I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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Beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking, this latest from Ken Loach (Ae Fond Kiss, The Navigators), shows us the inhumanity of the British government welfare system or any bureaucratic system that takes choice and control about their own lives away from ordinary people.

Daniel is a middle-aged carpenter and joiner in Newcastle who is told by his doctor that he can’t work for several months after having a heart attack. His application for a supporting benefit is inexplicably denied and his only option is to go on unemployment benefits and fulfil the onerous job-seeking requirements, even though he is unfit for work. The seemingly deliberately confusing and punitive welfare system has him waiting for an automated phone call telling him what he already knows before he can lodge an appeal; in the meantime, he has no income and no idea of when the pointless phone call will come.

While trying to sort out his issues at the job centre, he meets Katie and her two children who are about to be sanctioned for arriving late for their interview. Sanctioning is the removal of benefits from anywhere from a week to up to three years for minor or major infractions. The effects of sanctioning is poverty and the debilitating impact of this is played out in both Katie’s and Daniel’s stories.

Although you get the feeling you are seeing extremes here – surely it’s not possible that job centre staff could be so harsh and so complacent – the powerless of those trapped by a system that sees poverty as a failing and hunger as a tool for enforcement feels very real. There is a scene in a foodbank that was drawn from real experience and, being filmed in Newcastle’s largest foodbank with volunteers and locals playing parts, it is one of the most genuine and heartbreaking scenes in the film.

There is a really interesting article in the UK The Big Issue about the film and whether it has had an impact on government policy. Ken Loach talks about the historical and political context of the current welfare system and the current Tory Works and Pensions Secretary, Damien Green, has his say. I recommend reading the article but not until you’ve seen the film – spoilers.

When you’ve seen the film, spare a thought for those below the poverty line in your own country, particularly over Christmas when it must be even harder to not have enough food; donate to a food bank, buy a meal for someone living on the streets, support a local charity.

Currently screening (in Australia) at Palace Cinemas.

Bechdel test – pass
4 stars

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