Filmmaker Ken Loach is well known for his social realism; his highly acclaimed career has brought us many film classics that portray many aspects of working class life. Films like Kes, Raining Stones, Riff Raff, Looking for Eric, to name a few, were gritty, realistic, funny and sympathetic stories about the ‘ordinary folk’ of northern England.
Many Irish people will be aware of Loach’s two ‘Irish’ films: the powerful interpretation of the Irish War of Independence, the award winning, The Wind That Shakes The Barley and 2014’s brilliant Jimmy’s Hall the true story of the persecution and eventual deportation of Irish socialist Jimmy Gralton.
Loach’s latest film, I Daniel Blake was the recipient of the much-coveted Palme d’Or award at the Cannes film festival earlier this year. This was Loach’s second time to receive that award having won in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Whether Loach puts any stock in awards is neither here nor there, what is undeniable is his talent as a filmmaker and I Daniel Blake is outstanding.
The film is set in the post industrialised city of Newcastle and follows the story of a man out of work due to illness, navigating his way through the now Tory outsourced Social Welfare system. The opening scene will be sadly familiar to anyone who has endured the bureaucratic and demeaning nature of social welfare interviews. The main character is on benefits having had a heart attack; the interview is to determine if he is ill enough to continue receiving benefit. Despite his doctor’s opinion the interviewer insists that she will be sending his case to the ‘decision maker’. The anonymous ‘decision maker’ holds all the power while the frontline staff assess each claimant with a line of inane questions designed by a bureaucrat and not a doctor.
In the course of his visits to the jobcentre Daniel befriends a young single mother from London who has had to relocate to the north of England because of lack of affordable accommodation. The two become support for each other as their economic circumstances deteriorate.
Loach juxtaposes the dehumanizing experience of the social welfare system, with all of its power over vulnerable people, with a decency that is displayed in the relationships Daniel has with his neighbours, ex work colleagues and his new friend and her young children.
The story is heart breaking and very real. Thousands of people across Ireland face the same situation as Daniel and the other welfare recipients featured in the film. Our miss named Department of Social Protection has blindly copied the Tory system of out sourcing and demonising people for applying for the welfare that they are entitled to. We have a system that makes people beg for what is theirs while massive sums of money are diverted from the public purse into private hands.
Minister Varadkar painted a grossly inaccurate picture in the Dáil last week of unemployed people being offered ‘employment opportunities’. These ‘opportunities’ actually would cost a person hundreds of euro to take up and with no realistic prospect a decent job at the end of it. The Minister caricatured those people and portrayed them as people who sit at home waiting for dream jobs, not people who have been pauperised by the system and by lack of opportunity, and lack of adequate child care.
Huge emphasis has been put on these false training schemes. People who worked all their lives and paid their contribution to society are forced to sign up to schemes with local authorities to pick up litter. This system is designed to humiliate, dehumanize, embarrass, and grind people into submission.
Loach’s film portrays all of the sickening reality of Tory/Blueshirt policy. And it is brought home in the most distressing way in a poignant scene when the young mother reaches breaking point at a food bank. As Loach says himself “If your not angry about it, what kind of person are you.”
I Daniel Blake opens in cinemas on Friday 21st October, go see it and get angry.