Working class hero: Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake" is a must-see in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump

Salon talks to Ken Loach about his acclaimed new film about austerity and the overlooked working poor

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published December 25, 2016 4:00PM (EST)


“The most vulnerable people are told that their poverty is their own fault.” Ken Loach’s new film “I, Daniel Blake” takes that basic idea and presents it with gut-wrenching intensity. “I, Daniel Blake” follows the story of a 59-year-old British carpenter who suffers a heart attack and needs state support. The film has been a major critical success and won Loach his second Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, 10 years after his first win with “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”

Along with Francis Ford Coppola and Billie August, Loach is one of only eight directors to win Cannes’ top prize twice. His new film quietly, yet powerfully shows us why Loach is one of the most important directors of our time.

Following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election, Loach’s new film is a timely portrait of the plight of the working class. The film's protagonist misses three critical points in a health assessment that would lock in his benefits, so he is then required to appeal the assessment while also applying for unemployment support.

To gain unemployment relief he must attend workshops, spend 35 hours a week looking for jobs and fill out forms on-line — a tough requirement for a man who has zero computer skills. Blake befriends Katie, a single mom Katie who is also navigating the system. With each passing twist in their Orwellian encounter with state bureaucracy, the film emphasizes the ordinary ways that major segments of society are dehumanized, demonized and dispossessed.

The reason why the film is making such a splash is because it's telling an everyday story that's regularly ignored, obscured or disdained. But even more important is the fact that Loach brings the plight of those who depend on state support to the big screen in a way that we simply have never seen before. Daniel isn’t a junkie, he doesn’t try to sleep with Katie and they don’t plan a heist. The film denies us all of the typical narrative conceits that might draw attention away from the simple fact that “welfare” systems in Britain and elsewhere have made it their business to treat those they are there to serve with cold, calculated cruelty. The story then pits the humanity of the characters against the inhumanity of the neoliberal state.

At 80, Loach has directed 19 films and his entire career has been dedicated to using a simple, realist aesthetic to draw attention to social issues, but this film signals a real turning point in his career. Its gentle intensity offers a chilling and painful look at the long-term effects of neoliberalism’s protections of profits at the expense of people. Loach accepted the Palme d’Or saying, “This neoliberal world in which we live risks leading us to disaster. Another world is possible and necessary.”

I interviewed Loach about his new film by phone earlier this month. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the idea for the film?

Paul Laverty is the writer. He lives in Scotland and I live in England and we send each other messages every day about whatever's going on and gossip on football and whatever. We found we were exchanging more and more messages, stories really, about what's happening to people who are dependent on social security just to get by. The stories got more and more extreme and just revealed a really cruel indifference to the way people were actually suffering.

We thought we should just do some research so we went to different towns, well six or seven actually, really all across the country from the west up to the midlands to the north, northwest and so on. All the stories were the same or they all had a lot in common. We thought we should just try [to] tell the story.

So the film focuses on a bureaucracy that is constructed to trap people into not getting the benefits that they're entitled to and pushes them into walking away so that the system just has far fewer people who are making the demands. The film reveals the way this is done knowingly — using inefficiency to delay, to keep people waiting, to force them to go through procedures that they knew were hopeless and they knew they couldn't comply with just to grind them down.

For those of us watching the film in the United States we can’t help but see parallels with our system. When you shot the film, did you have in mind any connections with how things work for us?

Obviously, nothing directly. All our research was in Britain, but clearly the parallels are there because we both have large areas where the working class is particularly exploited through insecure work to no work. The people are angry, alienated, feel no one speaks for them, and clearly that's the same for you. And Trump has benefited from that anger. He will make the exploitation worse and he will bring a whole culture of division and scapegoats and blaming the people who are more vulnerable. Everyone he is looking to will only make it worse; [that] is the irony. So yes, clearly there are parallels there.

Let’s talk about the opening sequence. A lot of folks have really zeroed in on the intensely moving scene at the food bank. But I wanted to ask you about the opening, which has only audio during the interview between Daniel and the health care professional doing his assessment.

We thought if we just concentrate on the voice, it makes the absurdity of the questions even more apparent. It intensifies the concentration on what's being said because there's nothing to distract you. You're not looking at her, at either of them, what they look like, the room they're in, their hair, how they speak. It's simply the absurdity of the questions and the perfunctory way in which they're being asked.

In a way, I think it tells you more by showing you less.

You have obviously over the course of your career had a really specific realist aesthetic, but there were ways in which this film sort of had odd, almost sci-fi moments where we're in this futuristic place where we're just a voice and our future is in the hands of the “decision-maker.”

We tried to do it in the most economical, pared down, simple, clear way so that there's no escape into music, there's no escape into anything other than just the complexity of the characters, the human relationships, the bureaucratic drive to humiliate them and the political imperative behind it. I just tried to get something that was absolutely pared down to the bone really, aesthetically absolutely simple.

The ominous role of “the decision-maker” who rules on all of the support cases seems to drive home the era of neoliberal austerity when things we thought weren't possible are now regular.

I know the word "Orwellian" is used far too much, but the decision-maker is like the Big Brother. I mean they are like the terms that [Orwell] used in "1984." The decision-maker, you're not allowed to see him or her. You don't know where they are, where they exist. They're a kind of mythic figure. They're disembodied people who are going to decide your future and you have no contact with them. It's absolutely extraordinary.

The "decision-maker" is the real term that they use for the person? That seems so absurd.

Yes. You see, what happens is that the person sitting opposite you in the job center, if that person were to sanction you outright, they would invite violence. If somebody sits across you and says, "OK, you're not going to eat now for a month," I mean someone's going to lean across the table and really get violent. It's quite likely because it's such a savage punishment.

Instead they say, "We're going to put your name forward for the decision-maker to decide if you will be sanctioned," and it's a protection for the job coach. But the reality is once that job coach puts your name forward for a sanction, you're going to be sanctioned.

Some of the British reviews of the film suggest that it’s an exaggeration, that it’s poverty porn. Other reviewers talk about it romanticizing the “moochers.” I'm curious how you attempt to launch a film when you know that one of the first things that's going to happen is people are going to question whether this is depicting any sort of reality.

Paul is scrupulous about this. The research is absolutely rock solid and no one has challenged one piece, one item in the film. I mean they'll say, "It's romanticized," but they won't pick on any specific item. They can't because actually it's underplayed. We could've made it much worse and we particularly chose characters who are not obvious victims. I mean, Dan is. . . . I guess he's what in America they would call a regular guy. He's got a job. He's always had a job. He's not got any addictions. He's not an obvious victim. He's done everything by the book and I mean he's just an ordinary bloke. He's just ordinary and he has a heart attack and this is what happens.

He's actually typical of the people we met, but the right wing like[s] you to tell stories about people who are obviously victims so they can say, "Well, that's why they're in the trouble they are." But that's not true. I mean we had hundreds of stories that were more tragic.

There was a man whose wife was pregnant. He was between jobs so he's claiming benefits. His wife was pregnant. She went into labor prematurely. He took her to hospital. He got her to a hospital somehow but then his money was stopped because he had to miss his job appointment.

Another story, and this was even worse, [concerns] a man who was sick. He was too old to work. I mean everybody agreed he was too old to work, but he had to keep going in for appointments. He fell down. He cut himself very badly. The neighbors sent for an ambulance and he was too afraid to get in the ambulance because he was afraid they would keep him overnight and he'd miss his appointment the next day. He was too afraid to get in the ambulance and he didn't go to hospital even though he was really badly cut. He needed stitches. People live with that level of fear, which is really extraordinary, shocking.

How do the critiques of the film tell us something about austerity culture, where austerity has become normal and acceptable?

The reality is slightly different [from] how it's presented. I mean at the bottom of it is the political function of the press and the broadcasters, and by and large the function of the press, one that they happily embrace, even including The Guardian, is to imply there's no alternative and that this is the way the world is. It's the natural order of things. The free market is the only way we can live. And that is the ultimate political correctness. They think political correctness is actually saying bad things about women or people of color. Actually, the real political correctness is that you can't challenge the idea of the market or free trade.

It has come to be accepted that there will be unemployment, there will be casual employment, there will be low wages, there will be low taxes so people won't have public services. That's the reality that you have to live in. It's a real struggle for [those with] political consciousness to say, "No, that isn't the case. We can live differently. You can plan. You can own public services, public utilities, industries, transport. We did own them once" and to say that there is an alternative.

On the one hand, people are told there's no alternative; but on the other hand, they do rebel. I mean you've got a lot of transport strikes at the moment, which is a form of rebellion. We've got a massive increase in the left part of the labor parties' membership with a left leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He's being compared to Bernie Sanders. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined it because he's saying, "Yes, we can live differently. Austerity is a political choice. It's not a law of nature." So there's a big struggle going on and I think in the mainstream press they don't even acknowledge the struggle because it's not in their interest to.

As a filmmaker who tries to use the medium of film to communicate socially meaningful stories, tell me what you think of the rise of Trump and the way he uses media to promote fear and hostility. How can an alternative use of the media be used to challenge those ideas?

God, that's complicated. I mean any answer's got to start with understanding that Trump is a figure from the far right and the far right tends to be successful when business employers, the big corporations feel that the establishment and politicians can't deliver the circumstances they need because their system is failing. They've got to go for a figure or movement that will incorporate their power in a way beyond what liberal democracies are used to.

The laws become more repressive and the rights, the things we used to see as rights, disappear and people are encouraged to believe it because there is some great enemy that they have to sacrifice these rights for in order to defeat that enemy. They'll maybe sacrifice a few things in order to reassert what they see as the greatness of their country or their own advancement. There will be scapegoats who will really suffer. That's the poorest people and immigrants and people who can be marketed as different.

There'll be projects that they can identify with as sources of national pride, but behind that they'll be getting screwed because the corporate elite will have to turn to the working class to increase their profits. The far right creates a fake kind of heroism. The leaders of the far right are always presented in a heroic way and we see that with Trump’s mass rallies and his use of the mass media. It's very difficult to combat that sort of angry populism when the mass media's compliant and the mass media's been entranced by the far right for years. Trump got far more coverage in the early days than Bernie Sanders did, far more coverage, like Nigel Farage here, far more coverage than people on the left. The writing press loves him and the BBC do, too.

So there is collusion between the mass media and the far right. The mass media can present Trump as though they're presenting him with some disdain. They can act like superior, bourgeois intellectuals who are dismissive of the far right, but actually they give him so much publicity that he gains traction. That's a curious, apparent contradiction. For the left to establish itself against that process is very difficult. I think the left can only establish itself through grassroots activism and particularly now with social media. The left has to organize at a grassroots level through social media to challenge the mass media. It’s not going to work using the odd film or play or whatever that we can provide. It’s got to be grassroots activism, which establishes a different narrative.

“I, Daniel Blake” opened in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 23 and will continue to open in theaters throughout January.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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