How Ken Loach’s take­down of the UK ben­e­fits sys­tem turned out to be the most con­tro­ver­sial film of 2016

Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS TERRI WHITE

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.”


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.

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