course, Dan already knows that he’s been denied because, through a bureaucratic snafu, Dan received a letter telling him that he’s been denied. However, it doesn’t matter that he already knows it. What matters is that he wait for the official phone call.
In the meantime, it is continually suggested that Dan go online to solve all of his problems, despite the fact that Dan is 59 year-old and has next to no idea how to work a computer. (When he does go online, he’s forced to ask strangers for help with everything from using the mouse to submitting his forms.) Broke, Dan applies for a jobseeker’s allowance and is told that he had to spend 35 hours a week looking for employment, despite the fact that his doctor has not cleared him to work. Whenever someone is willing to hire Dan, Dan is forced to admit that he can’t take the job, adding to the list of his daily humiliations.
Meanwhile, Dan befriends a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is literally starving herself so that her children will have enough to eat. (In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Katie has a breakdown at a food bank.) When she’s caught shoplifting, a security guard offers to help her out but his help comes with a price of its own.
And through it all, the state continues to grind both Dan and Katie into the ground. With its harrowing portrayal of two people literally being destroyed by a combination of poverty and authoritarian bureaucracy, I, Daniel Blake is the rare movie that can be enjoyed by both socialists and libertarians. At no point does I, Daniel Blake romanticize the poverty of its characters. From the minute we first see Daniel, he is obviously a very ill man and the film does not flinch from showing the personal toll of the daily humiliations of his struggle to just get someone to listen to his voice. As we watch, we hope things will work out for Dan and Katie, even though we know they won’t. Katie is fond of saying that she’s going to go back to school and Dan even makes her a bookcase for her future school books but again, we know it’s a dream that will probably never come true. It’s not a happy film but it is a powerful one.
That said, I nearly didn’t watch I, Daniel Blake because of the fact that it is a Ken Loach film. Loach is one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, a filmmaker and activist who has been making movies since the late 1960s. Loach is known for his willingness to make films that both deal with social issues and challenge the British status quo. Though he may not be well-known in the States, he’s a controversial figure in the UK. He’s also one of the leading supporters of the despicable BDS movement and, when one looks over his public comments, it’s hard not to get the impression that his criticism of Israel is motivated by more than just disagreement with Israeli government policy.
But I did watch because, ultimately, I feel that art can be separated from the artist. Ken Loach may be loathsome but this film is not. I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, beating out such films as American Honey, Elle, The Neon Demon, and Toni Erdmann.