Through a dramatic dissection of the plight of a working-class carpenter named Daniel Blake, director Ken Loach offers a piece of hard-hitting socio-political commentary of the British welfare system. It is painted in shades of Kafkaesque humour and gritty realism. At a time when most mainstream films deal with the supernatural and fantastical, the 2016 Palme d’Or winner dishes out a socially-conscious critique of the legal nooks and crannies of the benefits system.
After having survived a heart attack, Daniel Blake’s GP orders him not to strain himself and recover, meaning that he is unable to continue working as a carpenter. Facing such a predicament, the natural and logical step is for Blake to apply for an Employment and Service Allowance, an allowance for those deemed unfit for work. To be deemed as such, Blake must go through the ordeal which is a work capability test conducted not by a qualified GP, but a “Health Care Professional” from the Department of Work and Pensions.
The film opens with the opening credits and a voice-over of an increasingly exasperated Blake being questioned by a faceless, cold and robotic “Health Care Professional” conducting Blake’s work capability test; indeed, time and time again, Blake is forced to deal with a system that is “digital by default”, to which he offers the apt response, “Well, I’m pencil by default!”. It is mentioned that Blake did answer the questions being asked in the capability test beforehand however, the process is happening again as the employee could not make out what Blake had written, characterizing Blaka as an out-of-time man, highlighting the current system’s alienation of those who are not capable of operating a system that is “digital by default” and foreboding Blake’s Sisyphean attempts to “navigate labyrinths of bureaucracy”.
If Blake passes the work capability test and is deemed unfit for work, he will receive a steady allowance to survive on until his recovery is complete. It is at this moment, where the farce of the system shines through the strongest. Blake learns that he has actually been deemed fit for work by the Department of Work and Pensions, contrary to his GP’s orders for him to rest. Blake attempts to contact the Department of Work and Pensions requesting an appeal. He is put on hold for an hour and forty-eight minutes, for which he is charged, before being told that before he can appeal his decision, he must ask for a ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’, which is ambiguous-and-vague speak for nicely asking the frequently mentioned “decision-maker”, who is as faceless as he is almighty, to reconsider the decision.The Catch-22 that ensues leaves Blake having to apply for a jobseeker’s allowance instead, an alternative for those fit to work, which Blake “can earn only from exhaustingly being seen to look for work, and attend[ing]CV workshops”. If Blake resists, he will be sanctioned and will not receive the benefit he’s entitled to.
If this comes across as esoteric, it’s because it is.
Recurring throughout the film, lies a contrast between Blake’s interactions with ordinary, honest, working people and the robotic, cold, faceless bureaucrats. Scenes with the former take place outside and are filled with warm colours, equally warm, helpful and colloquial dialogue, whereas exchanges with the latter take place in claustrophobic, square and grey cubicles with an intimidating sub-text bubbling under the surface. Surely, this is a stylistic decision made by Loach, however it is through this contrast that Blake begins to appear increasingly exasperated, tired and helpless. In one poignant scene, Blake says, “When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for”.
As has been written in the Guardian, the film can be seen as a cinematic materialization of the realization “that poverty is systemic, not down to character failure, as many politicians imply.” Considering the shockingly fast rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for an end to the “institutional barbarity against, often, very vulnerable people” as he was asking Theresa May to watch the film during PMQs, this assessment rings true. “Welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax, sanctions and housing benefit cuts are fuelling England’s rapidly worsening homelessness crisis”, whilst the “the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and counsellors, call on the Government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system” citing fears over the mental health impact on working people, something that can be seen echoed in the film, as it is essentially about the erosion of self-respect, which in itself is a slippery slope. It is often said that the years of austerity policies has led to the fiasco which some people applying for benefits are experiencing; it has been reported that:
“[…] 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 shortly after being judged “fit for work” and rejected for the sickness and disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). We also now know that 7,200 claimants died after being awarded ESA and being placed in the work-related activity group – by definition, people whom the government had judged were able to “prepare” to get back to work.”
While “I, Daniel Blake” joins the canon of films which deliver commentary on bureaucracy, along with the likes of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” or Orson Welles’ “The Trial”, it also serves as a scathing indictment of the flawed welfare system in Britain as seen through the eyes of Ken Loach, whose ouvre is permeated with socially-conscious films much like “I, Daniel Blake”. A comprehensive overview of the exact obstacles encountered by Daniel Blake and the film’s other supporting characters can be found here.