I, Daniel Blake – a rather belated review(ish)

I’m not a film buff or someone able to adequately review a movie. In fact, I go to the cinema so rarely that the film I want to talk about is available on home video already, and I just watched it for the first time.

I, Daniel Blake is critically acclaimed, award winning and thought, by many, to be this generation’s Cathy Come Home. Directed by the same man who shot that amazing film in 1966, Ken Loach, it tells the story of Daniel Blake, or Dan, a joiner by trade who is off work long term due to a major heart attack. It follows his increasing desperation in his struggle to be heard by a welfare system more intent on getting him off the books than actually allowing him to live. 

He befriends a young single mother, Katie, who has just moved up to Newcastle from London with her two children. The reason for the move is that it was the closest place available for her to live. She also struggles with the DWP’s desire to sanction rather than support.

We see the anger at an inhumane system, railing against zero hour contracts, people marginalised and having their voices ignored, and the lengths they are driven to in order to just have the basics.

But we also see the humanity. The love of people, neighbours, communities willing to help as best they can as lives fall apart. Dan’s neighbour, a young man named China, sincerely telling him to ask for “anything”, whist he himself is driven to sell trainers out of the back of a car to supplement his earnings from a zero hour contract in a warehouse.

There is one scene in particular, set in a food bank, where all of this, the desperation and the humanity, are starkly revealed in a way which will surely leave even the most detached viewer in tears. It, like the whole film, is brilliantly and realistically shot and acted in a way which highlights how these things are happening to real people in this country right now.

Ken Loach is an unashamed Socialist. Yes, of course he has a political agenda behind this film, and that is an argument used by many on the right to talk it down and denounce it. However, it has no more of a political agenda than the stories you see every day in the tabloid papers, or hear about on talk radio shows, or watch every evening for three hours a night on Five (prop. Richard Desmond – also owner of the Star and Express papers, two of the tabloid who spend the most time demonising benefits claimants). All Loach is doing is allowing us to see through these stories (all of which, admittedly, at least have truth behind them) and to see the reality which so many more people face when dealing with life without work and on welfare.

The tabloid stories of excess and “scrounging” have built up a negative public perception of welfare claimants so successfully that it has allowed the Tories, originally in coalition with the Lib Dems, to focus attention on getting people off welfare regardless of the human cost. This film shows that human cost in all its ugliness, but also shows the basic decency of people; neighbours, strangers, food bank volunteers and even one particular staff member at the benefits office.

This is one of the most moving and most important films I have ever seen. I implore you to watch it as well, especially if your view of welfare has been shaped by the Daily Mail and company. It affected me so much that once I finished it I tried to tell my wife she needed to watch it as well, but found that I couldn’t open my mouth without crying.

At the end of the film we hear Dan’s words which sum up the situation so many find themselves in. They also sum up the true importance of this film and a rethink of how we view, talk about and deal with the least fortunate people in one of the planet’s richest countries,

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief.

I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so.

I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye. I don’t accept or seek charity.

My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect.

I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.”

The real reason populism is winning…

There’s a common thread going round the interwebs at the moment, in relation to the sudden upsurge of right-wing populism we’ve seen in Brexit, Trump and the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France. That thread says that it’s mostly the fault of the left, ignoring the concerns of ordinary working people by insisting on mass immigration, too much political correctness, and high state intervention whilst attacking all those who dare to disagree.

This is, of course, simplistic rubbish.

There is another thread doing the rounds. It’s one which suggests that Brexit, Trump, Le Pen voters are idiots, borderline racists, and sheep brainwashed by the right-wing tabloid media. We should ridicule, shout down and ignore these people who are, by siding with such awful people, not worth properly engaging with.

This is, of course, also simplistic rubbish.

Most of those on the left are not members of the fabled “metropolitan liberal elite”, they are ordinary working people as well. Most don’t believe in “mass immigration”, just everybody getting a fair chance, regardless of any accident of birth. Political correctness is not a tool to oppress and beat people with, it’s a way of ensuring that everyone is treated with due respect.

Those who voted for populism did so, not because some of us have differing views, but because the politicians they voted for touched a nerve with them; possibly by saying what they thought, possibly by playing on their fears.

But these voters are not (all) racist. They are not (all) brainwashed Daily Mail and Sun readers. They are not (all) stupid. They are mostly normal people with normal lives, normal jobs, normal problems, hopes, fears, loves and hates.

And they are all human beings and voters. Left and right, they are all human beings and voters.

The problem is that we have totally lost sight of this. We shout and yell (well, tweet… sometimes all in caps) at each other, dividing ourselves into separate camps and resort to ad hominem attacks and name calling; racist, cuck, fascist, snowflake, idiot, libtard… getting precisely nowhere.

And nobody, not one single one of us, is right about everything.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “There can be no compromise with extremism.”

This is true. Sometimes there can’t be any coming together because some views really are unacceptable. When people are motivated by racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia etc. you really cannot and should not compromise.

But you can listen. You can try to understand where views, all views, come from on a personal level.

Then, and this is scary, you can try to persuade.

Most of us hold some sort of political views, but are so politically illiterate and uneducated that we are unable to fully back up those views with evidence, statistics, proper arguments or, well, anything really. We have some basic things in our heads, but we need to educate ourselves more so that we can actually have proper debate and discussion.

One reason for the rise in populism is a disillusionment in politicians, and this is part of the reason. When politics loses sight of principles in the pursuit of style over substance then we lose the leadership we need, the example we need to show us how to debate, persuade and actually try to win people over to your way of thinking.

Yes, this is also pretty simplistic, but we need to start somewhere. We need to talk and listen. To understand that we are dealing with other human beings in issues which affect all human beings. We need to educate ourselves and others.

I mean, it might not work, but we just can’t go on like this. Can we?