KEN LOACH ON I, DANIEL BLAKE
How Ken Loach’s takedown of the UK benefits system turned out to be the most controversial film of 2016
He may be getting on, but he’s not interested in just getting on.
THOSE WHO THOUGHT director Ken Loach may, at the age of 80, have lost the fire or ability to make a searing social polemic were firmly silenced by last year’s I, Daniel Blake. Not only did it win the Palme d’or in Cannes and two British Independent Film Awards, it racked up the biggest box office opening of Loach’s career, sparked furious rows in the British Parliament and attracted the derision of certain newspaper columnists. Few films, and certainly no British film, last year caused rucks and recriminations like I, Daniel Blake.
It was precisely the deafening silence and lack of controversy around the welfare system that caused Ken Loach to waver from his previous resolve, made after a difficult production on previous film Jimmy’s Hall, to not make another feature. The provocation had come in the form of daily messages Loach and long-time screenwriter and collaborator Paul Laverty would send to each other, sometimes about football, sometimes about stories they’d heard.
“We found we were sending each other stories of people who were being humiliated and treated badly and going hungry,” Loach remembers. “The rise of food banks and the absurd sanctions where people [who were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance] were having their money stopped”.
Keen to learn more from those affected, they travelled to several different towns and cities in the UK including Stoke, Nuneaton, Nottingham, Glasgow and London as well as parts of the North West. Wherever they went, Loach and Laverty say they heard the same stories. Stories of the 1.1 million people currently dependent on food banks in the UK; stories they felt no-one was talking about. In fact, the only stories people were talking about, says Loach, were those told in shows such as Undercover Benefits Cheat, the narrative “refracted through vile propaganda” shown on television and created in the pages of newspapers who would find people to ridicule
and demean. “It then makes people who do claim [benefits] less than human,” he sighs. “You can treat them with cruelty and it doesn’t matter.”
What became important then was to not craft a story or characters from extremes, from the brittle bones of the most horrific stories they’d heard, but to show the normality of the situation. They created Daniel and Katie — the former a joiner in his late fifties, who can’t work after a heart attack but fails a Department for Work and Pensions eligibility test for sickness benefit, and the latter a single mother, new to the North East, who is sanctioned (her benefits stopped) for a minor infraction on her very first visit to the Jobcentre.
Katie was played by playwright and newcomer Hayley Squires, who researched the subject as exhaustively as Laverty and Loach. Squires’ mum, a student support manager, put her in touch with social workers in the North East; she worked with Shelter and staff at housing associations; she met with women living in homeless hostels with their children.
“[We] wanted to show this is happening to ordinary people,” says Dave Johns, the stand-up comic turned first-time film actor who played Daniel Blake and himself claimed the dole in the ’70s. “Dan could be your grandfather, your uncle, your dad. Katie could be your sister, daughter. That’s what has really got people. It’s pulling those in the position of needing social security out of the narrative that’s been created — that they’re all malingerers and scroungers. It got people angry.”
IT UNDOUBTEDLY IMPACTED audiences, including those who saw their own reality reflected on screen after distributor eone held affordable community showings. Many described being moved to tears by one moment in particular (also one of the most memorable scenes in any film last year), when Katie, driven by sheer hunger, rips a tin of beans open in a food bank and eats the contents with her bare hands. Eventually she’s forced to do the unthinkable for money.
“Seeing Katie humiliated like that, I think it just touched people,” says Loach. “We found so many people in that situation and we had spoken to a number of women who’d taken the appalling, horrendous decision that the only way they could raise money was to sell themselves.”
Yet, some UK critics and columnists criticised the film, with The Sunday Times film critic Camilla Long hailing it, “a povvo safari for middle class people” and “misery porn for smug Londoners”, while Toby Young in The Mail On Sunday called it “misty-eyed” and said it didn’t “ring true”. Long also described the film as never
feeling “quite genuine”, pointing specifically to the food bank scene to prove her point. “It is meant to feel raw, feral, real — the benefits system makes animals out of all of us,” she wrote. “But it felt manipulative and ridiculous.”
Loach remains steadfast and defiant in the face of these comments from Long. “I mean, the woman knows nothing. She will learn nothing. Her opinions are worth nothing. It’s good to see the ruling classes still as thick as ever. They lead a life of such privilege that anything that shakes their world view, they can’t deal with.
It’s a refusal to look.”
Similarly and unsurprisingly to those involved with the film, conservative politicians both current and previously serving challenged the reality portrayed in the film. Iain Duncan Smith, who was in charge of the welfare department in 2012 when the maximum length of benefit sanctions was increased from six months to three years, slammed it for focusing purely on “the very worst of anything that could happen to anybody”, while Welfare Secretary Damian Green — who then admitted to not having watched the film yet — called it “monstrously unfair”.
They’re comments that today draw a mixed response from Loach, Johns and Squires. Ken Loach says with a fatalistic laugh, “I’m very pleased they did [that]. Damian Green stood up and started attacking and then said he hadn’t seen this film! They never let the evidence spoil a good piece of bigotry, do they? They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s classic Tory attitudes — that the poor are to blame for their own poverty. And if they’re poor and don’t jump through the hoops you’ve set them, punish them.”
Squires has been vocal about her frustration and occasional anger — she herself off Twitter on a few occasions and used her acceptance speech for her Best Supporting Actress win at the Evening Standard Awards to respond to those who attacked the film, including the newspaper’s own David Sexton. “Who are they to stand up and tell us what’s true and what isn’t true? How dare they?” she says firmly.
“It’s disgusting. They believe that because they come from a certain class of people, and have a certain voice, that they can tell you… It’s one thing that does [anger] me — when you read reviews or social commentary or political commentary and people tell you things like it’s fact. Who are you to say that and to question hours and hours of research?”
Loach confirms that Squires’ food bank scene was based on a real story Paul Laverty heard in Glasgow and the women who played the staff were real food bank employees who Squires spent two days with before shooting the scene.
A softly spoken Dave Johns speaks of a desire to take Damian Green and Camilla Long “by the hand to a food bank and to the people who’ve been sanctioned and have no food in the cupboards and say, ‘Now, you tell me that’s not real.’”
While there is certainly a sense of bitter inevitability from Loach, Squires and Johns that little in the way of policy is likely to change as a result of the film — “It significantly means changing their ideological position, which they can’t do,” says Loach — they do believe it may change us. “I think it can be the thing that leads to people galvanizing themselves,” states Squires. “Educating themselves, organising themselves and standing up for themselves.
And standing up for each other.”
They are all clearly heartened by the feeling of recognition and support people found in Daniel and Katie, people who shared their stories on social media with the hashtag #wearealldanielblake or simply approached them in the street to say thank you for telling their stories.
“An old man, who’s about 86, came up to me in Whitley Bay, where I’m from,” says Johns with a smile. “He said, ‘Tell Ken Loach from me that this film has given the working class their voice back — a voice that hasn’t been heard for 40 years.’ That sums up the film, really.”
I, DANIEL BLAKE IS OUT NOW ON DOWNLOAD, DVD AND BLU-RAY.
Above: Dave Johns’ Daniel Blake and Mad Scotsman (Malcolm Shields) make their voices heard. Left: Director Ken Loach with Johns on set.
Katie pleads her case at the Jobcentre. Katie (Hayley Squires) at breaking point in the food bank with Daniel.
Ann (Kate Rutter) tries to help Daniel in the Jobcentre.
Katie hits rock bottom.