Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Daniel Blake (Dan): Dave Johns
Katie: Hayley Squires
In ironic contrast to its glitzy and glamorous façade, Cannes is known for showcasing and often favoring films with a social conscience that address the struggles of the downtrodden, and this year, perhaps even more so than others, was no exception.
Despite some being puzzled by the choice on a purely cinematic level, it should then come as no surprise that this year’s top prize went to “I, Daniel Blake”, Ken Loach’s stark depiction of a man falling through the cracks of the British social welfare system.
Ken Loach, who is about to turn 80, is no newcomer to Cannes, having already picked up a Palme D’Or in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” putting him in an elite group of two-time Palme D’Or winners that includes Francis Ford Coppola, the Dardenne brothers, and Michael Haneke, among few others.
Loach has made a total of 19 appearances at Cannes that include 3 Jury Prize awards for “Hidden Agenda” (1990), “Raining Stones” (1993) and “The Angels’ Share” (2012), all social realism films depicting the struggles of the underdog and destitute.
Naturally, Loach, a man deeply passionate about social justice, once again takes on the mantle of stringent social commentator here to slam the British social welfare system.
The film comes at a time when the UK increasingly struggles with class disparity and is about to vote on an exit from the EU, an organization that Loach believes “is embodying neo-liberalism” and “has caused hardship and poverty for millions,” despite thinking that the UK should stay in to “fight it better” from within, according to his post-award comments.
Interestingly, the film received almost 100,000 euros from the European Commission’s Creative Europe program. Loach is said to have been motivated out of a rumored retirement after his last film Jimmy’s Hall in 2014, when his long-time collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, brought this story to his attention. For one last hurrah that Loach once said would be just a “little film” and nowhere close to the size of Jimmy’s Hall, winning a second Palme D’Or is not too bad.
Make no mistake about it, “I, Daniel Blake” is a tragic film that brutally and with eviscerating pathos depicts the crushing of a man by a cruel bureaucratic machine in which critical decisions that affect people’s life are made by faceless Orwellian “decision makers.” Yet, it is also a film infused with considerable humor, a tragicomic absurdity that will simultaneously make you angry and challenge you to not cry, while often putting a smile on your face.
This balance is what gives the film its power and profound humanity, and it is in no small part achieved, or mostly achieved, through the brilliant performance of stand-up comedian Dave Johns who plays Daniel Blake. Only a comedian, and one who grew up in the depressed Newcastle area where the story takes place no less, could make such a heartbreaking story palatable. But then again, good humor often has its roots in sadness and heartbreak.
The movie tells the story of Daniel Blake, or Dan, a feisty 59-year-old widowed carpenter living in Newcastle, who suffers a heart attack and is told by his physician that he can no longer work. Left without an income, Dan applies for a social welfare program called “employment and support allowance,” but fails a standardized disability questionnaire administered by a droning bureaucrat over the phone.
In one of the movie’s funnier moments, the “healthcare professional” (who is really no healthcare professional at all, but really just a call-center bureaucratic underling rattling off a list of standard questions), insists that Dan answer such inane questions as whether he can put on his hat and clean himself after his bowel movements. Frustrated with the absurdity of the stock interview, Dan launches into a hilarious Geordie outburst that not surprisingly doesn’t sit too well with the functionary. Dan is deemed work-worthy and is denied welfare payments and thus has to sign up for “jobseeker’s allowance,” another labyrinthine government program that pays people only if they dedicate considerable effort looking for new work, fill out countless forms and attend resume building seminars.
Maze of endless government forms and agencies
And so begins Dan’s descent into a bureaucratic maze of endless government forms and agencies, that is made that more bewildering by Dan’s complete computer illiteracy. In another humorous but poignantly heartbreaking moment, Dan is sat in front of a computer at a job center to fill out an online form, and tries to navigate the form by literally moving the mouse on the screen. And when he finally manages to complete the form, the computer freezes and he has to start over. Anyone who has ever tried to teach an elderly relative to use a computer can surely relate to this scenario.
Along the way, Dan meets Katie, powerfully played by Hayley Squires, a young mother of two, during an altercation at the social welfare office, a bleak place with drab neon lighting staffed with robotic functionaries. Katie is a recent transplant to Newcastle, far from any friends and family, and is herself having trouble with the welfare system and nearly destitute because of it. Despite his dire situation, or maybe because of it as he tries to find some meaning and self-respect in his increasingly humiliating and meaningless life, Dan takes Katie and her children under his wing and becomes a father surrogate to her and her children, helping them put food on the table and putting his carpentry skills to use by making their dilapidated public housing flat somewhat more livable. Dan and Katie help each other out as best they can, and team up in their battle with the government bureaucrats.
Ultimately, “I, Daniel Blake” is not just a story about a man falling through the cracks of a system designed to help him, it is an indictment of the British state bureaucracies that in Loach’s words during a post-award interview “humiliate people” and “are killing us and putting millions into great hardship.” However one may feel about the theme and cinematic qualities of this film, which are considerable, one thing cannot be denied: Loach is a man of great humanity, considerable convictions and a profound sense of justice, and he is not afraid to speak his mind on behalf of those who can’t.