This piece contains no spoilers for the film itself.
Upon seeing Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake on its release, I had a slight sense of dread. I felt positive that one of those ironic occurrences was lining itself up nicely and I hoped it’d be too perfect to actually happen.
But it did, and two days after seeing this story of the unemployed, of their struggles and battles, I too found myself in the position of no longer being employed. It’s the solipsist in me that thinks if I hadn’t seen it, it might not have happened.
I mention this because the reaction to the film has been polarising. It has created a great sense of empathy but in a sense I feel this is partly fictionalised, and is a reflection of a new form of political correctness, one driven by social media, mob mentality and inferred morals.
As I thought about the film in the following days, I felt myself straddling that unknowable chasm between employment, comfort, stability and the terrible hole down which we witness some of the characters fall. I did not and have not (to date) suffered anywhere close to what this film shows and what it reflects in its society, but I felt like I did step through the looking glass and what I saw made me very uncomfortable.
To step back for a second, as I left Hyde Park Picture House I had mixed feelings about the film. I thought it was a solid film, good (and very good) in parts. I enjoyed the characters and the performances. I felt some aspects of it were a little broad and the story strayed on occasion into something approaching cliché. That, if it were a fiction, it would feel a little uninspired. I won’t say what I am referring to here for the sake of spoilers, but if you have seen it, you can probably guess.
But the interesting thing was; how fictionalised was this? I admire Loach’s method of creating his films, the research, the workshops, the improvising and I expect that everything in the film has a seed in reality. Sometimes a cliché becomes a cliché for good reason.
My second immediate reaction was that this might be a more important film than it is a great film. Whatever small issues I may have with the route the story took, the question on my mind was; who else would be making this film today? In ten years time, in one hundred years time, we will be able to look back and see Britain in 2016, to see what was happening. Not many mainstream films dare to do that, at least on a level that resonates with me. Films about British people, working class people, people with ‘unremarkable’ lives, the unseen, the unknown, the unglamorous.
I felt so glad that the film existed. It didn’t flinch. It didn’t go for cheap northern / common folk jokes or sentimentality.
I tweeted that day a thank you to Ken Loach, for reminding me what dignity was. And in that sense, I found the film to be very romantic. The traits we are supposed to apply to Kings and warriors and superheroes in most of what flashes across the screen at the multiplex often don’t exist; we just see archetypes and are expected to imprint depth and complexity as we see fit. But here, we do see those heroic and self-sacrificing traits. It meant a lot on that day to see someone stand up for their beliefs but as the days went on, it began to hold a mirror up to myself and the world that was less pleasant.
Without ruining the film, it partly involves the titular character being nice to a single mother and helping her through her difficulties, as he faces his own. Witnessing these characters’ problems, I think to myself – I would help them out if I could. I want to be honourable. I want to give when I have nothing left to give. I want to help those less fortunate.
But here is where the romance comes in. Because I believe there probably was a society like that, once. I believe Loach has seen it, or glimpses, and wants to lead us to it. Socialist, some might say. But equally, a just a society where you can leave your door open at night, where neighbours look after one another, where we all march on for the greater good.
I’ve never known that world. Born the year of the Miner’s Strike I sensed it in my youth but by the time I could understand it, it was gone. It is a lost world and I can understand why some people find the film unrealistic, a left wing fantasy. Not so much that the situations shown are lies, but that life could or indeed should be any other way. If someone finds themselves at the bottom of society, well, they must deserve to be there, right? Because why else would they be there.
I understand that idea of a better society but it saddens me so much because it has never felt further away. You can take the idea of nuclear disarmament down to the local level; we should all be able to leave our front doors unlocked when we go out, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be the first to do it.
As I walked around Wakefield in the following weeks and saw homeless people on the streets, the sad reality of our society was there to see. Not just their predicament, but mine. Because, they are probably on drugs, right? Or they will spend it on booze won’t they? The ingrained meanness and distrust pops up to the top of my mind. Except it troubles me more because I don’t have a job and I could be like them soon enough. In today’s Britain, any of us could.
I wonder if, when I had money, whether I was generous enough. Was I a good person? Or did it just distance me from those I suppose I’d like to help?
I am glad I Daniel Blake has had the mass exposure it has received and has created debate. I feel in decades passed it could have been a catalyst for examination and change, along similar lines to influential work such as Cathy Come Home. But despite the deserved accolades, I wonder if that idea is as outdated and romantic as those of society, co-operation and shared responsibility. Because instead of discussion, I just see (and hear) two opposing, hardline camps for whom it is absolute truth and absolute lie.
Still, I thank Ken Loach and everyone involved for making the film. If nothing else, it shows that we must document our world; it cannot be left to the politicians and the news agencies. And that spirit, I felt I must also document my own thoughts on the film and how it made me feel.