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Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake". Photo: Transmission Films
Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake". Photo: Transmission Films

Film review: I, Daniel Blake

With more than five decades in the film and television industry, Ken Loach’s name has become a synonym for filmmaking with its finger on the pulse of socio-economic issues impacting the vulnerable and oppressed. Sue Hutchinson reviews his latest, I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach daringly confronts a powerful and shocking social justice issue in his award-winning film I, Daniel Blake.

Daniel Blake (sensitively portrayed by Dave Johns) is a talented middle-aged carpenter living in Newcastle, United Kingdom, when he suffers a major heart attack on the job.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t recover as quickly as he would like to and his doctor says he must not work, even though he desperately wants to. Dan is proud that he has always worked and supported himself and his wife, when she was alive. The need to receive benefits is foreign to him as are the processes involved.

The opening scene of the movie captures the Work Capability Assessment interview, which must be completed so that Dan can continue to receive sickness benefits. His complete frustration at the farcical tick-box assessment conducted by a young “healthcare professional” is clear from the first moments. His application is then knocked back by an unseen “decision maker” which sets off a series of ridiculous and terribly unfair consequences.

There are many funny moments in this truly alarming tale. The depiction of the process of applying for benefits is detailed and, whilst hilarious at times, is uncomfortably and recognisably close to the reality for far too many vulnerable people in the Australian community.

Dan is dismayed to learn that the applications he now has to complete, must be filled in online. He has never used a computer in his life, which he explains to the job centre staff. “We’re computer by default,” the staff member helpfully explains and Dan’s reply is classic: “I’m pencil by default.”

The staff in the job centre are officious and follow the restricting rules to the letter. The one exception is one woman who is sympathetic and tries to help Dan with his online form filling, only to be called into the supervisor’s office and dressed down for her humanity—you can’t set a precedent.

The experience of dealing with the job centre leads to understandable frustration for Dan and for a young single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires), who has just moved to the area with her two children.

The lack of flexibility of the staff and the processes is grim and shocking. Katie and her family arrived late for her appointment because she made an error with the unfamiliar public transport and they sanction (cease) her payments for one month. Her desperation leads to raised voices, and Dan tries to intervene to seek a reasonable approach, but they are kicked out of the centre.

Dan’s philosophy is to help people out whenever he can. We see him help out his rather suspect young neighbours, and they in turn help him with technological challenges. He goes back to Katie’s place and befriends this isolated little family. Beautiful but challenging relationships develop, riding the waves of injustice, desperation, vulnerability and love.

Many of the scenes are horrifying in the portrayal of desperate poverty and reliance on a system that is unfair, rigid and impersonal. The scene in the Foodbank is particularly memorable and instructive.

I, Daniel Blake is a gritty and engrossing watch which is a strong reminder that fair access to welfare is an especially important social justice topic at this time in Australia: our welfare processes grow more impersonal and ever closer to the British model each year.

The reality is that far too many people experience this type of depersonalising process each day, threatening to destroy their self-respect and dignity. As Dan reflects, “When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for.”

It is no surprise that this film won several international film awards in 2016, including the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. I, Daniel Blake is a brave film: definitely a must-watch for this year.

Sue Hutchinson

I, Daniel Blake
Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
2016, rated MA (strong language)

I, Daniel Blake is currently screening at select cinemas in Queensland.

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