This Film Reveals the Cruel Dysfunction of the British Welfare System

The Palme d'Or-winning film by Ken Loach follows the struggle of two Brits attempting to navigate the shamefully unhelpful system.

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May 27 2016, 2:28pm

All photos courtesy of Sundance Selects

Cannes came and went yet again, handing out prizes to a bevy of films that left many in attendance scratching their heads. Arch left-wing Brit realist Ken Loach walked away with the coveted Palme d'Or for his newest drama of working-class strife, I, Daniel Blake, about a heart-attack victim who can't navigate the shameful labyrinth of the British welfare system to secure the disability benefits he'll require to keep himself afloat. Loach, who soon will be an octogenarian and has been bringing his films to Cannes since the late 60s, last won the prize for 2006's Irish Troubles saga, The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

He came out in full Bernie Sanders stump-speech mode at the atypically long and Oscar-ish Cannes Awards night, launching broadsides against British austerity and the increasingly ungenerous welfare system—the latter of which is taken for a persuasive, moving, and aesthetically dull lambasting in the film—before pointing out that, "When there is despair, the people from the far right take advantage. We must say that another world is possible and necessary."

Loach's political drama, which will be released stateside by Sundance Selects later this year, had few calling it a masterpiece after it debuted early in the festival to quaint praise. Coming off a decade of films that were widely seen as disappointments, I, Daniel Blake follows an aging joiner (Dave Johns), who finds that the dole isn't as peachy keen as the Tories make it out to be, and a young mother of two (Hayley Squires) who finds the uncaring system just as useless as she tries to claw her family out of homelessness and hunger.

The film attacks the choleric nature of public aid that has been intentionally designed by conservatives to be humiliating to access at nearly every turn; while not outright villainous, it paints a portrait of understaffed offices with long waits and dour attendants, ones who will use every means to disqualify honest, imperiled individuals looking for a leg up.

"It's shocking because it's not just an issue for people in our country, it's throughout Europe," Loach said at the film's May 13th press conference. "There is a conscious cruelty in the way we're organizing our lives now where the most vulnerable people are told that their poverty is their own fault. If you have no work, it's your fault you haven't got a job."

The favorite films of the critics went home largely unacknowledged. German director Maren Ade's remarkable, two hour and 40-minute comedy Toni Erdmann, about the unorthodox relationship between an uptight corporate consultant and her lonely prankster of a father, was the runaway winner of major Europe trade Screen International's critics poll, but it left without recognition. So, too, did Jim Jarmusch's remarkable Paterson, about a week in the life of a poet-bus driver in the mostly black part of the titular New Jersey town; Jeff Nichols's Oscar-ready miscegenation drama Loving, and Dutch bad boy Paul Verhoeven's Isabelle Huppert vehicle Elle, a movie that will turn conventional feminist thinking on its head and surely inspire volley of think pieces when it finds its way to North America.

Shot by Robbie Ryan, who so impressively lensed Andrea Arnold's Prix du Jury (third-place) winner American Honey, Loach's newest Palme d'Or winner has a drab, pedestrian visual style that is in keeping with Loach's reputation but also feels right for the film. Still, given the sensual intensity Ryan was able to capture on behalf of Arnold, working in a similarly dispossessed American plains milieu, one wonders what Loach's drama would look and feel like had he let his remarkably talented photographer unbutton himself a bit. Yet the unadorned style does keep all focus on the story as it moves from wrenching sadness to outrage, with just enough moments of levity to sweeten the bitter pill. And welfare is one bitter pill indeed: As I, Daniel Blake shows, it's hard work staying on the dole.

According to the film, getting welfare in the UK involves spending 35 hours a week finding a job and then proving that this is how you spent 35 hours of your past week. Like my own father, a life-long laborer who has found, post-debilitating heart attack, that disability benefits are nearly impossible to access for those who aren't completely incapacitated but still unable to go back to the strenuous manual vocations they long relied on, Dave Johns's Daniel Blake doesn't know how to use the internet. Instead of being helped along by welfare staffers, he's mocked and chided, made to feel small and dim. These are the times in which we live, and they remain a disgrace.

Follow Brandon Harris on Twitter. Read more of his coverage of Cannes 2016 here.

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