Director Ken Loach, 1980
I, DANIEL BLAKE B
Great Britain France Belgium (100 mi) 2016 d: Ken Loach Official site
Despite winning the coveted Palme d’Or first prize award at Cannes, the second time for Loach after previously winning for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), this holds surprisingly little clout in Chicago, as despite the recognition from the most prestigious film festival in the world, it was relegated to the small 100-seat theater at the Music Box, as the larger main theater (nearly 800 seats) was screening some unheard of film entitled Band Aid (2017) that took center stage. As incomprehensible as this sounds, this accurately describes how much these awards matter to theater owners, as they simply couldn’t care less. And to be honest, for this film to be chosen over Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), which is not only more entertaining, but far more original in scope, easily making it one of the film experiences of the year, is not just a head-scratcher, but inexcusable, yet it’s not the first time a Cannes jury got it wrong. Despite making a powerful indictment of a dysfunctional British social system, this is not even among the upper echelon of Ken Loach films, lacking the artistry, but instead continually follows a conventional format of what might be called misery porn, like Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur (2011), where viewers are forced to endure a relentlessly downward trajectory that reaches gloomy and eventually tragic proportions. While this is basically a trip through the British welfare system that couldn’t be more exasperating, where the system has lost its ability to retain “human” values, the downward spiral is simply too convenient overall and doesn’t really get into the intricacies of the issues, but instead tells the story in black or white, were people are all good or all bad. Unlike the world’s perception, having worked in this field for more than three decades, my personal experience is that most bureaucratic workers are really more interested in “helping” others than is usually depicted on television or in movies, and do what they can, while the State’s repressive measures prevent them from doing so. Loach provides the stereotypical negative perception, where workers are the bogeyman instead of the State, which is a far cry from the truth and one major disappointment with the film, as it’s far more complex, though the State’s desired goal does seem to be to make things so harrowingly difficult that people simply give up out of human frustration. Yet the film doesn’t reveal anything that wasn’t already better expressed in Cristi Puiu’s starkly realistic Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a scathing exposé of social injustice that reveals the futility of challenging an antiquated authoritarian system, where layer upon layer of corruption reveals a permanent state of laziness and apathy in workers that make the system so profoundly ineffective, breathing so much more life into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that is closer to a death spiral than a social service. Loach has created a gentler version of a journey through an absurd set of State rules that make little sense, where it immediately starts to resemble a road through hell paved with one Sisyphean obstacle after another, with no one either intelligent or wise enough to help people navigate their way through the system, while those that try get chastised for it by their superiors.
In comparison, Loach’s own film, MY NAME IS JOE (1998), is a fiery revelation, magnificently acted, far more original in creating a compassionate working class hero who is stifled by a social situation that seems dire and hopeless, where there is literally no outlet to a better world, yet the essential human decency emboldened in the troubled character of Joe (Peter Mullan) is unmistakable, while the Dardenne’s bleak and unredeeming ROSETTA (1999) is another example, featuring a remarkable performance by a non-professional (Émilie Dequenne), where she is a teenager determined and at wit’s end to find a job to emancipate herself from the abject poverty of living with her alcoholic mother in a trailer park, pacing back and forth like a caged animal during her agonizing search, bringing a ferocity of spirit that to this day is unforgettable. These films are on another level of authenticity and social realism, offering the barest glimmer of hope without any sentimentality, where nothing is exaggerated or abstract, but confined within the world in which they live, providing no wiggle room for the audience that feels just as constricted, as we so fully embrace the world of the characters onscreen. Loach’s new film feels underwritten, even incomplete by comparison, bordering on sentimentality, as the director doesn’t have a neutral bone in his body, where the characters aren’t nearly so fleshed out, feeling predetermined, with viewers easily able to predict the final outcome, so this is a conventionally told film that offers few surprises, where its subject matter of human decency, however, couldn’t be more timely, receiving a 15-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes. At the center of the picture is British standup comic Dave Johns as Daniel Blake, a working carpenter who suffers a heart attack early in the film, putting him out of work, forced to apply for sickness benefits, where his condition is evaluated not by a physician or medical team, but by a bureaucratic functionary who takes greater interest in checking the boxes than learning about the extent of his medical condition. It comes as no surprise that his application is denied, but then he’s not allowed to appeal until after he receives a mandatory phone call that should have preceded the written decision. While in the social services office, he witnesses the rude treatment to another family, Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who has been relocated nearly 300 miles from London to Newcastle for its cheaper cost of living, but is unfamiliar with the city and knows no one there, so took the wrong bus and arrived late for her appointment. Both are thrown out of the office, though they’ve hardly committed any offense except to be outraged at their inhumane treatment. Apparently the State wants their mistreated recipients to go quietly into the night. In the process of commiserating over their circumstances, Blake realizes Katie’s home is lacking many working amenities, where he’s more than willing to fix things that are either broken or not working, making their life a little more bearable. In the process, Katie’s family shares meals with Blake, but Katie goes hungry, making up some excuse about how she just ate.
Certainly the most upsetting scene of the film is a trip to the food bank, with Blake accompanying Katie and her children, where there is a line extending around the block waiting to get in. When they finally get inside, a woman helps pick out items and places them in plastic bags, but Katie is so worn out and hungry, she devours the first thing she sees before breaking down in tears, consumed by shame and humiliation, a shocking scene that is unbelievably moving, showing great restraint and far more sympathy than the subject usually receives, yet also providing a blunt reminder of the terrible things hunger drives people to do. Things only grow worse, as despite Blake’s help, Katie’s situation only becomes more desperate, where there are men that prey upon women in desperate straits, swooping in like vultures for the kill, where by that time, pride be damned, she’s willing to do nearly anything for money. Blake, meanwhile, is suffering his own setbacks, where his appeal must be entered online and he’s computer illiterate. Requiring the help of others, he slowly manages to make some progress, only to see the computer freeze or crash before he finishes, where he has to start all over again — a grim reminder of his uncertain fate, where his life is literally in the hands of others. As he waits endlessly for an appeal, he has no income coming in, selling all his belongings, where he’s caught in an absurd no man’s land where he also applies for unemployment benefits, where to receive benefits he’s required to look for work, even though he’s unable, but he dutifully makes the rounds, walking endlessly in circles, asking employers to kindly sign his resumé as proof he was looking, yet when he shows up for his mandatory appointment, he’s threatened with sanctions, where he’s reminded constantly of the negative consequences, losing benefits for up to 13 weeks, 26 weeks, or 3 years for failure to comply. Stuck in a Catch-22 situation where he’s still unable to work, while the Department for Work and Pensions never even contacted his doctor before rendering their decision, where the delay before he can receive an appeal hearing seems to take forever, sapping all the strength out of him, where both he and Katie find themselves in dangerous situations, more desperate than ever, with few, if any, options remaining. Predictably, Blake’s public protest, a showy scene writing graffiti on a public building demanding a hearing before he starves, is a last gasp of self-respect that creates some momentary street commotion, but is roundly condemned by authorities and only gets him arrested. Thwarted at every turn, life only becomes more and more unbearable, spiraling into an endless void, where viewers can sympathize with his inhumane mistreatment, stripped of his dignity in the process, or they can simply wash their hands of these kinds of problems and pretend they don’t exist. The two central characters are appealing, at least what we know of them, so the audience feels morally invested in what happens to them, but the film ends with a kind of muted emotion, where any number of outcomes are possible, but few bring even an ounce of happiness, where the entire experience is like a nightmarish wrong turn. Was this all a bad dream or does it really happen? And if so, how do we fix this kind of broken system? Enduring poverty and public humiliation is not enough, apparently, to move those who don’t have to experience these kinds of travails, so in this selfie-generation era an apathetic public simply looks away and walks on.
It must be said, by the way, that British films that resort to all manner of colloquial speech should be subtitled, as nearly 50% of what was spoken was never understood. Actually far more is understood in a typical Shakespeare play than in a film like this. Part of that is the poor sound quality in an older theater, but more to the point is the viewer’s unfamiliarity with the language itself. Perhaps in this case, missing the subtleties inherent to the story was not so important as experiencing the overall sense of impending doom, where the State is literally toying with people’s lives, but language is a significant part of any film, and in this case, viewers need assistance. By the way, the film was screened with subtitles at Cannes, as were earlier Loach releases, SWEET SIXTEEN (2002) and The Angel's Share (2012). Based on thorough research in this area from earlier Loach films, Dialect in Films: Examples of South Yorkshire., where the director in an obsessive search for authenticity urges actors to speak in their natural accents, one would think producers and/or distributors would get the message, but as the film suggests, in a broken or uncaring system, helpful ideas like these are quickly rejected out of hand.