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Can Films Like 'I, Daniel Blake' Actually Change Anything?

Ken Loach's new film is a howl of rage against the injustice benefits claimants face, but can culture change policy?

by Oscar Rickett
28 October 2016, 11:06am

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn posing for a photo with director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty at the premier of 'I, Daniel Blake' (Photo by Joel Ryan AP/Press Association Images)

On the 16th of November, 1966, 12 million people watched a BBC television play called Cathy Come Home. Directed by Ken Loach and depicting a family's descent into homelessness at a time when housing shortages made this an all too familiar tale, it ignited a nationwide debate.

In Parliament, Anthony Greenwood, the Labour government's housing minister, said that he welcomed the film "because the more that the conscience of our people is shaken by programmes of that kind, the easier my job is going to be". Shelter, the charity that campaigns to end homelessness, was founded a few weeks later and today its website notes that the impact of Cathy Come Home "ensured public empathy and support for Shelter from our very beginning".

Last weekend saw the release of Ken Loach's new film, I, Daniel Blake. It depicts the sometimes fatal bureaucratic hammering experienced by those at the mercy of this country's welfare system.

The protagonist, 59-year old carpenter Dan, is caught in a Catch-22. To qualify for the benefits he needs, he has to look for work. Unfortunately, the reason he needs benefits is that, following a serious heart attack, his doctors have told him he must not work.

In scene after scene, we see Dan, single mum Katie and her two children – who have been relocated to Newcastle from London because of housing shortages – beaten down by a system that treats people like thieves while robbing them of their dignity and health.

The film has provoked scepticism among some critics. Writing in the Sunday Times, Camilla Long found that "for all its hideously condescending attempts at teeth-grinding realism, it feels unreal". The Mail's Toby Young isn't convinced either. "I'm no expert on the welfare system, but...", he writes, and really he should have stopped there. But the world shown in I, Daniel Blake is no fantasy. Accepting the Palme D'Or at Cannes earlier this year, Ken Loach said that cinema can "bring us the world we live in", and he does, with humour as well as tragedy.

As Abigail Scott Paul, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, "13.5 million people live in poverty in the UK and the reality is, almost anyone can experience poverty... unexpected events such as illness, redundancy or relationship breakdown are sometimes all it can take to push us into circumstances that then become difficult to escape, as I, Daniel Blake highlights".

Between December of 2011 and February of 2014, 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance ended because a work capability assessment found they were "fit for work".

A former senior official in the DWP told me that as benefits are assessed there is a "tension between the desire to have a thoughtful person sit down with everyone who is looking for work and find the best solution for them and the knowledge that if this were the case, the country would be bankrupted". The official added that outsourcing parts of the job to companies like Atos had been a disaster. For some claimants, huge numbers of low-skilled workers presiding over a labyrinthine bureaucracy have turned the welfare state into a nightmare.

The film is certainly effective as cinema, but by putting these experiences onto the big screen, can I, Daniel Blake e ffect change in the same way that Cathy Come Home did 50 years ago?

For one thing, Loach has a powerful ally in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was present at the film's London premiere. When I asked Corbyn if I, Daniel Blake could affect public policy, he told me that "so many people in Britain go through the indignity portrayed in this film, at the hands of our benefit system, due to this Conservative government's failed and unfair policies. Viewers will come out angry, but demanding change."

Abigail Scott Paul echoes Corbyn. "Public attitudes matter hugely," she said. "So I also hope the film counters the negative, and arguably corrosive narrative, about people in poverty that has dominated the mainstream media over the past five years."

Already, protesters have been inspired by the film to chain themselves to a Jobcentre in Stockton-on-Tees and the railings of a church that runs a food bank in Gateshead, to protest benefit sanctions.

"I, Daniel Blake, has already had an impact", says Liane Groves, head of community for Unite the Union. "This has been shown by the public reaction at discussions organised by Unite Community, both inside the cinemas and outside in community centres. The film will be a campaign tool that will galvanise campaign groups and the wider public in the run-up to our next #No2Sanctions national day of action in March, 2017."

Sean McAllister has made a number of powerful yet subtle documentaries that tell the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. He said his latest film, Syrian Love Story, showed him that while governments and bureaucracies are hard to shift, "people want to find a way to help refugees – there's a willingness on a grassroots level". The film has been screened in parliaments across the European Union, but the situation in Syria is so complex, foreign policy was never going to be changed because of a film, though it can certainly build sympathy. I, Daniel Blake , on the other hand, speaks to a fairly clear-cut injustice. "Ken's issue is more tangible and we can do something," says McAllister.

"This film should be essential viewing", says Jeremy Thomas, an Oscar-winning producer whose adaptation of JG Ballard's Crash was deemed so shocking that a number of politicians called for it to be banned. None of those politicians had even seen it. "We still live in a democracy and we can make the films we like," adds Thomas. "Politicians are the danger. They may not listen or understand, but certainly films can and do make a difference if they are poetic and strong in their storytelling."

For Linda Burnip, from Disabled People Against Cuts, which has been campaigning against benefits sanctions, appeals to the government's conscience are never going to work. "I don't think the film will change the government's mind because they know exactly what they are doing."

Watching I, Daniel Blake, there were moments when I felt helpless, unable to do anything other than weep, my mouth open, my breath heavy. At other moments, this state's aversion to our natural vulnerability leapt out at me and I was filled with a rage that, if others shared it, felt like it could lead somewhere.

Towards the end of I, Daniel Blake, the daughter of the single mother he's been helping visits Dan. She has come to bring him some food. Ground down, ashamed and embarrassed by his own vulnerability, Dan tells her to leave. But she reminds him that he has helped her, that he does not need to be embarrassed, that he can accept help. Dan lets her in. I, Daniel Blake is a film we need to let in.

@oscarrickettnow

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